How rude! The hidden cost of rudeness

Plus, a physics concept that will improve your life

“The conventional model is … the left hemisphere is logical and verbal, and the right hemisphere is kind of moody and possibly creative. But all of this turns out to be much more complicated, and some of it's plain wrong.” – Iain McGilchrist

BRAIN WAVES

  • How rude! A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology looked at how rudeness affects our behavior. Turns out, rude experiences can trigger the anchoring bias – our tendency to focus on one piece of information when making a decision, even if the information is irrelevant. After experiencing rudeness, doctors and medical residents were more likely to anchor to an incorrect diagnosis, for example. Rudeness made it harder to think clearly and make good decisions. “Rudeness narrows your perspective, and that narrowed perspective makes anchoring more likely,” said Trevor Foulk, one of the study’s authors. “We really need to rethink the way we treat people.” It can’t hurt to ask: What can I do to be a little bit kinder today?

  • A concept from physics can keep your house clean. Scientist and educator Dr. Alison Carr-Chellman makes the case for negentropy, or negative entropy. It’s a phenomenon in which a small amount of energy can give order to systems. For example, keeping up with car maintenance can save you from big repairs down the road. Carr-Chellman says this concept can help in many other domains, from household chores to work projects. “When people keep the idea of negentropy in mind and take actions that limit or reverse energy loss, social systems are more efficient and effective,” she says. “This might even make it easier for people to achieve larger goals.” She shares five steps for using negentropy to your advantage.

  • Does living with animals make us healthier? Why do we eat some animals and keep others as pets? Our relationships with animals are rife with contradictions and paradoxes. Listen to learn more.

ON THE PODCAST

May 3: Have you ever heard someone described as a left-brain or right-brain person? To what extent are these descriptions actually based in science? For centuries, people have puzzled over why the human brain has two hemispheres. This week, the mystery of the divided brain and what it tells us about how to live a fuller life.

May 10: Ever question your reality? Or how easy it is to surrender to another person’s idea of normal instead of your own? In this week’s episode, one woman asks herself these questions and more after becoming a reluctant character in someone else’s love story.

MIND GAMES

A puzzle for you…

Peter's father has five sons. The names of four sons are Fefe, Fifi, Fafa, and Fufu. What’s the name of the fifth son? 

Find out in next week’s newsletter.

LAST WEEK’S PUZZLE

The answer: 47. If the lily pads double in size each day, they would cover half the pond on the day before they fill the whole pond.

FROM THE TWITTERATI:

A MOMENT OF JOY

Happy (belated) Star Wars Day! C-3PO deserves more kindness:

Have an idea for Hidden Brain? A story you want to share with us? Send an email to ideas@hiddenbrain.org. And if you’d like to support our work, you can do so here. Listen to us on Spotify, Apple or your favorite podcast platform.

Cracking the da Vinci (Creativity) Code

Plus, better conversations & lessons from a detective

“A perfectly tuned conversation is a vision of sanity, a reassurance that you’re the right sort of person and that all is right with the world.” –Deborah Tannen

BRAIN WAVES

  • Stuck in a creative rut? Maybe Leonardo da Vinci can help. In a recent article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, researchers studied the psychology behind da Vinci’s creative process. They identified key stages of creativity, from vision and curiosity to trial and error to what they call "schema elaboration,” which involves breaking down parts of the project and thinking about how those parts fit with the greater whole.  “The creative process we described is based on general psychological mechanisms common to all humans,” the researchers concluded. “None of us is Leonardo da Vinci, but all of us are a little like him.” Something to keep in mind if, like da Vinci, you're ever inspired to invent a new type of helicopter.

  • Trust your gut! Listen to your intuition! You’ve undoubtedly heard these aphorisms. But our gut is not always the best decision-maker, and often enough, our first impressions aren’t accurate. To make better decisions and judgment calls, think more like a detective.

  • You have eyes in the front of your head. That’s obvious. But have you thought about how this shapes the way you “see” things around you? Are you even aware you are seeing only a selective slice of the world? Listen to learn more.

ON THE PODCAST

April 26: Do you find yourself struggling to communicate with your mom? Ever feel like you and your spouse are speaking different languages? Learn how to communicate better at work, at home and in your social life.

May 3:  Have you ever heard someone described as a left-brain or right-brain person? To what extent are these descriptions actually based in science? For centuries, people have puzzled over why the human brain has two hemispheres. Why would you split a supercomputer in two? This week, the mystery of the divided brain and what it tells us about how to live a fuller life.

MIND GAMES

A puzzle for you…

In a pond, there is a patch of lily pads. Each day, the lily pads double in size. If it takes the lily pads 48 days to cover the whole pond, how many days does it take to cover half the pond?

Find out in next week’s newsletter.

FROM THE TWITTERATI

A MOMENT OF JOY

Happy National Poetry Month! April Is a Dog’s Dream.

Have an idea for Hidden Brain? A story you want to share with us? Send an email to ideas@hiddenbrain.org. And if you’d like to support our work, you can do so here. Listen to us on Spotify, Apple or your favorite podcast platform.

Ha? Ha!

The relationship between humor and curiosity 

When comedy icon Steve Martin won a Mark Twain Prize in 2005, he took to the Kennedy Center stage to share a poignant quote from Twain himself:

“Whatever you do, for God’s sake, do not name a prize after me.”

The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, named for the 19th-century novelist and essayist, recognizes people who have influenced society in ways similar to Twain. Which is to say, with laughter. 

As a writer, Twain used humor to frame his observations, ideas, and perspectives on society, injustice, and human behavior. In a 1905 interview with the New York Times, he described humor as a “kindly veil” that could “blur the craggy outlines, and make the thorns less sharp and the cruelties less malignant.” Humor allows us to better understand (and withstand) life’s struggles, even if just a bit. In his own acceptance speech for the Twain Prize, comedian Dave Chapelle echoed this idea. “I was a soft kid. I was sensitive, I cried easy,” he said, explaining how his sensitivity drew him to comedy. “That's why I love my art form,” Chapelle said. “It saved my life.”

But what makes something funny in the first place? What is it about Steve Martin’s joke that gets an audience to roar? Why does this impolite dog similarly put a smile on our faces? “People laugh at the juxtaposition of incompatible concepts and at defiance of their expectations,” Giovanni Sabato puts it in Scientific American. Put simply, the element of surprise – a runaway dog crashing a news report – is a big part of what makes something funny. (Though maybe not for the news anchors.)

Laughter is seriously good for you. Yet the older we get, the less we do it. The average four-year-old kid laughs 300 times a day. “It takes the average 40-year-old two and a half months to laugh that many times,” behavioral scientist Jennifer Aaker said on a recent Hidden Brain episode. Aaker calls this the “humor cliff”: the point at which we stop laughing and plummet into an abyss of humorless despair. Okay, that’s a little dramatic. But Aaker argues that as working adults, we want to be taken seriously, so we prioritize professionalism over playfulness. 

If surprise begets laughter, maybe laughter is less frequent in our adult lives because we become more predictable. For example, in a paper published in Human Development, Rachel Wu, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, theorizes that our learning styles change as we get older. “We argue that across your lifespan, you go from ‘broad learning’ (learning many skills as an infant or child) to ‘specialized learning,’ (becoming an expert in a specific area) when you begin working,” Wu said in a statement. As adults, we become focused on our specialty and less curious about the world outside of it. Wu and her colleagues argue that this lack of curiosity might even lead to cognitive decline.

Humor requires observation and a curious mind, yet our adult lives demand professionalism and focus. Maybe the key to scaling our way back up the humor cliff is to more deliberately approach life the way we did when we were kids – with more playfulness. As Twain put it, “Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen.”

ON THE PODCAST

April 19: When’s the last time you laughed really hard at something? If you have a tough time coming up with an answer, you’re not alone. As we get older, humor seems to be in short supply in our lives. In this week’s episode, why we all reach a “humor cliff” in adulthood – and what we can do to keep from falling off. 

April 26: Do you find yourself struggling to communicate with your mom? Ever feel like you and your spouse are speaking different languages? This week, we look at the many pitfalls we confront in conversations, and how we can learn to be better communicators.

FROM THE TWITTERATI

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I’m Not A Terrorist

Aziz Ansari on Modern Love

Laughter: The Best Medicine

STAFF RECS

“In the past year, I've only wanted to read escapist literature. Thousand-page fantasy tomes filled my mornings. But Evicted proved so compelling that epic tales of sword and sabotage had to wait. Author Matthew Desmond interweaves an astonishing combination of ethnography and research, forcefully showing that America's housing crisis cannot be ignored any longer. Don't skip the epilogue and the author's note at the end.” – Ryan Katz

“Having a hard time persuading your family to eat more healthy snacks? Consider getting a big, handmade basket for your fruit, like this one. Put it on your counter, fill it with fruit, and be amazed at how much more quickly the fruit gets eaten.” – Laura Kwerel

“I can never get enough of stories about the weird or overlooked. The Atlas Obscura podcast scratches that itch, with episodes that touch on everything from an abandoned Russian mining village to an opera about locusts. – Tara Boyle

MOMENT OF JOY

This 1976 blooper from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Have an idea for Hidden Brain? A story you want to share with us? Send an email to ideas@hiddenbrain.org. And if you’d like to support our work, you can do so here. Thanks so much! 

When less is more

Could subtractive changes make your life better?

Back in the early days of the pandemic, one of the family-friendly TV shows that many people binged was “Lego Masters.” It featured teams of adults competing to build the most spectacular LEGO structures. As a clock ticked down, the contestants would fill bucket after bucket with the plastic bricks, using them to construct massive LEGO cityscapes, fantastical creatures and elaborate movie scenes. What becomes clear as you watch the show is that when it comes to LEGOs, bigger is often better.

A new study by a team at the University of Virginia illustrates how our minds are drawn to this “bigger is better” way of thinking. Researchers asked participants to renovate the LEGO structure below so that it would hold a brick – an actual brick – without collapsing on the Lego Guy. If they succeeded, they would earn one dollar. Volunteers could use additional LEGOs in the renovation, and each one would subtract ten cents from their payment. 

How would you solve the problem?

“For most people, their first inclination is to grab some extra Legos and add three more bricks under the platform,” one of the researchers, Benjamin Converse, said in an interview. “About 60% of people pursue that solution under normal conditions.” 

In other words, most people fix the structure by adding to it. But an even simpler solution that wouldn’t cost you a dime? Remove the existing pillar support. That way, the roof sits flush on the base, offering enough support for a brick (and enough clearance for Mr. Lego). “The subtractive solution is more efficient,” the researchers said, “but you only notice it if you don’t jump to an additive conclusion.” Sometimes, less is more.

Most of us default to additive solutions. To motivate yourself to do more yoga, for instance, you might add an incentive, like a sweet treat for every hour of yoga you finish. Such incentives can work, but subtracting barriers may have a far greater impact. Dropping something from your schedule to make room for a yoga class could be more effective than rewarding yourself with a warm cookie (tasty as it may be). 

It sounds simple enough. But in problem-solving mode, our brain often defaults to adding more rather than doing less. “Overlooking subtraction may mean that people are missing out on opportunities to make their lives more fulfilling, their institutions more effective and their planet more livable,” the researchers concluded.

In the past year, we’ve had to subtract many things from our lives. Now that COVID-19 vaccinations are more available, it’s tempting to add back everything we’ve missed. Historian Nancy Bristow says that people felt a similar impulse during the 1918 flu pandemic. “People get frustrated, again partly because it's really inconvenient. It is not that fun to be quarantined. It's not that fun to not be able to leave your homes. So people are anxious to get back to regular life. ” 

In some ways, the COVID pandemic has been an opportunity to start over and think more about the habits we want to fold back into our everyday lives. With everything we juggle, doing less isn’t always possible, but the University of Virginia study raises an important question: Are there subtractive ways to make our lives better?

ON THE PODCAST

April 12: A virus is more than a biological organism. It’s a social organism. It detects fissures in societies and fault lines between communities. Historian Nancy Bristow shares the lessons that we can take today from a century-old pandemic.

April 19: Why is humor in short supply in many of our lives? This week, we explore the psychological effects of humor, and why so many of us fall off a “humor cliff” as we become adults. Plus, why indulging in a joke can be a powerful way to unlock creativity and productivity.

FROM THE TWITTERATI

WE ASKED…

What do you think you could do *less* of to make your life better?

MORE EPISODES LIKE THIS

Creatures of Habit

Fresh Starts

A Social Prescription

STAFF RECS

I use this to work when I'm having a really difficult time focusing. I used it a lot in high school but then forgot about it when I became an ‘adult.’ It's a nice way to just try and get things done.” – Autumn Barnes

“A poem and a reminder: It Is Enough to Enter.” – Kristin Wong

“David Lynch, director of Twin Peaks and Eraserhead, explorer of the dark currents of the subconscious, has been delivering daily weather reports from his home in L.A. since the mid-2000s. They are banal in the extreme ("there's a very slight breeze this morning, around 59 degrees Fahrenheit") which, coming from David Lynch, makes them wonderfully weird.” – Laura Kwerel

MOMENT OF JOY

It’s been a long cold lonely winter...

Have an idea for Hidden Brain? A story you want to share with us? Send an email to ideas@hiddenbrain.org. And if you’d like to support our work, you can do so here. Thanks so much! 

Useful delusions

How self-deceptions help us make sense of a chaotic reality

In the 1980s, artist David Hockney, who was then best known for his vibrant paintings,  began experimenting with photography. Originally critical of the medium, Hockney decided to use photography as a way to play with time. He took photos from different perspectives and joined them to create one kaleidoscopic image. In his installation Seven Yorkshire Landscapes, Hockney used this technique with moving images. He mounted a series of cameras, each with a different zoom level and field of view, to a car and drove through the countryside in Yorkshire, England.

In her book, How to Do Nothing, artist and educator Jenny Odell explores Hockney’s work and the effect it has on our perception. After talking to docents on a tour of Seven Yorkshire Landscapes, Odell discovered something interesting:

“Some museumgoers who had seen the piece came back to tell them that afterward everything outside had looked different from what they were used to . . . Hockney’s piece had trained them to look a certain way – a noticeable slow, broken-up luxuriating in textures.”

You may even notice this effect after watching the video above. Odell uses Hockney’s work to illustrate how we can train ourselves to pay closer attention to the world around us. But it’s also interesting to consider how malleable human perception is in the first place. A piece of art can literally change how you see the world. It’s easy, then, to understand how you might see the world differently from someone else — or even from yourself at a different point in time.

Hockney’s work brings to mind Gestalt psychology: the theory that when you look at a tree, for instance, you don’t perceive each individual branch or leaf vein all at once. Your brain takes those images and simplifies them so you’re able to see the whole tree, rather than a series of disjointed components. It’s a useful and necessary illusion – without it, looking at a tree would be utter chaos.

It can be uncomfortable to think about the fact that what we see is just an approximation of reality. Equally unsettling is the idea that we may fail to see clearly when it comes to other aspects of our lives, such as our relationships with our loved ones. Yet there are benefits to not seeing the world and our role in it with complete accuracy and rationality. 

Over the years, Hidden Brain’s Shankar Vedantam started to see evidence of this in research across a range of fields. Seeing only part of the world, or even having an inaccurate view of the world, can sometimes be helpful to us. This may be particularly true when it comes to our relationships with other people. As he puts it, “ If we actually saw our partners and friends and colleagues for exactly who they are all the time, we might judge them somewhat harshly. . . . So allowing these relationships to function for long periods of time often requires some acts of self-deception, where you preferentially focus on the things that are good in the relationship and preferentially ignore the things that are bad in the relationship.” Like David Hockney with his camera, our minds subtly choose to zoom in and focus on some parts of our world — and leave other elements outside the frame. 

ON THE PODCAST

April 5: What would happen if we never lied to ourselves ever again? We assume we’d be happier and live more productive lives. But researchers increasingly find that some self-deception may be good for us. This week, we bring you an episode of the public radio program “Think,” in which Shankar talks with host Krys Boyd about his new book, Useful Delusions.

April 12: A virus is more than a biological organism. It’s a social organism. It detects fissures in societies and fault lines between communities. Historian Nancy Bristow shares the lessons that we can take today from a century-old pandemic.

April 19: Why is humor in short supply in many of our lives? This week, we explore the psychological effects of humor, and why so many of us fall off a “humor cliff” as we become adults. Plus, why indulging in a joke can be a powerful way to unlock creativity and productivity.

FROM THE TWITTERATI

MORE EPISODES LIKE THIS

We’re All Gonna Die

The Story of Stories

The Science of Fear

WHAT SHANKAR IS READING

The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes by Donald Hoffman

Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe by Brian Greene

MOMENT OF JOY

It’s not a filter – chimpanzees at a Czech Zoo are hopping on the Zoom bandwagon

Have an idea for Hidden Brain? A story you want to share with us? Send an email to ideas@hiddenbrain.org. And if you’d like to support our work, you can do so here. Thanks so much! 

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