Freakonomics Radio

When should you rob a bank?

Kai Ryssdal May 6, 2015
Freakonomics Radio

When should you rob a bank?

Kai Ryssdal May 6, 2015

For the 10-year anniversary of their book, “Freakonomics,” economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner have a new book called “When To Rob A Bank…and 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants.”

The pair have published over 8,000 blog posts on the Freakonomics website, and the book compiles some of their favorites, covering topics as diverse as gas prices, terrorism, the benefits of a “sex tax,” cheating, and of course, robbing banks.

“There are all the big things you study, big important questions. And then there are the little things that don’t add up to an academic paper, that don’t add up to a chapter of a book, but for 400 words, you really want to say something about them,” Levitt says. “And that‘s what I love about the blog posts.”

Listen to the full interview using the audio player above, and read an excerpt from the book below.

Chapter 4: 

Every time we write a book, our publisher prints up a bunch of swag — T-shirts, posters, etc. — to use as promotion. They send us a few boxes, which inevitably wind up in a closet. One day we were thinking: How can we give this stuff away to people who might actually want it? That’s when we decided to run our first blog contest, with the winner getting a piece of swag. These contests were so much fun — our blog readers are extraordinarily ingenious — that we held dozens of them. Here are a few of our favorites.

What Is the Most Addictive Thing in the World?

I was talking with my colleague and friend Gary Becker a while back about addiction. Among his many other accomplishments,  for which he has won a Nobel, Becker introduced the idea of rational addiction.

When he told me his opinion as to the most addictive good, I was initially  surprised  and skeptical.  On further reflection, I believe he is right.

So here is the quiz: What does Gary Becker think is the most addictive thing on earth?

The following day…

More than six hundred readers took a shot at guessing what Gary Becker thinks is the most addictive thing on earth.

Lots of folks said things like crack and caffeine, but do you really think I’m going to offer a blog quiz with an obvious answer?

While not the answer I was looking for, there was some- thing poetic about Deb’s guess:

“A yawn. A smile. Salt.”

Before I give the answer, it is worth thinking about what it means for a good to be addictive. At least the way I think about it, an addictive thing has the following characteristics:

  1. Once you start consuming it, you want to consume more and more of it.
  2. Over time you build up a tolerance to it; i.e., you get less enjoyment out of consuming a fixed amount of it.
  3. Pursuit of that good leads you to sacrifice every- thing else in your life to get it, potentially leading you to do ridiculous things to try to get the good.
  4. There is a period of withdrawal when you stop consuming the good.

No doubt alcohol and crack cocaine fit that description well. In Becker’s  view, however, there is something even more addictive than substances: people.

When he first said this, it sounded kind of crazy to me. What does it mean to say that people are addictive?

Then I thought more about it, and I think he is right. Fall- ing in love is the ultimate addiction. There is no question that in the early stages of attraction, spending a little bit of time with someone makes you desperately want more. Infatua- tion can be all-encompassing, and people will do anything to make a relationship blossom. They will risk everything and often end up looking utterly foolish. Once someone is in a relationship, however, the utility he or she derives from time with the beloved diminishes. The heady excitement of courtship gives way to something much more mundane. Even if a relationship isn’t that good, for at least one of the parties there is a painful withdrawal period.

To get the exact answer I was looking for took until comment number 343, when Bobo responded ”Other People.” Many others were close. Jeff (comment 13) said “Society or human companionship.” Laura (comment 47) said “Love.”

I’ll declare all three of them winners.

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