On Campus

Explaining Human Behavior With “Freakonomics”

We all know, Stephen Dubner said, that drunk driving greatly increases the likelihood of a fatal car crash.

But, Dubner and his business partner, economist Steven Levitt, found that you are eight times more likely to die walking home drunk than driving home drunk. He noted, though, that you would not kill someone else. Still, it is five times more likely that a death will occur if you walk home than if you drive home, he said.

This is one example of the style of questions he asks and research he does on a daily basis.

Dubner, acclaimed co-author of the bestseller Freakonomics, spoke to the Boston College community at an event hosted by BC Economics Association, the Finance Academy, Investment Club, and Omicron Delta Epsilon Tuesday night about his unique position as a journalist in the field of economics.

Dubner is an award-winning author, journalist, radio and television personality. His books have sold more than seven million copies around the world. His radio podcast, Freakonomics, gets five million downloads per month. Dubner maintains a blog, also called Freakonomics, that attracts a wide audience as well.

Dubner explained that he never really liked economics—he is, after all, a journalist.

His opinions of economics, however, began to change about 10 years ago when he looked at the behavioral aspects of economics.

“What got me really interested was the smaller, weirder, more interesting stuff because I’m a big believer in rather than trying and failing to answer big, hard, maybe impossible questions, well, I’d rather peel off a really, really small piece and try to answer it that well,” he said.

Dubner explained that there are always people who are looking to cheat the system somehow, particularly in the field of education, because the returns of an advanced degree are so high.

He decided to look into how many people have fake college degrees. Dubner and Levitt went to the FBI and found a man who had done a little bit of looking into this matter. He had entertained the idea (not seriously) when he had to send three of his own children to college.

The man who worked at the FBI found that about one percent of college degrees are frauds.

“When there’s something considered to be valuable, people respond to incentives,” Dubner said. “People always try to find things at a cheaper price.”

Dubner and Levitt, therefore, spend their time peeling back a layer or two of the world to understand people’s incentives for doing certain things, whether it be moral, social, or any other incentive.

“If you want to get data, you need to get crafty sometimes,” he said.

Some researchers, he said, would dry bathroom sinks and then wait for people to use the bathroom and leave. When they were done, the researcher would go into the bathroom and see if the sink was still dry or if it was wet, implying that the man had washed his hands. This may not be an accurate measurement, he explained, because some people turn on the faucet but do not wash their hands.

Dubner said that he lingers in airport bathrooms and records the number of men who wash their hands after using the bathroom. He has found that about 70 percent do. But, he said, if the 30 percent who do not were asked in a social setting, especially in front of family and friends, they were very likely to say they did wash their hands.

Dubner concluded that it is important that questions are asked in certain circumstances because the setting in which it is asked matters.

He also said that we are good at finding data that supports what we want to be true.

For example, a research team was trying to understand how the public makes up its mind about controversial ideas, such as gun control. They found that the more educated a person is the more extreme the person’s views will be on these topics. The researchers determined that if you are smart, then you consume a lot of information. The smarter you are, the better you are at finding evidence that you want to be true. This is a scary concept, he said.

He gave another example of how a committee at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles came up with a way to get more doctors to wash their hands after finding that only 60 percent do. The committee decided to write a strongly worded memo and sent it out to everyone, but it did not help.

The hospital then decided to come up with a different incentive. It then decided to break up the committee into smaller groups. The small groups would go into a patient’s room and hide. If they heard the doctor washing his or her hands, they would jump out and give the doctor a free $10 Starbucks gift card. But this short-term incentive failed.

Then a woman on the committee suggested that the committee members test their hands for germs. After sending the samples to the lab, they found that the majority of the committee members’ hands were covered with bacteria.

They decided to take a picture of the results and make it the background of all the staffers’ computers. The rate of hand washing shot up overnight, and many hospitals across the country adopted this idea.

“Look at how long this took,” Dubner said. “Human behavior is hard to change.”

Featured Image by Alex Stanley / Heights Staff

April 16, 2015