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Who picked out that shirt you’re wearing? And who decided that you’d put yourself on the organ donor register? The answer, it turns out, is more complicated—and more disconcerting—than we think. Here, Harriet Fitch Little rounds up five podcast episodes that interrogate the social codes that shape our behaviour. A warning: listening to them will likely leave you second guessing your every move.

The New Norm
Invisibilia, June 2016

Invisibilia is consistently the most thought-provoking, ambitious podcast to address the hidden forces shaping human behaviour. In this episode, hosts Alix Spiegel, Lulu Miller and Hanna Rosin present two outlandish, real life stories that seek to interrogate the logic of society’s unwritten rules. The first: McDonalds’ attempt to get employees in Russia to smile. The second: an initiative to teach workers on an oil rig how to cry, because showing vulnerability has been proven to create a safer work environment. Invisibilia has a knack for revealing general life lessons via particular examples. Here, both stories call us to question how sensible certain rules of social behaviour really are by showing the gains that can be made when they are consciously disrupted.

I’m talking about F-L-O-U-R
Question of the Day, September 2015

Question of the Day—the bite-sized podcast “for listeners who are short on time and long on curiosity”—is co-hosted by entrepreneur Stephen Altucher and Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics fame. Here, the hosts interrogate the invisible forces currently shaping society by projecting into the future: a hundred years from now, what will we considered normal? The duo focus on two issues: meat consumption, which they both think will likely decrease in social acceptability, and childbirth, which Dubner (but definitely not Altucher) thinks will be highly regulated in the future. As Dubner argues: “So many things that are relatively unimportant are regulated, but the one thing that has huge repercussions we need absolutely no permission to do.”

Snooki and the Handbag
Hidden Brain, December 2016

You’re not as in control of your decisions as you think. That’s the message that Hidden Brain host Shankar Vedantam drives home in this episode. To do so he enlists the help of researcher Jonah Berger, who is distinctly dismissive of our ability to make decisions for ourselves. Often, Berger says, when we think we are actually acting independently we are actually applying the mechanisms of “optimal distinctiveness”: we secretly want to be just different enough from our peers to be able to claim we’re unique, but no more. He gives the example of a rich lawyer friend who mocks his colleagues for all driving grey BMWs, while he drives a blue one. Pause for a minute, and you’ll be able to think of a time when you’ve acted on a similar principle.

Decisions Decisions Decisions
Ted Radio Hour, March 2017

Dan Ariely is the king of pop-academic research into our subconscious. In this TED Radio Hour, he explains how decisions are often made for us by so-called “choice architecture”. His example is organ donation: when asked, people will say that they have made a thoughtful decision about whether or not to join the donor registry, but studies have shown that by far the most important determiner of whether an individual is registered or not is simply whether they had to “opt in” or “opt out” on the form. Ariely points out that choice architecture is dangerous: people who understand it have the tools to manipulate the way we act. But, he argues, our ability to follow pre-existing social codes is also a blessing—without it, each decision would be an overwhelming challenge.

Social Convention
Moral Maze, March 2016

One UK council’s ban on swearing in public prompts BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze to consider wider questions surrounding the regulation of public spaces: should we presume good behaviour, or should we legislate for it? A panel of experts, chaired by British journalist Michael Buerk, interrogate a series of so-called “witnesses” including a bobby on the beat who thinks that “old Doris” needs to feel sheltered from antisocial behaviour or she’ll spend retirement locked up at home. This tricky tension—individual freedom on the one hand, the common good on the other—is explored here with philosophical precision. The podcast is a reminder of the constantly shifting boundaries of social behaviour and of what we can reasonably expect from the people we live with.

  • Words:
    Harriet Fitch-Little
  • Photography:
    Mirka Laura Severa
  • Words:
    Harriet Fitch-Little
  • Photography:
    Mirka Laura Severa
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