Using science and storytelling, Shankar Vedantam of NPR’s Hidden Brain reveals the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, the biases that shape our choices, and the triggers that direct the course of our relationships.
For more than a decade, Shankar Vedantam has studied what we know about the mind and social sciences. Before joining NPR in 2011, Vedantam spent 10 years as a reporter at The Washington Post. He’s also 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.
Get to know Shankar below (Q&A courtesy of NPR), and tune in to hear the weekly one-hour program Hidden Brain on Blue Ridge Public Radio, Saturdays at 1 PM.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for Hidden Brain?
A. Hidden Brain first came to be because over the years I had done a number of stories that looked at all the different ways in which unconscious biases and hidden factors seemed to shape how people behave. And as someone who is very rational and very deliberate himself, I found it astonishing that there was a part of my mind that I didn't fully understand, that in some ways influenced me without even my being aware of it. And that was really the origin of Hidden Brain. I wrote a book about it in 2010 and then when I came to NPR in 2011, it grew into a series of stories on Morning Edition. A couple of years ago, it led to a podcast that explores broadly the same set of themes, and now a radio show.
Q. What do you hope listeners will take away from hearing the show?
A. I would say a couple of things: one, I think to get a better understanding of themselves, to understand how their own choices and decisions might not always align with their intentions. And I think this is very powerful, because it could help people become better parents, it could help people become better managers, it could help people function better in their personal relationships. If you actually understand how your mind works and how the minds of other people work, it might help you lead your life more effectively. But the second thing that I think is really important for me as a journalist is to encourage people to actually look around them with fresh eyes, to look around them with curiosity. I sometimes have the analogy that, you know, just as archaeologists might look at a piece of pottery and know something about a culture that lived several thousand years ago, you and I can do that all the time by looking around our lives and observing the way people behave. And those observations can lead us to insights deep insights about human nature.
Q. What’s the most surprising thing or idea you’ve learned from your research and reporting so far?
A. The underlying idea of Hidden Brain is something that still astonishes me all the time when I think about my own mind. I think that I'm aware of everything that I'm doing. I think that I'm aware of why it is that I'm doing what I'm doing. And the idea that it's not just that a part of my mind might be hidden from me but that a substantial part, maybe even the majority of my mind, is hidden from me – that its actions, its workings, its drives are hidden from me – is something that is a very mind-bending idea. You know, playwrights and poets and novelists and movie makers have explored this idea for hundreds and thousands of years. The idea that in some ways human beings might be influenced by hidden factors, by demons and spirits and so forth. And of course what we are doing is not in the realm of the mystical, but it's in the realm of the everyday, it's in the realm of the very scientifically rigorous, and the idea that we are shaped by these hidden factors is endlessly fascinating to me.
Q. Do you have a favorite social science “hack” that you’ve explored on the show that you find particularly useful in daily life?
A. One of the things that I think I find really interesting is the distinction between what we think of as urgent and what we know to be important. So, as we go about our day, we're often driven by the things that are urgent. We know that we have to get to work on time. We know we have to meet a deadline of some kind, and of course our minds are very very good at focusing on those deadlines, meeting those deadlines and accomplishing those deadlines. Unfortunately, there are many things in our lives that are not deadline-driven but that are very, very very important - things like eating right, getting enough exercise, or spending time with friends and family.Those are all very important things, but unfortunately they don't come with deadlines. And as a result, we often end up focusing on things that are urgent over things that are important. I've sometimes said this in the context of public radio pledge drives. You know it's important for people to contribute to their local public radio station because their public radio station is a center of civic life in that community. But often it's not an urgent imperative. You know that if you don't contribute to your station today it doesn't mean the station is going to close down tomorrow. And so there's a sense that you have where you say, “I'll do it next time, I'll do it next month, I'll do it next year.’ And I think one of the things that I've tried to do – I will admit, often unsuccessfully – is to try and prioritize the important over the urgent, to actually build it into your schedule, to say there are deadlines attached to things that are important, because it's not that we can take the important and automatically feel that it's urgent. We actually have to make those things urgent by building them into our schedules and saying, “I have to go to the gym four times this week, and if it's the end of the week and I've only gone three times, I really have to go today,” because that's the deadline.