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. Hidden Brain is among the most popular podcasts in the world, with over two million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is featured on some 250 public radio stations across the United States.

Before joining NPR in 2011, Vedantam spent 10 years as a reporter at The Washington Post. From 2007 to 2009, he also wrote the Department of Human Behavior column for the Post.

Vedantam and Hidden Brain have been recognized with the Edward R. Murrow Award, and honors from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the International Society of Political Psychology, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Austen Riggs Center, the American Psychoanalytic Association, the Webby Awards, the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors, the South Asian Journalists Association, the Asian American Journalists Association, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, the American Public Health Association, the Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship on Science and Religion and the Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship.

From 2009 to 2010, Vedantam served as a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

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, describes 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, Tom, Dick and Harriet.

Vedantam has served as a part-time lecturer at Harvard University and Columbia University. He has also served as a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.

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A while back, Jonah Berger was talking with a lawyer friend from Washington, D.C. The friend was lamenting the impact of social influence on his peers.

He was saying, "'God, you know, all D.C. lawyers are the same. They make it big, and they go out and they buy a new BMW.'

Many people start exploring their sexuality in college. The lessons they learn about intimacy and attraction during these years lay a foundation for the rest of their lives.

"I have students who have had sex many times drunk but have never held someone's hand," says Occidental University sociologist Lisa Wade.

In 2012, as a new mom, Maranda Dynda heard a story from her midwife that she couldn't get out of her head. The midwife told her that years earlier, something bad had happened after she vaccinated her son. One minute he was fine, and the next, he was autistic. It was like "the light had left his eyes," Maranda recalled her saying. The midwife implored Maranda to go online and do her own research. So she did.

She started on Google. It led her to Facebook groups, where other moms echoed what the midwife had said.

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After you read this sentence, pause for a moment to think back on advertisements you first heard when you were a child.

Perhaps you recall a favorite jingle or the catchphrase of a cereal mascot. You probably can remember more than just one.

This week, we look at the shelf life of commercials. According to University of Arizona researcher Merrie Brucks, an ad we watched when we were five years old can influence our buying behavior when we're 50.

"Fake news" is a phrase that may seem specific to our particular moment and time in American history.

But Columbia University Professor Andie Tucher says fake news is deeply rooted in American journalism.

In 1690, British officials forced the first newspaper in North America to shut down after it fabricated information. Nineteenth-century newspapers often didn't agree on basic facts. In covering a lurid murder in 1836, two major papers in New York City offered wildly differing perspectives on the case.

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There is great comfort in the familiar. It's one reason humans often flock to people who share the same interests, laugh at the same jokes, hold the same political views. But familiar ground may not be the best place to cultivate creativity.

Columbia Business School professor Adam Galinsky has found that people who have deep relationships with someone from another country become more creative and score higher on routine creativity tests.

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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.

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Paul Rozin has been studying the psychology and culture of food for more than 40 years. And he's come to appreciate that food fills many of our needs, but hunger is just one.

"Food is not just nutrition that goes in your mouth or even pleasant sensations that go with it," he says. "It connects to your whole life, and it's really a very important part of performing your culture and experiencing your culture."

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Bababababa, dadadadada, ahgagaga. Got that?

Babies are speaking to us all the time, but most of us have no clue what they're saying. To us non-babies, it all sounds like charming, mysterious, gobbledegook. To researchers, though, babbling is knowable, predictable, and best of all, teachable. This week, we'll find out how to decipher the vocabulary, and the behavior, of the newest members of the human family.

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There are many reasons why the opioid crisis is so hard to confront. One of them is social stigma. It often extends beyond users themselves, to their families.

Hope and Pete Troxell live in Frederick, Maryland. Last year, their 34-year-old daughter Alicia died after overdosing on fentanyl – a synthetic form of heroin. She was seven months pregnant. Hope says before Alicia's death, they often felt the weight of judgment.

"So many people look at these [people] that are addicted to drugs, they call them every name in the book. They're junkies, they're thieves."

The nastiness of American politics today may seem extreme compared to the tone of earlier eras. But historian David Moss says our nation's founders were also happy to sling mud.

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This story starts with a quiz. Here's your quizmaster, Noel King.

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The truth can be a tough pill to swallow.

We avoid getting an important medical test done, fearing bad results. We turn off the news when the headlines make us upset, even though the information is pertinent to us.

This behavior, according to economist Joshua Tasoff, is irrational.

"A person should never avoid information, because information can never hurt a decision," he says.

Why Now?

Jul 27, 2018

Nearly a quarter century ago, a group of women accused a prominent playwright of sexual misconduct. A Boston newspaper published allegations of sexual harassment, unwanted touching and forced kissing. For the most part, the complaints went nowhere.

In 2017, more women came forward with accusations. This time, people listened.

On this episode of Hidden Brain, we explore the story through the lens of social science and ask, "Why Now?"

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Creating God

Jul 16, 2018

Let's take a moment to go back in time.

For most of human history, we lived in small groups of about 50 people. Everyone knew everybody. If you told a lie, stole someone's dinner, or failed to defend the group against its enemies, there was no way to disappear into the crowd. Everyone knew you, and you would get punished.

Fresh Starts

Jul 11, 2018

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.

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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.

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