"Freakonomics," Vocabulary from Introduction-Chapter 2

This book's subtitle sheds light on its strange title: "A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything." Collaborating with the journalist Stephen J. Dubner, Steven D. Levitt calculates the incentives that affect behavior, which leads him to surprising points about people with seemingly different lives. If you want to think like a freak, study this list of words.

Here are links to our lists for the nonfiction text: Introduction-Chapter 2, Chapters 3-4, Chapter 5-Epilogue
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Activities for this list:

definitions & notes only words
  1. incentive
    a positive motivational influence
    The final outcome of the Chicago study is further testament to the power of incentives: the following year, cheating by teachers fell more than 30 percent.
  2. ubiquitous
    being present everywhere at once
    It was ubiquitous, with every category of crime falling in every part of the country.
  3. quell
    suppress or crush completely
    If it was gun control and clever police strategies and better-paying jobs that quelled crime—well then, the power to stop criminals had been within our reach all along.
  4. quintessential
    representing the perfect example of a class or quality
    It is the quintessential blend of commerce and camaraderie: you hire a real-estate agent to sell your home.
  5. indispensable
    absolutely necessary
    As the world has grown more specialized, countless such experts have made themselves similarly indispensable.
  6. incumbent
    the official who holds an office
    The one candidate you won’t contribute to is a sure loser. (Just ask any presidential hopeful who bombs in Iowa and New Hampshire.) So front-runners and incumbents raise a lot more money than long shots.
  7. formidable
    extremely impressive in strength or excellence
    Incumbents and front-runners obviously have more cash, but they only spend a lot of it when they stand a legitimate chance of losing; otherwise, why dip into a war chest that might be more useful later on, when a more formidable opponent appears?
  8. intrinsically
    with respect to its inherent nature
    Now picture two candidates, one intrinsically appealing and the other not so.
  9. appealing
    able to attract interest or draw favorable attention
    The appealing candidate raises much more money and wins easily. But was it the money that won him the votes, or was it his appeal that won the votes and the money?
  10. incidentally
    as a subordinate or chance occurrence
    Often we will take advantage of patterns in the data that were incidentally left behind, like an airplane’s sharp contrail in a high sky.
  11. assessment
    the act of judging a person or situation or event
    It is well and good to opine or theorize about a subject, as humankind is wont to do, but when moral posturing is replaced by an honest assessment of the data, the result is often a new, surprising insight.
  12. moralist
    a philosopher who specializes in ideas of right and wrong
    It is worth remembering that Adam Smith, the founder of classical economics, was first and foremost a philosopher. He strove to be a moralist and, in doing so, became an economist.
  13. innocuous
    lacking intent or capacity to injure
    What might lead one person to cheat or steal while another didn’t? How would one person’s seemingly innocuous choice, good or bad, affect a great number of people down the line?
  14. militate
    have force or influence; bring about an effect or change
    So through a complicated, haphazard, and constantly readjusted web of economic, social, and moral incentives, modern society does its best to militate against crime.
  15. inscrutable
    difficult or impossible to understand
    Thomas Jefferson noted this while reflecting on the tiny incentive that led to the Boston Tea Party and, in turn, the American Revolution: “So inscrutable is the arrangement of causes and consequences in this world that a two-penny duty on tea, unjustly imposed in a sequestered part of it, changes the condition of all its inhabitants.”
  16. circumvent
    beat through cleverness and wit
    They might circumvent donation limits by using fake IDs.
  17. advantage
    the quality of having a superior or more favorable position
    Whatever the incentive, whatever the situation, dishonest people will try to gain an advantage by whatever means necessary.
  18. tangential
    of superficial relevance if any
    There are two noteworthy points to be made about the children in classroom A, tangential to the cheating itself.
  19. egregious
    conspicuously and outrageously bad or reprehensible
    This is a conservative estimate, since the algorithm was able to identify only the most egregious form of cheating—in which teachers systematically changed students’ answers—and not the many subtler ways a teacher might cheat.
  20. dour
    harshly uninviting or formidable in manner or appearance
    Not every result of the Chicago cheating analysis was so dour.
  21. sacrosanct
    must be kept sacred
    With its purification rituals and its imperial roots, sumo is sacrosanct in a way that American sports will never be. Indeed, sumo is said to be less about competition than about honor itself.
  22. iniquity
    absence of moral or spiritual values
    The 1919 Chicago White Sox, who conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series (and are therefore known forever as the Black Sox), retain a stench of iniquity among even casual baseball fans.
  23. revile
    spread negative information about
    The City College of New York’s championship basketball team, once beloved for its smart and scrappy play, was instantly reviled when it was discovered in 1951 that several players had taken mob money to shave points—intentionally missing baskets to help gamblers beat the point spread.
  24. crucial
    of the greatest importance
    Since so much depends on a wrestler’s eighth win, he should be expected to fight harder in a crucial bout.
  25. collusion
    secret agreement
    But perhaps there are further clues in the data that prove collusion.
  26. rife
    excessively abundant
    Aside from the crooked matches, they said, sumo was rife with drug use and sexcapades, bribes and tax evasion, and close ties to the yakuza, the Japanese mafia.
  27. corrupt
    not straight; dishonest or immoral or evasive
    So if sumo wrestlers, schoolteachers, and day-care parents all cheat, are we to assume that mankind is innately and universally corrupt?
  28. intractable
    difficult to manage or mold
    It might seem ludicrous to address as large and intractable a problem as white-collar crime through the life of a bagel man. But often a small and simple question can help chisel away at the biggest problems.
  29. hector
    be bossy towards
    If a company habitually paid below 80 percent, Feldman might post a hectoring note, like this one: The cost of bagels has gone up dramatically since the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, the number of bagels that disappear without being paid for has also gone up. Don’t let that continue.
  30. staunch
    firm and dependable especially in loyalty
    But soon the Klan evolved into a multi-state terrorist organization designed to frighten and kill emancipated slaves. Among its regional leaders were five former Confederate generals; its staunchest supporters were the plantation owners for whom Reconstruction posed an economic and political nightmare.
  31. veritable
    being truly so called; real or genuine
    The film quoted a line from A History of the American People, written by a renowned historian: “At last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”
  32. dissident
    a person who objects to some established policy
    But Kennedy would go on to become a self-described “ dissident at large,” writing numberless articles and several books that railed against bigotry.
  33. tenet
    a religious doctrine proclaimed as true without proof
    But as it happened, a central tenet of life in the Klan—and of terrorism in general—is that most of the threatened violence never goes beyond the threat stage.
  34. convoluted
    highly complex or intricate
    So what really matters is the price. Shopping around for the cheapest policy, a process that had been convoluted and time-consuming, was suddenly made simple.
  35. cudgel
    a club that is used as a weapon
    Information is a beacon, a cudgel, an olive branch, a deterrent— all depending on who wields it and how.
  36. transaction
    conducting business within or between groups
    It is common for one party to a transaction to have better information than another party.
  37. parlance
    a manner of speaking natural to a language's native speakers
    In the parlance of economists, such a case is known as an information asymmetry.
  38. scenario
    a postulated sequence of possible events
    Consider a scenario in which your loved one has just died and now the funeral director (who knows that you know next to nothing about his business and are under emotional duress to boot) steers you to the $8,000 mahogany casket.
  39. gouge
    the act of obtaining by coercion or intimidation
    A few months later, a pair of Enron traders named Kevin and Bob talked about how California officials wanted to make Enron refund the profits of its price gouging.
  40. connote
    express or state indirectly
    If you like granite, you might like the house; but even if you don’t, “granite” certainly doesn’t connote a fixer-upper.
  41. decrepit
    worn and broken down by hard use
    “Spacious” homes, meanwhile, are often decrepit or impractical.
  42. discrimination
    unfair treatment of a person or group based on prejudice
    How might you determine whether the lack of discrimination against blacks and women represents a true absence or just a charade? The answer can be found by looking at other groups that society doesn’t protect as well.
  43. statistic
    a datum that can be represented numerically
    Each site operates a bit differently, but the gist is this: You compose a personal ad about yourself that typically includes a photo, vital statistics, your income range, level of education, likes and dislikes, and so on.
  44. paltry
    contemptibly small in amount
    This leaves only about 30 percent of the users with “average” looks, including a paltry 1 percent with “less than average” looks—which suggests that the typical online dater is either a fabulist, a narcissist, or simply resistant to the meaning of “average.”
  45. pragmatist
    a person who takes a practical approach to problems
    (Or perhaps they are all just pragmatists: as any real-estate agent knows, the typical house isn’t “charming” or “fantastic,” but unless you say it is, no one will even bother to take a look.)

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