Tara Boyle

Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.

We don't always behave the way economic models say we will. We don't save enough for retirement. We order dessert when we're supposed to be dieting. We give donations when we could keep our money for ourselves.

Again and again, we fail to act rationally and selfishly — the way traditional economics expects us to.

We've seen this during the coronavirus crisis: People selflessly mobilizing to help each other, like the retired Kansas farmer who sent an N95 mask to New York to help a nurse or a doctor.

After a disaster happens, we want to know, could something have been done to avoid it? Did anyone see this coming?

Many times, the answer is yes. There was a person — or many people — who spotted a looming crisis and tried to warn those in power. So why didn't the warnings lead to action?

Many people think of the economy as following a set of fairly scientific principles.

We buy more if things are cheap. We buy less if they're expensive. Companies hire more people if it looks like the economy is growing. They cut back if it looks like things are going to tank. Or say you're in charge of the Federal Reserve. Economic indicators help decide whether to raise or lower interest rates.

All of this seems very rational, very mathematical.

Writers and filmmakers hoping to hoodwink their fans with plot twists have long known what cognitive scientists know: All of us have blind spots in the way we assess the world. We get distracted. We forget how we know things. We see patterns that aren't there. Because these blind spots are wired into the brain, they act in ways that are predictable — so predictable that storytellers from Sophocles to M. Night Shyamalan have used them to lead us astray.

When we have a question about something embarrassing or deeply personal, many of us don't turn to a parent or a friend, but to our computers: We ask Google our questions.

As millions of us look for answers to questions, or things to buy, or places to meet friends, our searches produce a map of our collective hopes, fears, and desires.

Many people tend to push frightening realities out of mind rather than face them head-on. That's especially true when it comes to the terrifying event that no one can escape — death. Psychologist Sheldon Solomon says people may suppress conscious thoughts about their mortality, but unconscious ones still seep through.

Why do you work? Popular wisdom says your answer depends on what your job is.

But psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski at Yale University finds it may have more to do with how we think about our work.

"Fake news" is a phrase that may seem specific to our particular moment and time in American history.

But Columbia University Professor Andie Tucher says fake news is deeply rooted in American journalism.

In 1690, British officials forced the first newspaper in North America to shut down after it fabricated information. Nineteenth-century newspapers often didn't agree on basic facts. In covering a lurid murder in 1836, two major papers in New York City offered wildly differing perspectives on the case.

We just can't let go of some decisions. We replay them in our head and imagine alternate endings.

These sorts of looping mental videos are called counterfactuals. Northwestern University Professor Neal Roese says there's real value to wondering "if only."

"Counterfactual thoughts are generally useful for us in terms of providing a set of options that we might act upon in the future," he says. "This can lead to improvement. It can lead to learning from experience."

Throughout history, people have sought to create utopias. Perfect societies free of defects.

Of course, not everyone shares the same vision for a utopia. Different people have different priorities. But the wishes of those with power and prestige almost always take precedence.

On this episode of the Hidden Brain radio show, we tell the story of overzealous American scientists who believed creating a utopia for some would eventually lead to utopia for all. This is a story of people who believed they were doing the enlightened thing, even if it traumatized others.

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