Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Reflections on Freakanomics Radio Podcasts

Recently, I've been listening my way through the series of podcasts from the Freakanomics Radio team. If you aren't familiar with them, this is from the same guys that wrote Freakanomics and Superfreakanomics. The catchphrase that they use a lot is "exploring the hidden side of everything."

One of the themes that runs through most of the things that they explore is that, often, when we think about incentives that drive behavior, we underestimate some hidden incentives that actually have a powerful effect on behavior.

One example of this is highlighted in their episode on World Cup soccer. As part of their exploration of soccer, they talk about penalty shots and how the results correlate closely to game theory. At the same time, they point out that, statistically, penalty kicking players under-utilize a kick to the center that should result in more goals if they kicked the ball there. However, players are driven by the hidden incentive of not looking like an idiot if they kick the ball straight and the goalie just stands there and catches it.

What struck me with this is, in our daily lives, how often we are affected by people who are driven by the hidden incentive of not looking like an idiot. This incentive is drilled into us as we grow up. It's something that we learn when we answer questions in front of our class. It's something we are reminded of when we speak in meetings. It's something we participate in when we hide behind consensus.

Creativity, on the other hand, often flies in the face of the not looking like an idiot incentive. It's exploring an under-utilized, under-exploited path. Creativity is a high-wire act where a successful effort results in a goal but everything else falls short.

So the question you might ask yourself is, how many of your successes came as a result of ignoring the incentive of not looking like an idiot? How would you measure those accomplishments in the overall scope of your history? Is there a theme there?

No comments: