Shankar Vedantam

Shankar Vedantam is NPR's social science correspondent and the host of Hidden Brain. The focus of his reporting is on human behavior and the social sciences, and how research in those fields can get listeners to think about the news in unusual and interesting ways.

Before joining NPR in 2011, Vedantam spent 10 years as a reporter at The Washington Post. From 2007 to 2009, he was also a columnist, and wrote the Department of Human Behavior column for the Post. Vedantam writes an occasional column for Slate called "Hidden Brain."

Throughout his career, Vedantam has been recognized with many journalism honors including awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors, the South Asian Journalists Association, the Asian American Journalists Association, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, and the American Public Health Association.

In 2009-2010, Vedantam served as a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. He participated in the 2005 Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship on Science and Religion, the 2003-2004 World Health Organization Journalism Fellowship, and the 2002-2003 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship.

Vedantam is the author of the non-fiction book, The Hidden Brain: How our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives. The book, published in 2010, described how unconscious biases influence people.

Outside of journalism, Vedantam has written fiction and plays. His short story-collection, The Ghosts of Kashmir, was published in 2005. The previous year, the Brick Playhouse in Philadelphia produced his full-length, comedy play, Tom, Dick and Harriet.

Vedantam has served as a lecturer at many academic institutions including Harvard University and Columbia University. In 2010, he completed a two year-term as a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. Since 2006, he has served on the advisory board of the Templeton-Cambridge Fellowships in Science & Religion.

This week, we look at the language we use around race and religion, and what it says about the culture we live in.

When we think about dishonesty, we mostly think about the big stuff.

We see big scandals, big lies, and we think to ourselves, I could never do that. We think we're fundamentally different from Bernie Madoff or Tiger Woods.

But behind big lies are a series of small deceptions. Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, writes about this in his book The Honest Truth about Dishonesty.

Economic theory rests on a simple notion about humans: people are rational. They seek out the best information. They measure costs and benefits, and maximize pleasure and profit. This idea of the rational economic actor has been around for centuries.

But about 50 years ago, two psychologists shattered these assumptions. They showed that people routinely walk away from good money. And they explained why, once we get in a hole, we often keep digging.

Are you racist?

It's a question that makes most of us uncomfortable and defensive.

Harvard University psychologist Mahzarin Banaji says while most people don't feel they're racist, they likely carry unfavorable opinions about people of color — even if they are people of color themselves.

Banaji is one of the creators of the Implicit Association Test, a widely-used tool for measuring a person's implicit biases. She says it's important to acknowledge that the individual mind sits in society.

Envy: it's an unflattering, miserable emotion. And it's universal. All of us, at some time or another, will experience that feeling of wanting what someone else has, and resenting them for having it.

Of course, like all human emotions, envy has a purpose. It's a tool for social comparison, one that can alert us to imbalances in the social hierarchy. Sometimes, these feelings of envy can prompt us to improve our lives, says Harvard social psychologist Mina Cikara.

"If you have more than what I have, I may be inspired by what you have," she says.

What are the lives of the planet's wealthiest people really like?

Several years ago, sociologist Brooke Harrington decided to find out.

She knew she'd have a hard time gaining access to the world of the über wealthy, so she did something unusual: She took courses to become a wealth manager.

In the course of this training, Harrington met other wealth managers, who agreed to be interviewed for her research.

She discovered that, in order to manage money for the super-rich, these professionals learn a lot about the private lives of their clients.

No one will deny that marriage is hard. In fact, there's evidence it's getting even harder.

Eli Finkel, a social psychologist at Northwestern University, argues that's because our expectations of marriage have increased dramatically in recent decades.

"[A] marriage that would have been acceptable to us in the 1950s is a disappointment to us today because of those high expectations," he says.

If you're bilingual or multilingual, you may have noticed that the different languages you speak will make you stretch in different ways.

Languages like Spanish or French require you to remember the gender assigned to every noun, even inanimate objects. Uttering a sentence as simple as "I read the book" in Russian requires you to indicate whether you finished the book or merely read a few pages. If you're toggling between English and a language like Arabic, you have to swap which side of the page you look at first.

The Power Hour

Jan 23, 2018

If you've ever visited the palm-lined neighborhoods of Beverly Hills, you've probably noticed that the rich and famous aren't the only ones drawn there.

Stargazers also flock to this exclusive enclave, seeking a chance to peer into — and fantasize about — the lives of movie stars and film directors.

Call it adulation, adoration, idolization: we humans are fascinated by glamour and power.

But this turns out to be only one side of our psychology.

Fighting miscommunication might seem an ironic choice for an actor whose comedy career was built on all the funny consequences of people misunderstanding each other.

But Alan Alda has made it his mission to help scientists — and the rest of us — communicate better.

It all started when he was hosting the PBS interview program Scientific American Frontiers. He pushed himself, and the scientists he interviewed, to have conversations — to really listen to each other, to connect with each other, and to try to understand one another's perspective.

Our airwaves are filled with debates about immigrants and refugees. Who should be in the United States, who shouldn't, and who should decide?

These modern debates often draw upon our ideas about past waves of immigration. We sometimes assume that earlier generations of newcomers quickly learned English and integrated into American society. But historian Maria Cristina Garcia says these ideas are often false.

In 2006, Derek Amato suffered a major concussion from diving into a shallow swimming pool. When he woke up in the hospital, he was different. He discovered he was really good a playing piano.

Lots of people make New Year's resolutions that focus on conserving something. Some people pledge to eat less junk food. Others will commit to saving more money.

Columbia University law professor Tim Wu has a suggestion for something else people should consider conserving: attention. In his new book The Attention Merchants, Tim argues that our mental space is constantly being hijacked.

In today's political climate, it sometimes feels like we can't even agree on basic facts. We bombard each other with stats and figures, hoping that more data will make a difference. A liberal might show you the same climate change graphs over and over; a conservative might point to the trillions of dollars of growing national debt. We're left wondering, "Why can't they just see? It's so obvious!"

It may sound like the plot of a movie: police find a young man dead with stab wounds. Tests quickly show he'd had Ebola.

Officials realize the suspects in the case, men in a local gang, may have picked up and spread Ebola across the slum. These men are reluctant to quarantine themselves and some – including a man nicknamed "Time Bomb" – cannot even be found.

This scenario actually unfolded in the West African country of Liberia in 2015. And what followed was a truly unconventional effort by epidemiologists to stop a new Ebola outbreak.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All social classes have unspoken rules.

From A-list celebrities to teachers, doctors, lawyers, and journalists — there are social norms that govern our decisions, whether we realize it or not.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Authenticity is a trait we all prize. We all want the real thing - whether that thing is a designer purse, or a loving relationship.

But the two stories you'll hear today raise profound questions about authenticity and nature of human belief: If you believe something is real, if you can fall in love with someone or stand in awe of a painting, is it possible that it doesn't actually matter whether the object of your affection is fake?

In one of the most famous scenes from the Harry Potter series, a group of kids, new to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, line up before an old and crumpled wizard's hat. It is the sorting hat. The hat will tell them which house they'll belong to during their Hogwarts education.

There is something deeply appealing about the sorting hat. It is wise. It seems to know people better than they know themselves.

It has become an old, sad story in America. First, the murder, sparked by some trivial dispute. Next, solutions. Maybe it's gun control, or harsher punishments or extra policing. And then it happens again. The same events fill the news, and the same proposed solutions.

But what if science can help us find new ways to think about violent crime? Can understanding how we make decisions help us prevent these tragedies?

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Surgeon Atul Gawande still remembers the operation years ago that went catastrophically wrong. He was removing a tumor from the adrenal gland of a patient he refers to as Mr. Hagerman.

Gawande had performed this procedure dozens of times before. But this case was particularly tricky. Mr. Hagerman's tumor was behind his liver, nestled tightly against an important blood vessel known as the vena cava. Gawande was almost done when all of a sudden, he nicked the blood vessel.

When a baby is born, one of the first questions people ask the parents is this: "What is it?"

"Gender is unquestionably the most salient feature of a person's identity," says Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience at Rosalind Franklin University in Chicago. "That's the first thing we notice about someone and it is certainly the first characteristic infants learn to discriminate."

Expectant parents often daydream about their children's future. What sports will they play in school? Will they become musicians, or scientists?

Royce and Jessica James had big dreams for their baby, too. But when an ultrasound revealed they were having a daughter, Jessica began to worry about how gender stereotypes would affect their child.

Everyone has regrets. You probably have a few of them. By some estimates, regret is the most common negative emotion that we talk about, and the second-most common emotion mentioned in our daily lives.

If you can dream it, you can do it, right? Right? Well ... not so fast. While fantasizing feels good and believing in yourself is surely better than not, research shows that keeping your head in the clouds can keep you, er, from reaching the stars. This week Shankar talks with psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside The New Science Of Motivation.

"Clean up this mess!"

This is a command you've probably given or received in your life. Perhaps in the last day, or even the last hour.

To many of us, the desire to bring order to chaos – to tidy up our kids' toys, organize an overstuffed closet, or rake the leaves covering the lawn – can be nearly irresistible. And it's a desire that extends to other aspects of our lives: Managers tell employees to get organized. Politicians are elected on promises to clean up Washington. And so on.

Why do you work? Are you just in it for the money, or do you have a greater purpose? 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.

Across a diverse array of jobs — from secretaries to custodians to computer programmers — Wrzesniewski finds people are about equally split in whether they say they have a "job," a "career" or a "calling." This week on Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam talks with Wrzesniewski about how we find meaning and purpose at work.

Many of us react to the buzzes and beeps that come from our phones with the urgency of a parent responding to a baby's cry. We can't help but pick up our phone and look at the latest notification. We know this probably isn't the healthiest nor the sanest response to a vibrating hunk of a metal, so we tell ourselves we should be less distracted. We shouldn't be so gripped by social media or the churn of work email.

Pages