Chris Blattman
Big Brains podcst

Why Countries Choose War Over Peace, with Chris Blattman (Ep. 93)

Studying gangs and political enemies, scholar tries to understand why we fight—and how to stop conflict

Chris Blattman
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

War is costly, deadly and destructive. So, why do we do it? In his new book Why We Fight: The Roots of War and The Paths to Peace, Prof. Chris Blattman of the University of Chicago lays out the five main reasons why countries go to war—and why building peace is actually a lot easier than we may think.

Blattman is an economist and political scientist who studies global conflict, crime and poverty. As a seasoned peacebuilder, he has worked in a number of countries to help mitigate conflict between gang leaders, political enemies and ethnic villages. He argues that one of the keys to finding peace is using a tool called the bargaining range to give both sides a piece of what they want.

In this episode, Blattman discusses how wars come to be, the incentives to stop them and what it will take for Putin to stop the fighting in Ukraine.

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(Episode published May 26, 2022)



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Paul Rand: Chris Blattman has interviewed some of the most dangerous people in the world.

Chris Blattman: I do talk to mafia bosses and gang leaders and crime lords and rebel war lords.

Paul Rand: From Sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America to the gang held territories of Chicago, Blattman has sat down with violent actors to figure out one perplexing question.

Chris Blattman: In that moment, talking to them, I’m able to somehow engage with them as like a human being and extract the information I want.

Paul Rand: Blattman has been obsessed with the question, why do people go to war?

Tape: Vladimir Putin has just addressed the Russian people moments ago. Announcing what Putin called the start of a military special operation, in his words, to demilitarize Ukraine.

Chris Blattman: I say like, listen, war’s ruinous.

Tape: What began as a series of peaceful protests against the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has turned into a brutal civil war.

Tape: Coalition forces have began striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein’s ability to wage war.

Tape: How and why did America get involved in Vietnam in the first place?

Chris Blattman: Therefore, there’s a huge incentives to avoid it.

Tape: The situation in which no word given by Germany’s ruler could be trusted and no people or country could feel itself safe and become intolerable.

Chris Blattman: For one reason or another we ignore the cost.

Paul Rand: Blattman is an economist and a political scientist at the University of Chicago. And he synthesized all of his research and the research of others into a counterintuitive book, Why We Fight-The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace.

Chris Blattman: So I called it Why We Fight not Why We War because political scientists might say, well, war is between political actors. And so you’re going to also talk about gangs.

Tape: The gangs are fighting a war over turf, drugs and money.

Tape: This bustling marketplace in North Karachi is at the center of a gang war.

Tape: The crackdown on gangs intensifies in El Salvador.

Chris Blattman: In organized crime, and maybe you’re going to talk about ethnic groups and villages and all these different levels. And I said, right, I want to talk about what all of these things have in common. They’re really different, let’s talk about what we learned from them generally. And to do that, I’m going to just have the barest bone definitions, which is just this thing that’s incredibly ruinous. Prolonged fighting. Why do we do it?

Paul Rand: Most people think that war is easy to fall into, and that peace is difficult to maintain, but Blattman argues that war is actually really rare and that peace is a lot simpler than you think.

Chris Blattman: Whether it’s Afghanistan, Iraq, I mean, we care a lot. We want to know why that happened. Could they have been prevented? What went wrong? Because we don’t want to end up in another one of those. And then when we have an ally or an informal ally in this case, which is the Ukraine. We want to know, why did that happen? Will it stop? So all the problems, which I’m sure we’ll talk about that lead to war, they have solutions.

Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago Podcast Network, this is Big Brains, a podcast about the pioneering research and the pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. On this episode, Why Countries Go to War and How We Can Choose the Road to Peace.

Paul Rand: Chris Blattman wasn’t always going to study violence. He was originally a development economist studying how growth can happen in difficult circumstances. This took him to some of the most dangerous places on the planet, but he’s never really been bothered by danger.

Chris Blattman: My mom would ask me this question obviously. And I would say mom... I lived in New Haven for a while, I lived in New York in the Morningside Heights. I’ve lived in the south side of Chicago, which are all places where things can happen. Right. You might get mugged. You might... But probably won’t happen, and you’ll probably be fine, and people live here happy lives. And I say, it’s basically just like those places. It’s just as nowhere dangerous than where I live. Which didn’t have the answer I hoped for, because my mom who lives in Ottawa is like, why do you live in these unsafe places?

Paul Rand: What did bother him on his research trips? Meeting the victims of violence he would be interviewing along the way.

Chris Blattman: So talking to people who have been victimized or the victim of some terribly unjust things is really hard. You do get hardened into it over time in a way that’s actually maybe not good. My wife and often my research partner is a counseling psychologist, and so it certainly helps me married to a counseling psychologist. If not, I think any researcher who deals with victims should have one.

Paul Rand: Blattman quickly realized that a society’s growth didn’t depend on wealth and opportunities, but on safety from violence. People and businesses, aren’t able to specialize trade or invest when they anticipate everything could be gone tomorrow. As he writes in the book, nothing destroys progress like violence.

Chris Blattman: I tell people if you want to remember one thing about the idea it’s that wars ruinous and we go to war when we ignore those costs, when our leaders or our society, for some reason, overlook those costs.

Paul Rand: Blattman says that we have been misled into thinking that war is inevitable and hopeless, but more often than not enemies loath one another in peace.

Chris Blattman: Yeah, no, enemies loath peace is like a tagline that I like to repeat.

Paul Rand: Blattman is a game theorist and he’s built models to explain why war is rare. Using these models have helped him identify the five main reasons we slip into war and the three roads that lead to peace. First, we need to understand the concept that’s foundational to all of his models and it’s called bargaining range.

Chris Blattman: It’s an oversimplified concept, but it comes to us from game theory and that sounds intimidating. Actually, all the ideas in the book, anyone who’s ever played poker, they kind of intuitively got. They’re not hard concepts. People just need to learn to spot them in the wild. But the basic principle is to say, look, there’s a pie we’re fighting over.

Paul Rand: Close your eyes and picture a circle to represent our pie.

Chris Blattman: Could be land, could be a policy decision, whatever it is we both want it.

Paul Rand: Let’s say this particular pie is worth $100. So slap a big 100 on top of your circle.

Chris Blattman: And we both have the means to seize it militarily.

Paul Rand: Now picture team A and team B, they both own half the pie and they each have a 50/50 chance of winning the whole pie in a war.

Chris Blattman: We can either agree how we’re going to split that up without fighting, or we can fight, destroy a share of that pie and then one of us gets it or we have to split it anew.

Paul Rand: And the war to get that pie, $20 of it is going to be destroyed. Meaning that after a war, the pie will be worth only $80, not the 100 that we were trying to win.

Chris Blattman: Yeah. And so the part of it destroyed is just sort of like the peace dividend. It’s just like the free spoils that we get from avoiding that path.

Paul Rand: And since war is a 50/50 shot at a damaged $80 pie fighting is worth $40 at best, or you can both split the pie for $50. It’s simple math, war is more costly.

Chris Blattman: And so it creates a whole range of things that we prefer to war. And so the more costly is war, the more the range of opportunities there are that open up for us to find some way to split this thing that we’d prefer to do over fighting.

Paul Rand: Blattman saw this firsthand when he was studying gangs in Medellín, Columbia.

Chris Blattman: In a city like Medellín Columbia, where there are hundreds and hundreds of extremely heavily armed gangs, competing over extremely valuable territory for extortion and drug rents that they have, a homicide rate that’s far below most American cities.

Paul Rand: Even gangs understand the logic of the bargaining range.

Chris Blattman: Nobody makes money in a drug fight. So gangs everywhere hate to go to war. That’s true in Chicago. And it was to me, a really powerful example of how all these things that... Forces that happen at an international level are happening at lower levels. Think of this, listen, I didn’t write a book called Why We Don’t Fight.

Paul Rand: Nobody would buy that. So I think you picked the right title.

Chris Blattman: Yeah, exactly. I just want to say that starting from this idea that the main incentive towards peace is the cost of war is just a useful starting point. It helps us see why we fight through a different lens and it’s this lens that we fight when we ignore those costs. And as it turns out... Even in some ways I was surprised like there’s this vast literature, I’m just sort of drawing on decades of research, and it turns out almost all of these reasons, of which there are a zillion, boil down into sort of five logical ways we overlook the costs. And so I’m just trying to give people a way to organize the madness.

Paul Rand: Okay. So let’s get into those five factors that lead us to overlook these costs. The first is unchecked leaders.

Chris Blattman: Which is to say our leaders aren’t accountable to the people, which they never are, even in a perfect democracy or maybe not perfect, but all are democracy, but especially in an autocracy like Putin, especially a personalized dictator.

Tape: Vladimir Putin blames the west for Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Chris Blattman: Russia’s more or less a system of personal rule as are some other countries. That means that all those costs of war he doesn’t bear a lot of them.

Tape: Sanctions that impose economic pain on Russia will ultimately impose no economic pain on him. He will stay one of the richest men to have ever walked the face of the earth, no matter how much the rest of the Russian economy and the Russian people suffer.

Chris Blattman: There you can think of European monarchs who are unaccountable to their own people and were just as ready to go off to war for their own strategic interest or for their own glory seeking. Right. You could think about African war lords who are seeking diamond wealth or the exploitation of resources that create these war economies and then continue at war. Not because it’s in the interest of their side, but because it enriches them, and you can think of a democratic president they’re not perfectly checked. Right. And they might have a private interest in launching a war to get some rally around the flag effect. Now whether or not starting a war rallies people around the flag makes you popular and gets you through the next election cycle is empirically doubtful.

Chris Blattman: But the fact is a lot of presidents think it’s true and that’s all they need to do to sort of maybe be too ready to use violence. So the constant theme here with unchecked interest is that some leader who’s imperfectly accountable is much too ready to use violence because they’re not considering all the costs or they might even have a private incentive that goes against the interests of their group. And they’re so willing to ignore those costs to pursue what’s good for them, but not for everybody.

Paul Rand: Your second one you talked about was intangible incentives.

Chris Blattman: When we say Putin is seeking personal glory or a place in history, that’s an intangible incentive. He’s willing to pay the cost of war because he gets something ethereal that makes it worth the price. And that’s even easier for him to take his country to war, to do because he’s unchecked. He’s willing to make his people pay the price of war in order to achieve this ethereal thing.

Paul Rand: The other one, if I can go to number three, you talk about is you characterize it holistically as misperceptions.

Chris Blattman: This is basically to say that not only can, say, a leader like Putin have some grandiose vision of national glory or personal glory, but that he perceives the world in a biased way. That he’s either getting poor information by dent of being an autocrat who has to insulate himself.

Tape: A US official says the US believes that Vladimir Putin is being, quote, misinformed by his own advisors about how badly the Russian military is performing in Ukraine, as well as the crippling impact of Western sanctions

Chris Blattman: Or he’s simply overconfident and rational, but rational based on really wrong information. So he misperceives the situation. He overestimated the power his own military, underestimated Ukrainians.

Paul Rand: Which leaves just two more, uncertainty and commitment problems.

Chris Blattman: The remaining set are strategic in the sense that they’re calculating the self interested. We tend to not understand and undervalue these strategic explanations. This sort of gets us into uncertainty. This is where I think it’s really tricky. Like what’s a misperception and what’s just the fact that we live in an incredibly uncertain world. I think it’s safe to say very few people predicted that the West would be these unified in sanctions.

Tape: The economic sanctions leveled against Russia by the US and its allies are the harshest ever handed down.

Chris Blattman: Very few people predicted that Ukraine would be this unified. Everyone knew it was possible. This was totally within the realm of possibilities. I don’t know that anyone considered this particularly likely.

Tape: Vladimir Putin apparently thought that he’d roll right over Ukraine, roll right in and get right out. Right. Sure. It hasn’t worked out that way.

Paul Rand: Blattman says that uncertainty has played a huge role in another conflict that were all familiar with, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Chris Blattman: There’s a political scientist at Northwestern named Wendy Pearlman who makes a very persuasive argument that the years of violence have actually been ones when each side has been fragmented. There’s a faction. So we call them splinter factions. We call them spoilers. And those groups have for their own private reasons, ideological or strategic have decided to sort of stir the pot, launch violence. And then the other side looks at that and says, and there’s uncertainty here. Right. They’re like, is that the whole... Is that really a splinter group? Is it not? Can I trust my counterpart that they can control these people? And so I think that interplay of these, not the core leader, but these splinter groups, their unchecked interests, the difficulty of holding those coalitions together and the uncertainty about whether or not that’s really representative of your enemy or not explains a lot of the years of intense violence.

Paul Rand: Misperceptions and uncertainty also creates a signaling problem. If you don’t want to go to war, but your opponent doesn’t believe or understand that you’re strong enough to fight back and destroy part of the pie. What do you do? Well, this was a big problem that was facing Ukraine.

Chris Blattman: The strategic element of uncertainty, which is really important is that, well, everyone knows how costly this is going to be. And so the West and the Ukrainians just spent a lot of time saying, no, no, no, no, no. We’re really strong. On all these things, we’re strong, we’re resolved, we’re unified.

Tape: The bottom line is this, the United States and our allies and partners will support the Ukrainian people. We will hold Russia accountable for its actions. The West is united and resolved.

Chris Blattman: And the problem is that from Putin’s point of view, he’s thinking, well, you’d say that anyways, even if you weren’t. Right. This is where every poker player understands this. Right. You don’t know your opponent’s hand. They seem to be playing aggressively. Are they bluffing? You don’t know. Right. And so your optimal strategy is not to fold every time.

Paul Rand: Blattman says that this actually explains many of the violent dynamics that we see in gang culture, like needing to maintain a violent reputation or small skirmishes that break out. They’re meant to be impossible to fake signals to your opponent. And although these things themselves are violent in a twisted way, they actually help avoid war.

Chris Blattman: For 20 years, Putin tried to do everything he could short of invasion to co-op Ukraine, assassinations, dark money, propaganda, separative support, the list goes on and on and on. So peace isn’t just.

Paul Rand: The second strategic factor, and the final road to war is called commitment problems. We’ll explore that plus the three roads to peace after the break.

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Paul Rand: The final strategic factor that leads conflict to turn into war is something called commitment problems.

Chris Blattman: World War I and the US invasion of Iraq are two classic examples that I talk about in the book where I think we’re far too quick to sort of say, oh, this is a misperceptions in ideology and not see the strategic logic that brought these nations to war. You know, the famous book on World War I is, I think The Sleepwalks and it’s about these nationalistic sort of naive inept, European leaders, marching their countries to war thinking, it’ll be short and easy. That’s a hard explanation for four years of trench warfare. Right. Because maybe that gets you into war on day one. I don’t think it’s a persuasive argument for war on day, whatever 812, the World War I sort of the classic example of the commitment problem, where your adversary can’t commit to something in future and thus, it makes sense for you to invade now.

Chris Blattman: And the way that story is told is the idea that Russia was rising. Basically Germany was at its peak power and in steady decline and Russia, once risen would be able to roll back a lot of the advantages and gains and things that Germany had. Germany could threaten Russia to say, well, give that up or we’re going to invade now to lock in our advantage. And then it’s a commitment problem only to the extent that Russia can’t credibly commit not to rise and not to hand over power. So it’s difficult. Right. It would mean maybe ceding some regions or a set of things that were in some sense, militarily or politically, very difficult.

Paul Rand: As Blattman writes in the book, imagine you’re in that scene of the movie with another robber, you just get done getting the score and he pulls a gun on you, but it clicks and misfires. You have a split second decision. Do you try to talk it out or lunge at him? That’s the commitment problem.

Chris Blattman: You know, there’s an older Rocky saying, which is, if you think your enemies can eat you for dinner, you have to eat them for lunch. So that’s the commitment problem in a nutshell.

Paul Rand: Speaking of Iraq?

Chris Blattman: And that by the way is sort of how a lot of people think about the Iraq war.

Tape: A preemptive war against Iraq would be a terrible mistake.

Chris Blattman: There was misperceptions to be sure, there were unchecked leaders to be sure, but fundamentally there was a very small, but not that small probability that Saddam Hussein could restart a nuclear weapons research program.

Tape: Iraq’s behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction.

Chris Blattman: We knew his incentives to do so were incredibly powerful, because it would remake the entire power structure in the middle east.

Paul Rand: There was no way for Saddam to incredibly commit that he wouldn’t build nuclear weapons.

Chris Blattman: If you think your enemy’s going to eat you for dinner and basically completely turn the tables in the middle east, you eat them for lunch. And that’s not a sufficient explanation for the US invasion of Iraq, but it was important. And to ignore it, arguably sort of misunderstands what drives war and then sort of will complicate our efforts to stop it.

Paul Rand: I think that this is where you talked about escape hatches. Is that right?

Chris Blattman: Yeah. So I think this is a really important idea. There’s actually a lot of ways to get out of the commitment problem. There probably was something Russia could have done. There’s this powerful strategic incentive for Germany to eat Russia for lunch before they can be eaten for dinner. So they should have been able... They should have tried to commit in some way. There often are paths away from that commitment problem, ways to get the commitment, but they’re narrow and they’re few. And that’s when the uncertainty, the misperceptions, the flawed leaders, that’s when they matter. We can only sleepwalk into war, when I think the strategic fundamentals have narrowed our options for a peaceful deal to something that’s like a sliver. And so there’s almost never one reason for a war and nothing’s totally psychological. Nothing’s totally strategic. There’s usually an interaction between the two.

Paul Rand: If these are the five factors that can cause the bargaining range to fall apart, Blattman also thinks there are three factors that can help hold it together.

Chris Blattman: If you live on a busy street, and you’re worried about people driving by too fast and hitting your kids or something, you put up speed bumps, you still tell your kids to walk both sides. You’re still taking cautions. It’s not going to like... There’s still going to be some people who are going to speed for various reasons, but you maybe have built in a little bit of protection.

Paul Rand: The first speed bump, institutions.

Chris Blattman: Rules and enforcers is like a good example. In a country like the United States, we have the state. Right. We have police, we have courts. Human societies have been really good at constructing these kinds of systems.

Paul Rand: Now you used an example, again, back to Medellín and Bello.

Chris Blattman: Because it’s Medellín with their paisa accent, they’d say Bello.

Paul Rand: Bello. Okay.

Chris Blattman: No, it’s okay. So Bello is actually just an area just to the north of the city proper where there’s two powerful rival gangs that control both the prisons and the territory out on the street. There are sort of passions and incidents and I talk about a brawl over a game of billiards in one of the prison cell blocks, where one side pulls out their gun fires on the other. Now why they have guns in prison is a probably whole other podcast. But what happens is sort of, you can kind of imagine, there’s a cycle of revenge killings and also each gang activates their alliances and all 400 gangs and mafias in the city sort of line up behind one side of the other and they prepare for a citywide war. And this is when those big crime bosses come in and are like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, this is not going to happen.

Chris Blattman: And all of these mistakes that you made, all of these passions, all of the strategic errors, you’ve made the fact that you’re ignoring these costs for all these different reasons, we’re going to provide some counter incentives and some ways to overcome that and we’re actually going to help you find a bargain. And they did, because everyone has a stake in peace, especially the kingpins who are the wholesalers for the drugs. They actually have a stake in building institutions, in governing to prevent that war from happening. So just like we have international sanctions, regimes, they have domestic sanctions. They have sanctions regimes to sanctions gangs that ignore these incentives for peace and impose those costs on the rest of the city.

Paul Rand: And this brings us to the second speed bump, interconnectedness.

Chris Blattman: So think about something like sanctions. Right. What is a sanction? Why should a sanction be pacifying? Well, a sanction is saying to an unchecked leader with a private incentive to go to war or an intangible incentive, some ideological gain, they’re saying you’re not paying attention to the costs, so we are going to help you pay attention to the cost by giving you something to worry about. Right. By basically making war look more costly to you and thus to try to steer you away from that path. Likewise, if you say why would we have mediators? What does a mediator do? Is that actually helping a peace? Well, mediators are trying to resolve uncertainty. And to the extent that it’s hard to find solutions to the commitment problem, because it’s tricky and it’s politically challenging, mediators are actually really ingenious at finding ways to build trust and commitment. So every single thing we do that people talk about as peace building, if it’s going to work, has to make sense through one of these lenses.

Paul Rand: From war fighters in Liberia, to the gangs of Chicago, there’s one intervention that Blattman has seen work exceptionally well at stemming cycles of violence.

Chris Blattman: You know, my day job is not solving international conflicts. It’s working in cities and civil wars to find ways to stop that level of violence. So small group violence. I’ve run a lot of experiments of mediation strategies, alternative dispute resolution. All sorts of interventions that are designed to counter one of these things. So mediation, reducing uncertainty, providing commitment. And then one of the programs I stumbled on was something that’s basically designed to combat misperceptions and passions.

Paul Rand: It’s a program that we first discussed with Jens Ludwig in a previous episode, cognitive behavior theory combined with employment.

Chris Blattman: Working with deadly shooters in Chicago and working with really hardened criminals and people who are living very daily violent lives in West Africa. Typically, this combination of cognitive behavioral therapy on aggression control and on finding a new lifestyle and then also some economic assistance to actually transition to that non-violent lifestyle and alternative career has been hugely effective for these violent offenders. In some sense, almost a huge proportion end up reducing their engagement in a violent lifestyle. And so I think there’s lots of lessons for that, for how we deal with rebels and organized criminals and things. But that’s a research program that’s ongoing.

Paul Rand: So using Blattman’s framework of the five roads to war and the three roads to peace, how does you see the war in Ukraine playing out?

Chris Blattman: This is so costly for Ukraine and this is so costly for Russia that they’re very powerful incentives to stop the fighting at some point, maybe a few months from now. I just read from one economist, premium economist that basically half of the pre-war national income is required to fight this war. And their ports are blocked, which is something like 70% of their exports. So even if they were producing stuff, which they’re not, they can’t get money for it. So it’s not clear that they have the money to do this. And of course the West is bankrolling them and I’m happy to see that, but there has to be limits to that. It’s also extremely costly for Russia.

Chris Blattman: That makes me think that there’s a good chance that after this next round of battles in a few months that maybe there’s a stale mate, where the best thing you could say about it is they’ve stopped fighting and Russia still sits on a chunk of Ukraine and refuses to give it up and probably Ukraine and the West refuse to recognize that as legitimate, but there’s no large scale fighting. There’s probably low scale fighting. That’s to me the best case scenario, that’s driven by these powerful incentives. But again, there are reasons why we fight and they could make it very difficult for that to be stable.

Paul Rand: Blattman says that this framework should be incredibly useful as a tool for better understanding war and peace, but cautions that we shouldn’t turn it into a crutch.

Chris Blattman: You know, there’s always a question is like, how do I end this book? One way I could have ended this book was, now that we understand why we fight and now that we understand some paths to peace, if we only do the following things, we’re going to have a more peaceful world. And which is an optimistic book, it’s a hopeful book. It’s like, great, I know exactly what I have to do. But I didn’t want to write that kind of book because I think that’s not the right way to think about it. Not because I’m talking about so many different kinds of violence, but because actually figuring out which of the five is actually dominant in your situation and actually then figuring out what is the thing you could do to actually roll that back into... Is really hard and it’s different in every case. So even if we have a common framework for thinking about all these things for basically organizing all these explanations, and even if that helps us diagnose better, getting a diagnosis is hard.

Chris Blattman: Imagine if I wrote like a medical book where I sort of told people how to diagnose disease better, I couldn’t have a final chapter with sort of 10 steps to fix every disease. Right. You actually have to build a whole system of doctors who are really good at problem solving in really difficult cases and then testing out lots of treatments, especially all the treatments that don’t yet exist. So that’s the right way I think to think about peace is actually, every patient is different and we need all of the doctors out there, whether they’re members of that community or one side or outside actor to actually just have a better approach to diagnosis, which is kind of like iterative problem solving, knowing that you’re going to get it wrong a lot of the time. And then recognizing that you don’t actually have the best medicine. So we are also going to have to invent better medicines.

Tape: Big Brains is a production of the University of Chicago Podcast Network. If you like what you heard, please leave us a rating and review. The show is hosted by Paul M. Rand and produced by me, Matt Hodapp and Leah Ceasrine. Thanks for listening.


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