In 2011, the clothing brand Abercrombie & Fitch offered money to Mike 'The Situation' Sorrentino, one of the stars of the MTV reality show Jersey Shore.
Abercombie didn't want Sorrentino to wear its brand, but the opposite: the company was willing to pay him to wear anything but its clothing. Another cast member, Nicole 'Snooki' Polizzi, was sent a Gucci handbag – allegedly by one of the luxury brand's competitors.
"It turns out influence is very much like a magnet...but it just as well repels us," says Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania. "And the idea here is, well, if Mike 'The Situation' is wearing Abercrombie & Fitch, maybe other people aren't going to want to wear it anymore. Or if Snooki is hanging on to a Gucci handbag, maybe that will help their competitors because no one will want to wear Gucci anymore. So we need to understand how social influence attracts, but also how it repels."
Berger says we tend to be pretty good at recognizing how social influence and peer pressure affect other people's choices. But we're not so good at recognizing those forces in our own decision-making.
"We dress pretty similarly. We drive similar cars. We buy similar things. And so indeed when we look around we see a lot of people acting similarly and we see influence and assume it's happening," he says.
"When we look to ourselves, though, we look to our introspections. We look for evidence that there's a reason that we behave that way. And because when we think about it, [we say], 'Well, I don't think I bought that car to fit in. I wasn't sitting there going, 'Oh God, I really want to keep up with the Joneses.' You thought you bought it because of price or you thought you bought it because you liked how it looked. So you don't think it affected your own behavior even though at the end of the day it actually did."
Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:
This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We begin today's show in a snowy Midwestern schoolyard.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHRISTMAS STORY")
R D ROBB: (As Schwartz) Oh, yeah?
SCOTT SCHWARTZ: (As Flick) Yeah.
ROBB: (As Schwartz) Says who?
SCHWARTZ: (As Flick) Says me.
ROBB: (As Schwartz) Oh, yeah?
SCHWARTZ: (As Flick) Yeah.
ROBB: (As Schwartz) Well, I double dare you.
VEDANTAM: A group of boys is gathered around a flagpole. One is daring the other is to stick his tongue to the icy metal.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHRISTMAS STORY")
SCHWARTZ: (As Flick) Are you kidding, stick my tongue to that stupid pole? That's dumb.
ROBB: (As Schwartz) That's 'cause you know it'll stick.
SCHWARTZ: (As Flick) You're full of it.
ROBB: (As Schwartz) Oh, yeah?
SCHWARTZ: (As Flick) Yeah.
ROBB: (As Schwartz) Well, I double dog dare you.
VEDANTAM: If you've seen the film "A Christmas Story," you know where this is headed. The double dog dare escalates to a triple dog dare which ends - no surprise here - with the boy's tongue stuck to a flagpole.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHRISTMAS STORY")
SCHWARTZ: (As Flick) Stop, come back.
VEDANTAM: OK, that's just the movies. Many of us like to think we'd never succumb to the sort of peer pressure. We believe we are independent thinkers, that our choices are our own. Our values and preferences are inherent to our personalities, not the whims and wishes of others.
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VEDANTAM: It turns out though that reality is a bit more complicated.
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VEDANTAM: Everywhere in life - at work, at school, at a sports game in a big stadium with thousands of other people, at home in the privacy of our own bedrooms - our behavior is constantly shaped by the judgments, norms and actions of other people. Sometimes we can feel this influence, such as when our tongue is stuck to an icy flagpole. But more often than not, these influences are so subtle we don't even notice their existence. My guest today has spent a lot of time thinking about these forces that act on us. Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the book "Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior." Jonah, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.
JONAH BERGER: Thanks so much for having me.
VEDANTAM: Companies often pay celebrities to hawk their merchandise. So I often see athletes wearing clothes with a Nike swoosh. Tiffany apparently once paid Anne Hathaway $750,000 to wear its jewelry at the Oscars. But a few years ago you tell the story of how Abercrombie and Fitch made an unusual offer to the stars of "Jersey Shore." What was that offer?
BERGER: So you may remember the "Jersey Shore," sort of a bunch of early 20s folks, lots of fake tanner and big muscles.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JERSEY SHORE")
MIKE SORRENTINO: I was in the jacuzzi and clothes just started coming off so we decided to have a little fun.
BERGER: And one of them was a guy named Mike The Situation Sorrentino. And he was called The Situation for his famous abs.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JERSEY SHORE")
SORRENTINO: I mean, you can hate on me all you want to. But what can you possibly say to somebody who looks like Rambo pretty much with his shirt off?
BERGER: And Abercrombie and Fitch sent him a letter offering to pay him money. And that by itself is not unusual, right? As you mentioned, product placement is a major thing that companies often use. What was interesting about this letter though was they weren't offering to pay him money to wear their clothes. They were actually paying him not to wear their clothes. And it turns out he wasn't the only "Jersey Shore" cast member who had a recent run-in with a brand. Another cast member, Snooki, she was the short one you may remember who's been termed as looking like a parking cone because she wore so much orange fake tanner. She got a free handbag in the mail. And obviously, again, sending a free handbag makes sense. Brands may want to send it to her because she shows up in People magazine or In Touch. And because she's wearing it, other people might wear the brand. Except she got a Gucci handbag, not from Gucci but one of their competitors.
And so why would a competitor send her a free handbag? Why would Abercrombie and Fitch offer to pay Mike The Situation not to wear their clothes? And it turns out influence is very much like a magnet. We often think about it attracting, doing the same thing as others, but just as often repels us and leads us to the opposite. The idea here is, well, if Mike The Situation is wearing Abercrombie and Fitch, maybe other people aren't going to want to wear it anymore. Or if Snooki's hanging onto a Gucci handbag, maybe that'll help their competitors because no one will want to wear Gucci anymore. So we need to understand how social influence attracts but also how it repels.
VEDANTAM: You and Chip Heath at Stanford University ran a similar experiment some years ago and this one involved wristbands. Walk me through what you did and what you found.
BERGER: This is one of my first studies that I ran early on in graduate school. You may remember these yellow Live Strong wrist bands. They were for Lance Armstrong's Live Strong Foundation. And they came out, they were - people were quite interested in them at the beginning. And we sold them to a group on campus. So we knocked on doors. We said, hey, we're raising money for cancer awareness, will you buy one of these wristbands and wear it for a dollar? Most people said, yes, they were more than happy to wear it. We followed up a week later to see if many people were wearing them. There were, so indeed people were wearing the wristband. And then we did something interesting. We sold them to a dorm next door. And we wanted to see similar to this example of Mike The Situation wearing Abercrombie or a Snooki carrying Gucci handbag. How would people feel when other people they didn't want to be associated with started wearing the bands?
And so there's a dorm on Stanford campus sort of known as the geeky dorm on campus. And basically we went next door and we sold these wristbands to the geeks. And so the question was, what would those original wristband wearers do - the people that liked the wristband, that were wearing it all the time - do once the geeks started wearing it? And sure enough, as soon as the geeks started wearing it, about a third of the people in that initial group stopped wearing it. And they stopped because they didn't want to be associated with the geeks, right? Once those geeky folks were doing it, they didn't want to do it anymore.
VEDANTAM: So what you're really saying is that one really effective way to get people to buy your brand or buy your product is make sure that the people they despise are buying other brands? Is that what you're saying?
BERGER: A little bit, yeah. We often think about sort of aspirational identities. So Abercrombie shows people that we might want to look like in their ads. But we think a lot less about, well, what might people want to avoid, right? Might people want to avoid doing something if other people are doing it?
We did another study with health behavior showing people actually avoided binge drinking in college when we associated with an identity that was undesired for them. And so it's not just about associating things with desired behaviors to get people to do it. It's also about saying, well, how can we associate undesired behaviors with undesired identities and use that to avoid people doing the wrong thing?
VEDANTAM: One of the interest things about the entire field of social psychology, and you took about this at some length in the book, is the idea that people don't see themselves as clearly as they see other people. Or they see themselves and their choices differently than the same choices made by other people.
BERGER: And part of that is the access we have to the reasons that we bought things. When we look around, we see lots of people doing similar things. I mean, at the end of the day, we're all pretty similar, right? Most of us are not like Lady Gaga walking around in a meat dress. Most of us are wearing, you know, shorts and T-shirts, jeans and a collared shirt. We dress pretty similarly. We drive similar cars. We buy similar things. And so indeed when we look around, we see a lot of people acting similarly and we see influence and assume it's happening.
When we look to ourselves though, we look to our introspections. We don't just say, well, what did I behave? What did I do? But we look for evidence that there's a reason that we behaved that way. And because when we think about it, well, I don't think I bought that car to fit in. I wasn't sitting there going, God, I really want to keep up with the Joneses. You thought you bought it because of price or you thought you bought it because you liked how it looked. So you don't think it affected your own behavior, even though at the end of the day it actually did.
VEDANTAM: You told a story in the book about a friend of yours who's a lawyer and he has some strong views about younger lawyers and their BMWs.
BERGER: Yeah. So I was writing this book and I was talking to a good friend of mine who's from Washington, D.C. And they happen to be a lawyer. And I was telling them about social influence and they were lamenting the impact of social influence on their peers. They were saying, God, you know, all D.C. lawyers are the same. They make it big, they, you know, they become partner, whatever it is and they go out and they buy a new BMW. And I said, well, that's interesting. But, you know, aren't you a D.C. lawyer, I said to my friend. And, you know, don't you drive a BMW also? He said, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, but, you know, they all drive gray ones and I drive a blue one (laughter). And I was sitting there going, OK, I guess.
But what I love about that story is two things, right? One, again, we see influence, right? My friend could see all the other people driving very similar cars except when that light's shown on his own behavior, he couldn't see it. Then it was invisible. There the influence wasn't visible. But second, it wasn't just about doing the same thing, right? It wasn't just about buying the exact same car. And it wasn't about being completely different. It's about being similar and different at the same time. And so there are many flavors of influence that often invisibly affect our behavior.
VEDANTAM: One of the interesting ideas you explore is that social influence can have implications for innovation because it suggests that if we're shaped by those around us, then an idea that in some ways is too far ahead or too different from the norms that we see around us might have a difficult time getting adopted. Can you tell me the story of the 1899 invention known as Horsey Horseless?
BERGER: Yeah. This is an amazing story that I came across while doing research for the book. And it turns out that when automobiles came out - it's hard to remember that in today's day and age when we see automobiles all the time. But when they first came out, they were very scary. People had never seen a non-horse-driven carriage. Imagine this thing sort of almost like a ghost rolling down the street by itself, no horse pulling it, no person pulling it. People in rural areas called it the devil's work and, you know, banned it from town. And so people were trying to figure out, well, how do we get this thing adopted? It obviously saved costs in a certain way. There was a huge amount of manure on the streets so, you know, getting rid of horses was good in some ways, they could travel further.
How could they get people to adopt this new innovation? And what's interesting is the challenge wasn't a functional one. It wasn't that the product didn't work. It was a psychological one. The product was fine, but they had to overcome it feeling too different. And indeed, it's a little bit like "Goldilocks And The Three Bears" if you think about it, right? One end is too different. If something's too different, it's scary. We don't want to adopt it. It's too far away. If at the same time something exactly the same as what people are doing, people don't want to adopt it, right? Why do I need to change my behavior for something that's exactly the same? But in the middle is just right, is what might be called optimally distinct, if you will.
And so going back to the automobile, this inventor came up with a really interesting idea to solve this problem. And he had come up many innovations including a desk for students and a - sort of a leg cast to help people to recover after injuries. He said, God, you know, if the problem's psychological, I have an idea. So he came out with this innovation called the Horsey Horseless which is essentially taking a fake horse head and putting it on the front of an automobile. And you look at this thing and you say, why would a fake horse head be anywhere near useful in helping people adopt an automobile? But what it did is it made the different feel more familiar, made it feel more similar, right?
It was just a fake horse head, but it made it look like these vehicles that people are used to already. It made horses feel more comfortable when this thing pulled up next to them at the stop sign or the stop light of the day, if it were. It made people feel more familiar with the difference. And so this idea of optimal distinctive is really important. Not so different - if it's so different, people are scared. They don't want to adopt it. It's scary, it's new, it's, you know, why do I want to do this thing? Same if it's too similar. But in the middle and it's just right. In the middle it's optimally distinct and much more likely to catch on.
VEDANTAM: So as I was reading this section of the book, I started thinking immediately about driverless cars and the concerns and trepidations that many people have about cars that seem to drive themselves. I mean, talk about, you know, a ghost in the machine. And, you know, I was thinking about, you know, people sometimes have these mannequins that sit in the car with them to give people the impression that there's someone in the car with them so if you're a woman driving through a city street at night and you want to give people the illusion that you're not alone in the car and you're maybe less vulnerable to crime, you have this mannequin sitting next to you. And I realized what we should do is take the mannequin and put the mannequin in the driver's seat. And if you did that, that's essentially going to be our version of Horsey Horseless.
BERGER: It's almost like a taxi driver except it's a mannequin. I love that idea. You should write to Google and Uber and suggest it. I think but - again, right, you're thinking really correct - but it's not - a driverless car doesn't have to look like a car, right? I mean, if all it's doing is getting us from point A to point B, why does it have to look like a car? Why does it have to have a steering wheel, any of these things? But part of it is not just the function, it's the psychology. Does it feel safe? And having someone, even if it's a mannequin, sitting in the driver's seat might make us feel more comfortable.
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VEDANTAM: Coming up, we're going to explore how invisible influence affects the way we think about politics.
BERGER: So the simple idea here is it's often party over policy. Even the same policy, even the same actual thing, we interpret that thing based on who's supporting it.
VEDANTAM: Stay with us.
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VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We're talking today with the University of Pennsylvania's Jonah Berger. Most of us believe we come to our political views after careful thought and consideration, but there's been a lot of recent social science research that shows that our views are heavily shaped by social context. Even when it comes to our understanding of the facts, we're biased by the thoughts and opinions of those around us. I asked Jonah Berger if this was part of the world of invisible influence.
BERGER: A colleague of mine did a great study a few years ago looking at exactly this. So he gave both liberals and conservatives a number of different policy propositions. So one was about helping disadvantaged people, one was about taxes, a bunch of different policies. And he told them that those policies were either supported by Democrats or Republicans. And what he found, very much along the lines of what you just mentioned, is that when conservatives saw a policy - the same policy - if they thought that policy was supported by conservatives, they loved the policy. They thought it was great, they supported it. You know, even if it was a welfare policy, even if it was a generous welfare policy, the fact that conservatives seemed to like it, the fact they were told that other conservative leaders support it, they thought it was great. They thought it was terrible though if that same policy, that same liberal welfare policy, was supported by liberals. Oh, the liberals, they're always doing this, you know, helpful stuff for welfare. I'm totally, totally against it. Same policy, completely different reaction.
Liberals did exactly the same thing. When liberals were told that policy was supported by liberals, they loved it. When liberals were told conservatives liked the policy, they hated it. And so the simple idea here is it's often party over policy, even the same policy, even the same actual thing, we interpret that thing based on who's supporting it - right? - based on the identity it signals. And this actually happened to me just a few months ago. So - was doing a consulting project with messaging for an organization that wanted help clean energy catch on among conservatives. And clean energy is something that they thought conservatives would support. After all, it saves tax dollars. It reduces the size of government. All things that conservatives should like. Yet when they surveyed conservatives, they found that conservatives weren't supporting clean energy. And so they dug a little deeper and they found that there was a clear reason why.
When they asked conservatives, particularly conservative leaders, why conservative leaders weren't supporting the policy, they said, oh, yeah, clean energy, you know, solar power, wind power. Well, isn't that something that Al Gore likes? And if Al Gore likes it, it's probably not for me. And what's so interesting there again is same policy, right? Yet the mere fact that it was associated with a prominent liberal like Al Gore made them not want to do it. And so we really need to think about the politics, not just of actual politics, but the politics of identity. What does it mean to engage in a certain behavior? What does it signal about me to do something or not do something? And how can we use that to help people do better things?
VEDANTAM: I mean, there are a lot of political scientists who talk about our affiliation with political parties as being very analogous to our support for various sports teams. You know, so I'm a devout fan of a football team. And, of course, every year the players on the team change and it's completely irrational to support the team when all the people playing for the team have changed. But that's a famous line from Jerry Seinfeld, you know, what we're really doing is we're rooting for laundry. And at some level we're doing that with politics too, I mean, we're - what we're really doing is we're rooting for laundry.
BERGER: I love that phrase rooting for laundry. And certainly, you know, that's part of it, right? Part of it is it feels like a team identity. There's also some information there, right? There's this notion that, God, if a lot of people that I feel similarly to in the past like this and support this, I'm going to like it and support it too, right? If I walk by a restaurant and there's a long line out in front, I assume that restaurant must be better. Same thing with politics, right? If the party changes or, you know, the party views change but everyone still thinks that it's that same organization that they know and love, sometimes they end up following the wrong thing.
VEDANTAM: You know, a few months ago we cited one of your other studies on HIDDEN BRAIN. It had to do with the likelihood of winning basketball games and what the score was at halftime. I have to say I absolutely loved the study. Can you tell us how you came to do the study and what it found?
BERGER: I used to be a soccer coach. And this is where it actually came from. So I went to graduate school in undergrad in California at Stanford. Loved soccer growing up, and so I decided to become a coach. So I coached AYSO, sort of, you know, the little league of soccer. Coach is generous, by the way. I was basically sort of shepherding...
BERGER: ...You know, 15 12-year-old boys and trying to stop them from fighting for an hour and a half twice a week. But we'd run drills and we'd try to get better and, you know, hopefully they learned one or two things along the way. But when it came time to games, I noticed something weird. We were a good team. We weren't the best team out there. We were a good team. But when we were behind at halftime, we always seemed to figure out a way to win. So if we were down by a goal, we'd win 2-1. If we were down two goals even, sometimes we'd win. You know, we're down 2-0, we win 3-2. We always figured out a way to pull it out. And other times though if we were tied or we're ahead, we sometimes figured out a way to lose. And I was just trying to figure out, God, you know, what am I doing wrong? If we can come from behind, shouldn't we win all the time?
So with a friend of mine - great colleague of mine named Devin Pope, he's now at the University of Chicago - we went out and got tens of thousands of professional basketball games. We got a bunch of NCAA games, a bunch of NBA games. And essentially we looked and said, OK, how does the score at halftime relate to the score at the end of the game? So how does if a team is ahead or behind at halftime affect whether or not they win or lose? Similar to my youth soccer team except hopefully a little more data and interesting, by the way, hopefully a little more motivated, right? If you're an NBA player, you're getting tens of millions of dollars based on your performance. So you might say, OK, you know, if you're a 12-year-old kid and your coach sort of cajoles you and encourages you to play hard, you're more likely to win. But it shouldn't matter for NBA players, right? I mean, NBA players - real big stakes. Whether they win or lose, they make more or less money. Of course it doesn't matter there, right? So that's what we wanted to look at.
And so we looked at the data and similar to soccer, we saw something really interesting. Which is there was one place where being behind was actually a good thing. And that was being behind by just a little bit. Teams that were down by 1 at halftime, they weren't more likely to lose as everyone else would have been if they were behind. They were actually more likely to win. Teams that were down by 1 were more likely to win than teams that were up by 1, even though they were worse teams. Down by 2 points relative to the teams that were up by 1, they had to score more to win. They came out, they played harder in the second half and they were more likely to win the game. And so it turns out that competition can affect motivation, right? How we're doing relative to others matters. And so being behind can be motivating, but only if you're behind by a little bit. If you're behind by too much, you give up and you're more likely to quit.
VEDANTAM: So I have to tell you, Jonah, that it's been a little more than a decade since I began learning about many of the studies and ideas. And, you know, I was really taken aback by many of them when I first came by them because I think of myself as being a very rational and deliberate and intentional person. And the idea that my own actions or beliefs or judgments were being shaped by these factors that lie many cases outside my conscious awareness was sort of a really disturbing idea to me. I have to say what's interesting is that at an intuitive level, it still feels to me that all my decisions and judgments are conscious and intentional and deliberate. I don't feel the effects of social pressure, except that you look at the mountain of evidence and you have to say if it's affecting all these other people on the planet, it must be affecting me as well.
And I feel like one of the great values of this body of research is it might prompt people to a certain degree of humility of saying, yes, I feel very strongly about the political party I support. I feel very strongly about the sports team I support. I feel very strongly about my beliefs, but it's just possible that maybe these beliefs are actually shaped by these other factors and I might want to be a little humble about the things that I think I know. I'm wondering as you've looked at this body of work, what's been the effect on you personally? What's been the effect on your personal life as you look at all the ways in which human beings are shaped by other people?
BERGER: You know, you read this literature and you do some studies in this literature and you can almost have an existential crisis. You can say, God, you know, I'm not making any of my own choices. Other people are making all these things for me. Is there no free will? Am I just a mindless automaton? You know, take a great example - and this is something that that always struck me - you know, think about the person that we marry - right? - or the person that we end up being our long term partner or relationship partner. You know, we all have this sense that they're perfect for us. You know, we all have this belief in true love and that we're finding the right person out there that completes us, that, you know, the one person who shoe perfectly fits, the one person who will make us whole. And yet, is that right? You know, is it there's the one person out there and we just have to find them or are we subtly being influenced by our environment? Did we like them because, you know, we saw them more often and so we got exposed to them more? And so mere exposure leads to liking. You know, are we influenced by our environment or did we really make our own choice?
And for a while I think personally that was something I struggled with a lot, thinking about, you know, well, do we really make our choices? And if we don't make our choices, what does that mean about who we are? And I'm not sure I got to a perfect answer, honestly. But I think where I ended up is, you know, influence by itself is neither good nor bad. It is just a way of life. It is a thing that helps us make our lives easier. Imagine if we had to make every choice by ourselves. We couldn't use any information from others. We couldn't figure out what book to read or what movie to see. If we moved to a new town, we couldn't figure out what car mechanic to go to without looking at an online review, you know, we had to just figure it out by ourselves. Life would be extremely difficult.
And so along the way we've evolved to take advantage of social information to use others as a heuristic or a shortcut to judgment to make it easier to live, you know, faster and easier than it might be otherwise. Does that heuristic always lead us to the right answer? No. There are many cases, you know, some of which we've talked about where other people lead us astray. Yet most of the time influence is a valuable tool. And so I think the more we realize its effect on us, the more we can spot it in the environment around us, the happier and healthier we can be. We can't fully control it, you know, it's going to be there all the time. But the more we understand it, the more we can take advantage of its upsides and avoid its downsides.
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VEDANTAM: Jonah Berger I want to thank you for talking with me today. It's been a pleasure having you on HIDDEN BRAIN.
BERGER: Thanks so much for having me.
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VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Maggie Penman, Jenny Schmidt and Renee Klahr. Our unsung hero this week is Dana Farrington. Dana's an editor at npr.org and she's a whiz at translating the best of public radio storytelling for a web audience. We recently asked Dana to help us interview candidates for a new position on our show. Dana's thoughtful feedback and calm demeanor helped us pick the right person. Thanks, Dana. We hope we can return the favor soon.
One last thing before we go. We're hoping to hear from listeners who are so busy they barely have time to breathe. Have you found yourself dealing with spiraling challenges simply because you haven't had time to deal with routine chores like going to the DMV or getting a leak fixed in your home? If you have a story of how not attending to the small stuff ballooned into a disaster, call and leave us a message. We might feature you on an upcoming show. The number to call is 661-772-7246 - that's 661-77-BRAIN - and thanks. I'm Shankar Vedantam and this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.