Summary: Think Like a Freak By Steven D. Levitt
Summary: Think Like a Freak By Steven D. Levitt

Summary: Think Like a Freak By Steven D. Levitt

Imagine you are a soccer player, a very fine one, and you’ve led your nation to the brink of a World Cup championship. All you must do now is make a single penalty kick. The odds are in your favor: roughly 75 percent of penalty kicks at the elite level are successful.

The crowd bellows as you place the ball on the chalked penalty mark. The goal is a mere 12 yards away; it is 8 yards across and 8 feet high.

The goalkeeper stares you down. Once the ball rockets off your boot, it will travel toward him at 80 miles per hour. At such a speed, he can ill afford to wait and see where you kick the ball; he must take a guess and fling his body in that direction. If the keeper guesses wrong, your odds rise to about 90 percent.

The best shot is a kick toward a corner of the goal with enough force that the keeper cannot make the save even if he guesses correctly. But such a shot leaves little margin for error: a slight miskick, and you’ll miss the goal completely. So you may want to ease up a bit, or aim slightly away from the corner—although that gives the keeper a better chance if he does guess correctly.

You must also choose between the left corner and the right. If you are a right-footed kicker, as most players are, going left is your “strong” side. That translates to more power and accuracy—but of course the keeper knows this too. That’s why keepers jump toward the kicker’s left corner 57 percent of the time, and to the right only 41.

So there you stand—the crowd in full throat, your heart in hyperspeed—preparing to take this life-changing kick. The eyes of the world are upon you, and the prayers of your nation. If the ball goes in, your name will forever be spoken in the tone reserved for the most beloved saints. If you fail—well, better not to think about that.

The options swirl through your head. Strong side or weak? Do you go hard for the corner or play it a bit safe? Have you taken penalty kicks against this keeper before—and if so, where did you aim? And where did he jump? As you think all this through, you also think about what the keeper is thinking, and you may even think about what the keeper is thinking about what you are thinking.

You know the chance of becoming a hero is about 75 percent, which isn’t bad. But wouldn’t it be nice to jack up that number? Might there be a better way to think about this problem? What if you could outfox your opponent by thinking beyond the obvious? You know the keeper is optimizing between jumping right and left. But what if . . . what if . . . what if you kick neither right nor left? What if you do the silliest thing imaginable and kick into the dead center of the goal?

Yes, that is where the keeper is standing now, but you are pretty sure he will vacate that spot as you begin your kick. Remember what the data say: keepers jump left 57 percent of the time and right 41 percent—which means they stay in the center only 2 times out of 100. A leaping keeper may of course still stop a ball aimed at the center, but how often can that happen? If only you could see the data on all penalty kicks taken toward the center of the goal!

Okay, we just happen to have that: a kick toward the center, as risky as it may appear, is seven percentage points more likely to succeed than a kick to the corner.

Are you willing to take the chance?

Let’s say you are. You trot toward the ball, plant your left foot, load up the right, and let it fly. You are instantaneously gripped by a bone-shaking roar—Goooooooooal! The crowd erupts in an orgasmic rush as you are buried beneath a mountain of teammates. This moment will last forever; the rest of your life will be one big happy party; your children grow up to be strong, prosperous, and kind. Congratulations!

While a penalty kick aimed at the center of the goal is significantly more likely to succeed, only 17 percent of kicks are aimed there. Why so few?

One reason is that at first glance, aiming center looks like a terrible idea. Kicking the ball straight at the goalkeeper? That just seems unnatural, an obvious violation of common sense—but then so did the idea of preventing a disease by injecting people with the very microbes that cause it.

Furthermore, one advantage the kicker has on a penalty kick is mystery: the keeper doesn’t know where he will aim. If kickers did the same thing every time, their success rate would plummet; if they started going center more often, keepers would adapt.

There is a third and important reason why more kickers don’t aim center, especially in a high-stakes setting like the World Cup. But no soccer player in his right mind would ever admit it: the fear of shame.

Imagine again you are the player about to take that penalty kick. At this most turbulent moment, what is your true incentive? The answer might seem obvious: you want to score the goal to win the game for your team. If that’s the case, the statistics plainly show you should kick the ball dead center. But is winning the game your truest incentive?

Picture yourself standing over the ball. You have just mentally committed to aiming for the center. But wait a minute—what if the goalkeeper doesn’t dive? What if for some reason he stays at home and you kick the ball straight into his gut, and he saves his country without even having to budge? How pathetic you will seem! Now the keeper is the hero and you must move your family abroad to avoid assassination.

So you reconsider.

You think about going the traditional route, toward a corner. If the keeper does guess correctly and stops the ball—well, you will have made a valiant effort even if it was bested by a more valiant one. No, you won’t become a hero, but nor will you have to flee the country.

If you follow this selfish incentive—protecting your own reputation by not doing something potentially foolish—you are more likely to kick toward a corner.

If you follow the communal incentive—trying to win the game for your nation even though you risk looking personally foolish—you will kick toward the center.

Sometimes in life, going straight up the middle is the boldest move of all.

There is nothing magical about this way of thinking. It usually traffics in the obvious and places a huge premium on common sense. So here’s the bad news: if you come to this book hoping for the equivalent of a magician spilling his secrets, you may be disappointed. But there’s good news too: thinking like a Freak is simple enough that anyone can do it. What’s perplexing is that so few people do.

Why is that?

One reason is that it’s easy to let your biases—political, intellectual, or otherwise—color your view of the world. A growing body of research suggests that even the smartest people tend to seek out evidence that confirms what they already think, rather than new information that would give them a more robust view of reality.

It’s also tempting to run with a herd. Even on the most important issues of the day, we often adopt the views of our friends, families, and colleagues.

On some level, this makes sense: it is easier to fall in line with what your family and friends think than to find new family and friends! But running with the herd means we are quick to embrace the status quo, slow to change our minds, and happy to delegate our thinking.

Another barrier to thinking like a Freak is that most people are too busy to rethink the way they think—or to even spend much time thinking at all. When was the last time you sat for an hour of pure, unadulterated thinking? If you’re like most people, it’s been a while. Is this simply a function of our high-speed era? Perhaps not. The absurdly talented George Bernard Shaw—a world-class writer and a founder of the London School of Economics—noted this thought deficit many years ago. “Few people think more than two or three times a year,” Shaw reportedly said. “I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.”

Letting go of the conventional wisdoms that torment us. Letting go of the artificial limits that hold us back—and of the fear of admitting what we don’t know. Letting go of the habits of mind that tell us to kick into the corner of the goal even though we stand a better chance by going up the middle.

We might add that Winston Churchill, despite his famous advice to those Harrow schoolboys, was in fact one of history’s greatest quitters. Soon after entering politics he quit one party for another, and later he quit government altogether. When he rejoined, he quit parties again. And when he wasn’t quitting, he was getting tossed out. He spent years in the political wilderness, denouncing Britain’s appeasement of the Nazis, and was returned to office only when that policy’s failure had led to total war. Even in the bleakest moments, Churchill did not back down one inch from Hitler; he became “the greatest of all Britain’s war leaders,” as the historian John Keegan put it. Perhaps it was that long streak of quitting that helped Churchill build the fortitude to tough it out when it was truly necessary. By now, he knew what was worth letting go, and what was not.

All right, then: we’ve had our say. As you’ve seen, there are no magic bullets. All we’ve done is encourage you to think a bit differently, a bit harder, a bit more freely. Now it’s your turn!