Freakonomics establishes this unconventional premise: If morality represents how we would like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work. It is true that readers of this book will be armed with enough riddles and stories to last a thousand cocktail parties. But Freakonomics can provide more than that. It will literally redefine the way we view the modern world.Assuming that the movie is a fair reflection of the book (perhaps even the best parts of the book) then I would say it will definitely not redefine (or even change) the way we view the modern world. Unless we are idiots.
Here are some examples. Some kids in high school work hard and get good grades but others don't, even though getting good grades is an important means to making more money (something these kids want) in later life. How might this change if kids are given financial rewards at the end of each month in which they get good grades? Get ready to have your view of the world redefined: some of them work harder, but by no means all of them do. Maybe if the incentives were larger, or given even more immediately, or both, they would make more of a difference. Who knows? That's it.
Example number two. After some scandals in the world of sumo wrestling, including insiders whistle-blowing, some people were still not convinced that there was widespread cheating going on. Wrestlers who win 8 out of 15 bouts are rewarded, and it was alleged that those who had already won 8 but still had a bout left would allow their opponent to win if that would bring him up to 8 wins. A statistical analysis suggested that this was indeed what was happening. Economics saves the day and blows the lid off sumo corruption? Not exactly. For one thing, those needing to win that last fight have much more of an incentive, all cheating and bribery aside, to win than do those who already have the 8 wins they need. Lacking motivation is not cheating. For another, many disciplines use statistical analysis. It is not a win for Economics every time this proves useful.
What else is in the movie? People with the kinds of names that poor people have tend to do badly in life, but because they start off poor, not because of their names. On the other hand, people with names associated with black people are less likely to get interviews (in the USA at least) than are people with white-sounding names. Is this really all that surprising?
I don't mean to overdo it. There are interesting findings here, and some that are hardly surprising nevertheless do contradict what some people have thought. So they are worthwhile too. But "statistical analysis confirms common sense" more often sums up what the 'freakonomists' have to say, it seems to me, than anything about turning conventional wisdom on its head or making you gasp in amazement. One idea that is repeated in the film is that incentives matter, people respond to them (but not all in the same way or to the same degree, as the high school incentive scheme shows). If that rocks your world then you should definitely strap yourself in for a bumpy ride and read as many of these books as you can. Or else just watch the movie.