Friday, April 11, 2008

"Do You Wash Your Hands?"


"Who doesn't wash their hands after using a public restroom?" seemed a strange question to start the evening, but from that question througout the next hour, Stephen Dubner had the undivided attention of the large audience who had gathered at the University of Utah Union.

In response to that question, six people bravely raised their hands. Dubner congratulated the crowd on being so hygienic, or, on being a bunch of liars. He suspected most didn't wash their hands, but were just too embarrassed to admit it. He went on to explain that even doctors in hospitals, medical professionals who should know the risks of not washing after using the bathroom or working with patients, were guilty of the same thing. When doctors were asked to self report their hand washing habits, 73% responded that they washed after each interaction with patients. Little did they know that the nurses had been secretly pulled into this survey to report what they actually saw when it came to the doctors hand washing. Result: only 9% of the time did doctors wash their hands after working with each patient.

What does hand washing have to do with economics? This, my friends, is Freakonomics. This is the science of social and behavioral economics. It is how we perceive the world. It's the difference between perception and reality, and then in turn, how we react as human beings to these perceptions.

If we see a story on the news about a horrific murder, we assume the world is a very dangerous place. But, as Dubner made clear, news is news for a reason. It is something that happens that is out of the ordinary. If it were ordinary, we wouldn't report it. The perception- the world is an extremely violent and dangerous place and a murderer is lurking around every corner. The reality- most of us will never encounter a psychotic killer who will murder us horribly. The result- we act as if a murderer IS lurking around every corner and we act to protect ourselves from being murdered horribly.

Some of the examples that Stephen Dubner used to explain Freakonomics were laugh-out-loud funny and others were substantially more serious, yet each one showed how our actions, based on perceptions affect the way we live, act and work.

Dubner announced that he and Steven Levitt are working on a follow-up book to Freakonomics- Super Freakonomics (they should get Rick James to write the forward). I look forward to seeing the data collected from a whole new set of stories and examples.

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