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Shankar Vedantam

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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.

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.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some time ago, a couple of psychologists were having lunch together at a cafe in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. They did what millions of us do as we chat with other people. They put down their smartphones on the table next to them. The host of NPR's Hidden Brain podcast Shankar Vedantam is here to explain what happened next. Shankar, welcome.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: I am dying with suspense.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Tell me what happened. Did the phones start ringing?

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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."

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Here's how it usually goes: You're working from home and you dial in to a conference call for the morning meeting. Everyone is cheerfully talking around the table. You can't believe what a good time everyone seems to be having, talking about nothing.

Then someone starts to laugh. And then everyone's laughing. Except for you, silently listening on the phone. You're not even cracking a smile, forget about laughing. You wonder, when did this conversation become so hilarious? What am I missing?

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A while back, Jonah Berger was talking with a lawyer friend from Washington, D.C. The friend was lamenting the impact of social influence on his peers.

He was saying, "'God, you know, all D.C. lawyers are the same. They make it big, and they go out and they buy a new BMW.'

Many people start exploring their sexuality in college. The lessons they learn about intimacy and attraction during these years lay a foundation for the rest of their lives.

"I have students who have had sex many times drunk but have never held someone's hand," says Occidental University sociologist Lisa Wade.

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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?

In 2012, as a new mom, Maranda Dynda heard a story from her midwife that she couldn't get out of her head. The midwife told her that years earlier, something bad had happened after she vaccinated her son. One minute he was fine, and the next, he was autistic. It was like "the light had left his eyes," Maranda recalled her saying. The midwife implored Maranda to go online and do her own research. So she did.

She started on Google. It led her to Facebook groups, where other moms echoed what the midwife had said.

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After you read this sentence, pause for a moment to think back on advertisements you first heard when you were a child.

Perhaps you recall a favorite jingle or the catchphrase of a cereal mascot. You probably can remember more than just one.

This week, we look at the shelf life of commercials. According to University of Arizona researcher Merrie Brucks, an ad we watched when we were five years old can influence our buying behavior when we're 50.

"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.

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