Introducing the SuperFreakonomics Virtual Book Club: Meet Emily Oster

Welcome to the first installment of the SuperFreakonomics Book Club. We know you’re all busy, and scattered around the globe too. So it wouldn’t be convenient for all of us to regularly gather in someone’s living room and talk about the book while sharing bean dip. So let’s harness this Internet thingy and try something different.

The idea is simple. We’ll start at the beginning of the book and work our way to the end, each week giving you a chance to ask questions or leave comments for some of the researchers and other people we write about in SuperFreakonomics. As with our regular reader-generated Q&A’s, we’ll gather questions for a couple of days and then post the answers in short order.

Over the coming months, we hope to feature some or all of the following: Sudhir Venkatesh, discussing his research on street prostitution in Chicago; Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz, on the persistent wage gap between men and women; Allie, the high-end call girl you’ve heard from once before; Craig Feied, the physician and technologist who has some radical ideas about fixing hospitals; Ian Horsley, a fraud hunter with a British bank who put his skills to use trying to find prospective terrorists; Joe DeMay, an amateur historian who offers a very different take on the legendary Kitty Genovese murder; John List, the master of experimental economics, both inside and outside of the lab; Nathan Myhrvold and his merry band of scientists, who are cooking up solutions to stop hurricanes, create cleaner energy, and thwart global warming; and Keith Chen, who helped teach monkeys to use money, with some surprising results. (If you have ideas for other people/topics, please send them along here.)

Let’s start today with the book’s introduction. Here is the Table of Contents for that section:

Introduction: Putting the Freak in Economics

In which the global financial meltdown is entirely ignored in favor of more engaging topics.

The perils of walking drunk … The unlikely savior of Indian women … Drowning in horse manure … What is “freakonomics,” anyway? … Toothless sharks and bloodthirsty elephants … Things you always thought you knew but didn’t.


Our first guest is Emily Oster, an economist at the University of Chicago whose research, co-authored with Robert Jensen, forms the basis of the “unlikely savior of Indian women” section of the book. (Here’s a PDF of the paper and here’s a writeup; their work has appeared on this blog before, Oster’s here and Jensen’s here.) Some highlights from our text:

A baby Indian girl who does grow into adulthood [i.e., who doesn’t fall prey to selective abortion or infanticide] faces inequality at nearly every turn. She will earn less money than a man, receive worse health care and less education, and perhaps be subjected to daily atrocities. In a national health survey, 51 percent of Indian men said that wife-beating is justified under certain circumstances; more surprisingly, 54 percent of women agreed — if, for instance, a wife burns dinner or leaves the house without permission.


Unfortunately, most [government and non-government aid] projects have proven complicated, costly, and, at best, nominally successful. A different sort of intervention, meanwhile, does seem to have helped. … It was called television.


Rural Indian families who got cable TV began to have a lower birthrate than families without TV. (In a country like India, a lower birthrate generally means more autonomy for women and fewer health risks.) Families with TV were also more likely to keep their daughters in school, which suggests that girls were seen as more valuable, or at least deserving of equal treatment. (The enrollment rate for boys, notably, didn’t change.) … It appears that cable TV really did empower the women of rural India, even to the point of no longer tolerating domestic abuse. Or maybe their husbands were just too busy watching cricket.

Please leave your questions for Emily Oster in the comments section and we’ll publish her replies shortly. Thanks especially to Emily and Rob, and to all of your for participating.


Great idea to get people to buy the book! I'm impressed!


This reminds me a little of The Great Blizzard of 78 which caused a spike in the birth rate in New England. All the roads were closed for about a week. There was nothing to do except watch TV and ... that is, you were stuck at home with your family.

I'm sure other aspects of "modern" society also have an effect ...


Why do even professionals who (should?) know better refer to data in the singular rather than plural? Did this problem exist before the Data character of Star Trek: The Next Generation? Is this the Power of TV at work? Or do people who are more ready and willing to abandon or alter dominant societal norms (be that Indian cultural norms or the difficulty of using Latin words) self-select for watching cable TV?


I was going to buy the book, but now I think I'll just follow along here and learn what is in the book without shelling out for it. Thanks!


a bit patronizing, i think- Indian women empowered by cable TV and Indian men corrected by watching sports- probably more enriching would be Gandhi's method of organizing- turning the TV off and organizing enlightened men and oppressed women to fight for social change via legislation/education/etc.- the point is even if unsuccessful, it creates a more uplifted citizen than the tube does

What kind of data did you use in this work? Was it a government sponsored survey? Did you buy it from some private company?


Do you think the content on TV has a particular effect? Were families who watched a certain type of program more apt to exhibit the change in behavior?

If the content did play a role, do you think there are other applications for this effect? For example, could you affect the rate of STD transmission by providing a specific type of content that resonates with the target population?


Do your data reveal any differences based on either the women's economic status or caste? What about muslim versus hindu?

Ed Chang

Do you expect the free color television giveaway in Tamil Nadu to have similar effects, even among households that don't subscribe to cable? What is the current difference between cable programs and free-to-air broadcast TV? I am asking because the poorest and least educated are also least likely to be able to afford a cable subscription.


How can we learn what is cause and what is effect, here?


How were the findings received in India?
Second, is there a next logical (but possibly counterintuitive) step that would further help women in rural India?
Last, were any negatives associated with the expansion of cable?

I read the book and thought this was pretty interesting. We like to think about how we have such control over our decisions but it's clear that none of us are so independent as we think. This isn't limited to India.


If TV can make people behave better, does it follow that it can also make people behave worse? Are groups that want to censor television “for the children” right in principal?


Maybe the rural Indians who subscribed to cable television were also more affluent than the general rural public.


Do you know what they watched on television? Was it local Indian shows or some international programs?


TV as the opiate of the people, it works even better than religion. So this is progress........


Have you proven there is a causal link between getting TV and lower birthrate, or just a correlation? It could be that social attitudes were undergoing changes at the same time Indian wages were rising allowing them to afford TV, and in fact it was the rising economic status that caused women's lot to improve. Do you know TV was causal? If so how have you tested for it?

Arch Stanton

Since this week's topic is the book's introduction, I have to ask (and I'm sorry to ask a question that's unrelated to your work, Ms. Oster):

Re drunk driving vs. drunk walking, SuperFreakonomics makes an important caveat: "a drunk walker isn't likely to hurt or kill anyone other than her- or himself. That can't be said of a drunk driver. In fatal accidents involving alcohol, 36 percent of the victims are either passengers, pedestrians, or other drivers. Still, even after factoring in the deaths of those innocents, walking drunk leads to five times as many deaths per mile as driving drunk."

Per mile. My question is: Isn't that a little misleading? I mean, space travel is relatively safe "per mile," but who would, without irony, use that unit? Dividing 13,000 drunk driving deaths/yr by the roughly 3 TRILLION miles driven by Americans/yr makes drunk driving, "per mile," look deceptively safe.

I don't blame you guys for trying to keep it super-lively, but something tells me M.A.D.D. is super-pissed.


sean s. amar

OK, are there any negative effects watching TV, cable, how long average a day? negative effects means, low performance in school by kids, low work, or low income by working less.


Is it possible that TV itself was not involved at all? That is, is this a case of correlation looking as causation?

The above questions focusing on the content of the TV are interesting. If TV content proves to have no effect at all, maybe TV itself was not involved: maybe what was needed is some sort of home activity to keep husbands busy (as suggested) and leave room for a bit more home freedom....

What sort of policy prescription could an interested policy maker draw from this story?

Microfinance around the globe is interested in behavioral differences between men and women in resource management. In Mexico, for instance, Gov't support often comes in the form of a check directed to moms and not pops. Women are more efficient in keeping kids in school, and in choosing investments more wisely... Thus, was it the TV and its content or was it more room given to some sort of "natural instincts"??


Michael Barthel

Hi Dr. Oster--in terms of the possible policy interventions suggested by your findings, did you and Dr. Jensen feel these would be limited to simply introducing TV (or cable) to areas that did not previously have access to these technologies? If so, given that this can only happen once for a given area, what else might be done with TV to change undesirable social attitudes? Did you find any quantitative support in the literature for the idea that particular programming might be able to have an effect? Has any long-lasting effect on general attitudes been seen from the "educational" telenovelas that ran in some Latin and South American countries?