human behavior

©Signed, Sealed & Undelivered Team, 2015. Courtesy of the Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands

Deadbeat husbands, horrible bosses, and unplanned pregnancies are just a few of the topics written about in a recently-rediscovered chest found in the Netherlands containing hundreds of late-17th century letters.

A researcher at Yale is examining this "postal treasure trove," which is packed with all sorts of historical artifacts. 

Geoffrey Fairchild / Creative Commons

President Obama spoke with frustration last month at a press conference after the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.

He asked if anybody really still believes we need more guns and fewer gun safety laws.

Mass shootings are a big problem, but the majority of gun deaths are from homicide, accidental shootings, and suicide. The common denominator in all of them is easy access to guns.

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Coincidences happen to everyone -- whether it's hearing a song you've been thinking about all day on the radio or running into an old acquaintance whose name recently came up in conversation. For events so seemingly unlikely, coincidences certainly have a way of happening quite often. And now, after much study, psychologists and mathematicians think they know why.

In 1934, a weather observer stationed at the peak of Mount Washington recorded a, then record, wind gust of 231 miles per hour. As a point of reference, that’s in the same neighborhood as an F5 tornado.

Even on hot summer day, conditions at the peak can drop below freezing in a matter of minutes – which is just one reason more than 135 people have died in the shadow of Mount Washington since 1859.

And yet, Mount Washington isn’t just Home of the World’s Worst Weather--as a sign at the summit famously boasts--it’s also home to a weather station, where a team of researchers are able to safely live year-round.

Which begs the question: would the Mount Washington Observatory be the perfect place to survive a zombie apocalypse?

Listen to this radio story to find out:

Recently a neighborhood in Brooklyn made national headlines for a fight over public schools. Lots of affluent, mainly white families have been moving into new condos in the waterfront area called DUMBO, and the local elementary school is getting overcrowded.

The city wants to redraw the zones in a way that would send kids from this predominantly white school to a nearby school where enrollment is over 90 percent black and Hispanic and which draws many of its students from a public housing project. Some parents on both sides of the line balked.

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Three years ago, Hurricane Sandy hit the shores of Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey, killing 71 people and causing damages worth $50 billion. We suffer from a kind of amnesia: we know it happened, but we hesitate to change much about the way we prepare for future events. New York invested nearly $20 billion in new protective measures, simultaneously allowing 900 new housing units to be constructed next to the water.

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One in four Americans say they’ve been the victim of a data breach or cyber attack. And the perception of online risk is rising sharply, according to the new Travelers Consumer Risk Index.

U.S. Army

Child development experts from Connecticut have created a system to help kids who have behavior problems get the help they need. The pilot program is now being rolled out in several states across the country.

U.S. Intelligence Dabbles in Forecasting the Future

Sep 29, 2015
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The participants are average citizens: school teachers, waiters, pharmacists, perhaps even your neighbor. By day they work and pay their bills, but when they return home, things change. These elite individuals go to work forecasting the outcomes of global events (sometimes years into the future), all at the direction of a little-known government intelligence agency called IARPA.

While this all sounds ripped from the latest Hollywood thriller, the truth is that this is happening right now in America. The "superforecasters," as they are known, are all volunteers. They are Americans like you and me who signed up to take part in a long-running experiment put together by U.S. intelligence officials and several university professors.

We might not be able to remember every stressful episode of our childhood.

But the emotional upheaval we experience as kids — whether it's the loss of a loved one, the chronic stress of economic insecurity, or social interactions that leave us tearful or anxious — may have a lifelong impact on our health.

Woodley Wonder Works / Creative Commons


We've been talking a lot over this last year about problems like misogyny and violence in football, rape on college campuses, mass shootings, and increasing rates of suicide and addiction. What we don't say is that men are the victims of these behaviors as much as women, albeit in different ways. 

We often look for explanations in mental health, failed policy, or lax laws. But men overwhelmingly engage in these behaviors. Why are we reluctant to discuss what society expects from men, and whether those expectations are realistic? 

Walking With Dante

Sep 28, 2015
Freeparking :-I / Creative Commons

"Dante's Inferno" is the most famous section of Dante Aligheri's 14,000 line epic poem, The Divine Comedy. But it's only the first part of Dante's long pilgrimage through the afterlife. He first enters the circles of hell, filled with beasts and sinners doomed to the Inferno for crimes like gluttony, lust, and treason. 

Chion Wolf / WNPR

I first met cartoonist Bill Griffith back in the 1980s. I arranged for us to tour a Boston-area Hostess Twinkie plant, which sounds like a weird first date but makes perfect sense if you're familiar with his creation "Zippy the Pinhead," an unwitting surrealist who swims happily through a sea of taco sauce, processed cheese and, well, Twinkies.

Matt Crowely / Flickr

Between all we know to be true, and all we know to be false, lies a world of woo. Woo-Woo, to use the official term, refers to ideas considered irrational or based on extremely flimsy evidence, or that appeal to mysterious occult forces or powers.

But who decides what's woo-woo, and what gets accepted into the hallowed halls of scientific truth?

TASER International

A lot of scientific research has focused on what police Tasers physically do to the body, but little has looked at how they impact the way people think. Now, results from a new study out of Arizona State University suggest police officers should look more carefully at how quickly they question a suspect after a Taser deployment. 

First in a three-part report on solitary confinement use in U.S. prisons.

In the yard at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, gray-haired men make their way up to a small stage. A towering stone prison wall rises overhead. One by one they sit at a scratchy microphone and tell their stories — of being locked up 23 hours a day in a place that just about broke them.

"This place here really did something to me psychologically," says former inmate Anthony Goodman.

Börkur Sigurbjörnsson / Creative Commons

Today, our show about poo.

First, the 'no-poo' movement. Before the last century, people washed their hair a lot less often than we do today. A little Castille soap, an egg yoke for extra shine, and one hundred strokes with a boar bristle brush would do the trick. It wasn't until John Breck introduced his golden shampoo that everyone wanted to have the long lustrous locks of a Breck Girl. Today, 'no-poo' converts are going back to the basics and they say they're hair has never looked so good.

"If a kid is in first period when they should still be asleep, how much are they really learning?"

The story of hitchBOT — the robot that had visited Europe and New York City, but couldn't make it out of Philadelphia in one piece — may not be over. A Philadelphia tech group is offering to rebuild the robot and hoping to repair their city's reputation.

A kid-sized robot that's built around a plastic bucket and sports a friendly LED face, hitchBOT had been on a mission to travel from Massachusetts to San Francisco, relying on the kindness of humans it meets along the way.

After a bunch of really nice humans helped a hitchhiking robot traverse the length of Canada and most of Germany, the robot was going to try to make it from Massachusetts all the way to California.

HitchBOT is the brainchild of two Canadian social scientists. As Frauke Zeller and David Harris Smith explained it in a piece for the Harvard Business Review, it was an experiment meant to spark a discussion "about trust, notions of safety, and about our attitude towards technology."

Marriage in Our Modern World

Jul 28, 2015
Pete / Creative Commons

Across the United States, partners still hold the institution of marriage dear. Yet as time moves on, there are significant changes in the way Americans approach marriage. Many years ago, the idea of marrying for love was ludicrous. Now, the love match is the heart of a modern marriage.

The Backstory of Advice

Jul 21, 2015
Chion Wolf / WNPR


What makes advice good or bad? When and why do we listen to what others have to say? It is human nature to turn to others for advice when the going gets tough; we seek the wisdom of loved ones, lawyers, doctors, therapists, and advice columnists. But even when presented with good advice, we don't always take it. This hour, we get down to business about advice.

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Cellphones, and now smartphones and mobile tablets, have changed our world in wonderful ways, connecting us anywhere and everywhere. And time has flown. Simple cell phones are disappearing as smartphones and tablets get smarter and cheaper. Meanwhile our own communication habits are changing. According to Pew Internet reports, over 70 percent of Americans now prefer texting over calling.

Chion Wolf / WNPR

Before Superstorm Sandy made landfall in 2012, several Connecticut towns received mandatory evacuation orders. But many chose to ignore them and ride out the storm. Now researchers at Yale University are trying to find out why. 

How hard can it be to hold hands with someone, even a stranger, if you know it's just for a couple minutes? For a few terrible moments in Charleston last week, I couldn't bring myself to do it.

lculig/iStock / Thinkstock

We usually think of propaganda as a tool used by autocrats eager to manipulate minds and limit rights we take for granted in the West. Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un or King Salman bin Abdulaziz wouldn't have a chance with us.

But Western culture is steeped in propaganda that's more insidious and less blatant.

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Patterns are everywhere: both in the wonders of nature and in the man-made world. They exist in the formations of crystals and clouds, in art and music, and in math and science. It is therefore no surprise that we, as inhabitants of this pattern filled world, are wired to find them.

And it's not only humans that have this ability; pattern recognition is a skill shared by all mammals. Since the first primates learned that certain weather patterns meant a storm and others meant it was time to hunt, life on this planet has both created and responded to patterns for survival. 

Rennett Stowe / Flickr Creative Commons

In 1954, Roger Bannister did the previously unthinkable. He ran a mile in under four minutes. Six weeks later, his chief rival John Landy, did the same thing, and bettered Bannister's performance.

Thirteen months later, three other runners broke four minutes. Bear in mind that this had been considered impossible for as long as there had been time-keeping at track meets.

Sport may be dismissed as inconsequential child's play, but there is, in counterpoint, the ideal that sport is our best model for human fairness and equality — a Garden of Eden with competition. But, of course, there are snakes in this athletic garden. Rules will be broken.

To my mind there are, in ascending order, three kinds of transgressions. The first is the most simple: transgressions committed in the heat of the action, instinctively, because of frustration, failure or anger. There are referees to tend to that misconduct.

Understanding Hierarchies in Nature and Society

May 20, 2015
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Social structures, in almost all cases, are defined by some form of hierarchy. Whether in academics, sports, religion, business, or politics, there's usually someone at the top and others whose goal it is to get there. But while it's easy to think that we've designed our world to be this way, the truth may be that we had no choice.