Shankar Vedantam

It has become an old, sad story in America. First, the murder, sparked by some trivial dispute. Next, solutions. Maybe it's gun control, or harsher punishments or extra policing. And then it happens again. The same events fill the news, and the same proposed solutions.

But what if science can help us find new ways to think about violent crime? Can understanding how we make decisions help us prevent these tragedies?

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Have you ever had a bad day at school or work or an awful commute home and then taken out your bad mood on a colleague or even your spouse? I'm going to bet you have. How's that?

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Surgeon Atul Gawande still remembers the operation years ago that went catastrophically wrong. He was removing a tumor from the adrenal gland of a patient he refers to as Mr. Hagerman.

Gawande had performed this procedure dozens of times before. But this case was particularly tricky. Mr. Hagerman's tumor was behind his liver, nestled tightly against an important blood vessel known as the vena cava. Gawande was almost done when all of a sudden, he nicked the blood vessel.

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When a baby is born, one of the first questions people ask the parents is this: "What is it?"

"Gender is unquestionably the most salient feature of a person's identity," says Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience at Rosalind Franklin University in Chicago. "That's the first thing we notice about someone and it is certainly the first characteristic infants learn to discriminate."

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In the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, inevitably everyone turns to the question of why - why would someone do something so horrific? President Trump was asked this very question right before he boarded Marine One. And here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He was a sick man, a demented man, a lot of problems, I guess. And we're looking into him very, very seriously, but we're dealing with a very, very sick individual.

Expectant parents often daydream about their children's future. What sports will they play in school? Will they become musicians, or scientists?

Royce and Jessica James had big dreams for their baby, too. But when an ultrasound revealed they were having a daughter, Jessica began to worry about how gender stereotypes would affect their child.

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Everyone has regrets. You probably have a few of them. By some estimates, regret is the most common negative emotion that we talk about, and the second-most common emotion mentioned in our daily lives.

How great would it be to win a brand new car? How horrible would it be to get laid off from your job? Research by psychologist Dan Gilbert at Harvard University suggests not that great and not that horrible (respectively).

If you can dream it, you can do it, right? Right? Well ... not so fast. While fantasizing feels good and believing in yourself is surely better than not, research shows that keeping your head in the clouds can keep you, er, from reaching the stars. This week Shankar talks with psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside The New Science Of Motivation.

"Clean up this mess!"

This is a command you've probably given or received in your life. Perhaps in the last day, or even the last hour.

To many of us, the desire to bring order to chaos – to tidy up our kids' toys, organize an overstuffed closet, or rake the leaves covering the lawn – can be nearly irresistible. And it's a desire that extends to other aspects of our lives: Managers tell employees to get organized. Politicians are elected on promises to clean up Washington. And so on.

Why do you work? Are you just in it for the money, or do you have a greater purpose? 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.

Across a diverse array of jobs — from secretaries to custodians to computer programmers — Wrzesniewski finds people are about equally split in whether they say they have a "job," a "career" or a "calling." This week on Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam talks with Wrzesniewski about how we find meaning and purpose at work.

Many of us react to the buzzes and beeps that come from our phones with the urgency of a parent responding to a baby's cry. We can't help but pick up our phone and look at the latest notification. We know this probably isn't the healthiest nor the sanest response to a vibrating hunk of a metal, so we tell ourselves we should be less distracted. We shouldn't be so gripped by social media or the churn of work email.

Every year, many students who have overcome daunting obstacles in high school receive good news — they've been accepted to college.

These kids represent a success story: through hard work and determination, they've made into college, and perhaps even on to a better life.

Except it doesn't always work out that way.

"Are you real?"

If you've seen the TV series Westworld, you may remember this line. A man named William has just arrived at Westworld, a sort of wild west theme park where people can interact with human-like robots.

The host who greets him looks and sounds 100 percent human. But is she?

Her response when William poses this question: "Well, if you can't tell, does it matter?"

If you can't tell, does it matter?

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Here's a question - have you ever done a really big workout at the gym, then gone home and gorged yourself on the first unhealthy thing you can find? New research explores why you chose to do that. NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, is here to explain. Shankar, I know none of this.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I've never ever done this - worked out and then pigged out. I mean, this is - I do this constantly. And I feel like I've just worked out, and so why can't I have a double cheeseburger?

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So many studies have found that early childhood education makes a big difference in the lives of youngsters, we collectively consider it so important. Given that, you might expect that child care providers would be actively looking for teachers who are highly qualified. But new research shows something different. And Shankar Vedantam, NPR's social science correspondent, is here to tell us about it.

Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do you mean child care providers don't want the best teachers?

Turn on the TV, and you'll find no shortage of people who claim to know what's going to happen: who's going to get picked for the NBA draft, who will win the next election, which stocks will go up or down.

These pundits and prognosticators all have an air of certainty. And why shouldn't they? We, as the audience, like to hear the world's complexity distilled into simple, pithy accounts. It doesn't help that these commentators rarely pay a serious price when their predictions don't pan out.

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Police in London have identified the driver of the van that drove into a group of Muslims outside a mosque yesterday. He is Darren Osborne, a 47-year-old white male. And that profile may be significant in how the media covered the attack. New social science research in the U.S. suggests that in incidents like this, the identity of the attacker has an impact on coverage. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explains.

President Trump has often accused the news media of not covering terrorist attacks adequately. In a speech in February he said, "Radical Islamic terrorists are determined to strike our homeland as they did on 9/11, as they did from Boston to Orlando to San Bernardino [...] It's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported."

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On a September evening in 2016, Terence Crutcher's SUV stopped in the middle of a road in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A woman saw him step out of his car. The doors of the car were open and the engine was still running. The woman called 911. Officer Betty Shelby was on her way to an unrelated incident when the call came in.

Unfortunately, the way this night ended has become all too familiar. An unarmed black man was shot by a cop.

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So when you recycle paper or an empty bottle, do you get that warm little feeling because maybe you think, hey, I've done something right for the world? Well, maybe you shouldn't get that feeling because there's some new social science research out there that suggests recycling can have a downside. Why are you always bringing negative news?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Shankar Vedantam, NPR social science correspondent, here to rain on our recycling parade. Hi, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Hi, Rachel.

In 1969, Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist from Stanford University, ran an interesting field study. He abandoned two cars in two very different places: one in a mostly poor, crime-ridden section of New York City, and the other in a fairly affluent neighborhood of Palo Alto, Calif. Both cars were left without license plates and parked with their hoods up.

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It's normal to feel drawn to people you share something with — whether that's a name, or a birthday, or a shared profession or background.

But Brett Pelham finds this preference for things and people associated with us goes far beyond what we might expect. He calls this phenomenon Implicit Egotism.

The Greek poet Archilochus wrote, "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

There are many different interpretations of this parable, but psychologist Phil Tetlock argues it's a way of understanding two cognitive styles: Foxes have different strategies for different problems. They are comfortable with nuance, they can live with contradictions. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, focus on the big picture. They reduce every problem to one organizing principle.

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