Shankar Vedantam

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 it into college, and perhaps even on to a better life.

Except it doesn't always work out that way.

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Anyone who's tried (and failed) to follow a diet knows that food is more than fuel. The reasons we eat are even embedded in our language. When we're in an unfamiliar place, we yearn for comfort food. We take one too many scoops of ice cream because we stress eat. We connect to others by breaking bread.

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There is one question parents rarely answer truthfully. Do you play favorites with your kids? Overwhelmingly, parents say no. But what does the research say? Our co-host Steve Inskeep talked about it with NPR's Shankar Vedantam.

Parents these days are stressed. So are their kids.

The root of this anxiety, one scholar says, is the way we understand the relationship between parents and children. Alison Gopnik, a psychology and philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, thinks parents—especially middle-class parents—view their children as entities they can mold into a specific image.

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.

There's a moment from nearly a decade ago that's still on loop in Laura Ogden's mind. When Laura plays back this mental video, she imagines an alternate ending. A happier ending.

There's a technical name for this kind of thinking: A counterfactual.

A counterfactual is a mental simulation where you think about something that happened, and then imagine an alternate ending.

Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the University of Minnesota, says we come up with counterfactuals all the time.

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.

On this week's radio replay, 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 fifty.

People who spend time with young children know firsthand the power of music.

It's easy entertainment.

And any teacher who works in early childhood will tell you that singing can yield amazing results. "If we didn't sing the cleanup song, I don't think anything would have gotten cleaned up," says Laura Cirelli, who worked as an assistant at a day care center in the late 2000s.

But there may be other ways — surprising ways — in which music plays a role in raising a human.

Bababababa, dadadadada, ahgagaga. Got that?

Olutosin Oduwole was in his dorm room at Southern Illinois University when police knocked on his door one day in 2007. They were there to arrest him.

"In my mind I'm thinking, 'Okay, maybe a warrant for a ticket.' I really didn't know what was going on," he says.

What was going on was that the police suspected that Olutosin, a college student and aspiring rapper, was on the brink of committing a Virginia Tech-style mass shooting on his campus. He was soon charged with attempting to make a terrorist threat, and was eventually convicted and sent to prison.

It's one of the darkest chapters in recent history – in 1994, the Hutu-led government of Rwanda led a systematic campaign to wipe out members of the Tutsi minority. At first, the people participating were tied to the government—military leaders, local mayors and police. But soon, thousands of ordinary people were encouraged or bullied into taking part in the killing. Shopkeepers and farmers, fathers and husbands slaughtered their own friends and neighbors, using basic farm tools like hoes and machetes.

This week, we look at the language we use around race and religion, and what it says about the culture we live in.

When we think about dishonesty, we mostly think about the big stuff.

We see big scandals, big lies, and we think to ourselves, I could never do that. We think we're fundamentally different from Bernie Madoff or Tiger Woods.

But behind big lies are a series of small deceptions. Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, writes about this in his book The Honest Truth about Dishonesty.

Economic theory rests on a simple notion about humans: people are rational. They seek out the best information. They measure costs and benefits, and maximize pleasure and profit. This idea of the rational economic actor has been around for centuries.

But about 50 years ago, two psychologists shattered these assumptions. They showed that people routinely walk away from good money. And they explained why, once we get in a hole, we often keep digging.

Are you racist?

It's a question that makes most of us uncomfortable and defensive.

Harvard University psychologist Mahzarin Banaji says while most people don't feel they're racist, they likely carry unfavorable opinions about people of color — even if they are people of color themselves.

Banaji is one of the creators of the Implicit Association Test, a widely-used tool for measuring a person's implicit biases. She says it's important to acknowledge that the individual mind sits in society.

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Envy: it's an unflattering, miserable emotion. And it's universal. All of us, at some time or another, will experience that feeling of wanting what someone else has, and resenting them for having it.

Of course, like all human emotions, envy has a purpose. It's a tool for social comparison, one that can alert us to imbalances in the social hierarchy. Sometimes, these feelings of envy can prompt us to improve our lives, says Harvard social psychologist Mina Cikara.

"If you have more than what I have, I may be inspired by what you have," she says.

What are the lives of the planet's wealthiest people really like?

Several years ago, sociologist Brooke Harrington decided to find out.

She knew she'd have a hard time gaining access to the world of the über wealthy, so she did something unusual: She took courses to become a wealth manager.

In the course of this training, Harrington met other wealth managers, who agreed to be interviewed for her research.

She discovered that, in order to manage money for the super-rich, these professionals learn a lot about the private lives of their clients.

No one will deny that marriage is hard. In fact, there's evidence it's getting even harder.

Eli Finkel, a social psychologist at Northwestern University, argues that's because our expectations of marriage have increased dramatically in recent decades.

"[A] marriage that would have been acceptable to us in the 1950s is a disappointment to us today because of those high expectations," he says.

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If you're bilingual or multilingual, you may have noticed that the different languages you speak will make you stretch in different ways.

Languages like Spanish or French require you to remember the gender assigned to every noun, even inanimate objects. Uttering a sentence as simple as "I read the book" in Russian requires you to indicate whether you finished the book or merely read a few pages. If you're toggling between English and a language like Arabic, you have to swap which side of the page you look at first.

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The Power Hour

Jan 23, 2018

If you've ever visited the palm-lined neighborhoods of Beverly Hills, you've probably noticed that the rich and famous aren't the only ones drawn there.

Stargazers also flock to this exclusive enclave, seeking a chance to peer into — and fantasize about — the lives of movie stars and film directors.

Call it adulation, adoration, idolization: we humans are fascinated by glamour and power.

But this turns out to be only one side of our psychology.

Fighting miscommunication might seem an ironic choice for an actor whose comedy career was built on all the funny consequences of people misunderstanding each other.

But Alan Alda has made it his mission to help scientists — and the rest of us — communicate better.

It all started when he was hosting the PBS interview program Scientific American Frontiers. He pushed himself, and the scientists he interviewed, to have conversations — to really listen to each other, to connect with each other, and to try to understand one another's perspective.

Our airwaves are filled with debates about immigrants and refugees. Who should be in the United States, who shouldn't, and who should decide?

These modern debates often draw upon our ideas about past waves of immigration. We sometimes assume that earlier generations of newcomers quickly learned English and integrated into American society. But historian Maria Cristina Garcia says these ideas are often false.

In 2006, Derek Amato suffered a major concussion from diving into a shallow swimming pool. When he woke up in the hospital, he was different. He discovered he was really good a playing piano.

Lots of people make New Year's resolutions that focus on conserving something. Some people pledge to eat less junk food. Others will commit to saving more money.

Columbia University law professor Tim Wu has a suggestion for something else people should consider conserving: attention. In his new book The Attention Merchants, Tim argues that our mental space is constantly being hijacked.

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