Shankar Vedantam

Shankar Vedantam is NPR's social science correspondent and the host of the Hidden Brain podcast. 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.

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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.

How great would it be to win a brand new car? How horrible would it be to get laid off from your job? Research by psychologist Dan Gilbert at Harvard University suggests not that great and not that horrible (respectively).

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Aug 14, 2017

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.

Every year, many students who have overcome daunting obstacles in high school receive good news — they've been accepted to college.

These kids represent a success story: through hard work and determination, they've made into college, and perhaps even on to a better life.

Except it doesn't always work out that way.

"Are you real?"

If you've seen the TV series Westworld, you may remember this line. A man named William has just arrived at Westworld, a sort of wild west theme park where people can interact with human-like robots.

The host who greets him looks and sounds 100 percent human. But is she?

Her response when William poses this question: "Well, if you can't tell, does it matter?"

If you can't tell, does it matter?

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Turn on the TV, and you'll find no shortage of people who claim to know what's going to happen: who's going to get picked for the NBA draft, who will win the next election, which stocks will go up or down.

These pundits and prognosticators all have an air of certainty. And why shouldn't they? We, as the audience, like to hear the world's complexity distilled into simple, pithy accounts. It doesn't help that these commentators rarely pay a serious price when their predictions don't pan out.

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President Trump has often accused the news media of not covering terrorist attacks adequately. In a speech in February he said, "Radical Islamic terrorists are determined to strike our homeland as they did on 9/11, as they did from Boston to Orlando to San Bernardino [...] It's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported."

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On a September evening in 2016, Terence Crutcher's SUV stopped in the middle of a road in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A woman saw him step out of his car. The doors of the car were open and the engine was still running. The woman called 911. Officer Betty Shelby was on her way to an unrelated incident when the call came in.

Unfortunately, the way this night ended has become all too familiar. An unarmed black man was shot by a cop.

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In 1969, Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist from Stanford University, ran an interesting field study. He abandoned two cars in two very different places: one in a mostly poor, crime-ridden section of New York City, and the other in a fairly affluent neighborhood of Palo Alto, Calif. Both cars were left without license plates and parked with their hoods up.

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It's normal to feel drawn to people you share something with — whether that's a name, or a birthday, or a shared profession or background.

But Brett Pelham finds this preference for things and people associated with us goes far beyond what we might expect. He calls this phenomenon Implicit Egotism.

The Greek poet Archilochus wrote, "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

There are many different interpretations of this parable, but psychologist Phil Tetlock argues it's a way of understanding two cognitive styles: Foxes have different strategies for different problems. They are comfortable with nuance, they can live with contradictions. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, focus on the big picture. They reduce every problem to one organizing principle.

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Magic.

That's what it feels like when you bump into your childhood friend on the first day of college ... or meet someone at a party in Paris, only to discover she lives in your dad's childhood home in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. But mathematician Joseph Mazur says these coincidences are not as extraordinary as we might think.

"People think that their address book is essentially the people they know, and it turns out any address book is about one percent of the people they know in some way," Mazur explains.

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.

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Americans have long expressed their political views with their wallets, but in recent months, this phenomenon has made national news. A campaign called #grabyourwallet has targeted brands affiliated with Donald Trump.

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Have you ever looked at a friend's posts on Facebook or Instagram and wondered what's really going on in that person's life? Is it really all delicious meals and adorable kids and fabulous trips overseas, or is there more happening beneath the surface?

For a long time, Rachel Leonard felt pressure to post only positive news about her life. Even photos of the view from her front porch were carefully edited before she shared them.

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When she goes to sleep at night, Alison MacAdam curls up with Baba, her soft, threadbare baby blanket. It's a bedtime ritual Alison has embraced for 40 years.

Alison is an editor at NPR, and when she told us about Baba we thought it was a little strange. Why would a successful, self-confident woman sleep with a blankie? But then, as we listened to her talk about it, we wondered if maybe it wasn't that strange at all. What's wrong with finding comfort in something soft and familiar?

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