Seeing The World Through The Eyes Of A Social Science Correspondent : NPR Extra What I learned about road rage, garage sale haggling and happiness while walking to the grocery store with Shankar Vedandam, host of NPR's new show Hidden Brain.
NPR logo Seeing The World Through The Eyes Of A Social Science Correspondent

Seeing The World Through The Eyes Of A Social Science Correspondent

Hidden Brain Host Shankar Vedantam. Caitlin Sanders/NPR hide caption

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Caitlin Sanders/NPR

Hidden Brain Host Shankar Vedantam.

Caitlin Sanders/NPR

At some point during youth or young adulthood, most people arrive at – or are cast into – an earthshaking moment of truth: Your parents don't know everything. Suddenly, some of your memories from growing up take on a whole new meaning, and in that moment, the way you look at the world can change, perhaps becoming a little bit clearer.

For more than a decade, Shankar Vedantam has studied what we know about the mind and social sciences. His work, along with many others', is building a map for understanding human behavior, and that guide is rife with moments of clarity just like the one described above.

Shankar's reporting has been the impetus for a new podcast called Hidden Brain, and over the last few months, I've been part of the team responsible for launching the program. Having heard Shankar's regular segments on Morning Edition for years and listening to him talk about all the information that's out there about human behavior, I wanted to know: What is it like moving through everyday life with all of that social science research in your head? So I invited Shankar to take a walk with me over to the grocery store near our building and asked him to talk me through what we were seeing in scientific terms.

Here's what I learned.

6 Things I Learned On A 30-Minute Walk With NPR's 'Hidden Brain' Host

  • 1. Road rage doesn't mean you're crazy.

    Caitlin Sanders/NPR
    Intersection in NE Washington, DC.
    Caitlin Sanders/NPR

    Most of us know well how a perfectly rational person (ourselves even) can go from Jekyll to Hyde in two seconds when behind the wheel. That same irritability doesn't always come out on a train ride or bus, however. As Shankar explained, one reason for road rage is that people see their cars as a personal space, similar to their bedroom.

    "When intrusive things happen to you in a private space, you react with much more indignation and feelings of being upset than if something happens to you in a public space," he said. When driving down the road in a car, people act as though they're in that private space even though they're not. And the more people personalize their cars with bumper stickers , the more likely they are to drive in rude or inconsiderate ways.

  • 2. Having good posture while driving can save you money.

    Studies have found that drivers who slouch and sit with their arms outstretched in an I'm-the-lord-of-my-manor kind of way are more likely to violate traffic rules and speed limits than people who are sitting in a constricted fashion.

    This goes to the idea that posture can shape our sense of feeing powerful or powerless – when people sit in expansive postures, they get a subconscious feeling of power, and this feeling of power makes them behave in more inconsiderate ways toward others.

  • 3. I will get used to the sirens and construction noises. Someday.

    Construction in NE Washington, DC.
    Caitlin Sanders/NPR

    When we moved into a new NPR headquarters a couple years ago, there was a lot of construction going on in the neighborhood. Streets were constantly blocked off, workers were drilling away at concrete, etc. It was loud, inconvenient and generally irritating.

    These annoyances in life, Shankar pointed out, are fleeting. A large body of social science research has established that human beings are very adaptable. It's one of the characteristics that distinguishes our species from others.

    "We often think that feelings of happiness and unhappiness are going to be permanent states," he explained, "but our experience and research show that these are actually transient states. If you just hang around the unpleasant thing for a little while, after some time it just sort of stops being unpleasant."

    Other researchers have found that both lottery winners and people who have lost a limb often predict they'd be in a permanently affected emotional state, but in fact, these people usually return to baseline levels of happiness within several months.

  • 4. Buying wine by the label can make sense!

    Wine labels.
    Caitlin Sanders/NPR

    People use the price of the wine as a shortcut to determine the quality of the wine.

    But as a result of this mental heuristic or short cut, studies have found that if you take wine from a cheap bottle and pour it into a more expensive bottle before serving it to people, those drinking it will report that it tastes better. Brain imaging supports this too — reward centers in the brain are activated to a greater degree when people drink the cheap wine from an expensive bottle rather than from the cheap wine from a cheap bottle. In other words, people drinking the wine from the expensive bottle actually experience it as better; they're not just saying it's better because they deduce that it ought to be better.

  • 5. The case of beer is not always cheaper.

    Beer by the bottle.
    Caitlin Sanders/NPR

    Grocery stores are hip to the idea that buying in bulk is a good way to save money. Or at least that many of their shoppers share this opinion. And while this is oftentimes true, sometimes retail operators and store owners will throw a curveball and rip you off. They take advantage of this mental shortcut we've established and will price a case of beer in a way that actually makes it cheaper to buy four separate six packs.

    Keep an eye on per unit pricing!

  • 6. How to win at your next yard sale.

    Caitlin Sanders/NPR
    Cereal.
    Caitlin Sanders/NPR

    Walking down the cereal aisle, Shankar was quick to draw my attention to the prices. They're all over the place – $4.69 for Reeces Puffs, $4.78 for Cinnamon Toast Crunch, etc.

    It's more difficult for the human mind to compute value when there aren't round numbers to work with, so how do we process offers that are specific rather than those that are rounded, such as 2/$5?

    A new study look at look at sales on eBay and found that if you list an item at $100 or another round figure, the buyer assumes that you're an impatient seller, that you haven't taken the time to price something precisely. Conversely, if you attach a very specific price to it, there's a sense that there's some reasoning and thinking that went into that decision, and as Shankar explained, "the buyer is more likely to take it seriously."

    Here's the trick - when you price something with a round number, it's more likely to sell quickly. The buyer thinks you're impatient and that you want to make a sale quickly, so they may be inclined to offer less than you've asked. On the other hand, if you price the item at $98.64, you're less likely to make the sale, but you're more likely to get your asking price.

    If you are in a hurry to get something sold quickly, it probably does make sense to say here's just a nice round number," he said.

NPR's new podcast Hidden Brain it is available in the iTunes store, at NPR.org/hiddenbrain and in the NPR One app. New episodes are available each Tuesday.