Shankar Vedantam

Shankar Vedantam is a science correspondent for NPR. 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.

Pages

Same-Sex Marriage And The Supreme Court
2:14 am
Mon March 25, 2013

Shift In Gay Marriage Support Mirrors A Changing America

Same-sex marriage advocates protest outside the county clerk's office in San Francisco on Feb. 14.
Justin Sullivan Getty Images

Originally published on Mon March 25, 2013 7:42 am

When Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman recently reversed his stance on gay marriage after his son came out as gay, he joined a tidal wave of Americans who have altered their views on the subject.

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Shots - Health News
2:24 am
Mon March 4, 2013

Your Child's Fat, Mine's Fine: Rose-Colored Glasses And The Obesity Epidemic

Adam Cole NPR

Originally published on Mon March 4, 2013 7:30 pm

About 69 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, and more than four in five people say they are worried about obesity as a public health problem.

But a recent poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health revealed a curious schism in our national attitudes toward obesity: Only one in five kids had a parent who feared the boy or girl would grow up to be overweight as an adult.

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The Salt
11:33 am
Fri February 1, 2013

Pig Out In The Winter Or When Money's Tight? Blame Evolution

When times are tough, that prehistoric urge to splurge on high-calorie treats like M&Ms still kicks in.
Daniel M.N. Turner NPR

Originally published on Fri February 1, 2013 4:39 pm

Has the recession made you fat?

To the long and growing list of risk factors known to increase the risk of obesity, scientists recently added a new one: scarcity.

People given subtle cues that they may have to confront harsh conditions in the near future choose to eat higher-calorie food than they might do otherwise, a response that researchers believe is shaped by the long hand of evolution.

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Science
1:59 am
Wed January 30, 2013

When Crime Pays: Prison Can Teach Some To Be Better Criminals

Prison provides an opportunity for networking with more seasoned criminals.
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Tue February 12, 2013 10:26 am

In popular lore — movies, books and blogs — criminals who go to prison don't come out reformed. They come out worse.

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Education
2:31 am
Wed January 9, 2013

Elite Colleges Struggle To Recruit Smart, Low-Income Kids

Top schools like Harvard, seen here in 2000, often offer scholarships and other financial incentives, but they are finding it hard to increase the socioeconomic diversity on campus.
Darren McCollester Getty Images

Originally published on Wed January 9, 2013 5:26 am

Across the United States, college administrators are poring over student essays, recommendation letters and SAT scores as they select a freshman class for the fall.

If this is like most years, administrators at top schools such as Harvard and Stanford will try hard to find talented high school students from poor families in a push to increase the socioeconomic diversity on campus and to counter the growing concern that highly selective colleges cater mainly to students from privileged backgrounds.

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Science
3:50 pm
Wed January 2, 2013

'Stand Your Ground' Linked To Increase In Homicides

George Zimmerman (left) and his attorney appear in court for a bond hearing in June. Zimmerman's case sparked a nationwide debate about so-called "stand your ground" laws.
Joe Burbank AP

Originally published on Thu January 3, 2013 9:54 am

If a stranger attacks you inside your own home, the law has always permitted you to defend yourself. On the other hand, if an altercation breaks out in public, the law requires you to try to retreat. At least, that's what it used to do.

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Shots - Health News
2:46 am
Wed January 2, 2013

Can Skinny Models Undermine Your Dieting Goals?

Posting a picture like this on the fridge might seem like good motivation for weight loss. But scientists say it might instead inspire weight gain.
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Wed January 2, 2013 10:16 am

The millions of Americans who make New Year's resolutions to lose weight often have pictures in mind.

They're pictures that have been repeatedly supplied by the health and beauty magazines at supermarket checkout lines. They feature skinny models in bikinis, or toned guys with six-pack abs, and captions about how you could look like this by summer.

Some people go so far as to tape these pictures onto their refrigerators and cupboards. When they're tempted to reach for a cookie, they reason, the sight of that toned model might dissuade them from breaking their resolutions.

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Research News
2:52 am
Fri December 21, 2012

Why Some Kids Have An Inflated Sense Of Their Science Skills

Originally published on Fri December 21, 2012 7:49 pm

If you're a student at the halfway point of the academic year, and you've just taken stock of your performance, perhaps you have reason to feel proud of yourself.

But a recent study suggests some of the pride you feel at having done well — especially in science — may be unfounded. Or at least your sense of your performance may not be a very accurate picture of how good you actually are.

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Deceptive Cadence
1:30 pm
Tue November 27, 2012

Do Orchestras Really Need Conductors?

Does This Guy Matter? Conductor Leonard Bernstein during rehearsal with the Cincinnati Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 1977.
James Garrett New York Daily News via Getty Images

Originally published on Wed December 5, 2012 9:12 am

Have you ever wondered whether music conductors actually influence their orchestras?

They seem important. After all, they're standing in the middle of the stage and waving their hands. But the musicians all have scores before them that tell them what to play. If you took the conductor away, could the orchestra manage on its own?

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Humans
2:19 am
Wed November 14, 2012

Study: Reading 'Maxim' Can Make You A Theft Target

TK
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Wed November 14, 2012 7:06 am

Some time ago, a man wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a hoodie drove a dirty Ford Explorer into a carwash in Fort Worth, Texas. As soon as the car came back clean, he got it filthy again, and drove to the next carwash. He did this with every single full-service carwash in town.

The man wasn't suffering from a strange mental disorder; Patrick Kinkade was a criminologist conducting an experiment.

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It's All Politics
2:22 am
Fri November 9, 2012

What Earthquakes Can Teach Us About Elections

Allan Lichtman, a professor at American University, discusses his 13 keys to a successful election campaign on April 13 in his office in Washington, D.C.
Paul J. Richards AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Fri November 9, 2012 11:46 am

In January 2010, more than a year before Mitt Romney had formally announced he was running for president, political historian Allan Lichtman predicted President Obama would be re-elected in 2012.

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The Salt
11:05 am
Wed October 31, 2012

Behind A Halloween Mask, Even 'Good' Kids Can Turn Into Candy Thieves

Is there an angel or a devil behind the mask? Scientists say it may not matter in terms of anonymous behavior.
Joel Saget AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Wed October 31, 2012 2:07 pm

Vampires and monsters will be out in force tonight, but some of the darkest creatures out there might be your little angels inside those Halloween costumes.

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Humans
12:21 pm
Thu October 25, 2012

Decision Time: Why Do Some Leaders Leave A Mark?

Abraham Lincoln, circa 1850. Lincoln was a political non-entity before he was elected. Why is he more widely known to history than the presidents who came immediately before and after him?
Hulton Archive Getty Images

Originally published on Fri October 26, 2012 11:56 am

As part of NPR's coverage of this year's presidential election, All Things Considered asked three science reporters to weigh in on the race. The result is a three-part series on the science of leadership. In Part 1, Alix Spiegel looked at the personalities of American presidents. In Part 2, Jon Hamilton examined leadership in the animal kingdom.

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Shots - Health Blog
1:31 am
Tue October 9, 2012

A Lively Mind: Your Brain On Jane Austen

Matt Langione, a subject in the study, reads Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. Results from the study suggest that blood flow in the brain differs during leisurely and critical reading activities.
L.A. Cicero Stanford University

Originally published on Tue October 16, 2012 9:35 am

At a recent academic conference, Michigan State University professor Natalie Phillips stole a glance around the room. A speaker was talking but the audience was fidgety. Some people were conferring among themselves, or reading notes. One person had dozed off.

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Science
2:28 am
Thu September 20, 2012

Why Pictures Can Sway Your Moral Judgment

iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Thu September 20, 2012 8:41 am

When we think about morality, many of us think about religion or what our parents taught us when we were young. Those influences are powerful, but many scientists now think of the brain as a more basic source for our moral instincts.

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The Salt
2:39 am
Wed September 12, 2012

Five Ways To Spot A Fake Online Review, Restaurant Or Otherwise

One sign that a restaurant review is a fake is if it gives a very high or very low rating without many specifics.
Bill Oxford iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Tue September 18, 2012 1:47 pm

Thinking of going to a nice restaurant? Before you decide, you probably go online and read reviews of the place from other customers (or you listen to these actors read them to you). Online reviews of restaurants, travel deals, apps and just about anything you want to buy have become a powerful driver of consumer behavior. Unsurprisingly, they have also created a powerful incentive to cheat.

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Shots - Health Blog
2:27 am
Tue August 28, 2012

Can You Learn While You're Asleep?

Research suggests basic forms of learning are possible while snoozing.
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Fri August 31, 2012 8:44 am

If you're a student, you may have harbored the fantasy of learning lessons while you sleep. Who wouldn't want to stick on a pair of headphones, grab some shut-eye with a lesson about, say, Chinese history playing in his ears — and wake up with newly acquired knowledge of the Ming Dynasty?

Sadly, it doesn't work. The history lesson either keeps you from going to sleep, or it doesn't — in which case you don't learn it.

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It's All Politics
2:04 am
Wed August 22, 2012

Are Independents Just Partisans In Disguise?

Don Nichols iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Wed August 22, 2012 6:31 am

Independent voters have grown in recent years into a mega voting bloc. By some estimates they outnumber registered Republicans, and even registered Democrats.

Every election cycle, independents generate enormous amounts of interest as candidates, pollsters and the media probe their feelings. These voters are widely considered to hold the key to most elections.

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Shots - Health Blog
2:29 am
Mon August 6, 2012

An Anthropologist Walks Into A Bar And Asks, 'Why Is This Joke Funny?'

Amateur comedian Robert Lynch takes the mic at the Metropolitan Room in New York City on July 21. Lynch is also an evolutionary anthropologist who is studying what laughter reveals about us.
Melanie Burford for NPR

Originally published on Thu August 9, 2012 3:26 pm

It's Saturday night at the Metropolitan Room, a comedy club in New York City. Host Jimmy Failla is warming up the crowd.

"Where you guys from?" he asks one group in the audience. "Boston? Home of the Red Sox. Personally, we'd prefer you rooted for the Taliban!"

There are 50 or 60 people in the audience, sipping cocktails. Failla has a system. He asks people where they're from. Most are locals. He then hits them with something they can relate to.

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The Torch
4:05 am
Fri August 3, 2012

Would You Rather Win Silver Or Bronze? (Be Careful What You Wish For)

all-around gymnastics final." href="/post/would-you-rather-win-silver-or-bronze-be-careful-what-you-wish" class="noexit lightbox">
Who's The Happiest? Researchers studied photos of Olympic medalists to learn who is the happiest. Here, bronze medalist Aliya Mustafina of Russia, gold medalist Gabby Douglas of the U.S., and silver medalist Victoria Komova of Russia pose after the all-around gymnastics final.
Julian Finney Getty Images

Originally published on Fri August 3, 2012 8:32 am

Both athletes were U.S. swimmers, both were dripping wet after finishing an Olympics final, and both had just won medals.

The first said, "It's not my normal specialty. ... We went out there and raced tough – and just came up a little short."

The second had a beaming face. He said, "[I] swam my own race. And knew I had a lane, and had an opportunity, and I went for it. It worked out, you know, it's just awesome that I get to go on the podium tonight. Honestly, I'm really proud of myself!"

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Shots - Health Blog
3:46 pm
Tue July 24, 2012

Tie My Shoes, Please: How Persuasion Works

Can You Help Me Tie My Shoe? Researchers found that when study participants were asked an unusual request, they were more likely later on to perform a favor.
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Tue July 24, 2012 4:23 pm

Marketers, managers and panhandlers all have something in common: They regularly want to make you do things they want. Marketers want you to buy stuff, managers want you to finish projects on time, and panhandlers want you to spare a buck, or three.

Over the years, psychologists have studied the techniques of manipulation and found several that seem to work. (Read on only if you agree to use these techniques for good and not for evil!)

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Humans
3:58 pm
Thu July 12, 2012

How Stereotypes Can Drive Women To Quit Science

Ayodhya Ouditt NPR

Originally published on Thu July 12, 2012 7:29 pm

Walk into any tech company or university math department, and you'll likely see a gender disparity: Fewer women than men seem to go into fields involving science, engineering, technology and mathematics.

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Family Matters: The Money Squeeze
1:57 am
Tue May 29, 2012

Listening To Parents Key To Financial Responsibility

Parents can make a difference in whether their kids become spenders or savers, studies find.
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Tue May 29, 2012 3:34 am

As an increasing number of Americans live into their 80s and 90s, many families are struggling to find ways to make retirement dollars — that were once supposed to support seniors for years — now stretch over decades.

More and more, families have to care for the very elderly, as well as look after children who might be college grads but haven't found a job in a difficult economy.

All this requires one very important thing: lots of money.

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It's All Politics
2:42 am
Wed May 9, 2012

Partisan Psychology: Why Are People Partial To Political Loyalties Over Facts?

President Bush and then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry shake hands at the end of a presidential debate in 2004 in St. Louis. Researchers want to better understand why partisans' views of the facts change in light of their political loyalties.
Charlie Reidel AP

Originally published on Wed May 9, 2012 9:32 am

When pollsters ask Republicans and Democrats whether the president can do anything about high gas prices, the answers reflect the usual partisan divisions in the country. About two-thirds of Republicans say the president can do something about high gas prices, and about two-thirds of Democrats say he can't.

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Humans
2:04 am
Thu May 3, 2012

Put Away The Bell Curve: Most Of Us Aren't 'Average'

Hank Aaron breaks Babe Ruth's record for career home runs as he hits No. 715 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on April 8, 1974, on his way to a career 755 home runs. Research suggests that in a wide variety of professions, including collegiate and professional sports, a small but significant number of individuals perform exceedingly well and the rest of individuals' performance trails off.
AP

Originally published on Thu May 3, 2012 10:06 pm

For decades, teachers, managers and parents have assumed that the performance of students and employees fits what's known as the bell curve — in most activities, we expect a few people to be very good, a few people to be very bad and most people to be average.

The bell curve powerfully shapes how we think of human performance: If lots of students or employees happen to show up as extreme outliers — they're either very good or very bad — we assume they must represent a skewed sample, because only a few people in a truly random sample are supposed to be outliers.

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Sports
2:01 am
Thu April 26, 2012

Power (Dis)Play? Teams In Black Draw More Penalties

Keith Ballard, right, of the Vancouver Canucks is tripped by Colin Fraser of the Los Angeles Kings for a penalty during game in Los Angeles on April 18. Researchers studying hockey penalties found that teams wearing black jerseys were far more likely to draw penalties than teams wearing other colored or white jerseys.
Harry How Getty Images

Originally published on Thu April 26, 2012 8:21 am

Hockey teams wearing darker-colored jerseys are more likely to be penalized for aggressive fouls than teams wearing white jerseys, according to new research. Teams wearing black jerseys in particular get penalized the most, according to an analysis that may offer a window into the hidden psychological dynamics of the ongoing NHL playoffs.

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All Tech Considered
2:30 am
Thu April 19, 2012

To Read All Those Web Privacy Policies, Just Take A Month Off Work

Many Web users have little idea about how, or when, they're being tracked. In this 2011 photo, Max Schrems of Austria sits with 1,222 pages about his activities on Facebook — the company gave him the file after he requested it under European law.
Ronald Zak AP

Originally published on Thu April 19, 2012 4:08 am

Internet surfers have long worried that they have insufficient control over their online privacy — despite the privacy policies many people agree to when they visit websites or use online services.

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Shots - Health Blog
4:21 pm
Fri April 6, 2012

FDA's Stance On Online Pharmacies May Go Too Far, Study Says

Each year, millions of Americans don't fill their prescriptions because they can't afford to.
Maya Kovacheva Photography iStockphoto.com

The Food and Drug Administration has warned people about the many dangers of buying medications from foreign pharmacies over the Internet. While some sites might offer high-quality medicines, there are plenty that sell bogus and potentially dangerous products.

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The Salt
3:12 pm
Fri April 6, 2012

Indian Engineers Build A Stronger Society With School Lunch Program

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, a nonprofit based in Bangalore, partners with the government to make close to 1.3 million nutritious meals a day for schoolchildren throughout India.
Ryan Lobo for NPR

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:54 am

At a government-run public middle school in Bangalore, the blackboard's cracking, the textbooks are tattered and most of the students are barefoot.

But with all those challenges, the biggest obstacle that teachers face in keeping kids in school is hunger. Many students show up at school having had nothing to eat for breakfast.

On mornings one student comes to school hungry, the thought of school makes her break down, she says.

"When I had to get on the bus, I would start crying," says K. Suchitra, 13.

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It's All Politics
2:05 am
Tue April 3, 2012

Do Negative Ads Make A Difference? Political Scientists Say Not So Much

Future U.S. senator and presidential candidate John Kerry poses with crewmates during the Vietnam War in this file photo. An attack on his service by a group calling itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is remembered as a turning point in the 2004 election. But political scientists say negative ads might not be that effective.
AP

Originally published on Wed April 4, 2012 1:01 pm

Pundits and commentators are forecasting that this fall's general election will see an avalanche of negative advertising. But as voters gird for the onslaught, political scientists are asking a different question: Will it matter?

When the Supreme Court lifted restrictions on private advertising in elections, superPACs supporting President Obama and the most likely Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, promised to unleash negative attacks on the other side.

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