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Morality and Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Thinking Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Incentives Theme Icon
Irrational Behavior, Experts, and “Conventional Wisdom” Theme Icon
Morality and Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Thinking Theme Icon
Nature vs. Nurture Theme Icon
Crime Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Freakonomics, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Morality and Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Thinking Theme Icon

Freakonomics can be a challenging book because of the way that it entertains controversial ideas. When the book was first published in 2005, some readers and reviewers criticized Levitt and Dubner for discussing the possibility that there is an inverse relationship between gun sales and gun violence—an idea that people might find offensive. Others faulted the authors for claiming that the heightening abortion rate of the 1970s and 80s caused the falling crime rates of the 1990s. In the Epilogue to Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner acknowledge that some of their ideas might seem controversial, politically incorrect, or even immoral. However, they insist that economics and morality describe two different worlds: economics describes the world as it is, while morality describes the world as it should be. Understanding this difference is crucial to understanding Freakonomics.

In order to reach unbiased, scientific results, Levitt and Dubner try to limit their own political and moral preconceptions about the world. At times, they consider ideas that would strike some people as offensive, politically radical, or otherwise different from the “conventional wisdom” (see Theme Two). For instance, when considering the idea that people’s racist preconceptions influence the results of job interviews, the authors consider the possibility that an applicant named “DeShawn Williams” would be less likely to get a job interview than another applicant named “Jake Williams,” since “DeShawn” is a stereotypically black name. Even after the authors find that, indeed, an applicant named DeShawn would be less likely to get a job interview, they don’t simply assume that this is because of employers’ racism. Ultimately, the authors don’t accept the conclusion that racism prevents black job applicants from attaining success—a conclusion that conventional wisdom might support—because of insufficient data to support such a conclusion. In general, then, Freakonomics is based on the premise that the best way to study the world “as it is” is to analyze data mathematically, even if mathematical data doesn’t always agree with most people’s beliefs.

Because of their commitment to data analysis, Levitt and Dubner are more comfortable with descriptive than prescriptive thinking. Descriptive analysis is concerned with describing the world as it is (i.e., analyzing and explaining where existing data comes from), whereas prescriptive analysis is concerned with recommending what should be done. In analyzing the crime rate, for example, the authors conclude that the best explanation to describe the data for crime in the United States is that rising abortion rates in the 1970s reduced the number of children who would grow up to commit crimes. Some people found this idea outrageous because they interpreted it to mean that abortions should be used to fight crime (a prescriptive idea). In reality, though, Levitt and Dubner were merely suggesting that abortion was an important influence on the falling crime rates of the 1990s: one of the many descriptive points they make in their book.

In order to be a good economist, Levitt and Dubner argue, one must entertain possibilities that conflict with one’s morality, politics, and religion; Freakonomics tries to train its readers to think in this impartial manner. For example, after their analysis of abortion and the crime rate, Levitt and Dubner offer a long discussion of the relative morality of abortion and murder, in which they hypothesize that human fetuses might be “worth” one one-hundredth of an infant’s life. The passage seems shocking (and even deliberately provocative) in the way it uses numbers to talk about the relative value of human lives. And yet such discussions, off-putting though they might be, are important to the study of human behavior. By using surprising and somewhat provocative examples, the authors arguably encourage readers to think outside the box, rousing people from the “slumber” of politeness and conventional wisdom.

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Morality and Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Thinking ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Morality and Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Thinking appears in each Chapter of Freakonomics. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Morality and Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Thinking Quotes in Freakonomics

Below you will find the important quotes in Freakonomics related to the theme of Morality and Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Thinking.
Introduction Quotes

Consider the folktale of the czar who learned that the most disease-ridden province in his empire was also the province with the most doctors. His solution? He promptly ordered all the doctors shot dead.

Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage establishes the difference between causation and correlation. When two variables are correlated, it just means that there appears to be some relationship between the variables—what that relationship consists of isn’t clear. When there’s causation between two variables, it means that one variable causes another. Interpreting correlation as causation can be disastrous, as in this old fable about the czar who executes his doctors for “causing” disease (when in reality, doctors’ presences were merely correlated with the prevalence of disease).

The difference between causation and correlation is important because it establishes the interpretive role of the economist. Economists can use mathematical analysis to show a correlation between different data points. But mathematics isn’t always enough to prove causation. Often, it’s the job of the economist to assess different kinds of correlation, and argue which kinds are indicative of causation. (In the chapter on child rearing, for example, the authors will analyze 16 different variables’ correlation with child development, and offer their own interpretations of which variables show correlation and which show causation).


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Chapter 1 Quotes

The theme of Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was the innate honesty of mankind. "How selfish soever man may be supposed," Smith wrote, "there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it."

Related Characters: Adam Smith (speaker)
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

The theory of incentives can paint a pessimistic, amoral view of human nature. At times, the authors have shown, human beings will sacrifice their moral or religious beliefs for the sake of material rewards like money. However, the authors conclude their chapter with a more optimistic account of human behavior. Even if humans will sometimes sacrifice morality for money or prestige, they also tend to have an innate desire to do the right thing. The passage quotes the famous economist Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations, often touted as the founding text of modern capitalism. Smith maintained that humans instinctively want to do good.

It’s important to note that Smith wasn’t saying that humans would do something for nothing. On the contrary, Smith argues that good behavior is, in a sense, selfish—humans do the right thing because they want to experience the pleasure of morality; in terms of incentive theory, good behavior means responding to a moral incentive. Even when humans perform a good deed, there is an economic “transaction”—the exchange of the good deed for a good conscience. There’s a famous saying, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” As far as economists go, this saying sums up the theory of economic, social, and even moral incentives.

Chapter 2 Quotes

Roughly half of the white women on the site and 80 percent of the white men declared that race didn't matter to them. But the response data tell a different story. The white men who said that race didn't matter sent 90 percent of their e-mail queries to white women. The white women who said race didn’t matter sent about 97 percent of their e-mail queries to white men.

Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the authors discuss the relationship of racism and bigotry to online dating. There’s a tremendous amount of data about people’s preferences in online dating (since there are millions of online daters). In practice, a majority of white online daters will date other white people. But interestingly, most of these daters claim that race isn’t a factor in their dating preferences—despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The conclusions of the authors’ dating studies are a little depressing, but perhaps unsurprising. For the most part, online daters are intelligent enough to realize that specifying their attraction to certain races would invite criticisms of bigotry. So instead, many online daters claim that they’re open to all races, and then just date within their racial group.

Chapter 3 Quotes

So how did the gang work? An awful lot like most American businesses, actually, though perhaps none more so than McDonald's. In fact, if you were to hold a McDonald's organizational chart and a Black Disciples org chart side by side, you could hardly tell the difference.

Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, the authors study the structure of crack gangs in Chicago’s South Side. In doing so, they conclude that the structure of crack gangs has a lot in common with other, more legitimate businesses. For instance, a crack gang is a lot like a McDonald’s franchise. Just as local businessmen must pay the McDonald’s corporation for the right to operate under the McDonald’s name, a crack gang in Chicago must pay the most powerful gang in the city, the Black Disciples, a “cut” of the drug profits in return for the Black Disciples’ protection and approval. Similarly, the profits for selling crack—just like the profits for selling hamburgers—flow from low-level workers up to the “top of the pyramid.” Thus, the leader of a small local crack gang makes a six-figure salary, while the lowest-level drug sellers make less than minimum wage.

The authors aren’t saying that it’s morally acceptable to sell crack, or morally unacceptable to work at McDonald’s. Rather, the authors are simply making a descriptive point about the way drug gangs operate—at a structural level, they’re like any other business. Such a descriptive point has some political ramifications, however. Levitt and Dubner’s research challenges the stereotype that drug dealers are innately evil people by showing that drug dealers use the same basic methods to sell drugs that ordinary businessmen use to sell other products. Whether selling crack is moral or not, drug dealers are trying to make enough money to succeed in life—an economic incentive that any working adult should be able to understand.

Chapter 4 Quotes

The mayor of a city sees that his citizens celebrate wildly when their team wins the World Series. He is intrigued by this correlation but, like the "Moratorium" author, fails to see the direction in which the correlation runs. So the following year, the mayor decrees that his citizens start celebrating the World Series before the first pitch is ever thrown—an act that, in his confused mind, will ensure a victory.

Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the authors make fun of criminologists who claim that higher prison sentences don’t have much of an impact on the crime rate. As far as the authors are concerned, it’s perfectly obvious that they do. By contrast, the argument that there is a link between lowering sentences and lowering crime rates confuses correlation and causation. Thus, the authors conclude, criminologists who claim that we could reduce the crime rate by letting more criminals out of jail are as foolish as a mayor who tries to “fix” the World Series by getting his constituents to celebrate victory before the big game even begins.

The passage has been criticized for simplifying the positions of criminologists who argue against excessive prison sentences; in essence, creating a straw man and then tearing it apart. There have been many nuanced arguments against longer prison sentences and higher incarceration rates that don’t confuse causation and correlation—for instance, the argument that sending minor criminals to jail for years will corrupt them into becoming serious, hardened criminals for life. Nevertheless, regardless of what one thinks of the arguments for or against prison sentences, it is important to be aware of the differences between causation and correlation, which the passage makes clear.

First, the drop in crime in New York began in 1990. By the end of 1993, the rate of property crime and violent crime, including homicides, had already fallen nearly 20 percent. Rudolph Giuliani, however, did not become mayor … until early 1994.

Related Characters: Rudolph Giuliani
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, the authors look at a long list of hypotheses for why the crime rate went down in the 1990s. One possibility they consider is that new policing techniques, such as the broken window theory, influenced the American public to commit fewer crimes. The broken window theory hypothesized that by monitoring seemingly minor crimes, such as vandalism and graffiti, law enforcement officers could prevent people from committing much more serious crimes, essentially sending a message that crime of any kind would not be tolerated. While the broken window theory has been celebrated as an extremely effective deterrent to crimes of all kinds, the authors conclude that there’s almost no statistical basis for such celebration—in New York City, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani instituted broken window policies in the mid-90s, crime was already going down well before Giuliani’s tenure as mayor, suggesting that other factors caused the crime decrease.

The passage is a particularly good example of how economic methods can be used to study complicated phenomena. Depending largely on one’s political and moral beliefs, the broken window theory could be interpreted as a highly effective way to fight crime, or a disastrous failure. It might be tempting to believe that broken window policies lowered the crime rate, regardless of the facts. But Levitt and Dubner cut through the “conventional wisdom” and use facts to disprove the effectiveness of such policies.

Chapter 5 Quotes

What appears to be an advantage gained by going to a new school isn’t connected to the new school at all. What this means is that the students—and parents—who choose to opt out tend to be smarter and more academically motivated to begin with. But statistically, they gained no academic benefit by changing schools.

Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

A study of the Chicago Public School (CPS) system yields some surprising results about the role of high school education on academic performance. The data suggested that there is no correlation between the high school a child attends and the child’s academic performance. In other words, two children with the same academic abilities (as measured by various tests) will tend to finish high school with the same academic abilities, even if they attend different Chicago schools.

The authors’ conclusions are surprising, since one would expect that high school attendance would at least play some role in academic performance. The authors clarify their point by adding some nuance to it: it is true that students who transfer to different high schools tend to outperform students who don’t take advantage of their option to transfer to a different school. But this doesn’t prove that particular high schools improve students’ academic performance. Rather, it just proves that there’s a selection bias in the process of transferring schools: the students who choose to switch schools in search of a better education are likely to 1) have intelligent parents who recognize the value of a good education, and 2) be more intelligent than the average high school student. In all, the CPS data suggests that academic performance reflects a student’s intelligence and talent far more than a teacher’s ability to educate.

The data reveal that black children who perform poorly in school do so not because they are black but because a black child is more likely to come from a low-income, low-education household. A typical black child and white child from the same socioeconomic background, however, have the same abilities in math and reading upon entering kindergarten.

Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the authors analyze the results of a Department of Education study of thousands of American school children. The study measured dozens of different variables—academic performance, family structure, income level, etc.—therefore, it can be used to analyze the influence of these variables on academic performance. The authors find that there is, contrary to some racist claims, no true “gap” between black and white students. While it is true that, on average, white students outperform black students on tests, the reason isn’t that black students are innately inferior to their white counterparts; rather, it’s that black students, on average, tend to have a lower economic background, and are more likely to be raised by a single parent. In short, the authors use statistics to disprove the racist lie that blacks are inferior to whites.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Until the early l970s, there was a great overlap between black and white names. The typical baby girl born in a black neighborhood in 1970 was given a name that was twice as common among blacks as whites. By 1980 she received a name that was twenty times more common among blacks.

Page Number: 185-186
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 6, the authors turn to a new subject: baby names. Baby names are a good, convenient metric for human behavior, because 1) information about baby names is easily accessible, and 2) parents spend a lot of time thinking about what to name their children, suggesting that baby names carry a lot of information about the parents’ personalities and motivations.

As they often do, Levitt and Dubner begin with a problem in need of an explanation: in the last 30 years, the prevalence of distinctively black names—defined as names for which a sizeable majority of the people who have it are black—has shot up. Since baby names often reflect the parents’ political and social beliefs, Levitt and Dubner will try to understand what the black baby-naming trend says about human behavior.

If DeShawn Williams and Jake Williams sent identical resumes to the same employer, Jake Williams would be more likely to get a callback. The implication is that black-sounding names carry an economic penalty. Such studies are tantalizing but severely limited, for they can’t explain why DeShawn didn’t get the call. Was he rejected because the employer is a racist and is convinced that DeShawn Williams is black? Or did he reject him because "DeShawn" sounds like someone from a low-income, low-education family?

Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

The authors here consider a study of the role of racism and cultural bias in job applicants’ success. According to the study, a fictional job applicant named “DeShawn Williams” would be considerably less likely to get a job interview than a fictional job applicant named “Jake Williams,” even if the two applicants have identical resumes. Because “DeShawn” is a stereotypically black name, the study would seem to suggest that American businesses may have a strong bias against black applicants.

The way Levitt and Dubner interpret the data says a lot about their approach to economics. While it might seem clear that the study proves a racial bias in job interviews, Levitt and Dubner don’t jump to conclusions. They also consider alternate hypotheses—because the name “DeShawn” correlates with low socioeconomic status, perhaps the job interviewers are biased against people based on class, not race. Ultimately, the authors do not accept the conclusion that all job interviewers are bigoted against black people. They don’t deny that this is possible—they simple can’t draw such a conclusion from the data as it’s presented. A good economist will stick to interpreting the facts, rather than accepting the conventional wisdom or jumping to conclusions without evidence.

Epilogue Quotes

Some of these ideas might make you uncomfortable, even unpopular. To claim that legalized abortion resulted in a massive drop in crime will inevitably lead to explosive moral reactions. But the fact of the matter is that Freakonomics-style thinking simply doesn’t traffic in morality. As we suggested near the beginning of this book, if morality represents an ideal world, then economics represents the actual world.

Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

The authors close their book by reiterating one of their key points: economics and morality have very little in common. A good economist’s job is to analyze the data in an objective way, and then use logic and rationality to interpret the data when necessary. In such a way, an economist might come to a potentially disturbing conclusion—for instance, the conclusion that abortions had a major role in lowering the crime rate in the 1990s. Moral or immoral, such a notion is true—it’s an accurate description of the data as it stands.

In general, the passage emphasizes the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive thinking—that is, between what is and what should be. An economist must describe the data, leaving it to politicians, religious leaders, philosophers, and others to say what “should” be done.

The second child, now twenty-eight years old, is Roland G. Fryer Jr., the Harvard economist studying black underachievement.
The white child also made it to Harvard. But soon after, things went badly for him. His name is Ted Kaczynski.

Related Characters: Roland Fryer , Ted Kaczynski
Related Symbols: The white child and the black child
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

The book concludes with a description of the two “hypothetical” children discussed in the earlier chapters. As it turns out, these children weren’t hypothetical at all: the black child was Roland Fryer, while the white child was Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, one of the deadliest terrorists in American history.

On paper, Kaczynski had every conceivable advantage in life: whiteness, maleness, a brilliant mind, loving parents, an affluent background, etc. By contrast, Fryer had tremendous disadvantages: an abusive father, a poor neighborhood, racial oppression, etc. But where Kaczynski squandered his advantages and ended up becoming a dangerous murderer, Fryer overcame obstacles and became a great success at Harvard University. In all, the examples of Kazcynski and Fryer illustrate some of the limitations of economics. Economics is good at describing how, on average, a large group of people will behave. But when dealing with a small “sample size”—in this case, only two people—economics can’t predict what people will do. Kaczynski cannot be “explained” in terms of his background, his IQ, or other metrics. There is a limit, in short, to how much economics as a whole can tell us about people, and on the individual level there is always a level of randomness and other unknown factors that cannot be measured.