Why Do We Do That?
Why Do We Do That?
About Why Do We Do That?
Why Do We Do That? An anthropologist's guide to the modern world.
There are lots of everyday things which, when you think about them, are pretty weird. Like kissing, doomscrolling and sitting down to go to the loo. Social media may tell you to blame the latest influencer who went viral. Your therapist might tell you to blame your parents. But palaeoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi is here to tell you to blame your great, great, great, great, great, etc. grandparents. For some stuff at least. In this series, Ella is joined by some wonderful guests to dive into the cultural, historical and evolutionary story of everyday human habits and behaviour.
Photo: Sarah Cresswell / The Times / News Licensing
Are you drawn to the endless news cycle? Do you keep going back for more? Do you feel a strange compulsion to absorb negative news that is weirdly soothing but makes you more stressed? These are signs you may be doomscrolling. But fear not, you’re not the only one. Stuart Soroka is a professor at UCLA who’s been looking at our draw towards negative information and found that people all over the world do it, regardless of culture. In 2020, our year of misery, the Oxford English Dictionary added doomscrolling and named it a word of the year. With the help of Stuart and Radio and TV presenter Clara Amfo, Ella gets to the bottom of whether we humans really are more biased towards negative information, and what we can do to resist it.
It’s a familiar problem with any shared household - there’s always someone who doesn’t do their fair share. Studies have shown that when people with different thresholds live together, the person with the lower tolerance for mess cleans up more, quickly leading to resentment and conflict. So why do some people clean up more than others? What needs to happen for everyone to pull their weight? Evolutionary science has some answers. Ella Al-Shamahi speaks to Dr Nichola Raihani, Professor of Evolution and Behaviour from University College London, to find out about free riders, cheaters and public goods, and how evolutionary scientists view cooperation challenges. Great British Bake Off star Michael Chakraverty shares his own anecdotes of untidy flatmates and failed attempts to enhance cooperation.
Make-up has a long history - from the surprising use of lipstick in ancient Greece to today's Tiktok trends - and though fashions may have changed, some things, like red lips, cheeks, and defined eyes, keep cropping up. So in this episode, Ella Al-Shamahi investigates if there is any biological basis to make-up? Joined by Journalist and BBC Radio 1 presenter Katie Thistleton, and psychologist Professor Richard Russell, Ella discovers fascinating research on how make-up can change the way we perceive faces and ponders on a slightly strange theory about make-up and orgasm.
You might think sitting is a recent technological advancement, but both squat and sit-down toilets have been around for millennia. Today Westerners have embraced the sit-down toilet, whereas billions in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and even parts of Europe use toilets that are designed specifically for squatting. But which is better for us - sitting or squatting? Ella Al-Shamahi speaks to gastroenterologist Dr Rohan Modi who has been investigating the best way to do your business, and gets personal with comedian Eshaan Akba.
Are you at one with midnight, or up before sunrise? In this episode, Ella Al-Shamahi investigates when we naturally feel tired and awake, known as our chronotype. Our chronotype depends on our lifestyle, our environment, where we live, and is also influenced by our genes. In this episode, Ella Al-Shamahi uncovers fascinating research which suggests our chronotype can be traced back over 100,000 years ago, to when our early modern human ancestors interbred with Neanderthals. She speaks to geneticist Tony Capra how DNA from our Neanderthal ancestors may be influencing our present-day sleeping habits and shares her revelations with professional early riser and BBC Radio 1 Early Breakfast presenter Arielle Free.
The handshake has been threatened several times throughout history. It was even made illegal in Prescott Arizona due to the Spanish Flu — and yet we keep returning to it. In this episode, Ella Al-Shamahi delves into a possible biological explanation for why we handshake. Studies have shown that we bring our hands close to our face after a handshake, and then subconsciously take a sniff (inhalation through the nostrils doubles). The human body emits over 2000 volatile compounds that change depending on our mood, e.g. if we’re feeling scared, nervous or happy. So, do we handshake to literally sniff out the other person? Ella speaks to neuroscientist Dr Eva Mishor from Weizmann Institute of Science to hear about her fascinating studies involving hidden cameras, life-size mannequins, sweaty smells and why handshakes can help us make better decisions. Great British Bake Off star Michael Chakraverty recounts a particularly important handshake during bread week.
Procrastination is the thief of time – or so the old saying goes. Studies have shown that people who procrastinate have higher levels of stress and lower levels of well-being. So why do we do it? One theory is that focusing on the here-and-now was beneficial for our palaeolithic ancestors. Dr Caroline Schulter from Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany found that chronic procrastinators have a larger amygdala, a key area in the brain that processes and learns from emotions. Could it be a coping mechanism to deal with negative emotions? It doesn’t seem to bother comedian Eshaan Akbar, who believes procrastination is a good thing…
This episode is all about the iconic kiss. Is it as universal as we think? One study suggests that lip-to-lip romantic kissing - the snog, if you will - is only present in 46% of cultures around the world. So did we just recently learn to do it? Ella Al-Shamahi speaks to Journalist and Radio 1 Life Hacks Presenter Katie Thistleton to get deep into the strangeness of kissing. Speaking to Dr Rafael Wlodarski from Oxford University, they find out how kissing, or getting close to one another, has been shown to give away clues about your genetic information via smells - and why we find the smell of someone who is genetically compatible with us more attractive.
Ella Al-Shamahi is joined by psychologist Prof Laurence Steinberg and DJ / presenter Arielle Free to explore why we are drawn to do things that are bad for us. If our evolutionary purpose is to survive long enough to pass on genes, why do we knowingly put our lives at risk? Ella delves into a theory called costly signalling which may explain why we do risky things when there are others watching – is it just a way of showing off good genes? Dr Laurence Steinberg, Professor of Psychology at Temple University talks about dopamine sensitivity, brain imaging and our biological drive to take more risks during adolescence.
In this episode, Ella Al-Shamahi delves into the origins of a broken heart. Words or phrases that use ‘heart pain’ to describe emotional pain appear in many languages, suggesting it is present in many cultures. Studies show that looking at photos of ex-partners within six months of a break-up triggers the same areas of the brain as physical pain. And as odd as it sounds, just like with physical pain, painkillers can act on feelings of a broken heart. So why is it so painful? TV and Radio Presenter Clara Amfo comes on to talk about love, break-ups and heartbreak. Dr Freddy van der Veen, Associate Professor of Psychology at Erasmus University in Rotterdam reveals the very real signals that travel from our brain to our heart, which may have served an evolutionary purpose.