NPR Launches New Podcast Exploring the ‘Hidden Brain’

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Imagine you’re just one number away from winning the lottery. The final number is called, and it’s not a match. Or imagine spending your whole life preparing for one race at the Olympics. You cross the finish line and look to the scoreboard only to see you were beat by milliseconds. How do we deal with almost?


Shankar Vedantam, Host of NPR’s Hidden Brain

This is one of the questions NPR’s Shankar Vedantam takes up in an episode of his new podcast Hidden Brain, set to launch next week on September 22. It comes on the heels of the successful launch of NPR’s other behavioral science show Invisibilia, which premiered this past spring and has since been downloaded more than 42 million times.

Like Vedantam’s popular segment on Morning Edition, Hidden Brain is about the psychology of everyday life and the hidden forces that drive it. For 20 minutes each week, Vedantam examines new social science research, talks with experts, and squeezes in a game or two. In the episode on near misses, Vedantam talks with marketing professor Monica Wadhwa, whose recent research suggests that almost reaching one goal—like winning the lottery—can actually increase your motivation for other goals.

In another episode, Vedantam learns about the phenomenon of switch tracking—when two people think they’re talking about the same thing, but are actually having two separate conversations. It often happens when a person gives someone feedback but the person receiving the feedback responds to it in a way that sets the conversation on diverging tracks. For example, your husband buys you red roses, which you’ve told him a million times you hate. You tell him so, and he replies by saying you should have thanked him. An argument ensues, but neither of you are really talking about the roses. Take a listen below:


Once you understand some of these hidden drivers and see how they’re working in your life, Vedantam says you can start to change your behavior. And that’s what this show is really about: helping people connect rigorous social science with their everyday lives.

“The exciting thing about many of these episodes that we’re working on is they give a moment of insight and once you see it, once you see the pattern, you can’t stop seeing it,” Vedantam said. “I think there is a real pleasure in that because you’re handing people a tool and saying look, use this tool and it will help you understand your life much better than you did before.”

Even the show’s recurring game, called Mad Scientist, is about helping the public become better social scientists. In this segment, Vedantam asks his weekly guest to put on their imaginary lab coat and try to guess the outcome of a social science experiment. One week, Vedantam is joined by country music star Kacey Musgraves. She learns about an experiment where researchers analyzed the facial expressions of Olympic champions standing on the podium as they receive their medals. Who’s happier—the silver or the bronze medalist? Musgraves does get it right, but we’ll let you wait to hear the results.  

The hope of the podcast is to find ways to make connections between the concerns people have in everyday life and rigorous social science research.

“Part of the fun here is that social science is constantly coming up with really unusual and crazy experiments that find really unusual and interesting things,” Vedantam said. “At a deeper level, I think Mad Scientist actually has a greater value because it helps people think in the way that scientists think [by] asking them to follow the thought process of the creators of the experiment.”

In addition, Hidden Brain also finds new ways to understand and appreciate art, music, and literature through new research in psychology and neurobiology.

The inspiration for Hidden Brain goes back a decade, to when Vedantam was working on a story about unconscious biases for The Washington Post, where he authored their Department of Human Behavior column. The topic interested him so much that he wrote a book—Hidden Brain—before joining NPR in 2011 and beginning his recurring segment of the same name.

The podcast is an opportunity to extend this project with stories ranging from why mild-mannered people turn into fearsome parents to how implicit biases can keep you from finding an interesting job.

“Social sciences, I think, speak to all of those immediate kind of things that people deal with in their lives,” Vedantam said, “And the hope of the podcast really is to find ways to make those connections between the concerns people have in everyday life and rigorous social science research.”

NPR’s Hidden Brain premiers September 22—online and on iTunes. More on Twitter and Facebook.