joining the dots between hot dogs, Van Halen and David Cameron

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in The Guardian:

Illustration-by-Mystery-M-011When put on the spot and asked how we'd behave in a situation that pits a private benefit against the greater good, most of us won't admit to favouring the private benefit. But as history clearly shows, most people generally put their own interests ahead of others'. This doesn't make them bad people, it just makes them human. But this can be frustrating if your ambitions are larger than simply securing some small private victory. Maybe you want to ease poverty, or make government work better, or persuade your company to pollute less, or just get your kids to stop fighting. How are you supposed to get everyone to pull in the same direction when they are all pulling primarily for themselves?

Most people think there is a “right” way to think about solving a given problem and a “wrong” way too. This inevitably leads to a lot of shouting – and a lot of unsolved problems. We'd like to bury the idea that there's a right way and a wrong way, a smart way and a foolish way. The modern world demands that we all think a bit more productively, more creatively, more rationally; that we think from a different angle, with a different set of muscles, with a different set of expectations; that we think with neither blind optimism nor sour scepticism. That we think – ahem – like a freak. Thinking like a freak involves three relatively simple, core ideas. 1. Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life. And understanding them – or, often, deciphering them – is the key to understanding a problem, and how it might be solved. 2. Knowing what to measure, and how to measure it, can make a complicated world less so. There is nothing like the sheer power of numbers to scrub away layers of confusion and contradiction. 3. The conventional wisdom is often wrong.

More here.