Super Freakonomics Lesson #1: As Candy Is To A Kid

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Super Freakonomics Lesson #1: As Candy is to a Kid so is Incentive to Human Behavior

On the plane home from Denver Sunday night I read Super Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner. It’s the followup to the national bestseller Freakonomics.

After reading the book I decided to commit four posts to commemorate 4 SUPERFREAKONOMICS LESSONS I don’t want to forget.

Don’t worry there are a lot more than 4 big ideas in this book. But these days I’m all about simplifying and providing context to you and I as we facilitate, orchestrate and execute the business of changing the world…

1. People Respond to Incentives, although not always as you think they will

2. The law of unintended consequences; creates all sorts of otherwise unexplainable behaviors

3. Mastery comes from deliberate practice

4. In economics as in life; you will never find the answer if you are unwilling to ask A LOT of questions (which means admitting you don’t have all the answers)

The thesis of Super Freakonomics is that people respond to incentives.

Behavior is motivated. Like a kid in the candy store you and I go about our daily lives programmed to seek out pleasure and avoid pain.

Duh! This seems simple enough. Except that it’s not simple at all, evidenced by the research case studies in this book as well as a host of books which illuminate the facts and numbers behind human behavior.

The problem with free will and humanity is just that! We are all free to develop our own programming, beliefs and perceptions about what is painful and what is pleasurable and that is the reason that human behavior is so flipping bizarre and interesting.

What motivates you doesn’t motivate me. What my neighbor finds painful, awkward unbearable I do for a job, what the man working on wall street does I find repulsive. The fact that I am not incentivized to become an upscale escort does not deter Allie ( a woman who is profiled in Super Freakonomics) from designing a 6 digit career around prostitution and escort services with hourly rates as high as $500.00. Dang…

Incentives. Motivations. Encoding. Beliefs. Perceptions.


Each of us are motivated and incentivized by different things. Humans attach pain and pleasure to actions and behaviors and the unintended consequences of their beliefs and life programming drive this thing called humanity.

What incentives motivate you? Consciously or unconsciously?

What incentives motivate your employees, clients, partners

Every world changing, tribe inspired leader had better read this book, if for nothing more than for it to serve as a giant reminder; most things aren’t as they appear, numbers don’t lie and assuming things well you know, it makes an …a_ _ out of you.

Incentives matter. People respond to them. What is the pain our clients, team and tribe is trying to avoid? Why? What is motivating their behavior, engagement, participation?

The authors present an example of a hospital that was having no success in it’s drive to get a 100% commitment to hand washing . One day at lunch each surgeons hands were scanned for pathogens. The resulting images were so alarming the hospital turned the photos into screen savers to remind everyone that everyone is a germ carrier. The negative message was so visually powerful the hospital’s hand washing rate soared to nearly a 100%.

Incentives. Candy or Punishment. Pleasure or Pain.

Human’s do not easily change. So those of us whose ventures and businesses involve human’s taking action may want to take heed.

What might you and I want to rethink?

What assumptions might you want to look at? What numbers are you ignoring? What conversations might we engage in to better understand the incentives and motivations of our teams, tribes, stakeholders, clients, loved ones?

I for one, am convinced I do not know what I don’t know.

And it’s definitely time to ask some new questions, to look at the data and to listen to what others are saying.

As I see it all of us just want some candy….or at least to make sure we aren’t eating rat poison.Now to figure out what’s candy…. and what’s rat poison to the people that matter to me …

Incentives. Like candy to a kid, they matter.

Next up the law of unintended consequences …

Here’s links to the series Lesson 2

Lesson 3

Lesson 4

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