Shankar Vedantam

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When we have a question about something embarrassing or deeply personal, many of us don't turn to a parent or a friend, but to our computers: We ask Google our questions.

As millions of us look for answers to questions, or things to buy, or places to meet friends, our searches produce a map of our collective hopes, fears, and desires.

Why do you work? 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.


Some time ago, a couple of psychologists were having lunch together at a cafe in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. They did what millions of us do as we chat with other people. They put down their smartphones on the table next to them. The host of NPR's Hidden Brain podcast Shankar Vedantam is here to explain what happened next. Shankar, welcome.


MARTIN: I am dying with suspense.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Tell me what happened. Did the phones start ringing?

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We just can't let go of some decisions. We replay them in our head and imagine alternate endings.

These sorts of looping mental videos are called counterfactuals. Northwestern University Professor Neal Roese says there's real value to wondering "if only."

"Counterfactual thoughts are generally useful for us in terms of providing a set of options that we might act upon in the future," he says. "This can lead to improvement. It can lead to learning from experience."

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Here's how it usually goes: You're working from home and you dial in to a conference call for the morning meeting. Everyone is cheerfully talking around the table. You can't believe what a good time everyone seems to be having, talking about nothing.

Then someone starts to laugh. And then everyone's laughing. Except for you, silently listening on the phone. You're not even cracking a smile, forget about laughing. You wonder, when did this conversation become so hilarious? What am I missing?

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit