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SuperFreakonomics Discussion Questions
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SuperFreakonomics Discussion Questions
The following questions approach Super Freakonomics from a number of different angles and are written to encourage discussion, as well as help readers appreciate the work as a whole.
Since a good discussion tends to start with our “heads” and end with our “hearts,” you may want to save subjective opinions of taste until after you have discussed the more objective elements of the work’s merits. It is tempting to begin with, “What did everyone think?” But if a number of people really didn’t like the work, their opinions may derail a discussion of the work’s merits. (Please notice the Wrap up questions at the end).
On the other hand, I recommend starting with a few accessible questions (Warm up questions) and asking every member to respond to ensure that all voices are present and heard from the very beginning. Just a few suggestions! Enjoy!
Warm up questions:
1) At the very end of the Introduction, the authors state, “Many of our findings may not be all that useful, or even conclusive. But that’s all right. We are trying to start a conversation, not have the last word. Which means you may find a few things in the following pages to quarrel with. In fact, we’d be disappointed if you didn’t.”
Which of their findings (if any) did you find most surprising or least credible?
2) The authors state in the Introduction that “most of the stories fall into one of two categories: things you always thought you knew but didn’t; and things you never knew you wanted to know but do.” Which stories fit either criteria the best for you?
3) In chapter one, the authors examine diverse careers from prostitutes to real estate agents to teachers and find that there is still a measureable gap in the income of men and women -- to the extent that if a man becomes a woman, s/he will earn less as the new gender. What seems to account for this persistent gap? Also, were you surprised to learn that men may value money as an incentive more than women do?
4) The focus of this first chapter is prostitution. The authors note that with regard to illegal crime, society tends to punish the “dealers” (whether of drugs or sex) much more aggressively than the customers, despite the fact that customers greatly out number the dealers and have a great incentive not to get caught. Why do you think law enforcement continues to focus on the source, rather than the cause, of vice?
5) The second chapter is titled “Why Should Suicide Bombers Buy Life Insurance?” and opens with a description of the “relative age effect” describing various scenarios from the risks of being born during Ramadan or after a flu epidemic to why so many successful athletes are born during the first few months of the year. The chapter then segues to terrorism and presents what might be an initially surprising fact that terrorists tend to be well-educated, middle to high-income males: “Civic passion on steroids.” (63).
What did you find most surprising about the findings in this chapter? Are you now more or less worried about terrorism? Why should the title of this chapter probably make us feel better about the possibility of future terrorism attacks?
6) Chapter 3 focuses on human behavior – and whether it is ever truly altruistic or apathetic or merely a reaction to incentive and context. The primary example in this chapter is the murder of Kitty Genovese by Winston Moseley in 1964. Were you familiar with this case and with the most recent research findings? Which surprised you more, the original assumptions of extreme apathy or the most recent version of the crime? Why do you think Levitt and Dubner use this case to frame their chapter on experimentation and context? The authors conclude that People aren’t “good” or “bad.” People are people, and they respond to incentives. They can nearly always be manipulated – for good or ill – if only you find the right levers.
Do you agree with this behaviorist theory of human nature?
7) After reading chapter 3, do you believe the U.S. should reconsider its policy on compensating organ donors? Why/not?
8) How did you respond to the concept of “rational behavior” as act[ing] as we do because, given the choices and incentives at play in a particular circumstance, it seems most productive to act that way”? Do you believe this definition describes most of your actions and the actions of those around you? Can you think of an example where this does not apply?
How about their perception of altruism as You give not only because you want to help but because it makes you look good, or feel good, or perhaps feel less bad?
9) In chapter 4, an additional element is added to the above concept of “rational behavior:” Behavior change is hard… and getting [people] to change their behavior, even with a fiercely rational argument, isn’t easy.” So, if we accept the premise from chapter 3 that behavior change is greatly influenced by context and incentives, how should we approach those in our lives (children, coworkers) whose behaviors we would like to influence?
11) In chapter 5, a number of surprising solutions to global warming are discussed from eating less meat to higher taxes on polluters to a the “garden hose to the sky” (i.e. “stratospheric shield for climate stabilization” or Budyko’s Blanket) to eighteen mile high smoke stacks to the creation of man-made oceanic clouds.
Which ideas were most surprising? Most repugnant? Most appealing? Which of these theories do you think may have a chance of implementation and why?
Wrap up Questions!