Freaking Out

The new Freakonomics book is out. I got it on Audible, and, to be honest, it’s a lot like listening to an extended podcast (some of which are included at the end). However, there are many new tidbits of Freaky thinking to enjoy:



Some highlights:

  • Nigerian scam emails are purposely made to sound ridiculous, because scammers know they will need to expend a lot of effort cultivating potential victims. As a result, they want to weed out early (at the email phase) marks that are only slightly gullible, and focus in on those most likely to go “all the way” and hand over money. This leads to a lower response rate to emails, but a higher “quality” pool of targets. As a result, among the best countermeasures to make scamming less profitable is to “reverse spam” the spammers with fake responses. Even more daring is to purposely engage in scam baiting (eg. the stories posted at, a site I spent more hours than I should have in grad school pursuing) to waste the time of would be fraudsters.
  • A theory was offered that African-Americans are more likely to suffer from hypertension as a result of the middle passage. The selection pressure of enslaved Africans who were able to survive the long trans-Atlantic voyage favored those with higher salt retention, as the idea goes.
  • A good way to force decision makers to overcome echo-chamber optimism before the launch of a new project is to give them a exercise called a premortem. Tell them: “assume the project is a failure. What went wrong?” Now, voicing concerns does not seem like being overly pessimistic.
  • My favorite of all – The Wisdom of Solomon when he proposed to split the baby was to create a “separating equilibrium.” That is, the real mother would rather give up the child than have the order carried out. This is similar to the trial by ordeal of the Middle Ages, in which those with a guilty conscience  would fear divine retribution and confess before the ordeal was carried out.

Overall, to Think like a Freak, means to think like an economist, which often leads to correct but socially unacceptable notions. In any case, the book  is a worthy addition to the growing Freakonomics media empire.



Grand Unified Theory of Moral Thinking

The issue of antibiotic resistance in bacteria easily becomes enmeshed in “big questions,” like how selfish genes can possibly give rise to cooperative behaviors and rein in free-loaders. The snowdrift-game is a model that is sometimes used to explain the coexistence of cooperators and cheaters. The basic idea is that if there is a communal task to be done, it is usually better to do the opposite of your partner. That is, if he is being lazy, it is up to you to contribute. Conversely, if he is hard at work, you might as well free-ride. For example, some bacteria can secrete beta-lactamase enzymes that can break down penicillin and related antibiotics. Producing enzymes is costly, so there will be some sub-population of individuals that will benefit from the production of others while conserving their previous resources for other uses.

When we ask the same questions about human cooperation, which has brought us the wonders of civilization starting with group hunting, and continuing on to agriculture, city-states, gains from trade, specialization, mass-production, the internet, etc. we see that humans are able to pull off amazing feats of cooperation. Jonathan Haidt has written a fantastic book that helps explain that moral physiology prearranges the human mind to react in ways that foster group cooperation.


The Righteous Mind.jpg

He introduces the “moral foundation” theory, that posits six dimensions that are commonly used to assess the acceptability of a given activity.

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
3) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
4) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).  
We think there are several other very good candidates for “foundationhood,” especially:
6) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor. 


Haidt believes that democrats generally focus on Care and Liberty, and strongly downplay the importance of fairness (in the sense of everyone getting what he or she deserves based on past behavior), loyalty, and authority. Republicans put emphasis on all these dimensions, which arguably makes it easier to win over voters by appealing to voters over a wider range of emotions.

As a political junkie, this model seems very helpful to me. As he points out, both Occupy Wall Street and the tea party care about oppression, one just sees oppression by unfettered (crony) capitalism to be remedied by government intervention, and the other sees oppression by overreaching (crony) government to be rectified by capitalism.


The picture above reminds me (sort of) of the graph of the unification of the forces:

force unification chart

Enforcing good behavior in our neighbors, even when costly to ourselves, is an important pro-social function. Thus, we have strong feelings regarding injustice, and may display emotions like spitefulness. Although there will remain ambiguities about who are the members of our “in group” (which can change over time), and how much liberty should be traded for respect for tradition and group consensus.