Don't Panic! What We Can Learn From Chaos

May 24, 2018
Originally published on May 29, 2018 8:53 am

Chaos is neither friend nor foe. It just is. This week: two very different perspectives on how to deal with life's most tumultuous moments.

We begin in 2015, in a poor slum in the West African country of Liberia. Police have just discovered a young man, dead and covered in stab wounds. Tests show he was infected with a terrifying disease that causes raging fever, severe internal bleeding, and kills up to 90 percent of the people it touches: Ebola.

Officials realize that the suspects in the case, young men in a local street gang, may have become infected themselves and spread the highly contagious virus across the neighborhood. But the gang members are reluctant to quarantine themselves. And some of them, including a man nicknamed "Time Bomb," are nowhere to be found.

What follows is a truly unconventional effort by epidemiologists to contain the chaos and prevent a lethal epidemic from engulfing the country.

Then, we get a little messy. We talk with author Tim Harford about the surprising benefits of untidiness and disorder in our everyday lives.

This episode was produced by Chris Benderev, Jenny Schmidt, and Maggie Penman. It was edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu and Laura Kwerel. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.


VEDANTAM: In 1950, before he directed the film "On The Waterfront," Elia Kazan made another dramatic thriller, a movie called "Panic In The Streets." There's a reason you probably haven't heard of it. It isn't a great movie.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As narrator) Herewith recorded is the story of a silent, savage menace, the events, incidents and emotions of the people who were a part of it, who found time running out as they looked into the face of mortal peril.

VEDANTAM: The film tells the fictional story of a murder in New Orleans. When the police investigate, they find the victim suffered from a deadly infectious disease - a version of the plague. Public health officials believe the killers may have contracted the disease as they carried the victim's body away. What follows is a race to track down the criminals and halt an epidemic - a collision of law enforcement and public health.


RICHARD WIDMARK: (As Dr. Clinton Reed) If the killer is incubating pneumonic plague, he can start spreading it within 48 hours.

PAUL DOUGLAS: (As Tom Warren) Forty-eight hours?

WIDMARK: (As Dr. Clinton Reed) Yes, we have 48 hours. Shortly after that, you'll have the makings of an epidemic.


VEDANTAM: In the first half of our show, we have a story about chaos and an effort to contain it. It's a story about life imitating art. It's a story about disease and panic, but it's also a story about psychology. To control an epidemic takes more than medical skill. It requires an understanding of human behavior and the forces that drive people to act in certain ways. Our story starts in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. A deadly crisis was sparking fear. News reports were filled with dramatic language and catastrophic warnings.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The Ebola virus is back.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: An Ebola breakout in West Africa is, quote, "totally out of control."


WILL LYMAN: A catastrophe is unfolding - the world's deadliest outbreak of Ebola.


KELLY COBIELLA: Highly infectious, quick to kill, with no vaccine and no cure.

VEDANTAM: The Ebola outbreak reached its peak in the fall of 2014. By the end of the year, it was subsiding. But then, in early 2015, in a poor part of Monrovia, there was a new outbreak, or cluster, and it led to the complex case we're focusing on today.

ATHALIA CHRISTIE: I got a call from someone who said, if your passport isn't in my office in the next two hours, you won't make your flight to Liberia.

VEDANTAM: Athalia Christie is an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. She flew to Monrovia to help track and stop the outbreak. Lots of CDC officials joined her, like Frank Mahoney.

FRANK MAHONEY: People were scared. It was a crisis. You could drive through the city and see people that were being left out on the street, you know, for people to come pick them up.


VEDANTAM: Frank and Athalia told me how the case we're following today started. Police in Monrovia discovered a body in a warehouse - a young man, dead, with multiple stab wounds.

CHRISTIE: Police were called in. A swab was taken, as mandated by the official policy that any dead body be swabbed. So even though the police who arrived there initially thought they were investigating a murder, they did follow the procedures and have the body swabbed, at which point we were alerted because the test came back positive.

VEDANTAM: Positive for Ebola. Once police identified the youth, they quickly realized they had a major problem on their hands. It turned out the young man was actually part of a large street gang.

MAHONEY: Yeah. It was like a gang. One of them, for whatever reason, he got stabbed by the other members of the group.

CHRISTIE: As we understand it, there was a knife fight. And we're not quite sure how it happened, but the friends turned on him.

VEDANTAM: Just to review, a young man contracts Ebola. He gets in a fight and is stabbed repeatedly by fellow members of his gang. Ebola, remember, is highly contagious. Come into contact with an infected person's sweat or blood, and you could fall sick, too. The gang had as many as 35 members. Each had connections far and wide across the city.


VEDANTAM: And just like in that movie "Panic In The Streets," public health officials needed to quickly stop the outbreak from spreading. They needed to try and find every person who could have come into contact with the young man. It's a process called contact tracing.

CHRISTIE: It's exceedingly difficult to do. If you try to imagine constructing the last three weeks of your life and determining every single person that you came into contact with, whether it was casual contact or a family member who you saw every day, it's extraordinarily difficult to do. So we interview people multiple times, and we also talk to their family members and their friends to try to determine everyone who might've had any contact with this person during the time that they could have been infectious.

VEDANTAM: Athalia and Frank knew the young man who died had sought medical treatment for his stab wounds. Had a health care worker sutured the young man's wounds and come into contact with his blood? Athalia visited a lot of clinics, trying to track down facilities the young man may have visited. She paged through logbooks of patient names with no luck. Then she got to one clinic.

CHRISTIE: And I took this big dusty logbook, and I opened it up. And literally, the page I opened it to - there's maybe 30 names to a page, and I read down them, and there he was at the bottom of the first page.

VEDANTAM: A health care worker at this clinic had sutured the young man's knife wounds. Athalia knew what she had to do.

CHRISTIE: The most difficult part of these investigations come when you need to tell the clinicians and all of the staff who work in these health care facilities that someone with Ebola entered the facility. And I remember how nervous the individual was when I told him that the person he sutured had been positive for Ebola at the time. It's hard to imagine what he was going through.

VEDANTAM: Can you recall what you told him and what he said?

CHRISTIE: We were standing in the hallway, and I told him that - there's no easy way to tell anybody this, and so we just told him very matter-of-factly and that we needed to maintain daily contact and monitoring with him, coming in for treatment the moment that you have symptoms. And the reason I remember this so clearly is that he didn't do that. He was very reluctant to go to an Ebola treatment unit.

VEDANTAM: The health care worker refused to be quarantined. He insisted he'd followed all safety procedures as he bandaged the young man's wounds. He told Athalia he'd get in touch if he started to have any symptoms. Athalia knew there was a reason the health care worker had refused to come into an Ebola treatment unit. It had to do with a lack of trust in the system. In fact, the more Athalia and Frank saw, the more they realized that Ebola wasn't the only enemy they were fighting in Monrovia. They were dealing with an epidemic of mistrust.

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Today on the show, we're talking about chaos and all of the different strategies we use to cope with it. Our first story is about doctors working in Monrovia during the recent Ebola epidemic.


VEDANTAM: After a long history of civil war and corruption, a lot of people in Liberia simply didn't trust the government or international organizations. When Ebola broke out, the government's first response was to try and control it using coercion, cordoning off sections of towns. It created panic.

MAHONEY: The government had attempted involuntary quarantine, and they had a really bad experience in the slums of Monrovia. And so we talked about, you know, is this a viable strategy? And we all agreed, no, we can't use involuntary quarantine. This is not something that's going to build trust in the community. It's not a way to manage the outbreak.

VEDANTAM: People also worried that if they did go into quarantine, they would never come out. Athalia pointed to the construction of one of the largest Ebola treatment units in Liberia.

CHRISTIE: And it was chaotic and difficult, and they built it all, and they forgot to put an exit in. They didn't build an exit because we weren't thinking about survivors at that time. And although this was many months later, many people, understandably so, thought that going to an Ebola treatment unit meant that you would not come home.

VEDANTAM: Dealing with mistrust, the public health officials knew, was central as they began to trace all the leads of this complex case. As Athalia had been tracking down the health care worker, Frank had been pursuing a different strand of the investigation, tracking down the members of the young man's gang.

MAHONEY: This was a community that was not on the best terms with the government. You know, they were very suspicious of the government.

CHRISTIE: So it really is a trust-building exercise to go into this community, to piece together all these pieces of this story.

VEDANTAM: Very quickly, Frank and Athalia realized they were in over their heads. They needed help.

MAHONEY: So when we did the investigation, I went with this Liberian...

CHRISTIE: Fantastic Liberian epidemiologist.

MAHONEY: ...Person named Mosoka Fallah.

CHRISTIE: Mosoka Fallah.

MOSOKA FALLAH: I am Mosoka P. Fallah.

VEDANTAM: As a Liberian, Mosoka Fallah understood things far better than the Americans. He also understood the horrors of Ebola firsthand. The disease had killed his sister. Mosoka's first order of business was to help track down the young men in the gang. Surprisingly, they weren't hard to find, but they were scared - scared that the police, who were still investigating the case as a homicide, would arrest them for their role in the knife fight.

FALLAH: The police wanted to go in. However, if we allowed the police to go in, the gangsters would all escape, and we have pretty close to 35 young men who are all high-risk contact on the loose.


VEDANTAM: This is similar to what happened in "Panic In The Streets."


DOUGLAS: (As Tom Warren) Wait a minute, Neff. Wait a minute.

DAN RISS: (As Neff) Wait for what - somebody else to die?

FALLAH: Frank suggested that there should be no arrests.

VEDANTAM: Mosoka says Frank sat down with the police. He told them that any investigation of the murder would send gang members into hiding and potentially spread Ebola further.

FALLAH: ...If you allow the Ebola team to go in and negotiate so that we can have the contact. And the police agreed, and the police withdrew their arrests, and that's how we went in to negotiate.

VEDANTAM: And this, everyone told us, is what allowed public health officials to start talking to the young men in the gang. So to recap, public health officials had tracked down the health care worker who treated the young man and identified all the people they could tell the young man had come into contact with. The epidemiologists quickly found themselves staring at a growing web. There were three important strands. First, the young men in the gang would have to be persuaded to enter an Ebola quarantine facility for 21 days. Second, there was a woman running a drug house who was connected to the gang. Gang members were in and out of her home all the time. Most worrisome, the public health officials heard the woman was sick, and they thought that she might have Ebola.

FALLAH: She had had diarrhea for two days, and she was getting sick.

VEDANTAM: Finally, there was one member of the gang they could not track down. During the fight, this man had held down the stabbing victim as the blades came out and the blood splattered. And now, Frank and others found, he'd run away.

What was his name?

MAHONEY: His name, ironically, was Time Bomb.

VEDANTAM: Coming up - how to stop the outbreak and find Time Bomb. You're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is NPR.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This week, we're talking about chaos - how we struggle to control it and why it might sometimes be best to embrace it. The first story we're telling is about a dangerous kind of chaos in a poor slum in Liberia in 2015. There had been a murder connected to a gang. The victim's body tested positive for Ebola. And now epidemiologists were in a race against time to stop another outbreak. There were three fires to put out. An accomplice to the murder, ironically named Time Bomb, had gone missing. The rest of the gang had been identified, but they were reluctant to be quarantined. And then there was the woman known as Drug Mama (ph). She was the godmother of a drug den frequented by members of the gang. She was in her 30s and appeared to have symptoms that suggested Ebola. If Ebola took hold in her drug den, it would spread very quickly through the community. Frank and Mosoka realized they had to quickly run a test to get Drug Mama diagnosed. But they anticipated problems.

FALLAH: Our dilemma was, how do we approach her such that she accepts us to do an Ebola test?

VEDANTAM: The mere mention of Ebola was sending people into a panic. If they told her they were worried she had Ebola, would she vanish and go underground? They didn't want to take the chance. So rather than take her into confidence, they decided to trick Drug Mama. It wasn't ideal, but they were dealing with a crisis. They had to improvise.

FALLAH: So Frank, being the smart guy he is - we stop at a pharmacy, and we bought her malaria medicine. And we went there that night. And Frank said, I heard you're not so well. So we brought you some medicine. This is around 9 p.m. She said yes. So Frank said, take this medicine. I will come back tomorrow and check on you. And so the goal was the next morning, I asked for her blood to go check if she had malaria, and we would run the Ebola test.

VEDANTAM: The trick worked, up to a point. The problem was the next morning, when they took Drug Mama to the hospital to get her blood drawn, they had to tell health care workers at the hospital what was going on, so everyone would take proper precautions. A nurse got scared when they told her they wanted to test for Ebola. Drug Mama noticed the nurse acting oddly.

FALLAH: And then she suspected something else. The Drug Mama left and went back home and became angry with us.

VEDANTAM: Mosoka and Frank realized the trickery was backfiring. So they tried bribery.

FALLAH: We sat down with her. We negotiated. And we told her we will give our $100 U.S. if she allows us to do a blood draw at her house. So we took the blood. And 7 p.m. that night, we got a response that she was negative. And we all went to bed breathing a sigh of relief.


VEDANTAM: Frank and Mosoka turned their focus to the second strand in the web - the young man in the gang. Patiently, they explained to the young man that they would be safe from police harassment in the Ebola treatment unit.

MAHONEY: We worked it out with them. We made a - we worked out an arrangement where they - if they agreed to come into the isolation facility, you know, CDC - I think we ended up paying their families some support cost because they were no longer able to earn money for their families. And the government provided the families with food. And so it worked out really well.

VEDANTAM: But even this was not enough. It turned out some of the young men were drug addicts. Frank realized he had to keep asking the government to bend the rules in the Ebola treatment unit - or ETU.

MAHONEY: I told the government that we had to anticipate some of these young men may be drug issues, and they may go into withdrawal if we put them in the ETU. And, in fact, that was the case. About two to three days later, they were - some of them getting agitated. And somehow, they found a way to support their needs for drugs.

VEDANTAM: Did you have to do some of that to help them get what they needed to keep them in this facility where they could be quarantined?

MAHONEY: No. I didn't. The CDC didn't pay for that or do that. But the government found a way for the community to support them. So they were doing that.

VEDANTAM: But in some ways, it's sort of an awkward situation for the government because in some ways, you're asking...

MAHONEY: Exactly.

VEDANTAM: ...The government to sort of look the other way while someone's doing something illegal here.

MAHONEY: Yeah. I think that they - but at the same time, like any withdrawal, they needed treatment. It wasn't a conventional treatment. That's for sure.

VEDANTAM: It was odd for public health officials to be sanctioning illegal drug use. But again, when you're in the middle of an unfolding catastrophe, you sometimes have to bend the rules. Even though CDC wasn't actually supplying anyone drugs, the arrangement produced lots of double takes. One day, a Liberian government minister turned to Frank during a discussion and joked about the backdoor drug channel.

MAHONEY: (Laughter) And he says, and I understand that CDC is providing them with the marijuana. And I said, excuse me, sir. I said, I'd like to correct that. I said, CDC is not providing the marijuana. But we're providing the cocaine.


VEDANTAM: Incredibly, the epidemiologists actually managed to quarantine the gang members. These were young men who no one thought would listen to the authorities. But by reposing trust in them and treating the young men as partners, the public health officials had found a solution that seemed to work better than coercion or trickery. Still, this wasn't the end. There was a third strand of the web they had to track down - Time Bomb.

FALLAH: Time Bomb became very elusive. We could not find Time Bomb.

VEDANTAM: At first, gang members did not want to tell Mosoka or Frank where Time Bomb was.

FALLAH: But as we build friendship and rapport with the other criminals, one of them took us to his house.

VEDANTAM: There they found a young man, a young woman and a baby. The epidemiologists asked the young man if he was Time Bomb.

FALLAH: He said, I'm not Time Bomb; Time Bomb has gone out; I'm his younger brother; But if he comes back, I will let you know. Then I said, OK, thank you very much.

VEDANTAM: It was at this point that Mosoka and Frank did something very kind and very wise that led to a breakthrough in the case.

FALLAH: The wife had a young baby. And I remember giving the wife a hundred dollars and said, go ahead and buy milk for the baby. Feed the baby. And we'll take care of you.

VEDANTAM: Something changed in the young man's demeanor.

FALLAH: After I did that, he turned to me and said to me, I am Time Bomb.

VEDANTAM: Frank and Mosoka told Time Bomb and his wife that they would be back that night. They promised they would return with more food.

FALLAH: Frank came to me with the food and said, Mosoka, we need to meet this guy. This was in the ghetto.

MAHONEY: I went with Mosoka, and it was, like, 10 o'clock at night.

FALLAH: There was no electricity. This place was pitch-black. We had to go and drive to the grass. This is, like, a slum community, is known to have gangsters. And that's why Frank was emphasizing that we had to keep our word. They had to trust us.

VEDANTAM: This was the key.

MAHONEY: So we brought food to him and his family - I think a couple of sacks of rice and things.

FALLAH: As we walked towards them, and they saw us coming with rice on our shoulder, for some reason, they trusted us. And they came to the car and helped us take the rice.

VEDANTAM: Frank and Mosoka gently asked Time Bomb whether he was willing to come to the Ebola treatment facility to be quarantined. Time Bomb said he wasn't ready to do that. Frank and Mosoka said they understood, that they were willing to trust him to do the right thing.

FALLAH: If you get sick, you call us. And he said, I will do that. I trust you guys.

MAHONEY: And so I think it was a matter of building up a trust and comfort level for him to talk to us.

VEDANTAM: In the end, none of the young gang members contracted Ebola, not even Time Bomb. The cluster did not spread in the ghetto. Drug Mama recovered from her illness. Only one person connected with the cluster was affected - the medical worker who'd sutured up the young man's wounds, the one that went into hiding after Athalia talked to him. He came down with Ebola-related symptoms. Eventually, he did seek treatment. But it was too late.

CHRISTIE: He died, unfortunately, in the Ebola treatment unit.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Today on the show, we're talking about chaos and all of the different strategies we use to cope with it. We started today's episode with the 1950 movie "Panic In The Streets." At the end of that movie, the hero, a public health worker, ends up in a warehouse with the criminals who are carrying the deadly plague.


WIDMARK: (As Dr. Clinton Reed) I'm a doctor, and I can kill you.

VEDANTAM: He pleads for them to hand over their guns.


WIDMARK: (As Dr. Clinton Reed) Come on out. Surrender, and I promise nothing will happen to you.

VEDANTAM: But they get into a climactic shootout, and the criminals are killed.


VEDANTAM: The public health workers in Liberia never solved things with guns. And really, when it came down to it, Athalia says, they achieved some of their best results without coercion or trickery. Building those invisible but very real bonds of trust took time, but it was essential to stopping an outbreak.

CHRISTIE: When it comes down to what we were asking people to do, either to trust the health care system or to trust the government enough to agree to this voluntary precautionary isolation, that's an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. You're asking people to leave their friends and family for 21 days. Or we were asking people to change their burial customs. And it's difficult. It can sound simple, and I know that I spoke to people here who would say, I don't understand. Why can't they just change the way they bury the dead or change the way they care for their family members if they're sick? But as a mother, I can't imagine not touching my child if he was sick and not trying to provide comfort. So it's really understanding what it is that's driving people. You have to understand their context, their concerns and their needs. I think it's about interpersonal relationships. You have to be honest and straightforward about what you need and why. And most importantly, I think you need to be human.


VEDANTAM: So much of being human is chaos. The doctors in Liberia found an innovative way to try and fight it. In fact, that's what we usually do when it comes to chaos. We try to find ways to control it, to manage it. If you're a parent, you've probably told your kids a thousand times, your room is a mess. Clean it up. Managers tell their employees to get organized. Here in the United States, we elect presidents to go clean up Washington.

In the next half of our show today, we explore a very different idea - what happens if we treat chaos as our friend instead of our enemy? Tim Harford believes we should do just that. He's the author of "Messy: The Power Of Disorder To Transform Our Lives." He joined us recently for a live taping. We were just blocks from the White House at NPR's Weekend in Washington. It's an annual event that brings together public radio fans and supporters.


VEDANTAM: Tim Harford, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

TIM HARFORD: Thank you very much, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: I want to begin by playing you a piece of music, Tim.


VEDANTAM: How did that piece of music come about? What's the story?

HARFORD: It's beautiful, isn't it? You know, my - two our children were born to that. It was played by Keith Jarrett, who was a great jazz pianist, in 1975 in Cologne. And if you had been there two or three hours before the concert, you would not have expected things to go well. Keith Jarrett had just refused to play. And the reason he'd refused to play is because he had arrived onstage, met the piano, and he was supposed to be - he's completely improvised, by the way - the whole thing was going to be improvised - met this piano and realized that there'd been a mistake, and the thing was literally unplayable. It was out of tune. Black keys were sticking. The pedals didn't work. The upper register of the keyboard was harsh and tinny because of all the felt had worn away. And most importantly, it was too small, so it didn't have enough volume to actually reach the back of the Cologne auditorium. And so, of course, he refused to play.

And the organizer of the concert, who was this young German girl - she's just 17 years old - desperately tried to fix the piano, to replace the piano. She managed to get it somewhat in tune, but basically, she couldn't really improve on it, and she couldn't get it replaced. And so the only option she had was to beg Keith Jarrett to play. And, of course, he saw this teenager, thought of the 1,400 people who were about to show up and listen to the concert, and said to her, never forget - only for you.

And he went onstage, and he and his producer recorded the concert because they wanted documentary evidence of what a musical catastrophe sounds like so they could play it for future promoters to tell them to do a good job and get a proper piano. But, in fact, it's a masterpiece. It's Keith Jarrett's most popular work. In fact, it's the best-selling jazz album in history - solo jazz album in history - and the best-selling piano album in history. It's "The Koln Concert."

And the surprising thing is that all the adjustments that Jarrett had to make to cope with this bad piano made the music better. So he avoided the harsh upper registers. He stuck to the middle of the keyboard. That makes it sound very soothing. But he also had to compensate for the fact the piano was so quiet, so he had these rolling, repetitive riffs in the bass to try to get some resonance. And he also just stood up and pounded down on the keys. So you can hear him moaning in frustration during the concert. He's hating it, but it is amazing.


HARFORD: And that combination of the peacefulness and the dynamism makes this electrifying piece of music. So he did not expect that a bad piano would produce a great concert, but, in fact, it did. And the argument in my book is, very often, we're faced with the unplayable piano, and actually, we produce something great out of it.

VEDANTAM: You have a number of examples besides Keith Jarrett about how disruptions and inconveniences and surprises can sometimes have paradoxically good effects on us even though we all try to avoid those disruptions. You talk about commuters, for example, who suddenly have to find a new way to work or scientists who are working on so many projects that they are discombobulated because they don't know what they're working on. In many of these cases, you find that disorder and confusion could actually be helpful.

HARFORD: Yes. So with - in the case of commuters, there was a transport strike in London a couple of years ago - shut down not all, but most of the London underground stations for 48 hours - so not a long strike. But most commuters in London use public transport. It's not really set up for the car. But you could travel on the bus. There are overground trains, or you could use some of the Tube lines that were not shut down. They had various other options. And the economists who studied this got hold of the data as to the trips that people were making. They identified people who took the same route to work every single day. Well, there's a technical term for this. It's called commuters. And the...


HARFORD: You would think that these are the people who have absolutely perfected their route to work. Surely, commuters - they know every step. They know, you know, where to stand on the platform, which track - and yet, the economists found, looking at the people who took the same route to work every day who then changed their route during the strike, thousands of them - about 5 percent - but thousands upon thousands stayed with the new route. So these are people - this is the optimum population for having honed their route to perfection, and yet 1 in 20 of them discovered that when they were forced to find a new way, they found a better way.

And I think that that's quite a common situation. We get into particular habits, whether it's creative or whether it's just trying to get to work - we get into a particular habit. We're knocked off course. And very often, of course, our original habit was the right way to do things, and we go back. But often enough to be useful, we find that the new way of doing things is actually better all along. And if only we'd been forced into it, we would have discovered that years ago.

VEDANTAM: One of the things I want to do in this conversation is try and tease apart when messiness can be our friend and when it can be our enemy. There's a reason many of us try and avoid messiness. It's because messiness causes delays; it causes disruptions. You're ending up - you end up being late for some things. And I'm wondering, as I read some of the examples in your book, whether it was the case that messiness helps people who actually have a base of preparation. So in other words, Keith Jarrett - he's a professional musician. He's very gifted. He's practiced, and he's learned the rules of how to play a proper piano for years and years and years. You place me before that piano, and what you're going to hear is not genius. What you're going to hear is just a mess. And the reason Keith Jarrett could adapt was because he had the base of knowing the rules to now say, I can throw out the rulebook and create something brilliant.

HARFORD: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right, Shankar. And is it OK - can I open a big bag of complexity science on you? Is that alright?

VEDANTAM: Absolutely.

HARFORD: OK. So basically, if you are trying to solve a very complex problem - we have various algorithms that try to solve this. And we - I'll come to the question of skill in a second. The algorithms - a computer algorithm is searching for solutions in a very, very complex problem space. One possible approach is to look for step-by-step improvements. So that's the equivalent of skill. You are looking for step-by-step improvements to get from a bad solution to a better solution, and a better one, and a better one and a better one, and eventually, you find the perfect solution. It turns out, that way of looking at complex problems doesn't usually work. And the reason is the algorithm, as it looks for these small improvements, gets stuck. So these algorithms that search for solutions - they work much better if you add random shocks - lots of different ways to do that. But basically, for most of this kind of problem I'm discussing, a computer scientist would approach it by saying, we're going to have a step-by-step quest for improvements, but we're also going to have lots of randomness, lots of shock; just keep knocking the algorithm off course because then it won't get stuck.

So let - now we come back to Keith Jarrett. He's like an algorithm that's searching for step-by-step improvements. He's a great musician. He's always looking for the perfect concert. Clearly, he's a very creative person because he's improvising every night. But he always starts with a good piano - always. And then this one night where they say, you know what, Keith? Twelve of these notes don't work, and you should probably avoid most of that part, and that thing with the pedals - don't do that, either - and - but then he sits down at the piano, and then his skill kicks in, and he's looking for the incremental improvements. He's looking for a path to find great music. And he finds it. So yes, you need skill, but the random shocks help.

VEDANTAM: So for all the children who are listening to this podcast, I want to make clear that you're not saying that every time your parent tells you to clean up the room, you should just say, Tim Harford says I shouldn't.


HARFORD: Well, I have to say, since writing the book, I have stopped asking my children to clear up the room.


HARFORD: And the reason is, I read an amazing study that had been conducted by two British psychologists, Alex Haslam and Craig Knight. What they did was - it wasn't anything to do with children, but it was to do with clean-desk policies. They got people to sit down and work in artificial office environments. You know, we've created an office for you; here are some tasks; sort this paperwork; do these puzzles; handle these emails - regular sort of knowledge worker tasks, standard stuff. And they measured how well people did. And there were four different arms to this experiment. People were randomized into different arms.

So in one case, the office was very, very minimalist - just a chair, you know, pencil, paper, no distractions. People did fine in that. They didn't really like it on average - suits some people. The second approach - there were more decorations in the office; there were pot plants; there were posters - you know, some distractions, but it felt friendlier. People liked that more.

But here's the real kicker to this research. The other two treatments - the other two parts of the research - first, the researchers said, you can organize this office how you like; bring in the posters; send away the posters; put the pot plants where you like, or if you want, we'll take the pot plants away for you - however you want. People loved that. They got so much more done. They felt happier. They were more productive - significantly more productive. In the fourth part of the trial, they did that. They said, arrange it however you like. And then the experimenter came in and said, oh, I'm sorry this isn't appropriate for the experiment - and rearranged everything, put it back the way it was in the second part of the trial, where people had been perfectly happy to work in these decorated offices. What they weren't happy with was having someone come in, override their decisions, take away their control, take away their autonomy. And they felt physically sick, and they hated everything about it. They hated the work. They hated the space. They hated the company that was hosting the space. And they absolutely hated the experimenter.

And after that, I made two vows to myself. No. 1 - if I'm ever a boss - nobody should make me a boss, by the way. If I'm ever a boss, I will never impose a clean-desk policy. And No. 2, me and my wife, we kind of are the boss in our house, and I no longer ask my children to tidy their rooms. And you know what? We don't argue about it as much, and the rooms are kind of as messy as they ever were. It hasn't made any difference to the physical state of the rooms. There's just a little bit more peace.


GARY COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) Hi, Milton. What's happening?

STEPHEN ROOT: (As Milton Waddams) Sir...

COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) I'm going to have to ask you to go ahead and move your desk again.

ROOT: (As Milton Waddams) No...

COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) So if you could go ahead and get it as far back against that wall as possible, that would be great.

ROOT: (As Milton Waddams) No, no, because I was (unintelligible)...

COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) That way, we'll have some room for some of these boxes and things we need to put in here.

ROOT: (As Milton Waddams) There's no room.

COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) And - oh. Oh, there it is. Here; let me just go ahead and get that from you. Great. So if you could just get to that as soon as possible, that would be terrific, OK? Thanks a bunch, Milton. Bye.

ROOT: (As Milton Waddams) OK. I could set the building on fire.


VEDANTAM: So I take it, Tim, that you're not a fan of fascist office managers. But you do also tell the story in the book about Steve Jobs at Pixar and some of the ideas he had about how to organize office space to make people more collaborative and some of the ways that might've backfired.

HARFORD: Yeah. The Pixar story, I think, is fascinating. So Steve Jobs, majority shareholder at Pixar, had a big hand in designing the Pixar building. And one of his big ideas is, we are going to make all the bathrooms in this building in the middle of the building. We're just going to have two big restrooms - pair of restrooms in the heart of the building. And what that will do is everyone will come together, brought together by a shared human need to urinate.


HARFORD: And there will be serendipitous interactions, and that's going to be great. And, you know, I'm all in favor of serendipitous interaction. We silo ourselves off. That's a major theme in the book. But maybe Steve had taken this idea too far. What's interesting, though, is Steve Jobs had this reputation as being brilliant but, you know, a real control freak's control freak and just ordering people what to do. But there was a rebellion in Pixar led by pregnant women who said, I know this sounds like a great idea on paper, Mr. Jobs, but I need to go to the restroom three times an hour, and you've just made the restroom 10 minutes away from my desk. Do the maths, and...


HARFORD: ...It's not going to work. And Steve Jobs did an amazing thing. He backed down, said, OK, I'm wrong; I will find another way to create serendipitous interactions, and you can have your restrooms all over the Pixar offices, which is where they are. And reading a recent book about Pixar by Ed Catmull, who is one of the bosses there, it is apparently absolute chaos in there in a beautiful, beautiful way. So the building is just what you would expect from Steve Jobs. It looks gorgeous. It's sort of exposed steel girders and brickwork and wood and all of that. But the desk space - the Pixar designers build Disney castles and underground - and it looks like the set of "Finding Nemo" and "Toy Story" and "WALL-E" all put into one. It's a great collaborative space that people feel they have control over. It looks like a total mess.

VEDANTAM: In other words, it looks like your children's rooms.

HARFORD: Yeah, maybe slightly more creative than my children's rooms, but my children aspire towards the whole Disney castle thing.

VEDANTAM: Tim Harford comes from Britain. We are having this chat in the United States. In both countries, there have been enormous political upheavals recently. When we come back, I'm going to ask Tim about messiness in public life and in democracy. Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: You're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is NPR.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. With Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, Tim, we've had populist revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic that reject the advice of scientists and economists, experts in general. Democracy, of course, is famously messy. Could you remind people why it's such a good thing?

HARFORD: I think in both cases, I try to remind myself of Keith Jarrett's unplayable piano, actually. To me, the Brexit vote felt like an unplayable piano. The expert consensus in the UK was that this was not a very good idea. The British people disagreed with the experts, and so they voted to leave. And so I thought to myself, OK, well, this is going to pose all kinds of obstacles and all kinds of difficulties. In what ways might they actually turn to our advantage?

So not to try to be foolishly optimistic in the face of disappointment - what was for a lot of people - but to say, well, there's an opportunity in everything. What are the solutions that we look for going forward? And I think that's an important thing to bear in mind whenever we are faced with an obstacle. It's easy to get frustrated, but we should then say, OK, how is this going to make me stronger? How is this going to make my society stronger? What are the solutions that are going to come out of disappointment?

There is a section in the book about Donald Trump's campaigning style. And I said he is a master of using chaos to his advantage. One of the interesting parallels between Trump's campaign and the Brexit vote in the U.K. is that the Brexit vote in the U.K. - there were two different "leave" campaigns, and they hated each other. They were taking legal action against each other. They actively contradicted each other. This may sound familiar. I don't know. You would think that that's a disadvantage. Turns out to be an advantage because they were able to coalesce two different groups of supporters who wanted different things. And they just tuned into the things they liked to hear. Meanwhile, the opposition the "remain" vote in the U.K., the Democrats in the United States - they weren't sure what to what to criticize because there was no coherence on the other side. So there was no target to aim at.

Trump, by the way, is not the only person to use this. The use of chaos as a weapon works perfectly well in wartime. I talk about Erwin Rommel, the great German tank commander. It works in business. Jeff Bezos at Amazon explicitly targeted, we're going to move fast. We're going to make a mess. We don't understand what's going on. But at least Barnes & Noble are more confused than we are.


HARFORD: And as long as Barnes & Noble are more confused than we are, we're doing OK. He was very, very clear about this. And it has proved very effective.

VEDANTAM: I want to talk about another example of messiness in public life. And I want you to watch this video which describes a very famous speech. And I want to ask the question right after it.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating for whites only.


KING JR.: We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote, and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

VEDANTAM: So as you can see from that speech, Tim, Martin Luther King is reading from a script. And he has a nice line there, but it's a writerly line. But at a certain point in the speech, he decides to leave the script behind and turn his eyes to the audience. And here's what we see out of that.


KING JR.: I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day, this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.


VEDANTAM: Talk about this for a second because you talk about the speech in the book. And you talk about this moment when King left his notes behind and essentially stepped off the ledge of what he knew and what he was certain about and just rode the wave of what the crowd was telling him and what he was feeling.

HARFORD: He had prepared that speech meticulously the night before, had stayed up very late. He was operating on a number of constraints. It was quite a tight time schedule. The eyes of the world were on him. He knew that. There were also various political constraints about, what was his response going to be to the civil rights legislation? Would he embrace it? Would he criticize it? Is it not going far enough? Other civil rights leaders were making different claims. He had to balance all of those. So he took great care. The result was a speech that was well-crafted but a little bit lifeless. And so six or seven minutes into the speech, he looks down at the script. And there's a line there that's terrible. And it must have been terrible when he wrote it. But he looked, and he realized it's not working. It's now let us go back to our communities as members for the society for creative dissatisfaction. He doesn't say it.


HARFORD: He says instead go back. Go back to Alabama.


KING JR.: Go back to Alabama. Go back to South Carolina. Go back to Georgia. Go back to Louisiana. Go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities...

HARFORD: And there's another pause. And the people behind him on the stage know he's not on the script anymore. And Mahalia Jackson, great gospel singer, yells out to him because she's heard him talking in church about this dream - she yells out, tell him about the dream, Martin. And then he starts to improvise. And that is when he touches the crowd.

VEDANTAM: I want to wrap by asking you a few personal questions. I understand that after writing this book, every time you find yourself in a mess, and you turn to your wife for comfort, she now reminds you that being in a mess is a good thing.



HARFORD: Actually, just two days ago, Shankar, I was trying to check into a hotel at Dublin Airport at midnight, knowing that I was going to have to get up very early in the morning and fly and then come over to Washington to speak to you. Just desperate to get at that little bit of sleep that I would be able to get. And when I showed up at the airport hotel, they didn't have my reservation. And they were full. So nowhere to sleep. And as I toured Dublin in a taxi, looking for hotels that were open, I could just hear my wife's voice in my head saying, this is making you smarter, Tim. This is what you say.


HARFORD: This is making you more creative. So, you know, I've really sort of created a rod to beat myself with. But...


HARFORD: ...I think it is - it's important. Look. Sometimes, bad news is just bad news. Sometimes, an obstacle is just an obstacle. And there is no good side to be found. But very often, when things go wrong, we need to stop and say, well, what could come out of this? Brian Eno, a musician who I interviewed for the book - he worked with David Bowie, worked with YouTube, Coldplay - an amazing producer. He described his creative strategy as - it's a little bit similar to being in an accident. When you're in an accident, you get that sudden feeling of you paying attention to everything because there's this tremendous sense of threat.

Well, but that attention - the threat is bad. The accident is bad. But the attention is good. And so he puts the musicians he works with in stressful situations, so they feel almost like they've been in an accident. And suddenly, he has their attention. I think it's worth bearing in mind, even if the accident is a problem, even if the obstacle is a problem, the sudden attention, the sudden feeling of being present may lead us to some kind of solution. And that's worth hanging on to. When everything is perfect, when everything is tidy, we're on autopilot. And we're not necessarily living in the moment. We're not necessarily paying attention. And that's a problem for us.

VEDANTAM: Tim Harford, thank you for joining me today.

HARFORD: Thanks, Shankar.


VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Chris Benderev, Jenny Schmidt and Maggie Penman. It was edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu and Laura Kwerel. You can follow the show on Facebook and Twitter. And listen for my stories on Morning Edition on your local public radio station. HIDDEN BRAIN is also a podcast. Please subscribe on iTunes, NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.