11-2Back in 2014, the Freakonomics podcast (which is generally about economics but really about a lot more) did a show called “Think Like a Child.” If someone said that you think like a child, would you consider that a compliment or an insult?

I suppose it depends on the context, but in general I guess I would take it as an insult.  But the host, Stephen Dubner, and his co-author on the books, Steve Levitt, say in Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain, that thinking like a child can be useful.

Kids are not as biased as adults. They don’t have as many preconceptions as adults do. That can be a plus in problem solving and creativity.

In the podcast, a journalist/magician, Alex Stone, author of Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind, points out that they are a magician’s toughest audience to fool because the way that they “pay attention” makes them more likely to notice things that adults do not notice or care about.

The Think Like a Freak book also claims that the hardest three words in the English language are “I don’t know.” Our unwillingness to admit ignorance and say “I don’t know” isn’t true for most kids. Research shows that two-thirds to three-quarters of children (5-8 years old) will answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to a yes/no question that we know they don’t know the answer to. They take risks. They accept failing. Until we teach them that failing is “bad.”


On the podcast, you also hear from Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and philosophy at UC-Berkeley, who wrote The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. (These authors do love the long title with a colon.)

She doesn’t view kids, as some people do, as underdeveloped adults. She recommends some “thinking like a child” for grownups.

Gopnik says we can:
“…think of the kids as being the research and development division of the human species. And we’re—adults—we’re production and marketing. So from the production and marketing perspective, it might look like the R & D guys are really not doing anything that looks very sensible or useful. They sit around all day in their beanbag chairs playing Pong and having blue-sky ideas. And we poor production and marketing people, who are actually making the profits, have to subsidize these guys. But of course, one of the things that we know is that that kind of blue-sky, just pure research actually pays off in the long run.”

Maybe we need to spend a part of each day in “blue sky research” thinking like a kid. It is the kind of research in domains where “real-world” applications are not immediately apparent.  It is research without a clear goal. It is driven by curiosity. To get some funding, you’d better call it “basic research.” Blue sky science often challenges accepted paradigms and that is something that is easier to do if you think like a child.