Freakonomics: It’s an economics book with a silly name that become a best-seller, then spawned three follow-up books, and a blog, a radio show, and more.
It’s kind of surprising for a nonfiction book like this to become such a phenomenon. But the authors would be the first to tell you there are reasons it happened this way, if only you looked more closely.
Written by University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics uses economic theory to investigate non-economic topics—resulting in surprising findings.
Take their chapter on cheating on tests. The common theory is that (some) students try to cheat, and teachers work to catch them. But Levitt and Dubner found evidence that in some cases, it’s teachers who cheat on behalf of the students!
They looked at data from standardized tests in Chicago from 1993 to 2000, comparing answers from different students, how those students did before and after the test, and how the answers that students from the same teachers’ class compared to one another. And they estimated that 5 percent of teachers were cheating to improve their students’ scores.
The reason why—and the book’s central thesis—is that it has to do with incentives (something economists focus on).
The authors point out that in 1996, Chicago started putting a lot of weight on testing, especially for how teachers were reviewed. So the teachers had an incentive to improve their students’ scores.
The incentive was even higher for younger, less-qualified teachers, and for teachers whose classes had low scores. So perhaps it’s not surprising that those teachers tended to cheat more often.
Levitt and Dubner take the same approach to tons of other topics—including sumo wrestling, crime, baby names, and more. You can also listen to them tackle various topics on their radio show.
Have a book you want to tell other TIPsters about? Submit a review and we’ll publish it in next month’s issue!