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podcast

Is the entire world growing more polarized?, with Andrew O’Donohue

A talk with Andrew O’Donohue, co-author of Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization. Andrew has studied how societal conflicts play out in many countries, and the harm resulting from those conflicts.

Topics discussed include: common objections people have to thinking about polarization or considering it a problem; what American polarization has in common with polarization in other countries; the common psychological drivers of polarization, no matter where it happens; the potential effects of modern life and social media on polarization; what we can do in our lives to reduce polarization; and more. If you don’t already believe that polarization is an important topic, I do hope you give this episode a listen.

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podcast

Are eye movement patterns related to personality traits?, with Sabrina Hoppe

A talk with research Sabrina Hoppe, who specializes in machine learning and cognitive science. Hoppe was part of a team who worked on a 2018 paper titled Eye movements during everyday behavior predict personality traits. Transcript of this talk is below. We talk about that research and what was found. Topics include: how that study was set up; how strong the correlations were; the possible reasons why there might be relationships between eye movements and personality; and other research in that area.

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Resources discussed in this episode or related to the topic:

TRANSCRIPT

Zach Elwood: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about better understanding other people and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at www.behavior-podcast.com

There are quite a few studies that have found connections between people’s eye movements and their personality traits. These studies typically take the form of having subjects wear eye tracking hardware while performing various tasks, and then looking for correlations between the eye movements and the subjects’ rankings on various personality tests. 

In this episode, I talk with Sabrina Hoppe; her last name is spelled HOPPE. Sabrina is a researcher who specializes in machine learning and cognitive science. Sabrina has worked on several research projects related to eye movements. A 2018 paper she and others worked on was called Eye movements during everyday behavior predict personality traits, and that’s the one we’ll focus on in this talk. 

To quote from the abstract of that paper: 

Here we show that eye movements during an everyday task predict aspects of our personality. We tracked eye movements of 42 participants while they ran an errand on a university campus and subsequently assessed their personality traits using well-established questionnaires. Using a state-of-the-art machine learning method and a rich set of features encoding different eye movement characteristics, we were able to reliably predict four of the Big Five personality traits (neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness) as well as perceptual curiosity only from eye movements. Further analysis revealed new relations between previously neglected eye movement characteristics and personality. Our findings demonstrate a considerable influence of personality on everyday eye movement control, thereby complementing earlier studies in laboratory settings. Improving automatic recognition and interpretation of human social signals is an important endeavor, enabling innovative design of human–computer systems capable of sensing spontaneous natural user behavior to facilitate efficient interaction and personalization.

It makes some instinctual sense that our personalities, how we experience and interact with the world, would relate to how we move our eyes. Our eyes are how we explore our environment, the things and people around us. 

For me personally, I’ve noticed that when I’m more anxious, my eye movements are more restrained, more frozen. And that’s just what I’ve noticed; it wouldn’t surprise me if there were other patterns I haven’t noticed. And it wouldn’t surprise me that some of those ways I move and use my eyes are not just situation or emotion-based, but are part of the way I interact with the world, part of my personality. 

When it comes to poker, one important poker tell can be how someone’s eyes move when they’re bluffing compared to when they’re betting a strong hand; often people who are more anxious will tend to be more frozen in general, and this can manifest in how they move their eyes. A player who makes a big bet and whose gaze travels around to various places, who has more dynamic eye movement; that person is likely to be relaxed and have a big hand. 

I mention these things just to give some of the specific reasons I’m interested in eye tracking research. And I hope to do more episodes on this topic in future. 

Okay, here’s the talk with Sabrina Hoppe.

Zach Elwood: Hi Sabrina, welcome to the show.

Sabrina: Hi, thanks for having me.

Zach Elwood: So you’ve done a good amount of research involving eye tracking and psychology. Was eye tracking something you were interested in early on? And if so, what was your interest in that?

Sabrina: I started my studies actually in computer science, and a bit later I discovered that I was also interested in psychology. And then eye tracking seemed to be a very nice area where I could use my computer science knowledge, but then apply it to psychology because eye movements are so nice to be recorded, and then you can do a lot of data analysis and stuff that this computer science part of me would be interested in. And then of course, additionally, I found that you can have so many interesting questions to answer like looking into concepts like personality, which we will talk about later, and I just thought that this was a really nice area then.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, one thing that struck me looking at the raw data was just the huge amount of data that was gathered by the computer, and it seems like that would be pretty hard to do without computers. Am I getting that right?

Sabrina: Yes, definitely. This type of study wouldn’t have worked without a computer for sure.

Zach Elwood: So maybe you could give a little bit of summary on the existing research that was around before you did the study on eye movements and the correlation with personality. Was it pretty widely accepted beforehand that eye movements were related or correlated with personality states?

Sabrina: Yes. So it was widely accepted that there is a correlation in laboratory settings. Meaning if a person comes in and then you sit them or you let them sit down in an kind of isolated room, no audio distraction, no other people, and they have this one clear task, which would be look at specific images which have been pre-selected to show them, so in this very, very restricted setting, there it was well accepted that there would be a connection between personality and some measurements that you could take from the gaze. But what was new about our study was just taking this to the real world. So we really just sent them go shopping on a campus and maybe they met other people on their way, maybe they had some everyday life things to do on their way, and yet we could still detect this link between gaze and personality, and that was the new part.

Zach Elwood: Do you see your study as strongly contributing to making the case of that link between eye movements and personality or do you think that that was already a respected idea and your work was just part of it?

Sabrina: I think the idea was respected, but we made it stronger because we showed that you can really detect this pretty much no matter what the human is doing or at least it far less matters what the human is doing than we originally thought. So if you think about it, there’s so much that could come up in the real world. Your attention could be somewhere entirely different or you look at something, at other people and so on. And through all of this, we can still detect personality. I think that was a new idea, we really contributed to showing how strong this impact of personality on your gaze is.

Zach Elwood: And if I was correct on my understanding, it wasn’t based on the situation at all, it was just purely an analysis of eye movements, regardless of the situation. They were going out in the real world and going to the shop and such, but the analysis was just purely on how their eyes moved and the traits of how their eyes moved. Is that correct?

Sabrina: Yes, exactly. So we only know kind of in a 2D setting how the eye moved, and we don’t even know what they were looking at. So we don’t make a distinction if that was a face or an object or the way, whatever.

Zach Elwood: Maybe you could talk about the specifics of what you found, what were the most interesting findings to you and how reliable were the findings and such?

Sabrina: So we looked into the big five, which would be five different personality traits. And then out of those five, we could actually detect four in the gaze. That was surprising, I would say, at first, because four out of five would be relatively broad. So it’s not just one specific trait of a human that you can detect, but actually kind of a range of potential personality traits. Plus we also looked into curiosity, which we could also detect, and the performance of our classifier, so of this machine learning method which we applied in the end was above chance. So quite clearly it’s not a finding that would have happened just by kind of random influences on the data, but the performance is not as great as you might expect. So if you just pick a person now and we apply the method on this one person, actually we would achieve at most something like a 50% chance to be right in what we do. However, why this is still interesting is that we took the personality scores for each person and we divided them into three classes. So we had people with a low score, a medium score and a high score. And then kind of chance level if you were guessing would be one third, and we reached something which is up to roughly one half, so it’s above chance level. And that’s basically the exciting part for this data science perspective and just the statistics, but it doesn’t mean that it’s actually super accurate for a single person.

Zach Elwood: So there were three classes of each personality trait. And chance would’ve been a third, but for the ones that predicted well, it was picking those at a 50% chance instead of a 33% chance. Is that basically what was happening?

Sabrina: Yes, exactly. Most of the scores were between 40 and 50%.

Zach Elwood: So what are the specific traits it predicted? Which ones stood out for you as being the most interesting and are you able to say what the actual eye movements were like for those traits?

Sabrina: So the big five that I just mentioned would be neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and contentiousness. And we could detect four, and the one we could not detect is openness. Now, I’m not sure I can make sense of that to be honest, I mean, it’s purely the finding just of our data. It does make sense to me that you can find extraversion, because as a human I would have this intuition that that is something I can see in other people. The way they look at me, I feel like I could judge if they would be willing to talk to new people and you know.

Zach Elwood: Right, they look around more, things like that.

Sabrina: Yeah. So that’s not a very scientific way to approach this, but intuitively to me, it makes sense that you can see extraversion in a gaze movement, in eye movements. On the other hand, somehow that’s also very related to openness actually, and you cannot detect openness. So certainly there would still be lots of room to look into what exactly now makes the difference between extraversion and openness. Why can you detect one but not the other?

Zach Elwood: I know in some machine learning studies there’s a bit of what they call the black box aspect, where you’re not really sure what exactly it’s finding. But I’m wondering if that’s true of this research, are you able to say exactly what it was finding that was correlated with these personality traits? For example, for neuroticism, are you able to say, what was it finding in the eye movements or otherwise that was correlated with neuroticism?

Sabrina: I guess with machine learning approaches, there’s always a little bit of this black box effect, but the method we chose at the time has it less than other methods at least. So normally in machine learning, there is the concept that you have the raw data, that would just be all this data that we recorded as you said. And then we extract something that we call features. So that would be you first analyze the gaze and you try to identify periods of time when the person executes a fixation, which would be gaze at one place for a longer period of time, typically in order to get information from this one place, and then there are saccades in which the person just jumps to the next point, those are like super rapid movements. And so there are different kinds of these movements, you analyze these. And then you extract numbers from them, how long did fixation on average take? What peak velocity did the quick movements reach? I don’t know, hundreds of them really. And afterwards we throw all of these measurements into our machine learning approach. And so at least we know what we extracted. So maybe for some reason because of prior work, for example, you could have a hypothesis that exactly the duration of fixations or something else has particular impact. And then we would be able to verify whether or not this was an important feature in our analysis. But the other way round, so just coming from what the classifier does in the end, it’s really hard to understand entirely what it’s doing, because it’s not based on a single feature, it’s this combination of hundreds of things and then they have some waiting factor and it’s really hard to tell after all. So what is it? It’s not like I as a human could say, “I try to learn this technique now, and I’m going to analyze exactly that.”

Zach Elwood: So is it accurate to say my understanding is for a lot of these machine learning studies, it’s kind of accurate to say that the machine knows something that we can’t know or find out. Is that accurate?

Sabrina: Yes, because we somehow cannot process so many small pieces of information which are seemingly maybe seemingly irrelevant or seemingly unrelated, we can’t process them together as a human, and the machine obviously doesn’t care.

Zach Elwood: If I want to know what the various data was, the specific movements and such related to neuroticism, for example, I can’t really know that, is that basically what you’re saying?

Sabrina: You can do an analysis in the end, so I could give you a ranking of which features were most important. You can know, yes, but it’s still not this one feature. It’s not like the algorithm selects one thing and then says, “That’s it, that makes a neurotic, but it’s always about this combination and that’s hard to grasp, but you could write down the math if you wanted.

Zach Elwood: Have you done that with the various personality traits? Have you shown which eye movements and such and kinds of eye movements were what it was finding in the analysis?

Sabrina: Yes, we did that. But that’s quite hard to decipher as a human.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, it’s pretty hard to… That was the challenge I was getting through. It was hard to find the summary, because like you’re saying, it’s taking into account so many things basically is what you’re saying.

Sabrina: Yes. So if you would check this table in our publication where we did this analysis, a lot of it is about what we call [n-gram] analysis. This would be sequences of eye movements. So if you think we have fixations, blinks, and saccades, then you could combine them in different ways. So it could go blink, saccade, blink or if it was linked three, you can do all sorts of combinations. And then there we just counted them and we analyzed which of the combinations of movements was the most frequent. And now you can say in the end that the most frequent movement which is consisting of three parts somehow seems to be more linked to openness than to others. But that’s very unintuitive I would say. So as a human, you go out of that and you’re like, “Okay, that’s the math, but what does it tell me?” And I think that’s where this black box effect comes in that you talk about. We can write down the math and we can show you what exact analysis we did and then we can score it, and we can tell you this was important, but it’s still not an explanation that a human is…

Zach Elwood: Right. It’s not easy to make sense of.

Sabrina: Exactly.

Zach Elwood: Probably getting into the realm of opinions and conjecture, but do you have opinions about what might be… For example, if we take neuroticism, it seems to be possible to imagine someone being neurotic and having a lot of eye movements or also having very little. For example, one can imagine different patterns existing, one can imagine scanning around for threats and such and being nervous in that way versus someone being kind of overwhelmed by sensory input or threats or whatever, the sense of threat, and kind of shutting down a bit and moving their eyes less. And I’m curious if you have any thoughts on the kinds of nuance and variations that might be involved in these kind of broad personality traits. We sometimes tend to give a general term to things that contain a whole lot of nuance.

Sabrina: Yes, definitely. I think this already starts with what these traits mean. I mean, how did we come up with the fact that there are these five factors in psychology, which is a quite widespread model for personality traits. And still the way that they were defined is basically just by looking at how we describe people. And I think in every language of the world, there are millions of words that you could use to describe another person. And then the research is around the, I think, 1950s or so, they try to figure out which of these descriptions typically come together and then try to identify only a few dimensions in which humans would typically differ. So this is somehow the collection of things which we now look at when we talk about one of these traits like neuroticism which has emerged from these verbal descriptions of people. But of course, it’s still because humans cover such a big variety and neuroticism–

Zach Elwood: And [unintelligible 19.04]

Sabrina: Yes, it’s such a collection of things that just by itself even the category we have there, detecting neuroticism, means all sorts of things. And then additionally, if we picked one, still I believe that it’s entirely possible that different people with this, let’s say, symptom of neuroticism exhibit a different case pattern, because for somebody it leads to slowing down, for the other person speeding up, who knows?

Zach Elwood: Yeah, and you can imagine the same for the PCI which I think is the perceptual curiosity index. And I think they called it perceptual curiosity because kind of in a similar way you can imagine there being different kinds of curiosity. You can imagine there being someone who’s curious about concepts and internal ideas, and that wouldn’t necessarily manifest as someone who seems more visual curious whose eyes move around to different places and such. Would you agree with that, that that also contains a lot of nuance there?

Sabrina: Yes, definitely. You’re right. So curiosity is a very broad term as well, and that’s why psychologists have invented subcategories such as perceptual curiosity. And then still perceptual curiosity could also just be directed towards sounds, and then why would that show up in your gaze? So even there we’re actually only targeting a subcategory, but I’m not aware of a default way to assess only the visual part of perceptual curiosity.

Zach Elwood: We talked about this a little bit, but what were the findings from this specific study that stood out the most to you as being interesting or surprising?

Sabrina: I think the most surprising one to me is just on a very high level that even if people just go out and follow some everyday kind of task, we can still do some prediction about their personality. I think it’s stunning that that works. And then we also checked if we look at the two ways, so the way to the shop and the way from the shop, but we cut out the shopping itself, do these measurements correlate? And then we compare the two situations, so the recording inside of the shop versus the recording on the way there and back. And actually they do correlate which means that even inside the shop or on the way, we’re kind of able to detect the personality traits. Now there are differences, the way there correlates better with the way back than with the time inside the shop. But still it’s there, and you can detect these personality traits sort of independent of this situation. And I think that’s quite interesting to see because there’s so much that changes, just the scene that people look at and you have to use your eyes in order to do the shopping and select your item you want to buy, there would be a person to talk to pay, maybe you meet somebody and so on.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, it is interesting that, and it makes sense instinctually that the way we experience the world would play out in how we look at things. There is an instinctual element to why these findings would exist.

Sabrina: Yes. And there are also studies for other types of how we perceive the world. So I know that there are studies about optimism. So optimists have a significantly different gaze at certain images than pessimist people.

Zach Elwood: Right. If I remember correctly, they were more likely to look away from bad negative images. Am I getting that right?

Sabrina: Yes. So I only recall one study in particular, probably there are more out there. But there is this one study where they presented skin cancer images to optimists and non-optimists, and then the finding was indeed that optimists tend to look less at the negative images while there’s no difference in sort of more neutral face images.

Zach Elwood: And there was another one that stood out to me, it involved doing trivia questions. And people who ranked as more curious, their eyes would look more towards the source, the incoming source of where the answers would come from later. And so there was this correlation between anticipatory eye movement basically and curiosity.

Sabrina: Ah, yes. That’s actually a good example for a well-controlled study. So it’s just participants who look at a specifically designed interface, and it’s designed in such a way that the answer would come from somewhere where there’s nothing else to see. So basically in the end you can really derive something about who was looking there and why would they look there.

Zach Elwood: And you’re saying, because it was so simple and there were so few factors to study, that it really was a well-designed study.

Sabrina: Yes, exactly. And then so maybe it’s a little less surprising that it works, so it seems more obvious that you can detect something. But this type of study makes it much more easy to derive thorough statements in the end. You really know it’s this anticipatory gaze, for instance. Maybe this occurred in our study, but actually we don’t know to be honest, because all sorts of things could have happened.

Zach Elwood: Right. It’s almost like yours is studying everything which includes all these minute things that people can find in these very specific studies, but yours is grouping all these various things together which makes it hard to disentangle.

Sabrina: Yes. And that’s then also this kind of computer science data analysis challenge which I personally like which would be, given this enormous mess of effect, can I still come up with something that would be able to detect one of them in the end?

Zach Elwood: So when it comes to maybe the more practical aspects of these kinds of studies, what do you see the practical aspects as?

Sabrina: We already discussed that actually the performance for you human that you would pick and where you try to detect which personality they may have is relatively low. So therefore I think the main application, if you would call that application, which is [B science], I would hope that it just inspires more people to look into eye movements or understanding humans in general which would just be research, basic research. And then if one day these methods would work better, I think there’s also wide range of applications where you could use them, just we’re not there yet. So this could just be something like smart gadgets that we have. It could be a household robot which is able to detect what personality does my owner have and then react to that. Maybe you need to talk more to an extrovert person as a robot than you would need to talk to somebody who’s less extrovert. Or maybe it’s about teaching scenarios. So if there is a remote tool that students are supposed to be using in order to learn something, then it would be useful probably if the tool could automatically realize what kind of kid is it sitting in front and how could I motivate them in order to learn. Because there, again, maybe you need to talk differently to them depending on their personality. And finally, I think probably there are also opportunities for clinical usage. So being able to understand gaze more holistically I think would also enable us to kind of filter out the relevant information for specific gaze-related symptoms that clinical patients would have. So normally of course, we don’t look at their personality so much, but there I’m more thinking if you record gaze from a patient who has some symptoms which are gaze-related, then it would be nice if you could kind of subtract the impact that their personality has in order to be left with only the signal that you’re actually interested in.

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Zach Elwood: Yeah. It makes me think of futuristic therapy scenarios where somebody walks into a therapist’s office and they get scanned in various ways. And it’s almost like it would pick up some pieces of information from their eye movements, some from their tone of voice, maybe some from their actual content. And it just makes me think of these scenarios where all these things combined could be a quicker way to get started and diagnose what people are suffering from theoretically.

Sabrina: Right, yes, I could imagine that as well.

Zach Elwood: Very far off obviously, but just thinking about potential future applications.

Sabrina: Yeah, and slightly scary.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, a little scary.

Sabrina: I’m not sure that’s the kind of setting where I envision myself to be proud of, “Oh, see, look, that’s where it led us.” I guess it would be possible.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of risks of even if it’s done well, those kind of things are exactly the kind of things that make people nervous, the kind of people suffering from those things. So it’s kind of a catch 22, even if it was very well done. Feeling like there’s some machine analyzing you is exactly what many people suffering from delusions think. So there can be some problems with that. So I was curious, with the kinds of correlations found in your study and other eye tracking and personality studies, do you think some of those things it finds are pointing to things that people know kind of instinctually that we may just not know consciously? For example, we sometimes get a sense of how people are and what their personalities are from interacting with them, and maybe some of those things that we’re gathering from people in an instinctual social way are some of the things these studies are finding in a more explicit way. Do you think that’s possible?

Sabrina: Yes, I would agree to that. So I also have the impression that we do have a lot of knowledge just as human very implicitly, in particular about other humans, that’s kind of our daily business dealing with them. And I think looking somebody in the eye or watching other people is a very good example. Humans are really trained to have some impression of another person. It’s like this first impression just within a few seconds you have made so many decisions about the other person. And none of us can put into words how we would do that. It’s actually quite an incredible skill. And we are very, very far away from doing this with something like artificial intelligence or with… So just being able to say what it works like, but then also building something which does the same analysis is near impossible. But I think you’re right that with a lot of studies, and in particular with these more controlled, well designed studies, researchers try to get closer to understanding what exactly it is.

Zach Elwood: I think the uncertainty and the noise in the data, the ambiguity in the data, from the other side it helps explain how badly our human instincts can go wrong too. For example, we sometimes have these mistaken assumptions about other people, these kind of stereotypes. So if someone’s not looking us in the eye or their eyes seem shifty as we call them, we can have the instinct that they’re not trustworthy or such, but it could just be that they’re nervous and they’re completely trustworthy and completely friendly. But just in that moment, these instincts can go bad. So there’s kind of like this flip side. I guess the practical takeaway might be just recognizing how much nuance there is and how much complexity there is in human behavior.

Sabrina: Definitely, yes, you’re right. And there’s also quite a lot of research on machine learning where a system tries to learn something which humans are already able to do or which humans have done in the past, and then it’s actually a problem that this AI if it just learns from human behavior will also learn negative aspects on this human behavior. So for instance, if you’re thinking of building some autonomous hiring tool which some human resource department could use to decide if this is the right candidate or not, if in the past all the decisions that the system sees in order to learn from if they were somehow racist or sexist or have any other kind of bias which is actually unwanted, the machine learning methods are really good at picking them up unfortunately, because they just look at these statistical relations. And if the numbers point to most likely this person would not be hired, then they’re not going to be hired in the future as well.

Zach Elwood: Right, it’s just learning from our patterns. Yeah, exactly. It’s like the studies that show people who have racial minority associated last names are less likely to be hired or whatever it is. It’s going to learn from our bad habits or whatever.

Sabrina: Yes, exactly. So there we need to be really careful because on the one hand, of course, it’s very fascinating what humans can do and how there are amazing people out there who know which person would be good at a job or not. But then if you just collect any data, it’s also quite likely that it inherits flaws that humans have in their judgment.

Zach Elwood: I’m curious, with your work on eye tracking and psychology, do you feel like in your personal life you’ve become a better reader of people? And if so, how has that played out if at all?

Sabrina: So I think the biggest impact was actually thinking about personality or psychology in general, that has definitely affected my personal life as well. But this particular work that we have talked about in doing these data analysis, I don’t think that really had an impact. Because as we discussed before, the types of eye movement, characteristics that we looked at are not very intuitive. So I don’t think any precise knowledge there made it into my personal perception. What does happen more likely is actually that you realize much more about your own gaze. So after spending hours of analyzing where people would look or not look, I did have some episodes in my life where I’m just walking along somewhere and then suddenly I become aware and I’m like, “Oh, see, now you looked at this and that and here, and why did you not look at this stimulus?” That’s more this self-observation maybe.

Zach Elwood: Which is interesting, I think that’s where a lot of ideas for research comes from, it’s examining your own instincts and being like, “Oh, maybe there’s something here.”

Sabrina: True, yes.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. I think a lot about eye movements and gaze just because I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression in my life. So I sometimes have thought about how the eye movements relate to that and how I’ve sometimes felt self-conscious because I felt like my eye movements were restricted and that was an indicator of… My eye movements were very locked down and anxious seeming in the sense that they were more frozen, and I’ve sometimes felt self-conscious of that as an indicator of anxiety. So I’ve had a lot of reasons to think about that and dwell on it maybe a bit more than I should, but yeah, I have had similar experiences of thinking about how those relate to personality.

Sabrina: Yeah. And there are quite some studies which look at links between eye movements and anxiety, so definitely you’re not the only person who had this idea.

Zach Elwood: I should look into that. That’s one area I didn’t look at at all. Any other things that we haven’t touched on that you think would be interesting to this audience maybe about that study?

Sabrina: One thing I found quite interesting is actually also on the data analysis side, and that is that I told you before that we discriminated people into three classes. So for each of the scales that we looked at, there would be people with low scores, medium, and high scores. And then actually one thing you always have to keep in mind with these studies is that in the world’s population, kind of medium personality traits are most common, far most common. And so actually these classes are designed such that they roughly have the same number of samples, but this actually also means that the middle class is really narrow in comparison to relatively large ones for low and high scores. And somehow this is an inherent effect because how would you recruit people with a really extreme personality? It’s very hard to get. But I think it would be interesting if somebody managed to get these participants to look at what really extreme personality leads to in terms of eye movements.

Zach Elwood: Do you want to share about other… Are you working on other work related to eye movements or other psychology work in general?

Sabrina: No, unfortunately, no. I changed a bit. So my field of research at the moment is more in robotics and data analysis, so kind of back to my computer science roots. So I have to say no, but I think my co-authors, all of them, are still in the field. So definitely there’s a lot of interesting work going on.

Zach Elwood: So I was curious, it seemed like you had 42 maybe subjects in the study, and I could just be pretty ignorant on scientific studies, but sometimes I think about these studies is that the sample size seems small, but am I just off base on that? And maybe you could talk a little bit about the sample size and why that’s an okay number to get a statistically significant finding from.

Sabrina: So on the one hand, I think your iteration is entirely right, that more people would’ve been better in any case. But this is probably true for every single study ever. As long as it’s data-driven, the more samples you have, the more reliably you can detect something. And then also the more subjects we have, the more we actually cover the scales of personality. But the other aspect to consider is just practicality. So you really need to find these people, they need to volunteer to participate in your study, and then they come in and you need to set up the eye tracking machinery, and then they need to fulfill the task, they need to go through some questionnaires. So it really just causes hours and hours of work. And so in practice, you need to find a balance somewhere. Now, if you wanted to do one of these restricted studies in the lab, there are actually statistical analysis that you can do beforehand. So if you have particular assumptions like let’s say I assume the personality score is actually following a Gauss distribution and I want to detect some hypothesis with a particular significance level, so I can set this to some percentage and I expect the effect to be of a certain size. In this particular setting, you can actually do the math and you would get a number. You need at least, I don’t know, 50 people in order to detect your hypotheses with 90% probability if the hypothesis is true. So this exists, but in our case, since it’s one of the more exploratory, just sending people out into the world and then we apply machine learning, which is a slightly different setting, this is not possible or I’m not aware of how you could derive this number mathematically. So basically what we do is just looking at previous studies, how many participants that they have, and then what’s our experience with past studies we did, so we somehow set the number.

Zach Elwood: And for your study, if I was understanding it correctly, you were actually doing multiple runs where you would choose one set of the subjects as the analysis group and then another set of the subjects as the ones that you would try to predict for. Was I getting that right? That basically you were making multiple runs to both train the algorithm and make predictions for the remaining subjects?

Sabrina: Yes. So the way we train the algorithm in computer science is called cross-validation. And this means that we divide all the data that we have, and in particular the people that we have into these different sets. But if you only said, “Okay, I take, let’s say, the first 30 people as my training set, I train my algorithm on this data, and then I evaluate on the other 10,” you would actually run into trouble if these 10%, if these 10 people in your test set are somehow not representative. So I mean, by chance maybe no person with high neuroticism is among these 10 people, so to correct for this effect, what you do is you do multiple of these splits. So let’s say once you really take the first 30 people for training and you evaluate on other people, and then in the next round, you actually take people 10 to 40 and you would test on the first 10 and so on. So you shuffle the data multiple times.

Zach Elwood: That’s great. I think we’ve covered a lot. Is there anything else you want to mention about work you’re doing or things you’re excited about?

Sabrina: No, actually I can’t think of something right now.

Zach Elwood: Well, thanks a lot Sabrina for coming on. This has been very interesting and thanks for taking the time.

Sabrina: Yeah, thank you.

Zach Elwood: That was Sabrina Hoppe. You can learn more about Sabrina’s research by looking at her Google Scholar page. 

If you’d like to see some of the studies discussed in this talk, go to my site behavior-podcast and look at this episode’s entry. 

This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. If you like this podcast, please leave it a review on Apple Podcasts. That would be hugely appreciated. 

Thanks for listening.

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Questioning if body language is useful for detecting lies, with Tim Levine

A talk with communication researcher Tim Levine about nonverbal behavior and deception detection. Tim Levine is the author of Duped: Truth-Default Theory and the Social Science of Lying and Deception. His work was featured in Malcom Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers. Transcript is at bottom of this post.

Topics discussed include: what the research tells us about the usefulness of nonverbal behavior for detecting deception; why it’s so hard to find indicators of deception; common myths about nonverbal behavior; why we expect others to tell us the truth and why we tend to tell the truth; Paul Ekman’s work, including micro-expressions and “truth wizards”; the differences between analyzing verbal content and nonverbal behavior; the TV show Lie to Me; poker tells; and more.

Episode links:

Resources discussed in this episode or related to the topic:

TRANSCRIPT

Zach Elwood: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding other people, and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at behavior-podcast.com. If you’re interested in deception detection, I have several related episodes; for example, I have an episode where I talk to David Zulawski about interrogation techniques, and one where I talk to Mark McClish about analyzing statements for hidden meaning. And quite a few others that are related.

As humans, we tend to think that we’re pretty good at spotting when people are lying. But research shows that almost all of us are quite bad at telling when people are lying. The existing research shows that, as a group, we’re slightly better than chance at detecting deception.

We also tend to think that there are certain behaviors that are associated with lying; for example, not making eye contact and having shifty eyes, or being physically fidgety or stumbling over words. But research shows that there’s almost no reliable information in such behavioral cues; there’s a lot of variation.

Tim Levine is a communication researcher who has studied deception detection for more than 30 years. He has a book called Duped: Truth-Default Theory and the Social Science of Lying and Deception. In that book, he criticizes some of the more popular theories of deception detection – for example, some of Paul Ekman’s well known ideas – and he presents a new theory called Truth-Default Theory, which he says explains a lot of the findings in this area that other theories can’t explain.

To quote from his book Duped:

My objectives here are ambitious and radical. I want to start a revolution. I seek to overthrow existing deception theory and provide a new, coherent, and data-consistent approach to understanding deception and deception detection. For more than twenty-five years, I have seen a need for a new theory of deception and deception detection. Ekman’s idea of leakage was hugely influential, but the deficiencies were apparent almost immediately. His focus shifted over time from the leakage hierarchy to a focus on the face and micro-expressions. But my read of the ensuing literature reveals more excuses for why the data do not seem to support his theory than solid, replicated, affirmative scientific support. Interpersonal deception theory is even less viable. It is logically incoherent, and I knew it to be empirically false four years before it was eventually published. The new cognitive load approach in criminal and legal psychology does not seem to be the path forward either, for the theoretical reasons identified by Steve McCornack, as well as weak, inconsistent, and just plain odd empirical findings. The need is clear. Existing theory does not cut it. A new perspective is needed. [end quote]

If you’re someone interested in understanding behavior and detecting deception, I think Tim’s book is a must-read. If you happened to have read Malcolm Gladwell’s 2019 book Talking to Strangers, you might recall that Gladwell talks about Levine’s theories in that book.

A little more about Tim: he’s a Distinguished Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the Chair of Communication Studies. If you’d like to learn more about him, just search online for ‘tim levine psychology’ and you’ll find his website and his wikipedia page.

If you didn’t already know, my own main claim to fame is my work on poker tells. I’ve written three books on poker tells, and I have a video series. I’ve also worked at analyzing tells for several high-stakes poker players; two of them were World Series of Poker Main Event final table players who were playing for millions of dollars and wanted to look for behavioral patterns in their opponents or in themselves. And my work has been called the best work in this area by many poker players, and that includes some professional high-stakes poker players.

And some people might assume that, because I’ve worked on poker tells, that I’d disagree with Levine’s work, or find it disappointing. But I don’t: I’ve always been skeptical about the idea that there’s much value from studying behavior in real-world situations like interviews, speeches, and interrogations. When people have asked for my takes on such things, I will tell them I think that it’s mostly a waste of time to concentrate on such things, and that I have very few opinions on such things, because there’s simply just so much variance. There’s many reasons why, for example, someone who’s innocent might be or seem anxious. I do think there’s a lot of interesting patterns when it comes to verbal behavior, the actual content of what someone says, but I’m pretty skeptical about getting a lot of value from nonverbal behaviors, although I think there’s a lot more use for such things in games and sports.

And I also think that poker, and most competitive games, are completely unlike the scenarios studied in most deception detection setups; and also completely unlike interrogations and interviews. Many of the reliable tells in poker are not even related to deception detection, but more just related to the tendency people have to leak their level of relaxation when they’ve got a strong hand, which isn’t related to deception but more just about people sometimes feeling good and having fun, and not being as fully stoic and unreadable as they could be. To take another example: some tells in poker are related to being mentally focused or unfocused, and those kinds of tells are also not related to deception detection. And for another example: some tells in poker are about someone not wanting to draw attention to a strong hand, in a similar way that people in competitive situations don’t like to draw attention in general to their “treasure”, so to speak, and that can manifest as, for example, a player being less likely to stare at strong cards and more willing to look away from strong cards, things like this. There’s just a whole lot of differences I could name. And all that said, I always try to make it clear that tells are a small part of poker; I think they can add at most something like 15% to a poker player’s win rate, but for most people it’ll be significantly less.

In this talk, Tim and I do talk a little bit about poker tells, but if you’d like to hear more about that, I’ll add some more thoughts at the end.

Another reason I find Tim Levine’s work so interesting is that we are surrounded by a lot of bullshit when it comes to reading behavior. I’ll give a specific example, as I think it’s just such an egregious example; there’s a so-called behavior expert named Jack Brown, who’s main credential seems to be having a lot of Twitter followers. As I’m writing this, he has 167,000 Twitter followers. You can find him often making extremely confident claims on Twitter about people’s behaviors that are just so off-base from what real research and even common sense would tell us. And people eat this stuff up. He is regarded by many on Twitter as an actual expert in behavior, despite just being so clearly wrong and irresponsible in so many ways.

To take one example: Jack Brown promotes the very debunked idea that you can tell if someone’s being deceptive or not based on the direction of their gaze. So that’s a pretty big giveaway right there of the quality of his analysis. He also makes very confident pronouncements about what people’s behaviors mean, based on very ambiguous and high-variance behaviors that just simply don’t contain any interesting or meaningful information. To give one example: he once confidently proclaimed that Trump is quote “a severe, long-term drug abuser” end quote, and that he believed that Trump had a hole in his hard palate from cocaine abuse. He often confidently states that public figures are exhibiting signs of deception and shame and guilt in interviews, based on them exhibiting very common and very ambiguous behaviors. And the long story short of why so many of the behaviors he draws attention to aren’t reliable or interesting is that there are many reasons people can be or seem anxious that have nothing to do with guilt or deception.

So-called behavior experts like Jack Brown are basically trying to squeeze blood from a stone. They want you to think they have this amazing secret knowledge that gives them amazing insight into people’s motivations and what they’re hiding. If you’d like to read a piece I wrote about this guy and see some examples of what I’m talking about, just search online for ‘jack brown behavior’ and the piece I wrote should come up pretty prominent; you can also find it on my readingpokertells.com site, on my blog there.

And so Tim Levine’s work is important for making us more skeptical of such things, and drawing more attention to how little we’re able to read people. People interested in reading behavior should recognize the uncertainty present in these areas; they should avoid trusting the Jack Browns of the world. We should be skeptical of people who make confident pronouncements that, for example, public figures are lying or hiding something based on reading their nonverbal behavior. Because often those ideas, if we absorb them, will just be reinforcing our biases about people and actually make us worse at navigating the world. For example, when people listen to Jack Brown and think that they can now read these common and ambiguous behaviors and tell that someone is lying, people will use that to filter the world through their existing biases, while feeling that they’re doing something sophisticated and smart. It lends a veneer of respectability to our biases. And this stuff lends itself to, for example, police interrogators or job interviewers being highly confident about someone’s guilt or abilities when they really shouldn’t be; these things have real-world negative effects on people’s lives. And such things even add to our us-versus-them polarization, in terms of someone being more likely to see a political leader speak and think something like ‘oh, see, Hillary Clinton lowered her gaze at that question; I saw Jack Brown talk about that; I know she’s lying.’ These bullshit ideas lend themselves to what I see as one of our biggest problems: being too certain about others and too certain about the world. I think uncertainty and humility are needed more than ever.

I think combating bad and simplistic ideas about behavior is important. I think that drawing attention to nuance is important. And so I think Tim Levine’s work is important.

Okay, here’s the interview with Tim Levine.

Zach: Hi Tim, thanks for coming on.

Tim Levine: Oh, happy to be here.

Zach: So maybe we could start with how I first learned about your work which was a study you did about the show Lie to Me. Could you talk a little bit about what that study found?

Tim Levine: Sure, that’s a fun study. First to lay out just the general experiment, research participants come in, they do a standard lie detection task where they have to watch several interviews, some of which the people are lying, some of which the people are telling the truth. And those interviews are scored to see how well they do, scored just like a true/false test. In the experiment part of it, people either just did the task normally or one third of the people, based on random assignment, watch the TV show Lie to Me, which is about a psychologist who can detect lies based on nonverbal communication, it’s based on the work of Paul Ekman. And another control group watched a different crime show called Numbers in which people solve crimes through, it’s a math professor who solves crimes through math. And then the third control was just not watching any show at all. What the findings were is there wasn’t really much difference between the two groups. If anything, the people who watched Lie to Me were a little worse at detecting deception, and the show tended to make them more cynical, but it didn’t make them any better at lie detection. And the reason is because nonverbal things just really aren’t very useful in lie detection.

Zach: One of the things you talk about in your paper was the show makes a claim, I’m not sure if it made it once or if it keeps repeating in the show, I’ve only seen one episode of the show, but the show repeats the claim that people lie really often, I think it says three times in 10 minutes. And can you talk a little bit about that and what they got so wrong about that idea?

Tim Levine: Yeah, they actually used that in their promotional materials and it was on their website. And unlike some claims about how often people lie with the implication of people lie all the time, this particular claim actually has a basis in research, but totally taken out of context. So the experimented question was people had to come in and they were told to make a good impression on somebody else. People presumably took that instruction as make an unrealistically good impression on other people. So if you come into a lab setting and you’re told what you understand to be make an overly good impression, then people follow instructions and do that and as a consequence say up to three false things in 10 minutes. On the other hand, if you’re just normal… So in the first 10 minutes of this podcast, chances are there won’t be any lies probably during the whole thing.

Zach: Yeah. If you were to ask me how many lies I’ve told recently, I mean, I would be hard pressed to think of a situation where I lied recently. So yeah, I think it’s a very pervasive misunderstanding. It kind of reminds me of the common myth that’s so often repeated that nonverbal communication makes up most communication. For example, I was just Googling now and saw one of the top things was most experts agree that 70 to 93% of all communication is nonverbal.

Tim Levine: Oh, false. Oh, that is so wrong. I mean, it says that in books, it says that in textbooks.

Zach: Exactly, yeah. It’s wild. It’s just wild how pervasive these myths are. Do you see these kinds of things as related and are there other things in this area that you often see repeated even though there’s no good reason for them?

Tim Levine: Oh yeah. But before we get there, let me give your listeners a little background on where that most communication is nonverbal finding comes from.

Zach: Yeah, that’d be great.

Tim Levine: So the actual finding was when what we’re doing nonverbally contradicts what we’re saying verbally, then people will often believe what is done nonverbally over what people do verbally. But that most communication is nonverbal is just ludicrous because how could we possibly do this podcast nonverbally? I’m making all these great expressions, communicating very expressively and using all this body language, and you can’t see it. Now you can get the tone in my voice, but if we stripped out the content of the words and you’re just hearing the tone in my voice and you’re hearing me get a little bit excited about this topic, you could take that away, but that would be just a tiny, tiny, tiny little bit of the message. Most communication is conveyed through the words.

Zach: Yeah, and that totally relates. And I almost didn’t realize how much it relates to your truth default theory until talking about it now, and we’ll talk more about that later. But getting back to one very important point you make in your work is about how important it is that lies are rare and understanding that point. So when you’re trying to determine if someone is good or not at detecting deception, it matters a whole lot how many lies are in the mix. And I think you relate this to something you call the veracity effect, and maybe you can talk a little bit about that angle.

Tim Levine: Sure. So one of the oldest findings in lie detection research is something called truth bias. My good friend, Steve McCornack, coined the term in his undergraduate research. He now works with me at my university. The idea is that if you see a bunch of communication and you’re asked to guess, “True or false? Do you think they’re lying or telling the truth?” People guess true more often than lie completely independently of whether they’re seeing a truth or a lie. And so this is called truth bias, people guess true more often. So the veracity effect is an idea by a professor named Hee Sun Park, who saw rather obviously. But before she saw it, people didn’t really tune into this, that if you think most things are true, then you’re going to be right when they are true, but you’re going to be wrong when they’re lies. So for example, the average across hundreds of studies of lie detection is people are just 54%, a little bit better than 50/50. But if you break it out by truth and lies, people are better on truths. And the more truth bias, the more better they are in truths and they’re worse on lies, so accuracy is below 50% for lies. And the more truth bias, then the worse they are at detecting lies per se. And the veracity effect is simply the difference between your accuracy for truths and your accuracy for lies. The consequence of this is it the best predictor of whether you’re going to be right in deception detection is the honesty of the person you’re talking to. So if you’re talking to somebody who’s honest and you believe them, you’re going to be right. Not because you’re good at this, but just by chance. But if they’re lying, you’re going to be wrong about this. Well, now, if most communication is honest most of the time, then people are right most of the time. And lie detection experiments create a very unrealistic portrayal because lies are much more prevalent in deception studies than they are in the actual world.

Zach: Yeah. And to tie this back to your Lie to Me study, one of the points you make in your book Duped and elsewhere is that simply if you’re in a test situation or just the fact that we are so prone to believe people, if you give anyone any sort of education no matter how bad it is about deception training, it will make them detect lies more often simply because we are prone to believe people. So for example, if you watch Lie to Me, even if the information is bad, you’re going to increase your ability to detect a lie a bit just from being more skeptical. And maybe you could talk a little bit about that and how that ties into maybe the perception that doing any sort of detection training or education can make it seem like you’re actually becoming better at detecting deception.

Tim Levine: Yeah, but it almost always comes at the cost of getting more errors about–

Zach: Exactly, you’re not getting better, it just seems that way if you’re in an environment where you’re being made to find lies like in a study environment where they’re giving you more lies than you find in your everyday life. So it seems like you’re getting better at it, but you’re actually getting better at the cost of detecting accurately when people are telling the truth.

Tim Levine: Yeah. So cynicism only works well in an environment where there’s a big risk of being deceived about something important.

Zach: Right, which isn’t the case for our day to day lives, which is the basis of the truth default theory that there’s reasons for why we have a bias for finding things true. Maybe you could talk a little bit about what sets the truth default theory apart. That was one thing that was a little bit hard to understand how this was such a revolutionary idea differing from the previous ideas.

Tim Levine: So we already talked a little bit about truth bias and the veracity effect. So let me now talk about how defaulting to the truth is a little different. So in the standard deception detection experiment that’s done in the social sciences, people see some collection of truths and lies and then they’re asked, “Do you think this is lie or do you think it’s truth?” Now, the second I ask you to judge or to make that assessment, now you know this is a lie detection task. But in everyday communication situations like you’re just sitting around listening to a podcast, if the podcast isn’t about deception and maybe even if it is, is that true isn’t necessarily coming to mind unless prompted. So the idea of the truth default is unless there’s something to get you thinking about it, the idea of truth, falsity, honesty, deception just don’t even come to mind. So if I’m showing you now I do the study a different way and I’m showing you interaction between two people, and I’m just asking you open-ended, “What are you thinking about?” The idea that one of them might be lying to the other just doesn’t come to mind. People are thinking about what they’re wearing, they’re thinking about their mannerisms, their idiosyncrasies, they’re thinking about the content of what’s said, and they just kind of accept it at face value. It’s remarkably difficult in a lot of circumstances to knock people out of their just passive belief and get them to be skeptical. Now, there are times when we can be skeptical, we know somebody’s trying to sell us something, we’re hearing people we disagree with or unpopular ideas, then suspicion can be triggered. But in much of our daily life that just doesn’t happen. We’re on this communication autopilot where what we say is honest unless we have a reason not to be honest, and we believe people unless we have a good reason, strong reason not to believe.

Zach: So if I’m understanding it correctly, Hee Sun Park’s big contribution, big awareness, the revolutionary thing was that she realized that all of these studies that were being done were basically biasing the experiment by getting people skeptical from the beginning by the questions. So basically it was throwing off all the results. Is that accurate?

Tim Levine: I think the statement’s accurate, I think that’s more kind of a later implication of her idea. I think she had two really big ideas. First was the idea that accuracy’s different for truths than for lies, which is the veracity effect. Related to that, what matters is the ratio of truths and lies in the environment, that’s one of her really important things. And she had another really important thing which we haven’t talked about yet, which is that most lies are detected after the fact. So most of the times we do actually detect lies in real life, we’re not detecting them in real time based on how people are coming off, but the truth tends to come to light at some later point in time.

Zach: Yeah, it’s kind of you might have a suspicion once you get into the skeptical realm of thinking someone might be lying, but you’re not going to really know it’s a lie until you actually confirm it with real evidence or something.

Tim Levine: Yeah, exactly.

Zach: So let’s talk about the nonverbal behaviors, and you obviously take a very skeptical stance on the idea that there’s much relevant or reliable information to study when it comes to nonverbal behavior in the realm of detecting lies, detecting deception. Can you talk a little bit about the main reasons for why you believe that, for example, based on the meta-analysis studies and other things?

Tim Levine: Sure. Well, first off, my position is that nonverbal things are incredibly important in how people are perceived. What I doubt is the diagnostic value of nonverbal things, that is that they have a set fixed meaning, especially when it comes to truths and lies. So almost everybody everywhere believes that you can tell when somebody’s lying because of some set of nonverbal things. The most common belief, folk belief, is probably that liars won’t look you in the eye. And that’s been found pan-culturally.

Zach: That people believe that.

Tim Levine: Yeah, people everywhere believe that.

Zach: The shifty eyes thing.

Tim Levine: Yeah. It just has no validity at all. Last I saw almost 50 studies of this, and the average difference in eye gaze between liars and telling the truth is zero. So there’s been decades and decades and decades of research trying to find kind of the magic tell for deception and either linguistic behavior or more commonly nonverbal things. So there’s all these studies that look at what liars are doing and what honest people are doing and looking for differences in them. And a lot of studies find that this difference or that difference happens. The trouble is the next study finds the exact opposite thing or nothing at all. So when you plot out findings of all these studies over time, they just don’t hold up. And the more they’re studied, the less difference, the less the average difference between truths and lies. So you reference meta-analysis, for the listeners who don’t know, a meta-analysis is simply a study of studies, so we’re looking at trends across a whole bunch of different studies. And what I noticed when I was looking at meta-analyses of nonverbal cues and deception detection is that the more a given nonverbal behavior was studied, the less difference it made in research. Which suggested to me that the findings that were there were probably smoke and mirrors.

Zach: Right, it was reverting to the mean kind of idea.

Tim Levine: Yeah, where the mean was zero.

Zach: Another common conception or maybe it actually has some truth is the voice pitch thing, but it seems very slightly reliable or do you think that’s not reliable either?

Tim Levine: It depends on reliable in what sense. So if we analyzed a couple hundred people who are telling the truth and a couple hundred liars, on average liars have a slightly higher about two-tenths of a standard deviation higher vocal pitch. But to use it as a lie detection tool in any one person it’s just completely useless.

Zach: If it’s there, it’s just so small.

Tim Levine: Yeah. So maybe a baseball analogy, somebody who has a 0.3 batting average is more likely to get a hit than somebody who has a 0.2 batting average. But that doesn’t mean that the person with 0.3 average is going to get a hit and the person with 0.2 isn’t if that makes sense.

Zach: Yeah. And if I was understanding this correctly in your book, I think you were making a point about the difference between something… We talk about something being statistically significant, and sometimes that seems to be people will interpret that as being actually significant. Was I understanding that correctly that there’s some like confusion or language confusion there that people talk about things that are statistically significant as if they’re very meaningful or something?

Tim Levine: Yeah, that’s an unfortunate term. Statistically, what it means is that a finding of absolutely no difference across a large number of people would be sufficiently improbable to presume that there’s something there. So it’s a statement of probability, but it’s even worse than that because the math behind it presumes that you’re only testing one hypothesis. And the trouble that with modern research is people are using a probability statement for testing one hypothesis when they’re actually testing a whole bunch of things statistically. So that probability doesn’t have that meaning anymore. But that’s way too statistically nerdy probably.

Zach: Is it accurate to say that some people, say lay people, will see something about significance and think like, “Oh, it’s significant,” which might explain how some of these misperceptions about nonverbal behavior gets started in the common audience. Do you think that’s–

Tim Levine: Yeah, that’s accurate, I think, but it’s also accurate that 90% of professional researchers or 95% also think that.

Zach: Okay.

Tim Levine: So it’s not just lay people and it’s not just the media, these kind of misunderstandings are more widespread than that.

Zach: Does that get into the replication errors area of people interpreting the results of things too confidently or mistakenly?

Tim Levine: That’s my read on it. So social sciences are undergoing a huge replication crisis where findings in the best peer review journals just aren’t holding up at a really disturbingly low rate, and findings are almost always small. It is not just deception cues, findings are generally smaller when they’re studied again. My read on why that’s the case is this opportunistic use of statistics. They’re using this statistical idea of significance in a way that really is not justified probabilistically.

Zach: A small note here, if you’d like to learn more about what Tim was talking about, you can Google the research replication problem. Long story short though, what Tim was referring to was the fact that if you collect a whole bunch of data, you’ll end up finding some correlations in the data that may seem interesting, but may just be due to randomness and the fact that you’ve gathered so much data that some random correlations are likely to be present. And that aspect can help explain why some findings are hard to replicate later. I actually talked to a previous guest about this if you’re interested. I talked to Brandon Shiels about his poker tells research, and we spent some time talking about the problem of finding illusory correlations in data and how one way to combat that is with pre-registering your research, which requires you to write down your predictions beforehand so that any correlations found are things that were theorized about and less likely to be a random illusory thing. Okay, back to the interview.

So getting back to why it is so hard to find reliable nonverbal behaviors tied to deception, I mean, I think basically it’s not surprising to me because humans are just good at deceiving. I mean, it’s not surprising that we have control over our behaviors in a pretty good way most of us. So I think that helps explain it. I think the question that you sometimes see the question, well, why is it so hard to detect deception? It’s almost like, well, why would it be easy to detect deception? I’m curious if you have any thoughts on that.

Tim Levine: Yeah, I think that’s half the answer. So I think for most of us, but not all of us, by the time kind of we get through high school we’re pretty good about telling a lie if we need to. I think there are probably a few people out there who can’t lie well. I know just anecdotally if you ask people, some people say, “Nah, I can’t do this.” And I suspect they can’t and they don’t lie very much because they know they can’t. But I think there’s another reason too, and this really gets at the heart of the idea of the truth fault is that there’s probably no single thing more important to humans than our ability to communicate. Humans are able to share information and pass down knowledge which makes all our technological and scientific advances possible. We are able to cooperate and work together which enables all kind of modern production. And it enables us to make friends and form good professional, social, personal relationships, which is incredibly important to our wellbeing and physical health. Communication only works if you can trust what’s communicated. If you have to second guess everything, you can’t really learn anything because everything’s uncertain. You can’t work together because you don’t know that you can trust the other person you’re supposed to work with. You can’t form relationships because you can’t trust this person. So if we can’t trust other people and what they say, and if communication loses its functionality, and this is just way, way, way too important to us, we have to believe other people. Because if you did the kind of thought experiment of what it would be like if we didn’t believe anything we communicated, we would absolutely absolutely be lost. If you can’t trust, you can’t get on a plane, you can’t get in your car. You can’t drive through a green light if you don’t believe the people on the red light are going to stop. Functioning requires this. So I think it’s not only that people can tell good lies, but it’s that we have to believe them as the business as usual. It’s not that we can’t, suspicion can be triggered. But as our kind of business as usual default mode of working, we have to have to have to take things at face value because otherwise we just immediately get bogged down. It has to be this way.

Zach: To get off topic a little bit getting into the fake news and misinformation area, so many people focus on the idea that like, “Oh, we need to get people to believe the right things, the things that we believe.” And I think that’s actually a mistaken goal. I mean, for one thing, it’s never going to happen. But the second reason is I think we actually just need more people to be as equally skeptical of everything as they are of the things that they perceive as biased. For example, for people who doubt the mainstream media and think it’s mistaken and biased and corrupt or whatever, we need those people to not trust random theories they see on Facebook or whatever. We just need more skepticism and less truth default for things across the board. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on that.

Tim Levine: No, I could not agree more.

Zach: So to get back to the people who aren’t good at lying, which is a very important point in your work too when it comes to explaining the slight ability across meta-analysis, the 54% ability to detect deception in these studies, the general average, the slightly better than chance average, you point out that some of that is just due to some percentage of the population being pretty bad at lying, at deceiving. Would you say that’s basically because they’re portraying the stereotypical behaviors that we have that we associate with lying like not being good at eye contact or stumbling in their words, those kinds of things?

Tim Levine: Yeah, I think that’s exactly what’s going on. There’s also another group of people who just come off, what I would call the transparent liars. They’re transparent. When they’re telling the truth, you know they’re telling the truth, but they just can’t lie. So there’s some people who are kind of the opposite of poker face people, you know exactly what’s in their hand. And we tend to get those people right. But there’s this other group of people which is probably larger which I call the mismatched folks, and they come off differently than they are. So if you think about people who are perfectly honest but who have social anxiety or maybe they’re a little bit on the autism spectrum. So they’re doing these things that people associate with deception, but they’re honest. So people tend to systematically get those people wrong, and that’s part of the thing that pushes accuracy down towards chance. So there’s these transparent liars that makes accuracy better than 50/50, but then these people who are mismatched who keep us from being very good at it.

Zach: Yeah, and the interesting thing too is for the people that are bad at lying, that have the stereotypical behaviors and are more easily caught in these kinds of studies, it’s actually almost meaningless to judge them on a case by case basis because in a practical sense the only way you would actually be able to catch that person lying in a meaningful, reliable sense is if you studied how they behave when they’re telling the truth and how they behave when they’re telling a lie. So in other words, in a study environment, you might correctly guess that someone’s lying because they’re seemingly bad at lying, but that could just as easily have been a person telling the truth. So it’s almost meaningless in a practical sense.

Tim Levine: Yeah, and it’s even more complicated than that because then you have to have a lot of other people watching them lying and telling the truth over multiple instances to see that there’s regularity in how other people are seeing them.

Zach: Right, you really need a statistical sample size to know that like, “Oh, this person’s actually bad at lying, and I’m actually finding something,” versus like, “Oh, they’re just one of the mismatched people or just they have random variations that make some people think they’re lying when they’re not.” It’s so much more complex and requires more study than it seems on the surface. And we have these simplistic ideas of how this stuff works in the popular culture and in our minds about this stuff that’s spread through media and such. So one thing I wanted to ask you about was Ekman’s truth wizards thing, which seems to be another popular idea that’s in Lie to Me and other places that there are people amongst us who are exceptionally good at detecting deception. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Tim Levine: Yeah. So generally, if you don’t work with Paul Ekman, who’s maybe kind of the biggest name, most famous researcher in the topic area, most academic, modern academic, deception theorists and researchers are deeply skeptical of the idea of the wizards. That said, I’m not a hundred percent sure what to think about them. If the claim is that there’s kind of maybe one in a thousand people who can do this, modern social science isn’t very good at dealing with the super rare disease or the super fluky sort of person. It’s hard to study. It’s very hard to study kind of very rare events or very rare people, because how do you go about finding them? How do you know it’s not just kind of fluky? I will say I had one of Ekman’s wizards contact me one time, and I did test them on some of my deception detection materials, and they did amazingly well. But I don’t want to say because of this one person and this one instance that, “Oh, now they exist,” that wouldn’t be very good science of me. But at the same time, I’m reluctant to be as critical of it as some people are just because I think, it’s easier to test ideas that where you can find examples of them easier if that makes sense.

Zach: So one thing in that area, it seems like, correct me if I’m wrong, but someone can be… We’ve been talking so far about nonverbal behavior, and that’s a lot different from reading logical inconsistencies or what people call statement analysis, which is just examining language for evidence. And I’m wondering, could that have played a role, for example, in the test you did or was that only nonverbal?

Tim Levine: In the test I did, if you know what to look for, you can do better than 54% if you’re really familiar with the context. The content can help you, but it probably couldn’t help you enough to make this person as good as they were. On the other hand, somebody wins the lottery, so chance fluky things happen. I don’t think people appreciate how lumpy randomness can be.

Zach: Right. And then we form perceptions based on those outliers.

Tim Levine: Yeah. If we flip enough coins that really truly are fair, there’s going to be some point where long streak of heads comes up in a row. And it’s just hard to sort that out.

Zach: I’ve read that there hasn’t been much evidence for people being consistently truth wizardy over time. Am I wrong on that? And why haven’t people studied that more, that a person is consistently good?

Tim Levine: Well, it’s hard to do overtime studying. And you’re right, that is the evidence. My best thinking is there might be people who are good, but it’s because they know a whole lot about the particular circumstances. So my guess is that a really experienced financial forensic accountant is going to be much better at spotting lies about financial issues than you or I. Particular type of criminal investigators might know a whole lot about this particular genre of crime in this particular area, and that knowledge really helps them use what is said in a useful way. Similarly, people who have really good critical thinking skills are going to be better at spotting logical inconsistencies than people who are less critical thinkers. But if I’m right about that, what it means is the financial forensic accountant isn’t isn’t necessarily going to be good about detecting the honesty of their spouse about non-financial things.

Zach: So getting back to that idea of the nonverbal versus the verbal and the statement analysis actually analyzing statements and logical inconsistencies and sort of psychological aspects of people’s language, do you have much thoughts on… Because to me, for example, personally, I’ve read Mark McClish’s book, I Know You Are Lying, which is about statement analysis, and I’ve written a book about verbal poker tells called Verbal Poker Tells, and that stuff to me is so much more reliable because it’s about how people communicate. And there can be so much hidden information in how people communicate and what they avoid talking about, for example. So it’s not nearly as ambiguous as nonverbal behavior, it’s not to say it’s very reliable either, but it’s just to me so much more meaningful and so much more there than nonverbal. I’m curious if you’d agree with that.

Tim Levine: I’m not sure if I do or don’t. So one of Ekman’s ideas that I really like is the idea of the hot spot, which is something that doesn’t seem right. And hotspots could be nonverbal. So somebody might be reacting in a particular nonverbal way, or let’s say at the poker table, they might be doing something nonverbal that strikes you as off or might mean something or it might be verbal. So if we view these as not as, “Oh, they’re lying or oh, they’re bluffing,” but instead as, “There’s something that I need to dig deeper on or explain or pay attention to,” then I think these things have real utility. So in the statement analysis, if it is being used then to go into an interview and ask deeper questions about these areas, then I think that’s a fabulous idea. If you were saying that, “Oh, they seem to be dodging around this issue, that means they did it,” then I think that’s tenuous because it could mean a lot of different things.

Zach: Right. And to be clear, it’s not like you can ever, even if something’s seems very obvious in the verbal things, it’s not like you could ever be like, “Oh, I’m very certain about this.” I mean, you might feel you’re certain, but you’ll still need some evidence. Which gets into how almost unimportant some of these things are when it comes to interrogations. For example, if you’re bringing someone in for interrogation, you probably have a reason to interrogate them. And your approach probably won’t be that much different. You’re just going to keep plugging away at them using the traditional interrogation techniques and do your thing. You spotting some nonverbal or verbal thing that makes you think they’re guilty probably doesn’t make too much of a difference because you probably already have good reason to think they’re guilty anyway. So I think that gets into almost the practical low value of them in practical interrogation and interview situations. Would you agree with that?

Tim Levine: Let me phrase it a little differently. There’s actually two things I want to jump off on. First, I think the best practice in the interrogation room is what you try to do is if you don’t have evidence already, you want to ask questions where you can kind of nail them down in ways that you can go do more investigation and check if that makes sense. So what I’m trying to do if I’m trying to question somebody is I’m trying to get information out of them that I can then use later to investigate and that I can check. Because if I already have evidence, then I don’t need to be really talking to them. But I’m talking to them because I don’t have enough evidence right now. So I’m trying to figure out what I need to go investigate and what I can check. But about the earlier point, let’s say, so as a deception researcher, I notice perhaps to a fault when people are leaving things out or when they’re changing the topic on me, and I have this kind of ongoing debate with another deception researcher who does political deception. And so he’s thinking you got a reporter who’s talking to a politician, and the reporter asks a question and the politician goes off topic and talks about what they want to talk about. So the question is, is that politician, they’re definitely being evasive, but are they being deceptive? This other researcher thinks, “Yes, evasion is deception. They’re being deceptive.” And I want to say, “Well, wait a minute, who gets to set the topic of what we’re going to talk about? Why is it that the reporter gets to say, ‘Here’s our agenda,’ and the politician has to stick to the reporter’s agenda?” So to this point of you need to pay attention when things are being left out or topics being shifted or people are being ambiguous, but you also want to really contextualize that.

Zach: Yeah, to be specific about interrogations or even poker because I think that one of the most meaningful tells in interrogation and in poker actually too is the conciliatory behavior from people who are guilty or bluffing. So for example, one of the most prevalent things, one of the most telling things in interrogations is when the interrogator makes an accusation directly or indirectly, and the person being interrogated basically just acts neutral and acts conciliatory and is not. An innocent person would understand immediately that they’re being accused and would be defensive. But you see this kind of subdued conciliatory behavior from someone who’s guilty just because their instinct is to be subdued and not arouse anger or more anger from the interrogator. And similar in poker too, you can find these things of when someone’s bluffing, they’re less likely to act in an irritating or aggressive manner either verbally or nonverbally to their opponent. This is interesting because it’s kind of a mix of both verbal and nonverbal. It’s just a demeanor almost, it’s a collection of things. And so I wanted to throw that in there to say it’s not as if we can’t get information from these things, but I guess the real question is if you’re in an interrogation spot, for example, I guess that can be very valuable for the investigator to feel that they have the right person, but obviously that’s not evidence, it might help you in feeling like you’re questioning the right person. I wanted to throw that in there to say there can be meaningful things, I think, in these areas.

Tim Levine: Absolutely. But at least in the interrogation point of view, I really urge caution and jumping to conclusions based on that at least in my own kind of deception tapes I’ve created which mimic interrogation situations pretty well, I think. Honest people respond all different kinds of ways, and so do deceptive people. Some deceptive people definitely go figure best defense is a good offense. Not everybody responds the same. There might be these patterns over large numbers of people. And if you’re playing the odds, you’re more often right than wrong, let’s say in poker, but you’re going to get some wrong because not every person responds the same.

Zach: Right, for sure. And I guess that gets into the impractical aspects of it because if the only thing you have is your feeling based on this person’s conciliatory behavior that they’re guilty, unless you have much else, that’s not really a reason to follow someone as a suspect for very long if you don’t have much else going for you. So I think that gets into the impractical aspects of it. It’s like how much is it meaningful really when you get down to it?

Tim Levine: Yeah, there’s this huge, huge, huge variability in how humans respond in given situations.

Zach: Very high variance lot as humans, yeah.

Tim Levine: Yeah.

Zach: A small note here, one thing that stands out to me as being pretty consistently meaningful behavior in interrogation situations is the tendency of guilty people to answer pretty straightforward questions with long meandering stories with way too much detail and divergences when innocent people will tend to answer straightforwardly. And this can be seen to be related to conciliatory behavior because we can see that guilty people can have a motivation to attempt to seem likable and cooperative, whereas innocent people just don’t have that desire, they just want to answer the questions. I wanted to elaborate on that a little bit more as a way to emphasize the point that what people say and how they say it can be interesting to study and pay attention to, even if we can debate how meaningful or actionable specific situations really are. Okay, back to the interview.

So I’m pretty skeptical about microexpressions and I’m sure you probably are too. I see that people often bring that up, people ask me about microexpressions and poker and such, and I’ve basically never based a decision on a microexpression and I don’t find them generally in poker. And so I’ve always been skeptical of them in terms of genuine. There are some things where people do like weak means strong and strong means weak things in poker where they’re basically conveying the opposite of what they feel and sort of a duping aspect. But that’s different from the idea of microexpressions as a leak of genuine emotion or feeling. I assume you’d just be very skeptical about that too, but I wanted to ask about that.

Tim Levine: Yeah. So the research community is very skeptical of microexpressions, there isn’t strong evidence. I would guess that microexpressions if they even exist and if they are useful, they might be more useful in poker particularly among novice players than in lie detection. The reason is because the emotions you’re expressing, the link between those and truth telling or lying is pretty tenuous, but I could imagine, do you ever see somebody who’s got like a really good hand who just lets this little smirk out when they first look at their cards? I’m sure professionals have got this under control, but–

Zach: Well, I think there is something to that for the very beginner level people. And I think, interestingly, we could talk about that for a while, but the more experienced they are, the more the opposite things leak out where they’re slightly trying to convey the opposite of what they have. But I think you’re right, at the very beginner level stages, there are those kinds of genuine leaks.

A note here: when I was talking here, I was focused on microexpressions. There are larger macroexpressions of genuine emotion that occur pretty regularly from all types of players of all skill levels. For example, it’s pretty often a player who makes a big bet with a strong hand will have genuine smiles and things like that. I’ll talk a little bit more about that at the end. I just wanted to emphasize that I was attempting to talk about just microexpressions here. Okay, back to the talk.

Tim Levine: Yeah. So there might be a kernel of truth to the microexpression thing, but I don’t think they’re going to be useful at all in lie detection.

Zach: It’s so different, it’s just such a different environment.

Tim Levine: Yeah. And so poker, can people fake microexpressions?

Zach: Well, that’s a really interesting question because when I’ve thought about this in the past, and I should probably write something up about this, but the thing I’ve have seen is that there’s actually these small, what people might consider microexpressions, but they’re the opposite. So for example, someone who’s betting a strong hand would have a very quick expression just briefly pass their face of having like an irritated look or their brows would be furrowed, almost like a confusion or an irritation microexpression. But it’s the opposite because they’re strong, and it’s almost like they’re not even trying to purposely, consciously do that, which is the interesting thing, because I don’t think the people who do these things are always planning to fool their opponent. It’s almost like because you’re in such a deceptive realm, poker is such a deceptive realm and most games are, you’re automatically just trying to almost subconsciously convey the opposite of what you have. So it’s almost this instinctual trying to do the opposite of what you have, weak means strong, strong means weak, which is interesting because I think a lot of people would think like, “Oh, they’re trying to fool me.” But the fact that a lot of these things are microexpressions, they just briefly… And actually in my video series on poker, I have a lot of examples of this, and you just don’t find that from bluffers because bluffers are very much aware of what they’re portraying. So they’re going to have a much more neutral, stoic thing. So it means that you’re pretty unlikely to detect these things from a bluffer, detect meaningful things from a bluffer, because they are trying to be so stoic and so neutral and that’s how most people behave. But some people with strong hands will leak out these small, opposite emotion things that give them away really. They’re really highly reliable because a bluffer is not likely to leak out these small things of uncertainty or irritation, these small expressions. So yeah, it’s an interesting area and it’s very interesting. I should write something up about it more official.

Tim Levine: I’m not an experienced poker player, but so one strategy is to just be poker faced or stoic and be unreadable.

Zach: Right.

Tim Levine: So what I would call zero transparency, there’s just no signal there. The other strategy would be try to be very unreliable and throw other people off their games. So you mix in some real things and some false things and some stoic and just convince everybody else at the table that what they think they’re seeing could mean any number of different things.

Zach: Yeah, and the interesting thing about that is that that would actually be good, but in practice it’s like most people are afraid of looking stupid. And this actually plays a big role in poker, we could go on for a while about how poker and other games are so different from interrogations and interviews. But one of the things in poker is you might think that’s a good strategy, but in practice you’d be like, “Well, what if I do something and that person reads it as a weak hand and calls me and then I’d feel stupid for trying all these?” So in practice that explains why people just try to be stoic because it’s more effort, more conscious, mental load and thought, and you have to think about, “Am I being balanced on all these spots if I’m trying to be high variance, for example, and throwing out this noise?” So that just helps explain why the best approach is to just be as stoic as you can. We got a little bit off topic there, to get back to your work, one thing I heard you say in a talk, I think it was a podcast was the nuance you’re bringing to this discussion isn’t the most exciting thing because people do love the sexiness, the excitement of tells in general and the idea that we can read people. And I think the thing you said was you’re not likely to be invited to do a TED Talk anytime soon. I’m curious if you can talk a little bit about the public’s perception of we have this kind of love affair with behavioral cues, people love shows like Lie to Me or other shows or even poker tells. There’s this perception in the public eye that poker tells are really important and they play a big role in poker when I emphasize in my work they’re a very small part of poker. They come up occasionally, you might just use them once or twice a session that actually changes a decision. So it’s a pretty uncommon thing. But in the public eye, we have this kind of love affair with behavior and reading people. Do you have thoughts about what attracts us so much to those ideas that we can read people well?

Tim Levine: In part, people always like the little secret, get rich quick ideas. And to some extent maybe the idea of reading nonverbal communication is a lot like a little mini get rich easy solution. It has appeal. Again, getting into poker, I’m sure there’s all these little, “Here’s the secret to being a great poker player, and you’re going to learn it in 10 minutes.”

Zach: There’s a lot of bullshit, yeah.

Tim Levine: Yeah, but there’s a market for it. So I think there’s probably some of that.

Zach: Yeah, you’re right. It’s like if people feel like they have some secret knowledge that’s going to make them better at their jobs, make them better in their intimate relationships or whatever it may be, they feel like they’re getting an advantage on society. I think you’re right, there is some aspect of that.

Tim Levine: Oh, I just went through a job training thing where the consultants come in and they’re going to teach us how to do difficult communications, and they’ve got their little consultant soundbites. I don’t know how much money they soaked out of my university to do this, but it was just all junk. They would never let them in the classroom teaching real communication skills to real tuition paying young adults. But there’s a market for this and they’re selling it. People want the easy path to something that takes a lot of skill and learning and practice.

Zach: Yeah, there is just so much junk out there to name a couple examples. I was watching some podcast where they were having an FBI behavior expert weighing on things, the behaviors in interrogation. I just thought most of the things he was saying were just so not meaningful and just could easily have been found in an innocent person. And compared to the things the person was saying, it was just like, “The nonverbal stuff is just so uninteresting and non reliable.” I’m just like, “Why even focus on that?” Just watching interrogations in general, I’m like all the things that stand out as interesting are just based on what the person is actually saying, not the non-verbal stuff. But let me change direction, I think one really interesting thing to me, one surprising thing to me is just how much people dislike lying. We have a real aversion to directly lying to people. And this helps explain some of the verbal behaviors, verbal indicators in interrogation situation and in games like poker. For example, even someone who’s murdered someone often doesn’t seem like they want to come right out and say, “I didn’t kill that person,” or directly lie, and they instead use hedging language or avoid making a direct statement. And you can see some of that in poker too, people don’t like to directly lie about their hand strength when they know it might be exposed later. For example, someone who actually has a pocket pair of eights is unlikely to say, “I don’t have pocket eights,” they’re unlikely to make these direct statements, it’s just very rare. And so it’s kind of been wild to me that in areas where you think lying would be completely understandable considering the situation, whether it’s poker where you’re allowed to lie or when someone’s committed a serious crime, you’d think they would have no problem lying, but it seems like people still don’t like to lie. And I’m curious, do you see that? If you think that is there, that tendency to avoid lying, is that related to the truth default idea and is it possible that the reason that we so instinctively trust others is that there is some serious deep down aversion for us as social creatures to lie? Is there something to that?

Tim Levine: Yes and yes. So part of the truth default is that we are honest. Most of us are honest unless we have reason not to be. Because most people are honest, then this makes believing other people very functional adaptive. But the thing to remember too is that lying behavior is not normally distributed across the population. There are people out there that lie a great deal and seem to have no problems with it at all. I’m currently working on an essay on something I call bold and shameless lying. So bold lying is when I lie even though I know the truth is easy to check. And shamelessness is when you call me out on it, I’m going to double down and just keep asserting the falsehood. And maybe we can think of people in public life who do this, but they are out there. So I think your observation is true for the vast majority of people, but there are a few people out there that just are not tied to the truth at all and seem to have absolutely, absolutely no problem saying complete obvious falsehood and are completely without shame when people try to call them out.

Zach: And presumably those would be people with the more narcissistic or psychopathic traits, is that fair to say?

Tim Levine: Yeah. I think both of those could account for that, maybe some Machiavellian traits too could produce something like that.

Zach: And probably the context and the motivation for lying would… Well, I guess that wouldn’t explain why they’re lying frequently. Yeah, nevermind.

Tim Levine: So when I teach deception classes, people keep a deception diary, and I pay attention to my own too. But what I’ve discovered in these diaries is some people who lie a lot do it in a particular situation. So they have a particular job that requires them to tell a particular lie in a particular circumstance. And they do it a lot, but this is the only time they lie. They don’t lie to anybody else in their life, it’s just this kind of one place where the truth doesn’t work. Then there’s this other group of people who just lie a lot. In the extreme case, we’ve got the pathological liars who lie when the truth would work better for them. And there’s not many of those people out there, but boy, if you meet one, once you figure out what’s going on and that there’s just no pattern to their honesty or deception, it’s really unsettling.

Zach: Yeah, it is. I think it’s so unsettling for the fact that we do have such a tendency. The truth default, it’s like if that’s our logical default stance to the world and then we stumble across people that just have no problem lying, that is disturbing at some existential level, I feel.

Tim Levine: Yeah. And I think this is why bold and shameless lying actually works because most people think nobody would do that.

Zach: Yeah. They’re like, “It can’t be happening. No, it can’t.”

Tim Levine: Right, it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense.

Zach: Yeah, exactly. No, that explains a lot I feel like of people’s trustworthiness. So one thing I had a question about, I haven’t delved into the research enough to know this, is it common to set up a study where someone rates not just whether they think someone is lying or truth telling, but also rates their confidence in whether they’re correct?

Tim Levine: Yes. I wouldn’t say it’s super common, but it happens enough that there’s a good amount of research doing that.

Zach: Okay. I might ask you afterwards if you have examples of that, because the thing that strikes me there is say if you forced me to guess a bunch of poker spots, for example, if you put a bunch of different poker behaviors in front of me and said, “Guess all these things,” I think I would have a very low ability to tell bluffs from value hands from strong hands. And that’s in fitting with how I say the times you’ll actually spot something that’s meaningful, that is reliable are actually pretty rare. So in other words, if you put all these spots in front of me, I would have low confidence for most of them, but occasionally I would have very high confidence. And then if you just judge me on the ones I was highly confident on, I think you’d see a significant difference. I’m just curious, it seems like such a rather obvious way to try to detect the people that are good at detecting deception in whatever situation. And I’m curious if you think is that a good idea and maybe people should do more of that in these kinds of tests?

Tim Levine: I think it is a good idea when people have some degree of expertise in the context and when there might actually be kind of real tells or real signal there in some proportion. So when there’s signal variability and when there’s expertise, then that can help. So in the literature as a whole, there’s really no correlation between how white people are and how confident people are. But those generally come from your standard deception to text experiment where there’s no real signal there.

Zach: Yeah, there’s no signal if they’re just saying, “Yes, I did this or no, I did this.” There’s not much signal to these very simplistic ones. It’s like the more context there is, the more verbal stuff there is, whatever. The more signal there is, the more likely you are to get something.

Tim Levine: Yeah, so when there’s a variable signal and you have enough expertise to kind of understand that, then I think confidence becomes very important. So my colleague, Pete Blair, and I designed this lie detection task and we had it run, and we didn’t know who was lying and who was telling the truth. But we built it, so we thought there would be a signal there. And so we’re both trying to do lie detection in this with this new set of materials, it was a few years back. What we found is we both got 86% on them. The ones we missed were different, but we were sure about the vast majority of them, but there were four particular interviews that we were uncertain about. And we went exactly different ways on the ones we were uncertain about, but we agreed a hundred percent on the four we were uncertain about if that makes sense. And it was absolutely what you were saying. We knew the ones we might be missing, and we knew the ones we were probably right about, and we were absolutely chance at the ones we just didn’t see a signal or we saw mixed signals. But where the signal we were looking for was there, kind of we knew it and we got all this right.

Zach: So is there anything you’d like to add here that we haven’t touched on that you think would be interesting to throw in?

Tim Levine: I think we’ve covered a lot of ground.

Zach: Yeah, this has been great. Thanks a lot, Tim. And thanks a lot for your work, very interesting. Your book Duped was great, and you were mentioned in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers, which must have been good for you to get some extra attention. That must have been exciting.

Tim Levine: Yeah, Malcolm Gladwell’s been very kind in dropping my name around.

Zach: Okay. Thanks a lot for coming on, Tim.

Tim Levine: My pleasure, I really enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.

Zach Elwood: That was deception detection researcher Tim Levine. He’s the author of Duped: Truth-Default Theory and the Social Science of Lying and Deception. I highly recommend that book if you are interested in behavior and deception detection. 

To come back to the discussion of how poker tells differ from general deception detection scenarios: one anecdote of mine can help us see how different these areas are. In 2013, I was watching the final table of that year’s World Series of Poker Main Event as it was being broadcast. I was live-tweeting it. These were players playing for millions of dollars; they’d outlasted thousands of other players. First place was $8 million. At one point, a player made a big bet and another player was thinking for a long time. Based on the bettor’s demeanor, specifically their genuine-seeming smiling and laughter, I was very confident they had a strong hand; bluffers can smile but it’s rare for them to have more exuberant and genuine-seeming smiles; these are smiles that affect their eyes and that are more dynamic with more movement and looseness. I was so sure about this that I tweeted “If Jay is bluffing here, I’ll eat my hat. No way.” His opponent ended up calling. He was wrong and I was right; the bettor did have a strong hand. 

Now clearly, with my poker tells books and work, I have a lot at risk to make a public guess like that. And it’s seldom that I would make such a pronouncement. As I emphasize in my poker tells work, it’s seldom that you can be very confident in a tell. But sometimes I will see spots where I’m highly confident, almost certain, that someone is strong or weak. Some of these can be cold reads; some behaviors are very unlikely with certain hand strengths, even not knowing anything about a player. In other cases, the confidence might come from seeing how someone behaves over several hands, to have more player-specific knowledge.

And so for this example of me correctly and confidently reading that player in the World Series of Poker, we can see that it doesn’t have much to do with deception detection. A lot of tells from players making big bets have to do with them leaking information about how relaxed they are, and some of that has to do with the fact that players who have a strong hand can just be feeling really good about things; they could be savoring the moment; they could even have some tendency to goad their opponent a bit, which can manifest verbally or even with just more direct eye contact, or with more irritated or belligerent-seeming facial expressions. But these behavioral patterns are not about deception. And there’s no equivalent to this in an interrogation or interview scenario; most people being interrogated don’t suddenly feel great about the situation and happy to be there, whether they’re innocent or guilty. 

To take another example: another class of tells in poker are related to a player’s level of focus or lack of focus. For example, early in a hand, a player who gets a strong hand, let’s say pocket Aces, will have a tendency to be more mentally focused, because they seldom get a strong hand and because they don’t want to waste it; they want to play it as well as they can and know they’ll be in the hand for a while. But a player with a weak hand who makes a bet or raise early in a hand, is often less mentally focused. They know they have the option to fold if someone raises them; they know they can always check and fold; basically they haven’t invested much in the hand yet. And these dynamics means that the more loose and ostentatious behavior, whether verbal or nonverbal, early in a hand when the pot is small, will be more linked to weak and medium-strength hands and not to strong hands.

And those are tells that also are not really related to deception; they’re just tells of focus versus lack of focus. 

And another different thing about poker is that players are constantly going into and out of these highly emotionally polarized but also short-lasting situations, and that means there’s a chance to look for imbalances over time. And a lot of people just aren’t that good at being balanced and aren’t even trying that hard, especially when it comes to doing that over many situations over many hours, or even days or weeks or months when you play with someone regularly for a long time. 

And finally, in poker, behavioral information can be valuable even when it’s slightly reliable. In poker, you’re often put in spots that could go either way from a fundamental strategy perspective. In other words, leaving aside any behavioral stuff, it’s often a toss up whether to call a bet or fold to it. So if you see a behavior you think is slightly more likely to mean one thing than another thing, that can be valuable in the long term, because you’re making so many small decisions in poker. So small edges can be valuable. And there’s just no equivalence in interrogation; interrogators aren’t going to change big decisions based on one small behavior they spot. And this aspect of poker doesn’t even map over to most other games or sports, and that’s because poker involves so many decisions that are based on low-information; for example, in chess, there’s no equivalent to this, because all information is on the table and is known, whereas in hidden information games, especially versus skilled players, you’ll often be put in spots where your decision could go one of two or even three ways. And that’s one big reason skilled poker players find tells valuable; the cumulative effect of small edges over time.

I could talk about this for a while, but I just wanted to help make the case that reading poker tells is quite different than deception detection and real-world situations like interviews. And part of the reason I wanted to do that is to encourage any behavior and psychology researchers listening to do more studying of poker tells, to show that there is still much to study in poker that hasn’t yet been studied.

If you find this stuff interesting, check out my poker tells site, readingpokertells.com. I also have videos on youtube on my Reading Poker Tells youtube channel. You can sign up for a free email series on verbal poker tells at readingpokertells.com. 

I wanted to give a shout-out and thank you to Alan Crawley, who goes by the online handle SinVerba, which is Spanish for nonverbal. Alan does youtube videos and classes on behavior. I was recently talking to him and he got me thinking again about comparing interrogations and poker and that was what led to me finding Tim Levine’s work and what led to me doing this podcast. So thanks for that, Alan. 

This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zachary Elwood. If you like this podcast, please leave it a rating on Apple Podcasts. That’s a great way to show your appreciation. And of course please share it with your friends if you’ve liked it; that’s also hugely appreciated. 

Okay thanks for listening.

Music by Small Skies.

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How do doctors read “drug-seeking” behaviors?, with Dr. Casey Grover

A talk with addiction specialist Dr. Casey Grover about behavioral indicators of so-called “drug-seeking behavior,” which is when people try to deceptively convince doctors to prescribe them drugs. Grover hosts the podcast Addiction in Emergency Medicine and Acute Care. We talk about: why Casey thinks “drug-seeking” is a bad, unhelpful term; what behavioral clues doctors use to determine if someone might be “drug-seeking”; why most behaviors aren’t that reliable; America’s drug problems (opioids, fentanyl, methamphetamines).

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Predicting schizophrenia with language, with Neguine Rezaii

This is a reshare of a 2020 talk I did with psychology researcher Neguine Rezaii. We talk about her research using machine learning to find patterns in language used by teenagers who were at risk of schizophrenia that were correlated with later schizophrenia diagnosis. The two language patterns found in the subjects’ speech were 1) a low semantic density (i.e., low degree of meaning), and 2) speech related to sound or voices.

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Reading and predicting jury behavior, with Christina Marinakis

This is a reshare of a 2018 talk with Christina Marinakis about reading and understanding jury behavior. Marinakis works for the firm Litigation Insights; you can see her bio here. There’s a transcript of the talk below.

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TRANSCRIPT

Zach Elwood: Hello, and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding other people and understanding ourselves. You can learn more about this podcast and sign up for updates at behavior-podcast.com. If you like the podcast, I ask that you leave me a review on iTunes, that’s the best way you can show your appreciation and encourage me to do more. I’ve been pretty busy working on my book aimed at reducing American anger and political polarization. So I’ll continue re-sharing some of my early interviews. This one will be a talk from 2018 with Christina Marinakis, a specialist in jury selection for the organization Litigation Insights. In this talk, I ask Christina about some of the more psychology and behavior-related aspects of jury selection.

When it comes to how people in serious high pressure jobs make use of psychology and behavior, I think it’s one of the more interesting talks I’ve done. It was my original goal with this podcast to talk to people from a wide variety of fields about how they read and make use of people’s behavior. Because I think there’s all sorts of interesting domain-specific knowledge out there that we just don’t hear much about unless we’re in those niche areas. And I think some of that knowledge can be valuable to people who work in other fields or even just in our personal lives by increasing our empathy and understanding of other people. I’ve been a bit distracted from that original goal due to my interest in political polarization, hopefully I’ll get back to that original focus as I have a long backlog of ideas for guests from various fields and pastimes that I’d love to interview. And if you ever have ideas of interesting people to interview or subjects to tackle, feel free to send me your thoughts via the website which is behavior-podcast.com.

One interesting recent thing about Christina Marinakis, she was a consultant for the prosecution in the case against Derek Chauvin in Minnesota. If you search for her name and Derek Chauvin, you can find some pieces about the jury consultancy work she did for that very high profile case. Okay, here’s the talk with Christina Marinakis. 

Today is September 24th, 2018, and today we have Dr. Christina Marinakis joining us. Dr. Marinakis’s education includes an undergraduate degree in bioscience psychology, a master’s in clinical psychology, a doctorate in psychology, and a law degree. She’s currently the director of jury research at Litigation Insights, a national trial consulting firm, and she has 17 years of jury research study and applied practice in law and psychology. Her case experience includes but is not limited to product liability, antitrust litigation, class action, legal and medical malpractice, contract disputes, patents, securities, fraud, and criminal work. And she does this work for both prosecutors and defendants. Dr. Marinakis contributed to a new edition of the book Pattern Voir Dire Questions, a compilation of tips for voir dire strategy. And that book includes over 2000 questions for investigating and a listening bias from potential jurors. Besides jury selection work, she also is hired for witness preparation and communication training, and that involves giving feedback to witnesses who are preparing to testify to make sure they’re perceived well by the jury. So today Dr. Marinakis and I will mainly be discussing jury selection, the basics of how the process works, how strategy and game theory can play a role in the process, and how an understanding of psychology and behavior can impact jury selection. So without further ado, welcome to the podcast Dr. Marinakis, thanks for coming on.

Dr. Marinakis: Thanks so much for having me.

Zach Elwood: So we’ve got a lot of interesting things to talk about today, and a lot of questions people will find interesting I think. So let’s jump right into those questions. Could you give a simple explanation of how the voir dire process works for people who don’t know much about that process?

Dr. Marinakis: Sure. So a lot of people refer to what we do as jury selection, but the more accurate term would be jury de-selection. We’re not really picking who we want on our jury, it’s more of an elimination process of picking who we don’t want on the jury. So there’s essentially three ways that you can get a juror off the panel. And the first way is through hardship. And so if a juror says that they have an extreme financial hardship or a personal hardship such as they are caring for a young child at home or caring for an infirm adult, the judge decides whether those people meet the statute for whether they should be excused for hardship. And the attorneys can often comment on that and can make arguments whether a juror meets that statutory hardship language, but that’s really a decision that ultimately rests with the judge. The second way that people can be removed from the jury panel is through what we call peremptory strikes or peremptory challenges. And in every case, both sides are permitted a certain number of what we call strikes, meaning that you can remove people from the panel for no reason at all, any reason, and you don’t even have to tell the other side or the judge what the reason is. Now there is an exception, and you can’t remove someone based on race, gender, or in some state’s sexual orientation. That is against the law. But other than that, you can remove that person from the panel and you don’t have to give a reason why. There’s a balance number of strikes per side, and that varies by jurisdiction. Most of the time in state cases and civil cases, it’s anywhere between three strikes per side to about six strikes per side. In some cases, if you have more than one defendant who has adverse interests, the judge might decide to allow you to have eight strikes per side if that’s what you want. But it’s always balanced. In criminal cases, it tends to be more, you might have up to 20 strikes per side, but that’s what we call peremptory challenges. And they usually alternate. So once you have a panel of jurors, usually the prosecution or the plaintiff will strike first and they’ll say, “We’d like to thank and excuse juror number four.” And then the defense goes and they say, “We’d like to thank and excuse juror number 12.” And it goes back and forth until both sides pass. So you can pass and try to save up your strikes. And so you might say, “We pass, we accept this panel,” the other side then makes a strike. Now you get to go back and make another strike. Now once both sides pass and they accept the panel, that’s your jury. So that’s the second way. And then the third way, which is really where a lot of the psychology comes in, is what we call cause challenges. And there’s an unlimited number of cause challenges. And what that involves is each side is trying to get the jurors that they don’t want on the panel to admit that they can’t be fair. There’s statutory language that differs by state in terms of what you need to get the jurors to say. For example, in California, there’s a number of ways you can get a juror, what we call, kicked off for cause. If they evidence enmity against or a bias in favor of one party or the other, that’s enough reason to get them off the jury panel. In most states, it’s whether they can be fair and impartial, but there’s certainly some differences. Again, in New York, they have to give an unequivocal assurance that they can be fair. If they can’t do that, they get kicked off for cause. So each side gets to question the jurors, and that’s what we call the voir dire process or if you’re in the staff they call it voir dire. And it’s a process where each side gets to ask jurors questions and ask follow up questions. And the ultimate goal is to identify the people that you don’t want on your panel without exposing the people that you do want, because if you expose those good jurors, now the other side is just going to be able to identify them and get them kicked off for cause or they might use one of their peremptory challenges if they can’t get the juror to say they can’t be fair. And so since there’s an unlimited number of those cause challenges, that’s really the end game, is the side that gets the better jury is really the side that is able to get as many of their bad jurors off for cause which gives you a leg up on the other side.

Zach Elwood: So how many people are typically starting out in a jury pool, jury selection pool, before the process starts?

Dr. Marinakis: It varies a lot by jurisdiction, but in general, I’d say you’d need anywhere from fifty to a hundred jurors. And sometimes it just depends on how many jurors sit on the final panel. So although many states have juries of 12, there are certain states like Maryland and Florida where you’re only sitting juries of six. So obviously you don’t need as many jurors. So the way they decide how many jurors we need is you take the number that are finally seated, whether that’s six or 12, and then you add up the number of strikes that each side has. So again, that could be anywhere from three to six. So just for example, if you have a jury of 12 and then each side has six strikes, that means you’re going to need at least 24 jurors, 12 for the box plus the 12 that are stricken. And then you want to have a couple extra jurors because you anticipate that some of those jurors are going to be gone for cause. Now the longer the trial is, the more jurors you need. Many of my clients have trials that run 5 to 12 weeks long, there’s going to be a lot more jurors who will have financial hardships. And so if you know your trial is going to be a longer trial, you might need to start with 200 jurors to get enough jurors for the final panel. If it’s only a three-day trial, you might be able to start out with 40 jurors and be just fine. Now, same thing goes with whether it’s a high profile case or involves some really sensitive issues. Clearly if you’re trying a case for Bill Cosby, there’s going to be a lot more jurors in the audience who have already formed an opinion about his guilt or innocence, and so you’re going to lose more jurors for cause.

Zach Elwood: Right. So when you ask the questions of the potential jurors, can you ask anyone questions or do you pick one person at a time or do you ask it to the group? How do you decide answers to those kind of questions?

Dr. Marinakis: Again, it varies by jurisdiction. Each state has different rules on how they conduct voir dire. The states that are in the northeast like New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, they question the jurors individually. So each juror comes back into the room, into the chambers, sometimes the judge is present, sometimes the judge is not present, and the parties ask the questions individually of each juror. Because of that, the jury selection process in those states can take several days up to several weeks in certain trials. Other states like Texas do a panel. So each person in the veneer, people that are sitting in the benches, will have a paddle almost like an auction that has their juror number. And then the attorneys have to ask the question of the entire group. “How many people feel like corporations put profits over safety?” Then people who think, “Yes,” they raise their panel, and you jot down their numbers and then you have to follow up with them. Most of the time the follow up is done in open court. There are some jurisdictions where you ask the questions of the entire group, but then any juror who raises their hand or raises their paddle then comes up to be questioned individually. So it just really depends on the rules and the court system. But usually the jurors are in a certain order. In the field, we call it a random list. Now the jurors may not realize what order they are in. Sometimes they’re seated in order in the courtroom, and sometimes they’re not. But the attorneys always have a list of who’s first and who’s coming up because the jurors they’re seated in an order or they’re in an order in a list. So if we have a list of 50 jurors and I know that we only need to get 24 to sit the jury, I’m only going to focus on those first 30 people on the list. There’s no point in me asking questions to the juror who’s seated in seat 60 because the chances that we’re going to get to that juror are very unlikely. Now once we start losing jurors for cause and losing jurors for hardship, we can calculate how deep into the panel we will get and know who we need to ask questions of.

Zach Elwood: But you know the order, so there’s theoretically some reading ability that you could base on how a person acts or looks theoretically to know something about what some of their stances might be theoretically if you know the order.

Dr. Marinakis: Certainly. I’d say we know the order at least 90% of the time. And so we’re looking at who are those people in the first group of 30. And many times we get a little bit of information about those people. It might just be a card that has their occupation, their marital status, maybe the ZIP code where they live, their age, or sometimes we get a huge questionnaire where they filled out several pages of questions. Now, the other thing and I anticipate we’ll get more into this that we do is we’ll look up these jurors, we get the list of names and immediately start looking up folks LinkedIn profiles, their Facebook, their blogs, their public records. So we have an idea of who is on our panel. And then there is a little bit of stereotyping. So if I’m representing a corporate defendant, most likely people that are wearing business suits are going to be good for my side. I’m not going to start off asking those folks questions. I’d probably start off asking questions of people who might look to be more blue collar or maybe aren’t dressed as sharply, maybe look like they’re of a lower economic status who are more likely to identify with a plaintiff who’s suing that large corporation. I’d target my questions to those people first. Now the other thing we do is we’d ask one of those general questions again, “How many people think corporations put profits over safety?” If 10 people raise their hand to that question, I’m going to go to those 10 people first to do the follow-ups.

Zach Elwood: Got you. So the legal process often seems like a game with its team versus team nature and its sometimes obscure roles that can lead to complex strategies. And this seems especially the case for the voir dire process. Is there a lot of strategy and game theory involved? I guess you’ve already answered a little bit of this, but…

Dr. Marinakis: Absolutely. The best jury consultants and attorneys who participate in voir dire are able to anticipate the next side’s move and what the consequences of that move will be. So when I’m trying to decide who we want on the panel, the only way we can do that is through the striking process. I have to think about if I strike this juror, who’s going to take their place? So if there’s 12 jurors on the panel, I strike juror number four. Now juror number 13 is going to move into that seat. Well, now the panel composition has changed, and I have to think about now who is the other side going to strike. If the other side strikes juror number nine, now juror number 14 is going to move into that seat. And you have to be able to anticipate who is the other side going to strike and who is going to move into those seats and how many strikes do you have left. If you use your strikes on someone who is a juror you might not want but not the worst juror, well, if someone worse takes their seat and you run out of strikes, now you end up with a undesirable jury. The other thing that I mentioned was the passing system. So I might strike a juror, if the other side passes, they could pass because they think that there’s someone on the panel that I must strike, a juror that I cannot have on there. So they would pass in order to start saving up their strikes because ultimately that gives you an advantage. If you’ve got four strikes left, the other side only has two strikes, now you’re able to control the panel easier. However, you can call the other side’s bluff. And if the other side passes and you pass, now you’re stuck with that panel. So there could be someone on the panel that they don’t want and they’re passing because they think that you need to strike somebody and then you pass, now you’re stuck with the panel. So it absolutely is a game of chess. And because it moves so quickly, it’s really a game of speed chess.

Zach Elwood: Right. You said for a lot of them they can be only 30 minutes long.

Dr. Marinakis: Right. And really that’s the process for asking jurors questions, when it comes to doing your strikes, it’s right there in court. The judge usually won’t even give you time to confer with your co-counsel. They’ll just say, “Okay, plaintiff, what do you want to do?” And then you make your strike immediately.

Zach Elwood: So it goes very quick?

Dr. Marinakis: Yes. Immediately the defense says, “Okay, plaintiff, who do you want to strike?” And the actual striking process can occur within a minute.

Zach Elwood: And are the potential jurors in the room at that point too?

Dr. Marinakis: Depends on the state. In California, you say, “We’d like to thank and excuse juror number four.” And the juror number four gets up, they leave the courtroom. The next juror the judge will say, “Okay, juror number 14, now you take their place. Now the other side, you strike,” and it works like that. In other jurisdictions, they say, “Okay, attorneys, you’ve got one minute, write down the six people you want to strike.” Other side does the same. And then you submit the list, the judge cuts those people, and you’re done. And you don’t get to see the other side, it’s not a back and forth process. The funny thing is sometimes when you do that, both sides end up striking the same person which is interesting. Either they’re concerned that they don’t know that person well enough and they’re afraid to leave them on the panel or sometimes one side or the other just gets the juror wrong.

Zach Elwood: Oh, that’s interesting. That sounds like a very stressful process for having to be done so quick. I mean, it sounds like that could easily lead to some frayed nerves.

Dr. Marinakis: Right. The jury selection process isn’t for anyone, there’s a lot of different consultants who work with attorneys, and some of them just do the witness work that you mentioned earlier, where you’re working directly with witnesses, working on their communication strategy. And some consultants just do the jury selection piece, because they really require two different skill sets. And it’s not for everybody, you really have to be able to have calm under pressure, to be able to think quickly, anticipate the other side’s moves, and really just having an excellent memory and being able to remember exactly what each juror said and having great organizational skills, being able to keep track of who’s on the list, who’s coming up next, what did they say.

Zach Elwood: Right, that’s a lot of factors, yeah. So considering all that work and complexity, how much influence do you think voir dire strategy has on a case, in your opinion?

Dr. Marinakis: A lot. It’s almost sad to say, but I think the composition of the jury has a bigger influence on the outcome of the verdict than the facts of the case sometimes. The other piece of my work is performing mock trials. So before a case goes to trial, we will present the case to people in the community, many people, sometimes up to 60 people. And test the case with them to see what the likely outcome is and what the strengths and weaknesses are of the case. I can tell you in the many, many years I’ve been doing this, I have never had a case where all the people agree on the verdict, never. Yet they’re hearing the same exact evidence, hearing the same exact arguments, and yet they view the evidence differently. And that’s because each of us has our own experiences and our attitudes and our history that creates a lens. And we view the facts of the case through that lens. And because of our backgrounds, we either accept and remember the things that are consistent with our preexisting beliefs or we reject, we forget, we misinterpret things that don’t correspond with our preexisting beliefs. And so the same piece of evidence is going to be viewed differently depending on your outlook. And so you can’t necessarily change the facts of the case, but you can change the lens that it’s going to be viewed through. And so ultimately the jury selection piece and deciding who’s on the jury will decide how the facts, the evidence, and the arguments get interpreted.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. That can give you a sort of pessimistic view of how likely a defendant is going to get a fair trial, just makes me think of that. And so I’m wondering, how much do you see jury selection as working on behalf of your client and how much of that process is a collaborative attempt from both sides to make a jury most fair? Or is it, I guess, one could lead to the other?

Dr. Marinakis: Well, really our system in the United States is based on an adversarial system. There’s other countries out there where they have a single judge or a panel of people who are supposed to be neutral and who decide the case and decide the legal issues. And I think the great thing about our system is it is adversarial, but I think that leads to better, more accurate results. If you have one person like a judge or a supposedly neutral panel deciding the case, who’s going to challenge that panel when they make mistakes? Who’s going to challenge that panel’s bias? Because people are still people. And so someone may be a neutral moderator or a neutral panel of observers, but even those people are going to have their own biases. And if there’s not an adversary or someone on the other side pointing out those mistakes or those flaws, that’s going to lead to a flawed system. Now because our system is adversarial, we are pointing out the mistakes in the other side’s case, the holes in the other side’s case, the injustices in the other side’s case. And ultimately that leads to a better truth. If you’ve got two people arguing and really fighting for their position, that helps weed out the truth for a neutral fact finder. And the same thing is true of jury selection. So while I’m doing that for my client and trying to get off the jurors from the panel that are the worst for my case, the other side’s doing the exact same thing and they’re trying to get off their worst jurors. The end result is really to get a fair and impartial jury, but honestly, that’s not my goal, my goal is to get the best jury for my client, the other side’s jury consultant, that’s their goal to get the best jury. And maybe the person who’s more skilled will get the better jury in the end, but most of the time you end up with a fair panel.

Zach Elwood: Got you. Let’s move on to the behavioral psychology part of the interview. And I’ll ask you, what role does physical behavior play in a typical jury selection process?

Dr. Marinakis: Sure. There’s really two things that we’re looking for when we’re observing people’s behavior. And one of them is to identify how they’re answering the questions. Because whether a juror is a good juror or a bad juror or even if it’s just the difference between a bad juror and a very bad juror, sometimes depends on not what they say, but how they say it. So for example, there may be many people in the audience or in the, we call them the veneer, who have had maybe a negative experience with something, maybe this is an employment case. Let’s pretend it’s an employment case, I’m representing a company who’s being sued because they discharged someone and they’re being alleged for wrongful termination. So there may be multiple people there who have been fired from a job, but how they respond to that situation will determine who I get rid of on the panel. I might say, “How was that experience when you lost your job?” If one person says, “That was a tough experience,” another person says, “I was devastated,” there’s a difference. And if I only have one strike and I need to exercise it, choose between those two individuals, I’m going to strike the person who says they were devastated and they say it with a sigh, and you can see the pain in their face as opposed to someone who says, “Yeah, it was tough.” To me the person who says, “Yeah, it was tough,” they say it quickly, they don’t seem upset, they were able to move on versus someone who might still be clinging on to the pain of that experience. So I’m looking at their facial expressions. Do they look pained? Do they have a furrowed brow? Are they hesitant? Is there a quiver in their voice? Their body language, do they look sullen and sulky? Or are they confident and able to move past it? Same thing goes in cases where maybe we’re dealing with a cancer case and the plaintiffs are alleging that my client corporation’s product cause their cancer. A lot of people have had losses due to cancer in their life, but it’s how they dealt with those losses and how it still affects them today that determines whether they’d be a good juror or not. So again, I’ll ask them, “Tell me about that experience.” And if they look like they’re on the verge of tears and they’re having a hard time talking about it and then they say, “But yeah, I can still be fair to your client,” I’m going to have a hard time believing that they can really be fair to my client versus someone who says, “Yeah, it was really tough when we lost our mother, but we enjoyed our time that we had with her.” How that person dealt with that situation will determine how they view the evidence and that filter and that lens that they see the evidence in your case. Go ahead.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. I was going to say, one of the things that I was remembering from the voir dire book is looking for reactions, when someone’s being questioned, someone else might have a reaction like shaking their head slightly. You had one example of someone shaking their head in what they thought was probably a very subtle, minor reaction to a question someone else was asked, but that enabled you to say, “Oh, this guy probably has some anger and some bias on this issue.” So looking for reactions like that.

Dr. Marinakis: Absolutely. It’s interesting because we ask these questions, how many people feel this way? And there’s always people who don’t raise their hand. Usually they just don’t want to speak in front of a hundred strangers and talk about their biases in front of a bunch of people or they’re shy or they just don’t like public speaking, which is most people. So if I’m talking to someone who did raise their hand and I see someone else who’s making faces, who’s nodding along or maybe disagreeing, maybe I’ll follow up on them and I’ll say, “Mr. Smith, I know you didn’t raise your hand to that question, but I saw you nodding along, do you feel the same way?” And then that juror might now open up that, yeah, they probably should have raised their hand. And so each person shows their emotions differently. There are some people who wear their emotions on their sleeve, and they’re nodding along and they’re making facial expressions and they’re wincing or they’re furrowing their brow or they’re scoffing or laughing, and then other people are very stoic. So certainly some people are more difficult to read than others, but those are all cues that I’m watching for when both my client is asking the questions and when the opposing counsel is asking their questions. If they’re asking questions and I see folks in the audience who are either agreeing or disagreeing with them, that gives me some insight into whether that juror would be good or bad for my client.

Zach Elwood: How often would you or how often in general will lawyers face decisions or follow up questions on the physical behavior or behavior in general of potential jurors? I was just wondering how often it played a role, many times or seldom?

Dr. Marinakis: For me, it plays a role every time. Most of the time my clients are focusing on the conversation, and they need to do that. They need to be tuned in to what people are saying. They can’t both watch the audience and question jurors at the same time. That’s why it’s important to have a consultant or someone else there who can do the watching for you. So they might not even realize the different body language and reactions that people are having or they just don’t have the experience to identify what that means. And it’s very easy to misinterpret body language if you haven’t seen it over and over and over again. But for every person, I’m looking at them, seeing how they respond to questions. And then I didn’t get to the second thing that I’m looking for, which I think is even more important, is signs of group dynamics. And ultimately a jury decision is a group decision, whether it needs to be unanimous or whether it’s 9 out of 12 or something similar, it all depends on who you have on the jury and what are their personalities. So I’m not just thinking about who’s going to be a good or bad juror for my case, but who’s going to be a leader in the deliberation room, who’s going to be a follower, who’s going to be what we call a consensus builder, someone who’s going to try to get everybody to agree. Oftentimes you think teachers, they tend to be consensus builders. They try to get people to negotiate. You’re also looking for people who are what we call contrarians. A contrarian is someone who will always challenge the status quo. They like to play devil’s advocate. And then you’re also looking for people who might alienate others. Someone might be a great juror, but if they’re kind of a unique individual or maybe a little weird or maybe they just smell bad, are they going to alienate the rest of the jurors and people aren’t going to want to agree with that person? He might be a great juror, but I’m not going to want him on my jury if I feel like he has a possibility of alienating others. So I’m looking at how jurors interact with one another, who’s having lunch with who, who’s talking with whom in the hallways, who’s opening the door for everybody, passing out pens, that person’s probably going to be someone who’s a consensus builder. Or people who are making jokes who other people are laughing, that person has a possibility of being a leader, who respects whom? So you’re really looking at the jurors and how they interact to determine how they’re likely to interact once they get in the deliberation room. And that plays a huge role in determining how I’m going to exercise my strikes.

Zach Elwood: And there’s different applications for recognizing there’s different types of people. For example, we might talk about this more later, but one example you gave was when there’s a contrarian in the group, you might want them on the panel if you think that they might lead to a hung jury in your favor, right? You might want that kind of person in there.

Dr. Marinakis: Right. So it depends on the facts of your case, your client, your attorneys, what kind of group dynamics you want. And it also depends on the jurisdiction. There’s some jurisdictions and some cases that require unanimous verdict, and other cases you only need 9 out of 12. So I think you’re referring to I had one criminal case, and I don’t do that many criminal cases, but we do a few a year. And in this criminal case, the evidence was really stacked against my client for the most part. It was a murder case that involved a strangulation, and my client’s DNA was found on the murder victim’s neck and cell phone and then also on the knob of a stove, and the gas on the stove had been turned on all the way up, and a candle had been placed next to it, presumably so that they could blow up the crime scene. So we thought this would be a very challenging case given the popularity of DNA evidence in shows. At the time CSI was really big or Criminal Minds. And so we had some serious concerns that we would lose the case for our client, who we believed was innocent. And so we thought that probably the best we could get was to get a hung jury. And so we were looking for a contrarian who would be able to challenge no matter what the group thought, would always play devil’s advocate, would stand his ground and be a strong voice and ultimately hang the jury. So we looked for someone who in the process, the jury selection process, was challenging everything. The judge says, “Sit in this order,” “Well, why do I need to sit in this order?” “Here’s a piece of paper, call this number.” They’re just always challenging the bailiff, the other jurors, the judge even, and really are expressing unique views. So any time an attorney would ask a question, they might say, “Well, yeah, that’s true most of the time, but other people, other times this happens.” And so immediately we were able to identify this juror as a contrarian, and I don’t think the other side really did. This contrarian was dressed well, he was a successful banker, and so I think the prosecution thought he would be a good juror for their case. Usually people that are higher SES, Republican tend to be more likely to decide for prosecution in criminal cases. So they left him on the jury. We left him on the jury because he was contrarian, and ultimately he was the one that fought on behalf of our defense. Just briefly, our defense was DNA transfer, that our client had used a towel in the victim’s apartment, and that the murderer, the true killer, used that towel to then clean the crime scene to wipe the victim’s neck, to wipe the knob, and he transferred the DNA from the towel to the crime scene. And it’s a very unconventional defense, there is scientific basis to it, but it’s not well known. And so this juror who was the contrarian was able to argue that, and ultimately we ended up not with a hung jury, but with a full acquittal for our client.

Zach Elwood: Oh, wow. Okay. Let’s talk a little bit about some specific behaviors from the potential jurors. Does eye contact tells come into play at all? How they look at you and you can read maybe some anger, frustration from the questions you’re asking, does that play a role ever?

Dr. Marinakis: It does play a role, but I really caution against trying to, what we call, reading tea leaves. Because oftentimes the signs of nervousness are often the same signs as someone who might be lying. And so this is what we work with our witnesses a lot with in terms of building their credibility. So someone who’s not making eye contact, it could be that they’re just nervous, especially jurors. I mean, being asked questions in front of a group of people by lawyers and judges is very unnatural for them. And so most of the time there’s a lot of jurors who are nervous to do so. And they might not be making eye contact because of that, not because they’re not telling the truth. So you really have to be cautious. Same thing with people whose arms are crossed. There’s sometimes lawyers or clients or jurors who feel like if someone’s arms are crossed, they’re being standoffish, they don’t like your position. Well, maybe that person is just cold. Or sometimes if someone has a big belly, it’s comfortable to put your arms on top of your belly.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, exactly. You always hear that stereotype about the arms crossed being standoffish. Just because of that, even though I know it’s often untrue, but I find myself uncrossing my arms in groups just because I don’t want people to think I’m standoffish, even though I’m not. So yeah, it’s like everything, it’s often ambiguous and doesn’t give you as much information as some people think.

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly. And so that’s when we work with our witnesses, we work with them on things, uncross your arms, make good eye contact, because we don’t want their nervousness or personal ticks or habits to be misconstrued as untruthfulness. What we do look for though is inconsistencies in how someone is reacting depending on who’s speaking. So for example, if someone has their arms crossed both when the plaintiff is asking the questions and when the defense attorney is asking the questions, it probably doesn’t mean anything. But if their arms are always crossed only when the defense lawyer is speaking and yet they’re sitting forward and they look more attentive and they’re leaning in when the plaintiff attorney is speaking, I might take notice of that and then try to make an interpretation from the differences in their behavior. So it’s not the behavior themselves, but how it differs between who’s speaking and what evidence is being shown.

Zach Elwood: Looking for those imbalances in behavior, as we sayin poker a lot imbalances.

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. So let’s see, what else do I have on this list? Are there certain things that prospective jurors often lie about such as knowing how to read or using drugs in the past, things like that?

Dr. Marinakis: I think more often than not people are honest. I mean, most jurors are told they have to swear to tell the truth, and I think most people do take that very seriously. Certainly you hear stories about people trying to get off of jury duty maybe pretending that they can’t speak English or that they can’t read or write or the big thing is pretending that they’re racist, even though it’s often silly, because race rarely plays a role in these cases. But more often than not, I think people are trying to be honest. The bigger issue is that most people are unaware of their own biases. People want to think of themselves as good people, fair people. And so regardless of their backgrounds, most people will say, “Yes, I can still set that experience aside and be fair and impartial.” But usually they do have biases, in the industry we call them implicit biases, that people are unaware of, but that will influence how they view the evidence in the case. And so my role is not to necessarily detect lying, but to detect these implicit biases and get the juror to ultimately realize that they can’t be fair. And we have a number of techniques that we use to do that to try to get a juror to realize that maybe this isn’t the case for them, and they actually, despite their best efforts, can’t be fair to my client.

Zach Elwood: That was an interesting thing in the book with the voir dire suggested questions. The book was aimed at trying to get strategies for getting potential jurors to admit, verbally admit, their bias and walk them through. Once they started to show bias, get them to verbally admit in a clear way, “Yes, I’m biased. I can’t be unbiased on this.” So that was interesting seeing those strategies in that book.

Dr. Marinakis: Yeah. It’s a difficult thing to do, again, because most people feel like they can be fair. So you really have to get the juror to feel the bias. So here’s just an example, instead of just coming right out of the gate and saying, “Who here is going to have a hard time setting aside sympathy for this person with cancer?” You can’t ask that question right away because not that many people are going to raise their hand. But if you preface it with, “Mrs. Smith has been through dozens of surgeries. She’s spent months in the hospital. She can’t breathe because of this illness, it’s like suffocating.” And you start to describe it that way. “Her family has had to quit their jobs. They’ve had to put their house on the market to pay these medical bills.” Now all of a sudden you start to conjure up these images and these emotions, and now the juror can really start to feel in the gut of their stomach that sympathy and emotion. So I’m going to build that first, and then I’ll say, “Okay, given all that, who’s going to have a hard time at the end of this case looking at Mrs. Smith and her husband and her children in the eye and telling them, ‘You know what, we can’t give you any money because you didn’t prove your case.’ How many of you think you’re going to have a hard time doing that?” So now they felt that emotion, and you’re going to get more people that raise their hand to that question than you would have if I came right out of the gate and asked it.

Zach Elwood: And you would be asking that from the other side, you wouldn’t be asking that from the plaintiff’s side?

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly. And I should have brought this up in the beginning, my firm, we primarily represent defendants in civil cases. So we might work for plaintiffs every now and then, but probably more than 90% of the time we’re representing the company, the corporation or the manufacturer, the employer, we’re usually on the side of trying to identify people who are going to have a hard time setting aside their sympathies.

Zach Elwood: Right. We’ll talk more about that later about some specific strategies. So my next up question is, how many of the decisions you make are based on quick read kind of stereotypes? For example, this person’s an older blue collar woman, she might have certain stances, or this person’s piercings and tattoos would make them more likely to side with the underdog, the plaintiff. How much do those kinds of stereotypes play in general would you say?

Dr. Marinakis: It depends on the jurisdiction and how much you can question the jurors. What we like to say is that a juror’s attitudes are the most predictive way of how they’re going to view the evidence, but there are some states and some judges that won’t let you ask about the juror’s attitudes, you can only ask about their experiences. Now, sometimes experiences correlate with attitudes. So the fact that someone maybe has had a relative with cancer might mean that they’re more empathetic. Now it might not, but it could. There’s some jurisdictions where you don’t even get to ask about that. You might only get to see their demographics. And if a juror doesn’t raise their hand, there’s no opportunity to ask follow up questions and yet you need to make a decision whether to keep or to strike that juror based on someone that you’ve never even spoken to. And unfortunately, you have to rely on stereotypes because the truth is stereotypes are a statistical advantage. I gave an example that I’m a white woman, and if you went to Starbucks and you didn’t have time to call me to ask me what I wanted from Starbucks, and you ordered me a pumpkin spice latte. Now more often than not, you would be right that a white woman would enjoy a pumpkin spice latte. Now, me personally, I hate them, so you would’ve been wrong. But even if it’s just 6 out of 10 white women who like pumpkin spice lattes, you’ve now increased your odds of getting the right answer. And in my field, it’s all about increasing odds. You will never be able to 100% predict anything, but if you can increase your odds of getting the right person, that’s the end game. And unfortunately, it’s awful that sometimes you have to use a stereotype because it’s not going to apply to everybody, but it’s a statistical advantage.

Zach Elwood: You’re kind of forced into it. I mean, you have a very limited amount of time to make decisions on very limited information. So you’re just trying to pull information from wherever you can, even if it’s not the greatest information.

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly. So if 6 out of 10 times a blue collar worker is going to side with the plaintiff and all I know about this person is that they’re a blue collar worker and I have to decide between them and a white collar worker, you’re right, I would probably strike the blue collar worker if that’s all I had to go on, because that’s the best chances that I have. So that’s why we really advocate to judges, “Please let us talk to individuals, let us get to know them,” because otherwise we’re left making unfair and quite frankly, unconstitutional, if we’re basing our decision on race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other what we call cognizable group, that’s unconstitutional. But if a judge doesn’t give us an opportunity to ask questions, then that’s all we have to go on.

Zach Elwood: Right. It does seem strange considering what you’ve said, and it does seem logical that the voir dire jury selection process is very important. I’m surprised that the time limits given are so short.

Dr. Marinakis: Yeah. It just really depends on the judge. And some judges don’t see the value, and they feel like, “Well, people can be fair and impartial, the case should rest on the evidence.” But I don’t think those judges have sat in on all the mock trials that we have to see how much the juror’s background really influences the verdict.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. It’s a very optimistic view of the average jury I feel like. That stance that, “Oh, it’ll all be the same probably.” So are there laws pertaining to researching jurors like looking at their social media accounts? You had mentioned that, and I was just wondering if that was always allowed or not sometimes.

Dr. Marinakis: Presently there are no laws that prohibit researching jurors. There are however ethical rules for attorneys and for people who work for attorneys about contacting jurors. So what constitutes contact can often vary, and there’s an opinion out there that basically says that even if you don’t initiate the contact but you cause a contact, that could be an ethical violation. So here’s an example. If you look at someone’s LinkedIn page and you are not logged in the privacy settings, that person will get a notification that says, “Christina Marinakis viewed your page.” Under certain court rules, that’s a violation because that is a direct contact between the jury, even though I never sent the juror a message, I never tried to request them, to connect with them, because now they know that I looked at their page, that’s a violation. So really if you’re doing research on jurors, you need to understand the applications and the platforms that you’re using and the settings to ensure that there’s no unauthorized contact.

Zach Elwood: So you got to be very sneaky.

Dr. Marinakis: And just ethical. You can’t go around the rules and say, “Okay, well, I can’t friend request you, but I’m going to have my secretary friend request you so I can see your private page,” that is against the ethics rules. And I say ethics, but ethics rules are also actual rules. If you violate those, you could lose your license and you could lose the case. So those are the rules and laws that pertain, but there’s really no limit unless a judge has particularly said, “In this case you cannot search the jurors.” So it’s really more judge-based, but in my career I’ve only had one judge who ever did that. And that’s because the jury consultant for the other side had her laptop up and was looking at jurors pages, and one of the jurors saw it and reported to the judge that it made them uncomfortable when they saw their Facebook page on the…

Zach Elwood: That would not make you feel very safe.

Dr. Marinakis: Right. But everything that we do search, and this is unlike probably what you’ve seen in TV or movies, everything is public records. We do not search anything that is private. So, yes, we might look at property, deeds or vehicle registrations, history of bankruptcies, liens, criminal records, these are all public documents that anybody could find if they had enough time.

Zach Elwood: You’re not hiring a private investigator, it’s open source. Got you. How often is your read of a juror accurate?

Dr. Marinakis: It’s hard to calculate, but it’s something that I do keep track of because I always feel like… People ask me, “How many cases have you won?” And I don’t feel like that’s a good indication of whether you’re a good consultant. Sometimes the facts of the case are bad or you can only control who’s on the jury panel and you only get so many people to strike. But what I feel like is an indication of whether you’re a good jury consultant is what you say, how often do you get a person right? And so I’ve kept track of it, and I feel like overall it’s about 10 out of 12 that I’m able to identify whether they’d be a plaintiff juror or defense juror. And we often try to predict who’s going to be a leader versus a follower, and I think about 10 out of 12 times we’re right. Sometimes it’s 12 out of 12. I think that’s pretty good. I don’t know what other people’s stats are, I’ve never compared it with anyone else, but me personally, I have kept track of that.

Zach Elwood: That’s interesting.

Dr. Marinakis: And some people are more difficult to read than others certainly, so it does vary from case to case. Sometimes I’ll get all 12, sometimes it might only be 9 out of 12, but I usually say there’s always one or two that surprise you.

Zach Elwood: Are you able to say or see after the trial is over what every juror voted or how it worked, what the breakdown was, if that makes sense?

Dr. Marinakis: Yes. So in every case, either the jurors have to sign the form. So say there’s 12 jurors, and we’ll say, “Okay, everyone who agrees with this verdict must sign the form.” So you’ll get to see the names of the people who signed it versus the people who didn’t. There’s also something called polling the jury. So the jury foreperson might say, “Okay, we the jury find the defendant liable, not liable.” And then counsel can request to poll the jury. And they’ll say, “Juror number one, is this your verdict? Yes or no? Juror number two, is this your verdict? Yes or no?” I think you might have seen that if you watched the OJ Simpson or one of those documentaries, that they poll the jury to see. And then oftentimes we interview the jurors afterwards. We talk to them individually, we do interviews, we take them to lunch to really find out what they thought of the case, what were the strengths and weaknesses, and how can we improve for other future cases?

Zach Elwood: Yeah. I would think that would be very interesting just to break down how these people you chose at the beginning of the process went through the whole process and what their thought processes were along the way. It seems like that would be very interesting.

Dr. Marinakis: Oh, absolutely. One of my favorite things to do is if I’ve been involved in the jury selection is then to interview folks afterwards. And it’s funny, because almost always I finish the interview and I say, “What questions do you have for me?” And inevitably they say, “Why did you pick me?” I don’t go into this entire podcast, but we talk about how people’s backgrounds can influence how they view the evidence, and really it’s not that we pick them, it’s just we didn’t pick to get rid of them.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, you didn’t not pick them. You didn’t strike them. Let’s see what else we have here. How often is it that potential jurors act angry or aggressive or act out in order to give the impression that they really don’t want to be there? And does that make them more likely to be rejected by acting that way?

Dr. Marinakis: I don’t think people are acting when they do that, I think they’re legitimately distressed, especially a lot of the cases that I do are multiple week trials, and it is very nerve-wracking for most people to even think about having to miss six weeks of work or having to miss a vacation if that’s what they think or not being able to pick up their child from school every day for the next six weeks. That is very anxiety provoking. Some people handle it better than others, but I have definitely seen people break down, cry, throw a temper tantrum, and I don’t think they’re acting, I think they’re really in distress when that occurs. And ultimately this goes back to the hardship issue, and so it’s the judge’s decision whether to let that person be excused or not. But there are certainly times where someone is so distressed and maybe they don’t meet the statutory requirement to be excused, and the judge will kind of look at the attorney and say, “Well, what do you guys think? Do you want to agree to let this person go or not?” And sometimes we’ll look at the other side and say, “Do we really want this kind of bad karma? Is this good for either of us?” Probably not, because that juror might take it out on one side or the other. They could take it out on the plaintiff for filing a frivolous lawsuit or they could take it out on the defendant for refusing to settle what they see as a legitimate lawsuit or it might not bother them at all once they get seated.

Zach Elwood: Wild card.

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly. And usually neither side is willing to take that chance and will agree to excuse the person. But again, it ultimately rests with the judge. And if the judge says, “Look, they don’t meet the statute.” Say for example, they say they have an extreme financial hardship, but the truth of the matter is they actually get paid for a lot of the days of jury service or they’ve got a savings account, and it’s not as extreme as someone who doesn’t get paid at all. That judge might refuse to let them go. Personally, I wouldn’t waste one of my precious strikes on someone like that.

Zach Elwood: That’s what I was going to ask, is if you have someone who both sides suspect they want to get rid of, because somebody has to strike that person and you don’t want to waste strikes, and so it seems like there’s not a good way to collaboratively strike a person. So it’s kind of wasting a strike if you do it.

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly. And neither side will be willing to do that, usually the judge will. If someone is truly, truly that distressed, most of the times most judges will let the person be excused. Or the other thing is if the juror gives a hint of a cause challenge. Maybe it’s a cancer case and their mother just died of cancer, we could say, “Okay, plaintiffs, you agree that this juror probably couldn’t be fair, right?” [wink, wink] And we agree to excuse the juror on cause basis, but it’s really truly because we just think the juror’s going to be disrupted

Zach Elwood: Not using the strikes, right, yeah. So you can still find a cause that you don’t have to use strikes for. I was wondering about, I don’t think we’ve talked much about those initial questionnaires, and when do you use those written questionnaires versus doing them more in person?

Dr. Marinakis: We almost always suggest to our clients to submit a questionnaire. And that’s just because people tend to be more candid when they’re writing something down versus in open court in front of a bunch of strangers. But especially in cases that involve sensitive issues. So I’m involved in a rape case that’s coming up, and this judge never uses questionnaires, but we feel strongly that it is to the disadvantage of everyone in the courtroom to try to ask questions about people’s abuse history in open court. That puts everyone in a bad position, the judge, the lawyers, the juror. But we need to ask those questions because it’s important to know their background and history. So we’re going to advocate strongly to this judge like, “Look, this case is very unique. We don’t want to embarrass jurors, but we need to get these questions answered. So pleas allow us to use this questionnaire.” And we present the questionnaire to the judge in advance, and hopefully the judge will agree to that.

Zach Elwood: You wrote a piece on the TV show Bull, which I’ve never seen, but that show is based loosely on Dr. Phil McGraw’s jury consultancy business. It seems quite exaggerated from what you wrote of it, which is not surprising considering it’s a TV show. One of the things you wrote about it was in the pilot episode, Dr. Bull shows his client an ultra high-tech jury monitoring system complete with over a dozen flat screens and devices that monitor mock jurors physiological reactions through palm reading devices. It claims to have a system exclusively used by Homeland Security to collect a wealth of information about jurors and their family members that cannot be obtained elsewhere. So can you talk a little bit about how unrealistic and exaggerated that is?

Dr. Marinakis: Yeah. And I think I already touched on that. He talks about using Homeland Security to get private information. That’s not something that we could do. Even if we had the technological capability to do it, ethically, legally, that’s not something that we would do. And the biggest thing I’ve noticed about the show, and I’ve only seen a couple episodes, is they talk about it in terms of a 100% guarantee. “We can 100% predict whether someone will be a plaintiff juror or defense juror based on their physiological responses or their responses to questions,” and it’s never 100%. My whole occupation is based on increasing the odds, increasing the odds that this juror will be favorable. And in the show they use what they call mirror jurors, in our industry we actually call them shadow jurors, where we try to find people who are similar to people who are on the actual jury. And they sit in the audience during the trial and watch, and we talk to them at the end of the day. The value in that is not being able to predict exactly what the jury’s going to do, the value is in learning what are the strengths and weaknesses of our case. What is confusing? What do we need to clear up on? What are some things that might be bothersome? It’s more of that qualitative feedback than a quantitative statistical prediction of what the actual jury’s going to do. And that’s because no two people are alike. You can find a mirror juror or a shadow juror who’s very similar to someone, but surely they haven’t had the exact same life experiences. You never know how someone’s experiences are going to influence how they view the evidence.

Zach Elwood: Right, you’re just trying to get another set of hopefully somewhat similar eyes to give you different points of view and feedback. So in the voir dire questionnaire book that you helped write, you had some strategies for listening bias from potential jurors. And I really like this strategy that you talked about in there of downplaying the strengths of your case during voir dire, in essence drawing jurors out to reveal the strength of their prejudice. And in the book, there’s an example where by giving a very simple synopsis of their side’s case, the jury then let its biases be known, was more willing to let its biases be known by seeing the weaknesses in that case. And the most prejudiced people, most biased people were more easily exposed. And doing that too, the other side of the case was not able to know who to strike because most of the potential jurors were focused on the weakness of one side of the case. So that strategy made a little bit of sense, and I wonder if you’d talk about that a little bit more and I’m wondering, is it a pretty well known and standard strategy?

Dr. Marinakis: So this is what I like to call throwing your mini opening. I should start off by saying in most jurisdictions the lawyers are allowed to give a little synopsis of the case before they start questioning jurors to help orient the jurors to what is the case about and what is each side’s main arguments. And this is a very counterintuitive approach, and I’ve actually never seen it done before. I don’t want to say I invented it because I don’t know what other jury consultants are doing. But I had noticed that when my clients were giving very strong mini openings and coming right out of the box and saying, “You know what, our product was approved by the FDA, the plaintiff who is alleging it caused her cancer has a family history of genetics, and we firmly believe that our client did not cause her cancer.” They open up with that type of what we call mini opening, now all of a sudden you start getting jurors raising their hands who are saying, “Well, wait a minute. If your product is approved by the FDA, then I’m already on your side. If she’s got a family history of cancer, then no way your product caused her cancer. I can’t be fair.” And now we’ve just lost our best jurors in the case are now gone for cause. And so I noticed that was happening, and I thought there’s got to be a better way. So I then recommended to a client who trusted me, I’ve worked with him a lot, we’ve never had a bad verdict ever. And I said, “You know what, I think you need to throw your mini opening. Don’t get up there and tell them this stuff.” And said, “Give the bad parts of your case. Let them know that there’s 50 people out there who used your product and all 50 of them got cancer. Put that types of facts out there. Talk to them about how your CEO doctored a piece of evidence. Put the really bad stuff out there.” And so he thought, “Oh, no, I can’t do that. We’ll lose the case. My client will kill me.” And so we did that, and the other side came out really strong and they put all that strong evidence on their case. And what happened was the jury started saying, “Well, obviously I’m going to side with the plaintiffs. Your CEO already admitted wrongdoing and your product, clearly a lot of people have died from your product or gotten cancer. I can’t be fair to the plaintiffs.” We got rid of 27 jurors in that case for cause, which is unheard of really to get rid of that many people who said they couldn’t be fair to the plaintiff or couldn’t be fair to the defendant, my client. And now my client’s sitting in the courtroom and they’re like sweating bullets thinking about, “Wow, these people really hate us.” Well, you know what, all those people who really hate us are off of the panel now.

Zach Elwood: You’re really drawing people out. It’s like putting a trap in the ground and people are just falling into it exposing their biases.

Dr. Marinakis: Right, and so we got rid of all those people. Now, who are the people that are left? Now, the people that are left on the panel are the people who heard all of those terrible things about my client and about the company and who nevertheless still kept an open mind and were still able to be fair. Now those are the jurors that are truly going to be fair and impartial. And now the other side, they didn’t identify any people who might be for the defense, who might say, “Well, I think corporations are good. Corporations employee people. Plaintiff lawyers are always chasing ambulances.” Nobody said that because they were so focused on the bad conduct.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. And I’m sure the other side, if this isn’t a very common strategy, the other side was like, “Oh, this case is going to be so easy. Everybody hates this company.” And then you are left with weeding out the worst potential jurors and left with a more analytical group of people.

Dr. Marinakis: Yeah, they never saw it coming. I’ll tell you, in that case, we took a lunch break, and they were high fiving each other, they thought, “Wow, wow, all these jurors hate these people. We’re going to win the case.” And then as the judge excused, “You’re excused, you’re excused, you’re excused,” you could see the smile on their face just all of a sudden turn to severe panic. And they got no cause challenges, we had 27, and they had no idea who to use their strikes on. We ended up with an amazing jury that they just settled the case at that point because they knew that there was no chance of winning. So it really is counterintuitive. But I tell my client, “Look, voir dire is the time to identify those people. Do you want those people to say those horrible things about you now in voir dire or would you rather have them say that in the deliberation room when they’re trying to come back with a verdict?” It’s like get rid of them now. And then you know what, now that you’ve got your jury seated, now come out with a really strong opening statement. Now that you’ve got your 12 fair people you say, “We’re approved by the FDA, and this woman had a history of cancer, and all those other 49 women, they too had a history of cancer in their family and they use these other products or whatnot.” Convince the jury of your case during openings not during voir dire.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. It’s also interesting too because that process of getting them all talking and on the same side in the very beginning draws people out too, because other people are talking about it. If the group was talkative like that, it seems like it would lead to more volunteering of bias basically.

Dr. Marinakis: You’re absolutely right about that. Once one or two people start opening up, other people feel more comfortable opening up. And a technique we’ll use too is say Mr. Jones just voiced that he hates corporations, I might say, “Okay, Mr. Jones said that, how many people feel like Mr. Jones?” And then people start raising hand. “Okay, Mr. Jones said he couldn’t be fair, do you kind of feel like that too?” They say yes. Okay, now I just got two jurors off for cause very quickly.

Zach Elwood: Right. And I also like something else you talk about in that book was using your own body language to encourage people. Like that question you just mentioned, how many people, you’d be raising your hand too to kind of show that’s socially acceptable or to encourage them to express their bias.

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly. That’s all part of getting people comfortable opening up, and almost subconsciously, if we see someone doing something, we want to emulate it. You almost say like monkey see, monkey do. And I don’t want to imply the jurors are monkeys, but personality-wise and behavior, if I’m raising my hand when I’m just asking the question, “How many people feel this?” And I raised my hand, that’s almost subliminally sends the message to the jury like, “It’s okay, raise your hand.” And it also goes to the way that I ask the question. So instead of saying, does anyone, if I say, does anyone feel that way? It almost implies that this is an unpopular belief or an unacceptable belief versus when I say how many of you. How many of you implies that this is a common belief, and certainly there’s going to be people in the audience who feel this way. So how many of you feel this way? Using that body language and the wording of the question together gets people more likely to raise their hand to those types of questions. Another example is just nodding my head slightly. Someone is telling me about their experience with cancer, I’m nodding along very, very, so slightly or I have my client do this. You can’t even notice that they’re nodding along, just very slowly nodding, “Yes, I’m following you, I’m feeling you.” Match the juror’s facial expressions. If the juror’s wincing, the attorney should be wincing. If the juror is smiling, the attorney should be smiling. These are all techniques that I’ve learned in my experience as a clinical psychologist doing therapy, it’s about matching a person’s emotions and getting them to tell me more about that and reflecting back. A juror says, “Yeah, it was a tough experience.” “Wow, that sounds like that was a really tough experience for you. Tell me more about that,” and reflecting back to the juror what they said.

Zach Elwood: That reminds me of a popular interviewing technique where you ask someone question and then they answer it, and then you give a little pause. And the person being interviewed or asked questions will sometimes fill in that slightly awkward silence, they’ll volunteer something even more meaningful at the end. Does that ever come into play, giving the little silence?

Dr. Marinakis: Yes, absolutely. People are uncomfortable with silence, and so I recommend attorneys to do that during voir dire to draw out more information. And it’s funny that we give our witnesses the opposite advice, “Don’t fall into that trap.” So something we teach them is these are the tricks that the opposing counsel will do during cross examination to get you to volunteer more. Be comfortable with silence.

Zach Elwood: So when you answer your question you can stop talking then.

Dr. Marinakis: Yeah. The other thing people will do, another kind of trick, is to ask the same question but in a different manner. And people will think, “Well, if you’re asking the question again, you must be looking for something different,” and they’ll give a different response or give more information. So we tell our witnesses, “Look, no matter how the question is asked, even if it’s asked in five different ways, your response is always the same.” I answered that question, this is my answer. Don’t volunteer more.

Zach Elwood: Getting to your witness preparation and communication training. A couple questions about that, are there any rules around how you’re allowed to advise a witness on how they should speak or act when they testify?

Dr. Marinakis: Well, first I should say that when we’re meeting with our witnesses that is protected by client-product confidentiality, attorney-client privilege. So anything a witness says to the attorney that’s on the case is confidential. So when we conduct these sessions, we always have an attorney in the room there to ensure that our session is covered by that lawyer-client confidentiality. Now I’m a lawyer myself, so I don’t have to worry about that as much. But if there’s a jury consultant who does not have a law degree and is not bar-ed, an active member of the bar, you must have an attorney there to keep that conversation privileged. Now that said, there’s still some rules, and these go back to those ethics rules for attorneys which are actually laws. You cannot tell a witness to lie. And in fact, you can’t even ask a question on direct examination if you know that witness will lie, that is against the ethics rules. But we never do that anyway. We don’t want witnesses to lie. Most because they have poker tells, and jurors will call them out on it. So we’re not telling our witnesses what to say, but how to say it. How do you word something both verbal, behavior, and non-verbal behavior to give what you say more credibility so that the jurors believe your version, your truth? How do you effectively communicate that truth so the jurors believe you and they don’t misinterpret signs of nervousness or personal ticks as being signs of dishonesty?

Zach Elwood: Right. That brings an interesting point because the fact that you have to do this is mostly due to the fact that everybody thinks they can read people well, even though they can’t. So you’ll have a lot of people in the general population who are like, “Oh, she looked down when she said this, she’s lying. Or she was blinking a lot, she’s lying.” It’s just like in poker where usually those things are so ambiguous you would have to have such a big data set to even reach a conclusion like that. So you’re basically trying to make your witnesses unreadable basically, because people are going to draw all sorts of weird conclusions from their behavior.

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly. And people watch these TV shows, the Lie to Me, The Bull, those types of things, and they think that they know the signs of untruthfulness when you’re right, more often than not, those are signs of being nervous. Even just having your hand over your mouth is a huge thing that when I talk to jurors and they say, “Oh, I didn’t trust that witness because he had his hand over his mouth. He was afraid that the truth was going to come out because his hand was over his mouth.” And usually that’s just the person’s nervous and it’s a nervous tick. So I have to work with witnesses to get them to, you’re right, be unreadable and to be confident. Even if you’re not confident, even if you’re nervous, speak confidently, keep your hands down, make eye contact, that’s going to make you more credible to the jury.

Zach Elwood: Right, yeah. You just want them to get across the content of their testimony and leave out all the extraneous behavioral stuff.

Dr. Marinakis: Right. And in a way, jurors will remember it. So we talk about themes and having thematic content. Most jurors have very limited attention spans, especially in today’s age of 40-character news stories. And a jury’s not going to listen to a two-minute diatribe about something, but they will listen to a couple seconds. So we work with the witnesses on their non-verbal skills and also their verbal skills and being short, direct, to the point. Otherwise, they’re going to lose the jury and the jury will tune out.

Zach Elwood: Right, makes sense. Any other interesting examples of reading people from your work come to mind? Any great reads you’re proud of or that you’ve witnessed other people in the industry make?

Dr. Marinakis: I think I probably have more stories about bad reads, where I have the lawyers who, yes, they have a lot of experience, but so many times they’ll be like, “Well, I just don’t like juror number seven. There’s something about her. I just don’t want her on my jury. She gives me the hibbie jibbies. She’s given me a bad look.” And I have to say like, “That juror just has resting bitch face. That’s just how they are. Everything on paper, they look like a great juror.” So many times I have clients say, “We got to strike her, I got a bad feeling,” and I really have to talk them off the ledge from that and explain to them how, “Look at her face. She’s making the same face when the other side is talking too.”

Zach Elwood: Right. So just her baseline and they’re overreacting to small data points.

Dr. Marinakis: Right, or they’ll say, “Juror number seven is totally on our side. She’s nodding, she’s taking a lot of notes.” Then all of a sudden that juror comes back with a complete opposite verdict, and the attorneys are just shocked. And I talk to the juror or I’m observing them, and I realize that they’re nodding along not because they agree, because they’re following. People do that. I’m following what you’re saying, I’m nodding along. Or I’ll talk to the juror, and they say, “Yeah, I was doodling. I was drawing or he was talking and I was writing down that’s BS, I don’t agree with that.” So just because someone’s taking a lot of notes doesn’t mean they’re writing down what you’re saying, they could be writing down that they hate what you’re saying.

Zach Elwood: This guy’s an idiot, yeah. The nodding is interesting because I do that a lot when I talk to people. Nodding a lot, small nods, just as an encouraging way to set people at ease. And I think it does lead people to like tell me things they otherwise wouldn’t because they think I’m on their side. So I get random people confessing weird things to me sometimes, and I think it’s just because I nod and look like I’m interested and sympathetic.

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly, and that’s what I was talking about earlier when you’re talking to the jurors, doing that very subtle head nod gets them to open up even more to you.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, I think that’s pretty powerful. We’re near to wrapping up here, I won’t keep you too much longer. Do you think recent popular documentaries that show the inner workings and frequent mistakes of the legal system have lowered people’s trust in how fair jury trials are? Do you think that impacts your work?

Dr. Marinakis: I do worry about this a lot. Before when I told people what I do, they had never heard of it before. But now with the documentaries and with the show Bull, people have a bad impression about what we do. They think we do things unethically because in the show they’re always doing things that are unethical. Talking to the judge, manipulating the jury, talking to jurors, and that’s not really the reality of what we’re doing. So it gives our profession a bad name. The other thing that I see is that you’re seeing more and more stories about misconduct, whether it’s corporate misconduct, government misconduct, and people being bought off, that’s what all these TV shows are about, documentaries about an unfair justice system. And the truth of the matter is that yes, that happens, unfortunately it does, but that’s not the norm. But unfortunately, because people watch these documentaries and these shows, they come in with these expectations, that’s almost their biases about what they think is the truth. And usually being on the defense side, that works against my client’s favor, where people think, “Oh, okay, you’re approved by the FDA, but I’m sure you guys probably bought off the FDA and you manipulated the scientific studies.” It’s like come on, I know that happened…

Zach Elwood: Everything’s a conspiracy.

Dr. Marinakis: Yeah, and so we’re finding we’re having more and more difficulty getting fair jurors for our cases because so many people have been tainted by these… And there are bad companies out there. There are the [end rounds], there are certain companies that have done bad things, and it might only be one or two individuals within that organization that were corrupt, but people feel like now everybody’s corrupt, all corporations are corrupt, and it really works against… The other thing I feel that we see a lot is people feel like, “Well, the corporations must have more resources, so it’s not fair. Corporations can hire people like jury consultants to do that.” And the truth of the matter is it’s actually more balanced than you might think. Corporations are usually insured, and the insurance carrier will limit how much resources can be spent on trial. They might limit it. Whereas plaintiff lawyers, you see a family versus a corporation, but what you don’t see is that the corporation is really defended by the insurance company with a limited budget, and the plaintiff lawyer, they’re coming off of maybe five other trials where they just got multi-million dollar verdicts. So you say, “Oh, the family doesn’t have resources,” but plaintiff lawyers represent people on contingency basis. So if the attorney they don’t win the case, the plaintiffs pay nothing. That family loses the case, they pay nothing, and the law firm is putting up all the costs ahead of time. Now that law firm is going to take 100 million dollars they just got on a previous case, use those resources to hire their own jury consultant to do the mock trials, and they’ve actually got the money to do that stuff that maybe even the big corporation doesn’t. Seems hard to believe, but that’s actually more often the case than not.

Zach Elwood: Interesting. That’s an interesting thing because I would’ve been in that group that thought it was quite unbalanced usually.

Dr. Marinakis: No, I can tell you, in terms of clients, the plaintiff lawyers are the ones with the private jets and the multiple yachts, because they’ve got these 100 million dollar verdicts in the past. And then my clients, I’m not saying they’re not well to do, they’re big corporations, but they’re nowhere near the type of stupid money that some of these plaintiff lawyers have.

Zach Elwood: And they’re also limited by how much they can spend on that too.

Dr. Marinakis: Right, and now in the criminal realm, it might be a little bit different. You certainly have criminal defendants who can’t afford a jury consultant or the best lawyer and that there is definitely probably more imbalance, but neither can the state. The state is not going in there and spending a lot of money trying to argue these cases or to hire people, so it’s almost balanced there too. And in fact, if someone is on trial for capital murder and they have a public defender, they are awarded funds for a jury consultant. I’ve done many cases where we’ve worked for criminal defendants who are indigent or just we offer our time pro bono, for free, representing criminal defendants to give ourselves more experience, to do something and give back to the community. And so you find more evenness and parity there than you might otherwise think.

Zach Elwood: Nice. So my final question would be, as you’ve worked in the profession so long, do you have any opinions on things you would change in the jury trial legal system that would make cases more fair in general? Anything that you would change?

Dr. Marinakis: I touched on this earlier about relying on stereotypes, and I think we really need to advocate somehow for jurisdictions to allow a better opportunity for the jurors to be questioned. There’s some states, again, like in the northeast where the judge is the person who asks the questions, and the attorneys never even get to talk to the jurors. And so you might know nothing about them, all you can see is their race and their gender, how they dress, maybe their education. And as I mentioned before, that really forces us to base decisions on stereotypes, and that’s just really unfortunate. So there’s certain laws and the judges who don’t allow sufficient questionings are really doing society a disservice.

Zach Elwood: Okay. That’s about it. And we will end with some places you can go to learn more about Dr. Marinakis’s work. There’s litigationinsights.com, that’s the company she works for. And there’s a blog series on there with some interesting blogs that people might find interesting with client questions and answers from Litigation Insights.

Dr. Marinakis: Oh, absolutely. We post two blogs a month, and these are all based on questions that our clients have asked us, and they range anywhere from what is the statistical social science research behind something to should I shave my beard for trial and what should I wear? So there’s a variety of different questions that have been asked of us, and we answer them for people, and it’s all available on the website under our blogs.

Zach Elwood: There’s also the book, the voir dire book. And to find that if anyone’s interested in that, that’s at jamespublishing.com, and just search for voir dire questions on that site. The book is called Pattern Voir Dire Questions, and it’s the second edition that Dr. Marinakis helped out with and added contributions to. That was a talk with jury selection specialist Christina Marinakis. This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about it at behavior-podcast.com. You can follow me on Twitter @apokerplayer. If you enjoyed this podcast, please leave me a review on iTunes or another podcast platform. Music by Small Skies.

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How to spot fake online reviews, with Olu Popoola

This is a rebroadcast of a 2019 episode where I interviewed Olu Popoola about indicators of fake online reviews. Popoola is a forensic linguistic researcher who specializes in finding indicators of deception, or other hidden clues about traits of the writer. His website is at www.outliar.blog.

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Group psychology, polarization, and persuasion, with Matthew Hornsey

A talk with psychology researcher Matthew Hornsey about group psychology. Hornsey has published over 170 papers, with many related to group psychology topics. (Transcript below.)

Topics discussed in our talk include: why people can believe such different (and sometimes such unreasonable) ideas; persuasive tactics for changing minds; tactics for reducing us-vs-them animosity; why groups mainly listen to in-group members and ignore the same ideas from out-group members; the effects of the modern world on polarization; social media effects, and more.

Episode links:

Here are some resources mentioned in our talk or related to our talk:

TRANSCRIPT

Intro: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding other people and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at behavior-podcast.com. On my site you can find descriptions and links to all the episodes, and there are transcripts for many of the episodes if you’d prefer rather read them.

If you appreciate what I do with this podcast, I’d hugely appreciate you leaving me a review on iTunes. It would mean a lot to me.

I’m not doing many interviews lately as I’m busy working on a book about reducing American divides, so that’s taking a good amount of my time. But this was an interview I thought was important and also it’s a topic directly related to some of the main themes of my book. It’s a talk with Matthew Hornsey, who’s a psychology researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia. The paper of his that caught my eye was titled Deviance and Dissent in Groups, and was published in 2014, co-authored with Jolanda Jetten. That paper focused on the motivations that group members can have to disagree with and criticize their own group. It also examined the beneficial role that group dissenters can play in a group.

And all this was interesting to me because one of the main themes of my book is that, if our goal is to reduce our divides and heal, it’s hugely important to criticize bad and unreasonable and divisive thinking in one’s own political group. I think it’s entirely possible this is the most efficient path to reducing polarization; promoting in-group criticism as a worthy and noble thing to do, and getting more people to do it.

If you’d like to read a recent piece I wrote about this, you can search for ‘zach elwood medium’. You’ll find my medium blog and then just look for the piece about criticizing our own political group. I think this is a hugely important topic.

The idea that groups don’t respond well to criticism from outsiders is a theme Matthew Hornsey has explored in his research. His research has delved into the psychological dynamics between groups, and how messages can be persuasive or not depending on whether they come from an in-group member or an out-group member, and what other factors make such messages likely to be persuasive versus ignored or disrespected. So his work is very relevant to anyone interested in reducing us-vs-them polarization, and I think reducing polarization is hugely important not just to the United States, but to the entire world. Because studies have shown that most countries in the world have become more politically polarized since 2005.

A little more about Matthew: he’s published over 170 papers, and in 2018 he was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Social Scientists in Australia. If you like this talk and are interested in group psychology and being more persuasive with your communications, I recommend checking out his papers, which you can find at Google Scholar. I’ll include some links to his work on the entry for this episode at my site behavior-podcast.com.

Okay, here’s the talk with Matthew Hornsey:

Zach: Hi Matthew, thanks for coming on the show.

Matthew: Thanks for inviting me.

Zach: So it seems like a major theme of your research is examining why people can believe such different things. Is that an accurate way to put the theme of a lot of your research? And if so, maybe you could talk a bit about why that theme of research interests you.

Matthew: Yeah, I think that’s a pretty close description of the various things I’ve done. If I try and throw a blanket over all my research projects, I sometimes think, “Well, I’m really interested in why people resist apparently reasonable messages.” And I think that– I don’t know if you’ve heard that phrase, quite often researchers gravitate towards things that they’re terrible at. And, you know, historically I think I was pretty terrible at persuasion. I was no good at influencing people. And I sort of lowkey blame my dad for this; when I was a kid my dad used to used to tell me, “Matt, you really don’t have anything to fear about speaking your mind, even if what you have to say is confronting to people. They might get defensive in the short term but if you have right on your side, if you have the facts on your side, then your argument’s going to win out in the end.” That sounded like a noble and appropriate way to live your life. And so I went into my adulthood and I guess I became quite mouthy and assertive at speaking out because in my mind ‘good arguments win out in the end,’ right? I had nothing to fear. But over time, it became pretty clear that this wasn’t really working out for me. Yes, people were getting defensive. But no, this defensiveness wasn’t going away like my dad had predicted. And also, I wasn’t really changing people’s minds. If anything, other people seemed to be able to change people’s minds better than I could. And so at some point I had to stop and say, “Dad, I love you, but your advice was terrible.” And I had to go back to the drawing board and ask myself that question, “Why is being right not enough?” And so that started me on this 20-year journey examining the science and the art of persuasion and influence. And I’ve carried that through. I started off looking at why people resist apparently reasonable criticisms of the grip culture, and then I was looking at why people resist reconciliation efforts from outsiders. I also do a lot of stuff about why do people reject conceptual views on science around vaccination, around climate change, etc.

Zach: When it comes to the divergent narratives that we can have about the world and about reality, is that divergence of narratives something that concerns you? Do you see it as one of the existential threats the human race faces; our tendency to get in these highly conflictive divergence of narratives?

Matthew: Well, look. Yes and no. I mean, many of these divergent narratives don’t really harm anyone. People can fight as much as they want about the origin of our species and about evolution versus creationism, but I struggle to see the victim sometimes, other than my internalized sense of scientific honor. And, you know, you’d have to say, “Look, would you wish it away if you had a magic wand and you could create a world where there was no diverging narratives and everyone thought the same thing and there was no conflict around ideas… Would you want that kind of world?” Because that could get a bit cult-like and creepy. But then one of the reasons I’ve focused on climate change and vaccinations, for example, is that these are core existential threats. We need to know how to respond to a pandemic. And we need to know how to respond to climate change. And scientists are trying to help us there. That’s where I started to get concerned. And you see these schisms and society and cultural wars developing over high-stakes situation that actually we need to be agreeing on.

Zach: Yeah, it seems like there’s different areas in there because there can be differences in opinions or differences of perceptions of issues and various topics, but then you’ve got  the highly polarized kind of Us versus Them stances, which are often so emotionally driven. And I guess that was the thing I was more thinking about of these narratives of perceiving the world in an Us versus Them, Good versus Evil way, which then kind of informs various other narratives and topics. That seems to be the real destructive form of divergent narratives. At least that’s what I was thinking about. 

Matthew: That’s right. I mean, if I had to create a world, I’ll create a world that allowed people to disagree and to have conflict. But ultimately, I’d like to think that it was with a view to creating consensus. Like, the fighting and the differences of narratives and the conflict is just a painful way of getting to the truth. That’s my preferred mental model of how humanity should work. And as soon you get an- 

Zach: That’s a nice positive view of how we should work. Yeah. 

Matthew: But as soon as you get an Us and Them dynamic, you get depressed, because there’s something about that us and them dynamic that is self-perpetuating. As soon as people see things in intergroup terms, you get these self-reinforcing processes of converging to the views and attitudes, and values of your own group and defining yourself against the views and attitudes and values of another group. And in those situations, truth is a casualty, there’s no question. Because a very insightful comment could be dismissed out of hand just because it was delivered by them and not us. And so a lot of my research is about how to hack or to circumvent or to reduce that intergroup dynamic because once it starts, it’s hard to stop.

Zach: Right, even how you were talking about trying to persuade people, which everyone wants to do who cares about something. And when you have that us versus them dynamic, even the act of trying to persuade people is perceived as malicious, propaganda attempt. And so even it’s almost you can’t win once things get to that us versus them, wide us versus them feeling in a society because the sheer act of persuasive action is taken as maliciousness.

Matthew: Yeah, I completely agree. And my own data, it was just slapping me in the face around that. That you cannot create change in a group to which you don’t belong, particularly if there’s an us versus them dynamic. What I realized, and I was just learning through the process of running these studies, but what I realized is that the first question that people ask, for example, when you try and reform a group or make a recommendation for change or point out a problem, the first question people ask is not are they right or wrong, the first question people ask is, why are they saying that? What’s the motive? And it’s only after they’ve answered that question that they start thinking about the right or wrong thing. And obviously you can’t just peel back people’s skulls and stare into their brain and discover their motives, you have to guess the motive often on the basis of fairly superficial characteristics. And group membership is one of those, and I’m telling you that the effects are huge that I’ve got situations in which people are perfectly ready to accept a criticism of their culture, their country, their profession, whatever it is, when it comes from one of their own. But if exactly the same message is sent by somebody who’s an outsider, they will hysterically reject it as being untrue. And people think, “Well that’s because the outsiders don’t know what they’re talking about.” But it doesn’t matter how much experience and expertise and information that I give to those outsider critics in my experiments, they just don’t get to square one. And it’s because they’re failing that first test, they haven’t convinced people that their motives are pure. Because by virtue of being seen as an outsider, people presume that you’re only saying these things to be hurtful, to be spiteful because you’re jealous, because you want to make your group better, etc. And it’s totally transformed how I engage in persuasion now. I realized that I used to spend a hundred percent time credentialing my argument, and now I realize I have to spend 80% of the time credentialing my motives. And only if I can win that battle do I even have a shot at getting people to listen to the quality of the argument.

Zach: Yeah, and I want to come back to that group persuasiveness in group versus group interactions. But first I was going to ask regarding divergent narrative kinds of scenarios. One thing that strikes me in that area is that it’s so hard for us to agree on even fairly simple philosophical scenarios. For example, the trolley problem kind of scenarios. For people who don’t know, those things someone’s supposed to choose whether to let a train hit several people or pull a switch and send the train off to instead kill a single person. And so there’s these philosophical, moral problems. And we can argue over even these very simple experimental problems. And in that sense, it’s not surprising in some sense that we can have such divergent narratives about how our values inform how we see the world. And I’m curious, do you feel the same way in the sense that it’s really not that surprising? I feel like sometimes people are surprised that our narratives about the world can be so different. But with that in mind, I guess it’s not that surprising to me often.

Matthew: No. I mean, again, would you wish it away? I mean, it’s part let a thousand flowers bloom. People are different. I was reflecting on music the other day. One thing you can predict with total confidence about any human you meet is that they’re probably going to be somewhat into music. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t enjoy music at all. And humans are very distinct like that, but I’m not sure there’s too many species who are massively into music. But then people listen to completely different genres. For some people, their idea of bliss is nerding out on opera, and for other people, that’s their idea of hell. And so in all sorts of really puzzling but wonderful ways, our minds go down little rivulets, and even though we all are sort of the same, we have different kind of predilections and attitudes and values, and that’s part of the fun of it. I’m not really surprised by that. I think what I get surprised by is again where it goes beyond just being a matter of taste or values or predilections, it becomes a matter of objective reality. So if you’re looking at science, for example, around climate change or whatever it is, I still believe that there’s such a thing that’s reality that lives outside our heads, and you get people who are honest brokers trying to synthesize that knowledge about those things that are outside our heads. And the stakes are high, and we need to do something quickly. It’s under those circumstances that I get surprised, I think, by our willingness to fight. But I think that one thing I’ve learned over time is that often the fighting is not something that spontaneously happens under the skull of individuals, there’s vested interests and there’s kind of structures of misinformation that train us to fight. It’s not happening necessarily spontaneously, there are campaigns designed to turn things that should be, for example, scientific conclusions into scientific debates. And so I guess when you think about that, it’s probably less surprising.

Zach: Yeah. And I guess a lot of that when it comes to the more surprising aspects of how people can believe such surprising things or different things, I mean, a lot of that gets back to those us versus them kind of narratives of not trusting. Something might seem obvious to you or me, but that’s because we don’t distrust the people involved, whether that’s a artificially created, purposely created kind of distrust or some sort of natural polarization, a lot of it comes down to that, that us versus them narratives. Would you agree to that?

Matthew: Yeah, I do. I think maybe we can talk about social media and the extent to which it has contributed to this. But it’s almost like anything can get sucked into an us versus them narrative. It just seems to be our go to thing, is to find our echo chamber or our tribe that believes X and to define ourselves against people who believe Y. But I was really structuring COVID in the early days. I’m from the University of Queensland, and there was an academic there who had done a press release. And he was talking about some scientists out there were starting to get hopeful that we could use this malaria drug. And I always forget the name of it, but I think it’s hydroxychloroquine. “We can use this malaria drug, and for some reason, maybe it can be effective at treating COVID. And some of the early signs are not totally unpromising.” And so I filed that away, we were in the early days of the pandemic and obviously looking for good news stories. And I thought, “Well, that could be massive if that was true.” The trials hadn’t been done, the test hadn’t been done, etc. Now you might remember that at one point, Trump embraced hydroxychloroquine and started talking about that as a therapy for COVID. And at that point, I was no longer able to talk about, “Oh, there’s incipient research on hydroxychloroquine and the jury’s not in yet, but maybe it’s something.” I couldn’t say that anymore, because people would just hear that and go, “Well, so you’re a Trump supporter?” And it makes you realize that when people hear what you say, it’s not just a reflection of what you think, it’s a reflection of who you are. Who’s side are you on? What team? And so it got to the point where your views on the effectiveness of a particular drug that was still undergoing trials became a proxy for your values, morality, ideology, etc. Now, if anything can get sucked into a cultural war like that, then that’s what gets me kind of concerned.

Zach: Yeah. It really does seem like almost anything could be. I mean, I sometimes just run thought experiments of theoretical things that, surprising things that could theoretically get sucked into that. And it really seems like so much of this stuff is around these us versus them emotions of, “Well, the other side is associated with this thing, and I think the other side is bad. Therefore I must take the opposite stance.” And this emotional thing drives so much of these divides, and I think our focus on the issues is sometimes just missing this underlying emotional, psychological, dynamic that is driving all of this stuff.

Matthew: And I think one thing I realized pretty early on, I’ve got a scientific mind. And so everything I think is with a view to getting closer and closer to the truth. That’s why I’ve got an accuracy motive. When I have a belief or an attitude, it’s trying to get closer and closer to the truth. And I sort of thought everyone did. I just imagined that that’s how everyone thought that, that it was an accuracy motive that drove their beliefs. And then after a while, and it was through my research, I realized actually very few people do that. Not very few, but I would say a minority. I think for many people, beliefs are tools that you use to signal what kind of person you are and who’s side you’re on. Sometimes it’s about signaling your group identity and sometimes it’s about signaling your personal identity. But really I think that is in many ways the communicative function of a belief. The identity expressive function of a belief has taken over as the primary goal of a belief. And that’s why you can have people say things that seem completely outrageous but bizarrely resilient in the face of counter evidence. It’s because ultimately it’s not about the truth, it’s not about accuracy, and you’re wasting your breath with all your facts and arguments. It’s about saying this is the kind of person I am.

Zach: Well, yeah. And I think the more a society has anger, the more it becomes polarized, the more people feel obviously scared and angry and fearful about the other side. And that is what lends itself to people treating beliefs as tools, because the focus is on the fear they feel about the other group, the anger at the other group. That that kind of becomes their overriding reality. So then therefore the accuracy of specific statements or stances are less meaningful in the moment to those people than the fight that they’re in, if that makes sense.

Matthew: I don’t want to trivialize that. Some people [disintegrate] fights are extremely important to their livelihoods and to their wellbeing.

Zach: Right. They can literally be deadly for some fights, yeah.

Matthew: That’s right. And so I don’t want to just reduce everything to some kind of ridiculous emotional intergroup dynamic, but I do think that you are right. There’s two things I want to talk about there though, and you talked about fear of the out-group. I think sometimes what you get, and the data show this is, is anger towards the out-group. And the anger, a big chunk of that anger is people’s assumptions about how they feel about them. So if you look at conservatives, for example, a big chunk of their anger at liberals is their perception that liberals hate them and vice versa. And if you look at the rural urban divide, a lot of rural people have a strong stereotype that urban people don’t care about them and they dehumanize them and they think they’re stupid and they trivialize them, etc.

Zach: Mock them on TV.

Matthew: Yeah, that’s right. And can you blame them? I mean, there’s a kind of truth to that. So I think that people are picking up on their sense of how the other group feels about them as a primary chunk of the anger. And that’s why we need to be responsible, I think, in terms of our communication, but that’s another point. But the other thing is you talked about fear of the out-group, which I think is real, but I think equally real is fear of the in-group. I’m just going to out myself because there’s probably no point not doing that. I’m solidly left and I’ve always grown up left wing, liberal kind of views and most of my friends share those views, etc. But I would say that if I was going to be honest, I feared the judgment of my own group probably even more so than the judgment of the other group. So I think that that fear and anger are there, they just play out in complex ways.

Zach: Yeah. When I talked about the fear of the other group, it’s all these complex emotions. It’s almost like a hurricane system of building, reinforcing in a vicious cycle of all these different emotions. I mean, that’s how I view these polarization dynamics. They’re all like self-reinforcing emotions in this big swirl. So you’ve got the hurt feelings, the feelings that you’re disrespected, the fear of the other group, the fear of your own group, it’s all this complex swirl of things going on. But maybe that’s a good segue into fear of what I want to talk a little bit about, internal group criticisms. And so I’m working on this book aimed at healing American divides and reducing political anger. I don’t have high hopes it’ll do much, but that’s what I’m working on right now. And one thing that has seemed increasingly important to me is the idea of questioning and criticizing the views on our own political side that we view as more extreme and unreasonable and divisive. And so that would include not just political issue stances, but also very pessimistic and alienating and divisive narratives about the other group. And the more I’ve thought about these topics, the more important this idea of questioning one’s own group and speaking out about one’s own group in respectful ways, not angry ways, but the more important that idea has seemed to me. And the main reason being is that you really just don’t have influence on the opposite group. I mean, you can criticize and morally judge the other group all day long, but clearly that doesn’t have much effect, and I think many people would agree you’re just creating more animosity in the other group. But questioning our own group can help bring down the divisive narratives on our own side, can help break some of the perceptions of monolithic stereotypes people have about one’s own group, it can encourage other people in the other group to question and criticize their group and break those stereotypes and so on. Thinking about those ideas is what led me to finding your research about group deviance and group conformity. From what I gathered, you were interested in group deviance because it hadn’t been focused on that much, that it was largely group conformity that had been focused on the research. So maybe you could talk a little bit about what led you to that research and what interested you and your colleagues in that area.

Matthew: Yeah. I mean, again, it was sort of a researchers research situation where I was a naïve but cocky kind of young academic, and I was trying to create change within my group. And that was within my discipline, within my school, and I felt a lot of conviction about that. And I just saw everything. I felt so rock solid in my argument, but I just felt like nothing was working. And so I started to try and do studies literally just to learn what I was doing wrong, and that was an interesting process. But also I was sort of emboldened to do this because when I first spoke to an academic about this idea about criticizing your own group, he said, “Well, there’s no such thing.” He’s like, “You can’t criticize your own group.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about?” And he said, well, he was talking from his theoretical tradition, which was also mine. And he was saying, “Well, according to that theory, if you’re criticizing your own group, you’re not a psychological in-group member, you’re an out-group member. Only outsiders criticize groups. Insiders don’t do it.” I’m like, “That is so obviously not true.” And to me, if you think about what’s the definition of loyalty, it’s risking personal sacrifice to benefit the group. And what greater demonstration is there of group loyalty than trying to constructively create change to make it a better group, because you’re probably not going to get a whole lot of people thanking you for it. Criticizing your own group is an incredibly combustive act. You become a lightning rod for a whole lot of stuff. So you’re not going to win too many friends doing it, but you do it anyway sometimes because you just care. You’re criticize because you care. And so I became really intrigued by that notion, there was very little research. The research was all just assuming the groups are strong and individuals are weak, and it was all about conformity. And I’m like, “No, if that was true, groups would never change, but groups do change.

Zach: Right. I was just thinking that, with that pessimistic view, groups would just never change. It doesn’t make sense.

Matthew: So I think that in terms of my research, you opened this question by talking about criticizing your own group and about whether that can help in the polarization scene. It’s interesting because in a lot of my research, you can see that people actually, when you get their private thoughts as opposed to what they say out loud, when you get their private thoughts, people are okay about well-targeted in-group criticisms. They’re pretty good at dealing with it. But they sort of want it to be kept in-house. They don’t want outsiders to hear it because you don’t air you dirty laundry. And that makes sense. But I really picked up my ears when you had your theory that actually by criticizing your own group, the outsiders are going to love you more. You’re going to get less polarization. And there is research that shows that, it’s not mine. But it’s some of my favorite research, where they’re looking at conservative Jewish Israelis and getting various messages from Palestinians. And one of the messages is where Palestinians are saying, “Look, maybe we’ve gone too far. We’ve kind of tilted towards too much violence, etc.” And you look at those sort of situations and you think, “What are these conservative Jewish Israelis going to do with this information that there’s just Palestinians fighting amongst themselves that they’ve been too radical?” Because you could think, “Well, what they’re going to do is exploit that, they’re divided. We’re going to put our foot in their throat.” That’s the assumption. But what happened? Exactly what you imagine, that the conservative Jewish Israelis who received those messages with Palestinians criticizing their own group like Palestinians more, they’re more conciliatory to Palestinians, they’re more likely to compromise.

Zach: They showed that they were humans like themselves.

Matthew: Because half of the intergroup dynamic because you imagine the other groups are radical robots who don’t differ and they’re completely fueled by conviction. And so that’s a frightening kind of thought. But when you can see that there’s also the very human intensity towards dissent and debate within their group, it softens people’s hearts because they’re like, “Actually, no, I can work with these people. This is a group that I’m familiar with.” And I think that people underrated the strategic value of in-group criticism to promote more positive integrate relations as well.

Zach: It reminds me, I interviewed Jaime Settle who did research on the polarizing effects of Facebook, at least she theorized what the effects were that she found and why they happened. And one of the things she said that stuck with me was one of the ways we can fight polarization is showing how we don’t fit into these stereotypical traits of our group. And clearly, criticizing one one’s own group is a way to show how we don’t fit into these stereotypical molds plays into. And I really think it is powerful. I mean, I’ve seen plenty of examples of that in conversations I’ve personally had and anecdotally. I’d love to see that research that you just mentioned because I hadn’t heard of that, the Israeli Palestinian one, so that’s interesting.

Matthew: But I think that insight from Jaime Settle, I completely agree, and I agree with you that we have mental models of what the other side are like and what they think. And those mental models are defined by pretty extreme examples, because it’s the extreme examples that sort of flow to our consciousness, and that is the problem. Because as a social scientist, I’m privileged, I get to see what people actually think, not what I think they think filtered through the prism of social media or other kind of things, I get to see what people actually think. And when you have that opportunity, it’s amazing, because people sort of converge around a middle ground, even around highly polarizing issues. When I started doing research on climate change, I imagined that there were believers and there were skeptics and that they’re radically different in their behavior and their values and even their beliefs about climate change of course. But when I got the data, I’m like, “These self-identified believers, they sort of think climate change is mostly human caused and partly natural, and the skeptics are like, ‘Yeah, climate change is happening and it’s probably partly human, but it’s probably mostly natural.'” So that’s the difference, that’s where people live. And it’s a pretty subtle distinction, it’s not the dramatic differences that you imagine if you’re relying on just the extreme examples that you’re seeing filtered through the media.

Zach: Sometimes I have conversations where I’m trying to show the variety of thought amongst conservatives, for example, and I’ll try out some statistics like, “The majority of 50 something percentage of conservatives in America are supportive of gay marriage,” things like that. But I think skeptics would say like, “Well clearly, but there are more extreme people leading that party.” But I think what I would say is the more we treat the other side as monolithic and all the same, the more extreme by all these dynamics we’ve talked about, the emotional dynamics, the more extreme you’re helping make that party by treating them and speaking as if they are monolithic and all as extreme and unreasonable as the most unreasonable people in that group in the same way that the more conservatives act as if all liberals are American hating, want to burn down buildings and riot and stuff. The more they act in those ways, the more it feeds into some of the most angry and unreasonable liberal side. It fires up those kinds of beliefs. So there’s just these dynamics. And I think these things are hard to talk about because people will think that you’re trying to make false equivalency both sides kind of arguments where you’re basically saying anything goes. But I think what I often try to focus on is the way that we speak, that is a very important thing and it’s not some side thing, it’s not some off to the side thing, it is a fundamental driver of these things that are happening. The language that we use, the divisive language that we use, the simplistic narratives that we speak are key drivers of the polarization and funneling into building the unreasonable narratives.

Matthew: Absolutely. I mean, the more you live in a divided world, I mean, we all live in echo chambers and bubbles, we all do. And so often I could live my life and not meet a Trump supporter in my inner circle. And all you have to define your sense of that group is language, it’s what they say. And all they have to define liberals is what we say. And so of course, language is important and loose talk can be destructive. But I heard you say earlier, well, of course we all presumably when we’re talking across group boundaries, we’re trying to persuade the other group. And I think actually that’s another thing I’ve had to let go of, is that I always thought that when people were arguing about ideas, they were trying to persuade the other group. And then it took me a while to realize that actually that’s not true either. Because if they actually thought they were trying to persuade the group, they’ll do it differently. I think often what they’re doing is that they’re just enjoying the tribalism and they’re enjoying marinating in their own kind of virtuousness and they’re enjoying signaling into their own side their credentials as an in-group member. But I mean, do people really think you’re persuading the other group by locating yourself as an outsider and hurling moral insults at each other? What experience have they had that that works? Does that work for them? I’m not always convinced that even activists are trying to persuade. That’s where I start to get impatient, because I think that if you really care, pragmatic focus on the psychology of communication should be front and center of what you think about. And I actually don’t see that a great deal. And also when I see people who do exemplify that, I sometimes see them torn down. And so I think that, for me, I’ve had to if I really care about something, just adopt almost like a radical pragmatism. If something works, in climate change, for example, if you need to bring conservatives on board, I can’t be just talking about what I think and my values, I need to be thinking about my audience. I need to be thinking about their values and their fears and their emotions. And I need to come up with messages that are congenial to that. That’s my view anyway. But I have to say that pragmatism is sort of losing the battle with purity, and people tend to be focusing on purity of tactics, the purest expression of my world view rather than thinking about pragmatically what’s actually going to affect change.

Zach: Yeah. And I was actually going to ask, with your focus on all these topics, with your research, how frustrating it might be to look around and see how unpersuasively people speak. And I know that it’s been the case for me. I mean, I’ve just been tremendously frustrated by how even very influential people, politicians, and journalists, and other influencers, how even very smart and politicians that I think some people would perceive as being quite moderate and helpful, but to me they don’t speak persuasively and don’t seem good at and there’s so much antagonism even amongst people who get credit for being relatively not polarized or whatever but I think yeah and some of this stuff just for anyone who’s delved into these topics, it just seem so obvious that the path is to, like you said, trying to think about your audience and trying to persuade them. But I think one of the problems with at least in American politics and I’m sure other places too, but I think that the system is set up for not rewarding more bridge building and persuasiveness. So for example if there was a politician who suddenly was trying to build bridges and speak to both sides and speaking to the most reasonable people on the other side and such, I think they would just immediately be perceived as weak and not get money and not get votes and such. And so I think there can be this, especially in a two party system and especially in the American system, I think for various reasons, there can be this rewarding of the most antagonistic us versus them rhetoric and in a way that’s really unhelpful.

Matthew: Yeah. No, I completely agree. And it’s very common to hear people bemoan the polarization of society, but I’m thinking if you don’t want it, reward people who don’t do it and punish people who do. That is pretty much as simple as that. But I think that we are concerned about polarization in an abstract, but in concrete terms, few of us are brave enough to really just chart our own course with regard to that. I mean, I do get frustrated when I look around, but I have tiers of frustration, T-I-E-R-S. And so there’s some people who actually think that creating social change is about demolishing the enemy and we’re living in war time in terms of values and ideas. And I don’t actually agree with that, but I at least respect the fact that they’ve got an agenda and this is how they’re doing it. And there’s some people who believe that if you just hurl moral insults to people and shame them enough, then they’re going to change, they’re wrong, but at least they’re trying, they’re just trying badly. I think my deepest frustration is with the people who I suspect aren’t even trying, and that they’re enjoying or getting reinforced by the gladiatorial atmosphere. And you can tell a politician that’s doing that from one who’s not.

Zach: I’m curious. Do you feel like there’s something about the aspect of modern life in the sense that we’re less communal and more isolated in an existential sensory from each other and have less sensory input in these kinds of things. Do you think there’s something about modern life that lends itself to us looking, or being more enchanted with these existential us versus them more like narratives about the world, because it does lend some meaning to our life? Do you see any of that? And that’s probably very much in a getting off the research but into opinions but if you care to answer.

Matthew: No, if you’re happy for me to digress in terms of opinions, I’ve got plenty of those. I mean, the thing about reflecting on modern life is that it’s very difficult to get a strong sense of what people were like before. But you said, well, maybe people are more isolated and I, it’s pretty hard to disagree with that. There’s probably less face to face community than there used to be. So if we take that, but people’s need for community hasn’t changed. And so I guess there’s a basic algorithm there, if you can’t achieve it through actual face to face communities, well, you can achieve it through virtual communities. And so I think that, I mean, I remember when I was a kid I used to, in the playground, this is 1970s, 1980s era, where there was lots of violent games being played in the playground. All these games were various versions of groups of people ganging up on each other and doing terrible things. And then later I played sport and it was a bit the same. But I just remember just God, it’s fun. And it’s simplifying. If you’re in these intergroup contests, you’re not angsting about who am I, what do I think, what’s my place in the world, who are my people? You don’t. Those questions are answered for you, and there’s a euphoric rush associated with that. So I think that people are achieving that through cultural wars these days. And it’s not just that people have opinions, but those opinions are then reinforced by an eco chamber, and then they identify with these communities. And so I think that maybe you’re right. The other thing reflecting on modern life and I don’t want to come across as too negative because actually I’m super optimistic about the trajectory of society in fact because we talk about the culture wars and everything’s about the left and right. But you don’t have to go back that far. I mean, look at the middle of the 20th century and all those battles are about the left and the right as well. But those battles cost tens of millions of lives. There was a blood flood, not just World War II, but a whole bunch of wars that happened around then. And so if you take that 100 years ago, that kind of world, and then you look at what we’re fighting about now, which is morality and ethics and appropriateness, I’ll take that any day over what we were fighting about before, which is world domination. So, I think that the underlying instincts are always going to be there. We are always going to be tribal, we are always going to have these integral dynamics. But when you look at what we’re choosing to fight about now, you can afford to be a bit less hurtful about it.

Zach: Yeah. That’s what gets me is the people who act as if we’re facing these existential, horrible, the very pessimistic framings of our divides are almost not taking into account, like you said, how violent and how high animosity things were in so many areas in the recent past. And it’s almost like the more we act, the more we forget that what context we’re in and the relative importance of these things. It’s like the more we drum up these emotions, and I think there’s some self-reinforcing things there where the more we act as if we’re in a life or death war, the more it will become so, and I think we all tend to forget how bad things really can be. We’re living in this surrounded by media where we tend to think everything’s nice all the time. And that’s the message we’re told life should be great all the time and we should always get our way and that’s just clearly not ever going to be the case. There’s always going to be fights and struggles because we’re humans. And I think we tend to forget the ugliness that can come with humanity.

Matthew: Yeah. I mean, there’s a tendency to think it’s always astonishes me that people think that the sense that the past was warm and benevolent and the present and the future is cold and conflictual and uncaring, and I’m thinking, do you know nothing about history? We have made so much progress as a species. We are smarter than we’ve ever been. We’re more educated than we’ve ever been. We’re living longer than we’ve ever been. We’re richer than we’ve ever been. And we’re nicer than we’ve ever been. And in terms of our moral duty of care for all people from all sorts of walks of life, this was not historically how we operated. We’ve got far fewer people dying from crime and war than at any time in human history per capita, right? And I’ve never seen. It’s always strikes me how few friends you win by pointing this out. No one wants to hear it. Everyone wants to believe that we’re living in the darkest of times. Well, I think maybe what people assume is you’re saying is that there’s no problems right now and you’re being Pollyannaish with it. But no, I’m not saying that. There’s lots of problems. And I’m saying exactly what I’m saying, which is that the course of human history, we’re doing great actually.

Zach: Right. It’s that’s it’s on nuanced, it’s that you’re either with us or against us. Are you in this? Which binary are you in? Choose the side, right?

Matthew: Because people aren’t listening to what you’re saying, they’re listening to what they think you’re really saying. You have to like all the fights and 90% of the fights I have is not because of what I say. It’s not the argument. It’s the shadow argument. The argument that they presume is lurking under the surface there.

Zach: They’re fighting some perceived boogeyman of the argument. I see that. I mean, on social media, on Twitter, it’s just like every day, it’s just somewhere 50% of the things I see of people arguing are just people misunderstanding or taking something that’s not there and taking the worst case argument of the other person or whatever.

Matthew: It drives me wild because I mean, it’s so robust. I see it over and over again. And I even see it in academia. I see it a lot in academia. And one thing that drew me to academia was that I felt like it was a marketplace of ideas and it was all about arguments and you could be frank and fearless, but all these dynamics play out in academia as much as it does on social media. And it’s very difficult to say something without people thinking what you’re really signaling is something much bigger and darker. And if you’ve got that mental model, then it’s pretty hard to find common ground on things.

Zach: So I saw something recently where it was a poll about, I think it was an American poll showing conservative and liberal divergence in trust in science, one of these kind of polls. And even in that, there’s so much like identity and choosing a stance based on what you perceive the other side for example, liberals on polls, you can see liberals stated beliefs and trust and science go up in the last few years, but that can be perceived mainly as a reaction to them associating conservatives with the group that doesn’t trust science. And I think there can be many reasons liberals in the past or now have been skeptical of science for example, there’s the replication crisis or replication problem in psychology, for example. And that’s not to say you don’t trust, that’s not a reason to distrust science, but just to say that there can be reasons for someone to be skeptical of scientific findings and it’s not a conservative or liberal thing, but you see that divergence in those kinds of things related to group identity, I think.

Matthew: It makes me sad that science has been dragged into the culture wars but here we are, but it’s a good example you give because there’s huge. Like you said, there’s a huge gulf and trust in science between conservatives and liberals, but you go back to the early ’70s and if anything, conservatives trusted science more than liberals. It really started deteriorating in the ’80s and ’90s, but it’s the same with climate change. I mean, you get these enormous gulfs between conservatives and liberals in the US, but also in Australia, very polarized around ideology. But you go back to the early ’90s, you struggle to find those effects. People, conservatives, there’s nothing inherent to being conservative that makes you reject science or reject climate science or whatever it is. And in fact, in many countries that those relationships don’t exist. It’s not like again, people are spontaneously reaching those views. I think that there come situations where elites let’s in this case, let’s say conservative elites start coaching conservatives, what to think about climate science. And you could argue about why that happened and people take their cues. So in these very tribal environments, I think that’s what happens. It’s like people aren’t even really in charge of their own attitudes, behaviors, narratives, they’re coached about them. We can talk about the natural human instinct towards polarization, et cetera. But at the end of the day, you have to reserve a degree of judgment for those provocateur who create these intergroup dynamics. They do it mindfully, they do it strategically and they’re well-funded to do it.

Zach: And I think there’s so much turbulence and chaos in these things too, where in initial conditions, which I don’t know if you know Michael Macy, but I interviewed them for the podcast and he done some research on the chaotic nature of group stance formation, political stance formation and how theoretically abortion could have gone in different ways in America for when you’re considering it wasn’t a highly group identified issue in like the ’70s. And the fact that conservative parties in other countries are the more small government and pro-choice stay out of our lives party. So it’s interesting thinking about how so many of these things that we tend to think of as, oh, these things are associated with this group and these group stances bundle together because these people are so bad and their group stances align in these good or bad ways. And so much of it could just be due to how the chips fell or the randomness of history and the early movers and such.

Matthew: I completely agree. I mean, that the basket actually is that you’re supposed to have as a liberal or conservative, if you look at those, some of them could have gone either way. And yeah, it could be just randomness how the chips fell, but I suspect if you look at climate change, again, it wasn’t that random.

Zach: Yeah. Some seem more determined than others. Yeah.

Matthew: Yeah. Well, there’s individuals who make it happen and introduce certain attitudes and values and beliefs into an ideology and they do it in a very mindful way and they do it well but yeah, I think sometimes we imagine these things are rusted on that they are somehow inevitable, that they’ve always been like that, but sometimes you only have to go a little way back into human history to realize that wasn’t the case.

Zach: So, I realized we didn’t talk much specifically about your research but I’m curious to ask, is there anything that you wanted to mention about what’s the most surprising or interesting thing you found in your research that stands out or maybe something that you’re most proud of that you’d like to mention at the end?

Matthew: Well, I mean, I’ve done research on so many different things but I think I’ve anticipated some of the things that were revelatory to me and in retrospect seem obvious, but at the time are revelatory such as people say things sometimes without really believing them or their beliefs aren’t really about capturing reality or capturing truth, that was such a shock to me. The idea that people don’t listen to what you’re saying. They listen to what they think you’re really saying and what your motives are. That was a shock to me, shouldn’t have been, but it was. And I think also with my research on climate change and vaccination realizing that you just have to screen out what people say in many ways because so often so much of what people say is a post hoc rationalization of a conclusion they want to reach for other reasons. It could be emotional reasons. It could be identity reasons. It could be for vested interest reasons. But I realize now that many of us operate like cognitive lawyers, not like cognitive scientists where you weigh up or the evidence and reach a conclusion. They’re more like cognitive lawyers, they’ve reached the conclusion, and then they embrace evidence in a biased way to reinforce that conclusion. Now, whatever people say to reinforce that conclusion, you probably shouldn’t get too worked up about, right? Because it’s a retrospective, just grabbing at arguments to retrospectively reinforce a gut feeling. So really you just have to screen the words out. That was a surprise to me. And in terms of persuasion now, I think though what you need to do is to focus on those underlying reasons. What are the roots of people’s attitudes? What are those underlying identities, ideologies, fears, emotions, and work on them. So I guess through my career, I’ve just got to a much less literal notion about persuasion, where I thought it was all about the words and the arguments, and to have a more psychological approach.

Zach: Thanks a lot for coming on, Matthew. How can people keep up with your work if they want to follow your work? What’s the best way?

Matthew: Embarrassingly, I think partly because of the work I do, I stay off social media.

Zach: That’s healthy.

Matthew: But I do my best to get out there. So I think if just people Google my name, academics can go into Google Scholar, et cetera, but just Google my name and you’re going to find various things. I try and make things open, access as much as possible, but yes, I’ve had to basically protect myself from all the dynamics that I’ve be talking about. I’m just too scared.

Zach: You don’t want to wait until the cesspool for research purposes?

Matthew: I don’t. And it’s partly because I’m protecting myself emotionally. I do research on climate skepticism and anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists, and you get hate mail. I don’t want that. I get enough of it anyway. But the other thing is that I feel like the more I go on social media, the less I remember. The less I remember the less in my own research, which is that people actually more or less agree on many things, the differences aren’t as dramatic as you think. And I don’t want my mind wearied by seeing the polarized environment of Twitterverse, right?

Zach: It is such a warping environment. And I really do believe that in the future, we’ll look back and realize how warping it was for some people because I feel like there’s quite influential people that because they interact with people, such an extreme small subset of people on Twitter, that is how they start to perceive the conflicts of the world. And they’re just interacting with this small, very small population. That’s represented of a very small number, but it can seem like a life or death struggle for the, if they’re waiting into it every day and constantly fighting in a, I mean I can name quite a few people, I think who their rationality has been subsumed by their belief that they’re in this life or death war that they’re engaging in.

Matthew: And I know myself. I would be one of those people. There’s no question. It’s almost like I know I’m going to get addicted, so I have to stay out. I feel like that makes me a better person, but a better academic as well.

Zach: I don’t even check my notifications responses on Twitter. I literally have tens of thousands of unread responses on Twitter because I just, I don’t find it healthy. I just like making points in these political threads and mostly aimed at depolarizing so I get hate from both sides and I literally I’m just trying to make points and I don’t care to read all these hateful replies I get. So I just don’t even check my replies. I’ll check replies of specific tweets, but that’s how toxic I do find it.

Matthew: But I like your ideas, Zach. And I think that if you’re getting hate from both sides, you’re probably on the right track.

Zach: Well, of course I like to hear that, but that’s my own bias, but yeah. Thanks a lot, Matthew. This has been great.

Matthew: All right. Thanks a lot. It’s been fun chatting.

Zach: That was Matthew Hornsey, the psychology researcher and professor at the University of Queensland in Australia.

If you enjoyed this talk, I think you’d like checking out some of his research papers, which you can find on his Google Scholar page.

If you enjoyed this podcast, you might like checking out some of the other political polarization-related episodes I’ve done. You can check out the site for this podcast at www.behavior-podcast.com, and I’ve also got a more curated list of all the politics-related episodes, and you can find that near the top of my site. I’ve delved into a bunch of polarization-related topics, including distrust in the 2020 election, and racism in America, and a lot more.

If you think I’m doing something worthwhile with this podcast, please leave me a review on iTunes; that’d be hugely appreciated. I don’t make any money on this podcast and I spend a good deal of time on it, so if you’d like to send me some money to encourage me to do more, I’ve got a Patreon account, which you can find at www.patreon.com/zachelwood.

You can follow me on Twitter; my handle there is @apokerplayer.

Okay, thank you for listening.

Music by Small Skies.

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Analyzing speech for hidden meanings, with Mark McClish

This is a rebroadcast of a 2018 episode where I interviewed Mark McClish about statement analysis: analyzing written and spoken speech for hidden meaning. McClish is the author of the books I Know You Are Lying and Don’t Be Deceived. He’s a law enforcement trainer and a former US Marshal.

Episode links:

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Behavioral indicators of healthy or unhealthy relationships, with Brandi Fink

This is a rebroadcast of a 2019 episode where I interviewed Dr. Brandi Fink, psychology and relationship researcher, about the behavioral indicators of healthy and unhealthy relationships. We talk about her work, the work of scientifically analyzing behavior in general, behaviors that are unhelpful to relationships, and more.

Episode links:

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Psychological effects of content media content moderation policies, with Bill Ottman

A talk with Bill Ottman, co-founder and CEO of the social media platform Minds (minds.com), which is known for its minimal content moderation, “free speech” approach. Ottman and other Minds contributors (including Daryl Davis, a black man known for deradicalizing white supremacists via conversations) recently wrote a paper titled The Censorship Effect, which examined how strict censorship/banning policies may actually increase antisocial, radicalized views and that perhaps more lax moderation was the better solution. Ottman and I talk about the psychology that would explain how heavy censorship policies would increase grievances and anger, about the complexity of social media content moderation strategies, about strategies they’ve used at Minds, about why people think open-source approaches are optimal, and about Elon Musk buying Twitter and what it might mean.

Episode links:

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Are a majority of Americans actually prejudiced against black people?, with Leonie Huddy

A talk with political scientist Leonie Huddy about research into American racism and prejudice. Transcript is below. I wanted to talk with Huddy about headlines like this 2012 one from USA Today: “U.S. majority have prejudice against blacks.” I wanted to ask her if such framings were justified based on the research, or if they were, as it seemed to me from looking at the research, over-stated and irresponsible. Other topics discussed include:

  • An overview of studies of racism/prejudice, with a focus on America.
  • The ambiguity that can be present when attempting to study prejudice, especially for research that seeks to measure it in less direct and explicit ways.
  • How worst-case and pessimistic framings and interpretations of studies can contribute to us-versus-them political animosity and polarization

Episode links:

Other resources related to or mentioned in our talk:

TRANSCRIPT 

Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about better understanding other people and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at behavior-podcast.com. 

In this episode, I interview political scientist Leonie Huddy on the topic of studying racism, and especially about studying racism in America. 

The reason I was interested in talking about this topic is that it’s obviously a big factor in our polarization problems in America. There are many people on the left who believe and promote an extremely pessimistic view of race and racism in America. I was thinking about this recently when I was reading Ezra Klein’s book Why We’re Polarized, and the narrative he was promoting was largely the often-heard one that Trump support is largely about race; that many white conservatives are either racist or else resentful about America’s growing diversity and the idea that white people, as a group, are losing power. As someone who’s spent a good deal of time researching our divides, these narratives strike me as simplistic and as taking the worst-possible interpretation of various things that could have multiple interpretations. 

For one thing: clearly there are a significant number of Trump supporters who are in racial minority groups. 12% or so of black voters voted for Trump in 2020, as did roughly 40% of Hispanic voters, as did roughly 30% of Muslim American voters, and 30% of Asian-American voters. To give a few example figures. And those numbers increased substantially from 2016. If you can wrap your mind around how it’s possible to be in a racial minority and not find Trump or the GOP bigoted or racist, you can also see how it can be possible to be white and support Trump for reasons not related to bigotry. 

One of the studies referenced in Ezra Klein’s book to support the ‘Trump support is largely about bigotry’ narrative was an Associated Press study from 2012. To give you a sense of how this study was largely interpreted in the mainstream, a USA Today headline about it was titled “U.S. majority have prejudice against blacks,” and that was roughly how Ezra Klein interpreted that study. And many other news sources and pundits have taken that study and other similar studies and made similar interpretations with them, to make the case that a very large swath of Americans are prejudiced. 

But when you actually take some time to delve into this area, you’ll find that there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about such interpretations. There is plenty of respected work showing why much of this data is quite complex and ambiguous, and showing why academics and journalists should be cautious and careful when talking about these topics. And this would seem to be especially the case considering how divisive we know these topics are. 

One of the people who’s researched and written about the complexity and ambiguity in this area is Leonie Huddy. A 2009 paper Leonie wrote with Stanley Feldman was titled On Assessing the Political Effects of Racial Prejudice. Part of that paper delved into the difficulty of reaching firm conclusions from the data gleaned from so-called “racial resentment” research. 

A little bit about Leonie Huddy from her professor page on Stony Brook University’s site: “She’s a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She studies political behavior in the United States and elsewhere through the lens of intergroup relations, with a special focus on gender, race, and ethnic relations. Her recent work extends that focus to the study of partisan identities in the United States and Western Europe.”

The following is from her wikipedia page: Huddy has been involved in the leadership of several major organizations and journals in political psychology and public opinion. From 2005 until 2010, she was the co-editor of the journal Political Psychology,[1] and she has also served on the editorial boards of other major journals like the American Political Science Review and the American Journal of Political Science.

Before starting the interview, I also want to make clear: questioning some of the more pessimistic narratives about racism in America doesn’t mean that I or Leonie are saying that racism doesn’t exist or that it’s not a problem. But it’s just asking the question: how much of a problem is it? What does the research actually tell us? Because clearly there will always be a spectrum of people’s perceptions about race and racism, or about any topic, and some people will have inaccurate perceptions at various places along that spectrum, and the truth of the matter will lie somewhere on that spectrum, probably somewhere between the more extreme perceptions. And I’d say that the more polarized a society becomes, the more people will hold inaccurate and distorted perceptions of what the truth is about many hot-button topics.  

And I think these conversations are very important. Because if our goal is reducing our visceral us-versus-them animosity, which is the root cause of our polarization and our dysfunction, then we must be willing to dispassionately examine the narratives that cause us to hate each other and be disgusted with each other. We must be willing to question the narratives that emotionally appeal to us, the tempting narratives that whisper in our ear “the other side are all bad and gross people.” We must be willing to examine nuance and complexity, and try to avoid simplistic “the other group is all the same” types of narratives. 

Okay, here’s the interview with Leonie Huddy. Hi, Leonie. Thanks for coming on.

Leonie: Great to be here, Zach.

Zach: So maybe a good place to start is what led me to being interested in talking with you. I was reading Ezra Klein’s book, Why We’re Polarized which is about polarization, and specifically American polarization. And he quoted some studies and interpretations of studies that expressed a pretty confident view that a large percentage of Americans are racist. And to give a sense of this kind of take, there’s a headline from USA Today in 2012 that read, “US majority have prejudice against Blacks.” And then to quote from the first paragraph in that article, “Racial attitudes have not improved in the four years since the United States elected its first black president, an Associated Press poll finds, as a slight majority of Americans now express prejudice toward blacks whether they recognize those feelings or not.” End quote. And you can find similar views based on assorted studies that purport to find either explicit racism, the more obvious direct forms of racism, or more subtle and hidden forms of racism. So maybe we can start with the question; what are your thoughts when you see a news headline that says something like more than half of Americans are racist?

Leonie: Well, you know, I’m a social scientist and we try to stay away from these labels. I mean, we do a lot of work trying to pick up negative attitudes. And it’s a scale. Some people do, I think we both agree, some people have what we would both consider to be pretty strong prejudicial attitudes. But our job in social science is to try and engage these continuums. And one thing that I’ll say is that I’m a social psychologist and a political scientist, I look at both of these things. And it’s very human for us to like our own groups a little bit better than others. It’s pervasive, it’s almost universal. So if I asked you, how much do you like your whatever group it is; your religious group, your racial-ethnic group, I’ll always say I like it a little bit more than outsiders. So the question is, really, when does this spill over into a problem? When do we think that these negative attitudes turn into something that’s problematic or divisive? So I don’t think using labels is particularly helpful, but in our research we’ll try to grade people. Try to take them from those who really are very even-handed in the way they rate these groups to others on a continuum that really are further out on the negativity scale. And then we try to understand what are the consequences of holding those attitudes? I don’t think you’ll find many people in social science who’ll say, “This person is a racist,” but we can scale people on some sort of continuum that ranges from more or less racial negativity. Now, I don’t know if that’s a great answer to your question but I think we’d avoid the labels. And we try to gauge this continuum. Again, people vary. And this kind of human, you know, it is what we call the ingroup bias phenomena. It’s very, very pervasive.

Zach: And then there’s the question of how much of the things that are judged to be racist or interpreted as racist are actually due to just political sentiment. That was the subject of your paper with Stanley Feldman that interested me in talking to you because you talk about sometimes there’s difficulty of distinguishing between answers to surveys about racial resentment, for example, that can be seen as being due to just political sentiment versus racism. I’m wondering if you could maybe give an overview of how you view that separation and that ambiguity.

Leonie: I think the audit, again, is on us as social scientists to do good research. And we should poke out measures, poke the questions we ask people, and make sure that we’re getting at what we say we’re getting at. We should be held to a high level of scrutiny about this. You mentioned this concept of racial resentment, which is basically holding some negative attitudes along with some level of resentment that perhaps another group is getting special treatment in American society. We see a lot of these grudges on all sides, right? Lots of people have grudges against other groups. So that’s one issue. And another is, some of the questions in that particular scale touch on views that let’s say, a conservative or someone who’s very supportive of an individualistic view of humans and how they should behave would be more likely to endorse. So in my view, we have to work a bit harder at this. Yes, we can take statements that we might see in the press or that people make– and I think that’s how that scale got developed, was just picking up language that people were using. But there’s a higher bar to say that this in fact is is prejudicial or discriminatory, you know, that it’s a view that would lead to some of these discriminatory consequences. So I think that we have to think a little bit about the consequences of holding the attitude. Maybe we’ll get into the content of that particular scale but I will say in the history of measuring these concepts, in the beginning people would be asked really about outright bias, the view that another group was inherently inferior. Those were some of the kinds of attitudes that were being measured in let’s say, at the beginning of the 20th century. And people would acknowledge that they harbored them. They thought, for example, that Black Americans were less intelligent than Whites. And I think we’d all agree that that’s a strong prejudicial view. But we’ve moved away from that, that is sort of the history of these concepts. So it became less likely that people would endorse those views, especially in the wake of the civil rights movement. And so these new measures were developed to try and pick up what people thought was sort of discriminatory standpoint. And it’s complicated but some of that was related to what they saw as resistance to policies that would try and improve the position of Black Americans in everyday life and people are asking- Well, in principle, they seemed to support equality and they believed in the value of racial equality, but they’re opposed to these particular remedies. And so they developed this racial resentment scale to try, in their view, to think “Oh, maybe this is the way we now detect racial bias in some ways, to help us explain why people are opposed to programs like busing or affirmative action, which we all may agree may have other problems associated with them.” So there is a long history to this where we’ve moved away from purely discriminatory statements that people would make to more subtle sorts of statements. And I think that’s where we can bring in questions about, is this really racial discrimination?

Zach: Yeah. It seems like there’s a few problems in that area which you talk about and other people have talked about in various papers. For one, it’s hard to separate some conservative views from views that some would categorize as racist or racial resentment. For example, if you’re a conservative who believes in a small government and believes in personal responsibility, that’s going to overlap with things that could be interpreted as racial resentment, the kinds of questions they asked to determine racial resentment. The other related problem is the more indirect an approach you take for measuring racism or anything, the more open to interpretation and ambiguous and noisy the findings can be. Would you agree with both of those?

Leonie: No, I think that’s correct. I think that’s absolutely correct. We, again, as social scientists we have to work hard at this. If it is a difficult concept to measure, we’ve got to work harder at it and make sure that we are not using labels that are incorrect for a response that people make to a particular question. So if we’re talking about this racial resentment scale, one of the questions is people should try harder. If Blacks would try harder, they can be just as well off as Whites. There is some research where you substitute Blacks for other groups and people will just simply agree, “Yes. Yeah, if you work harder you can get ahead!” That’s part of the problem. That it may not be a racial view, it may simply be the view that you think if people work hard they can in fact be just as wealthy as anyone else in the society. And so I think it’s our job to try and make sure that we’re not measuring a support for that sort of hard-work principle as opposed to something that’s more prejudicial attitudes towards a particular group of people.

Zach: Yeah, that was- Speaking of other studies, you mentioned that study which was a study by Riley Kearney and Ryan. It was about substituting Blacks– they substituted Lithuanians for Blacks in these same surveys, and found the same patterns which suggests that these studies were largely studying views about the role of government and how much any individual group should be helped. Then there was another study by Cindy D. Kam titled Racial Resentment and Public Opinion across the Racial Divide. And in that one, they studied the responses of Black Americans to these kinds of questions and found it was largely about politics where Black Republicans would answer in similar ways to White Republicans on these answers and in the same ways that have been interpreted as representing racial resentment. Are there many studies that kind of criticize some of the harder more certain interpretations of these things?

Leonie: I would say among researchers, it is an ongoing debate. One of the things that we’ve tried to do in our research is try to find evidence of actual discrimination. What I mean by that is, let’s say there’s a survey, we’re conducting a survey… We might describe a person– one of my current studies is about immigration so it is whether or not someone would be prejudicial to [woods] somebody who is dark-skinned versus someone who is white-skinned with the same qualities who wishes to come to the United States. And so if we find that the person who’s described identically with same qualifications, same background, same capability of assimilating into American life… If there is a penalty for your skin color, then that’s fairly clear-cut, I guess. And we can take some of our questions such as this racial resentment scale which I don’t really use or other questions that are more blatant, and say it’s the person who holds the more blatant prejudicial attitude less likely to support a person who seems qualified to come to the country just because of their skin color. And we do find evidence of that. In our recent research, yes, there’s a penalty if you harbor the most extreme of these negative attitudes. You will be more likely to reject someone who is let’s say, a Nigerian, than a guy in our last study was who was from Russia described exactly the same way. [unintelligible 00:16:25] an evidence of prejudice or discrimination in action. And I think in some ways that’s more clear cut. And we’ve tried that kind of thing with the racial resentment scale. This was asking about a program that would take top high school scores and allow them free entry into this state college, and the program was described as either benefiting Black or White students. And there was discrimination. People were more likely to support the program when it seemed to benefit White than Black students even though it’s described the same way. But we also look to see across this range of racial resentment, is that helping us to understand who is less likely to support a program for black teenagers? And it didn’t work very well for conservatives who were perhaps not very enthusiastic about the program in general, and it didn’t really matter if it was described for Whites or Blacks. Those who scored highly were just like, “No, we don’t really like this program.” That’s telling me that it’s not discriminating on the basis of race, it’s just telling me something about the reaction to the program, if that makes sense. It’s trying to see discrimination in action, in combination with the scale as a kind of test of the scale. That’s what I mean by we have to work a little bit harder to show that the scale is picking up, something that we think is a problem. Just pure discrimination against something or a policy, purely because it’s directed at one group versus another.

Zach: Right. And you write in your papers and work, and others have too, that academics may be too quick to dismiss the fact that there is actual explicit racism that we can measure and there seems to be a reaching for these more indirect findings or ambiguous findings, when there seems to be so much you could do even with just very explicit direct forms of racism. For example, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz who wrote the book Everybody Lies, which was about examining Google search results for various findings. He found the correlation between Google searches for the N word and related negative racial search engine results and the political activity of specific regions. In other words, there seems to be a lot of interesting research one can do even just for explicit racism without getting into the more ambiguous areas. Which I think is the point you’re making, and also the fact that I agree with you is like we seem to be so often focused on these ambiguous or like trying to read people’s minds, when it seems much more worthwhile to focus on what are the actual implications and consequences when it comes to specific policies and things like this.

Leonie: Yeah. Because I think we just get into trouble with people taking issue with our claims. And so I think it benefits the enterprise if we’re able to show clearly some of these issues that people won’t dispute. And so I’d say it’s a lot older now but in the 2000s, we conducted large national survey. And the questions were about why are there economic differences, let’s say between Blacks and Whites? Or why are test scores different between kids who are black and white in schools? And we gave people different kinds of reasons, and one was that basically the other group is genetically inferior. Now, this would seem to be a version of fairly blatant prejudice against a group, right? I think we’d agree in this day and age not many of us believe that. And I’d say, you know, people are allowed to say, “Whoa, no. That’s absolutely not a reason. It might be a bit, or something.” People who said, “Yes, this greatly explains it or explains it somewhat.” There was about 25% of people in this national survey who said, “Yeah, you know, that could be one of the reasons.” So it’s not so difficult to ask the questions. We think, “Oh, no, you couldn’t possibly raise those issues.” But there are people out there who really, you know, perhaps live in a context where this is the way they talk about the other group. And we shouldn’t be afraid to find that out. I mean, it’s possible to ask these questions. What I will say, at that time I was running a survey research centre, and the interviewers don’t want to ask the question. And I kept saying, “It’s okay, there are people out there that don’t mind telling you. This is what they think. We’re just listening. We’re just trying to understand what’s going on.” So I think our own concerns, our own views colour our perception of what things like out there in the world.

Zach: To get back to that, the reason I wanted to talk to you was these headlines and these framings that, you know, for example the the USA Today headline that said US Majority Have Prejudice Against Blacks, which was based on a specific survey that asked the kind of typical racial resentment questions. The thing that strikes me there is, would you agree it seems that that kind of confident framing seems irresponsible, considering the ambiguity we’ve talked about and considering how divisive these topics are?

Leonie: Again, I don’t think us social scientists would ever say X percentage is racist. We’re just not in that kind of business. And the problem with this is that it does harden perceptions on either side. It is never a good idea when you have some divisions to throw a fire bomb at the other side. It doesn’t help our relationships. So I think it would be much more satisfying if that language is more guarded and more qualified. It’s a complaint that we often have as researchers or social scientists, that some of our research is heavily simplified for headline purposes, right? So if you are interested in social science, it’s really good. I know some of it is complex but it’s really good to try and dig into the complexity of these studies yourself to understand what’s going on if you can. It’s good to have a long-form format such as ours now on a podcast to talk about these issues, because I think social scientists generally think with greater nuance about this. Maybe not everyone, but I think we are beholden to that sort of concept that we’ve got to be clear and straight ahead in what we’re doing if we want other people to believe us.

Zach: I’m someone who’s interested in the political polarisation, dynamics and the psychology behind that, and I talk about that on this podcast a good amount. One thing that strikes me about America’s race-related divides and our divides in general is that there can be these various feedback mechanisms that amplify these conflicts. For example, the more that liberals promote worst-case interpretations about both race relations in America and about conservatives’ views being indicators of hidden racism, the more anger that generates in conservatives and the more that anger on the conservative side will manifest in ways that will be then interpreted even more as so-called racial resentment or racism. In other words, there can be this view amongst conservatives, but not only conservatives, that many liberals are being unreasonable and divisive on matters of race and that liberals focus too much on race and racism to the exclusion of more important things like helping struggling people in general. And the more that that perception grows, the more people will be likely to vent their frustration about these things in surveys related to race and racism. There just seems to be these various feedback mechanisms at work. And I see this not just in racial things, but pretty much any topic we could pick that’s a contentious topic. I’m wondering if that’s something you’ve thought about these kinds of feedback mechanisms.

Leonie: Well, I think about group conflicts very generally. One of the things that can happen is if I think the other side hates me, it will not improve matters. And so some of these accusations, the hurling of insults, will never improve the situation and basically people will just stop listening to each other. And I think we’re sort of in that situation, for some people at least, with partisan polarisation. So it is important to listen to understand each other that unfortunately, forces, greater listening. When it comes to racial matters, we would say or social scientists say there is racial inequity in this country. I think it’s clear cut with, I think for example, on Long Island where I live, we have a lot of school districts. We have 126 school districts and we have some minority districts that are the poorest performing, they’re the smallest, they have the weakest tax base, we have a large differential in terms of spending per child on these different kinds of children in school districts. And most people are unaware of that. I’ve done polling on this, so they don’t know. So it would be helpful if we could educate each other about where the sources of problems are in our society without getting hot under the collar about such insult, because it doesn’t help matters. I personally think politics is not a religion, it is a practical exercise. [laughs] And we often lose sight of that. We have to compromise. Politics is inherently about compromise. We have to listen, and without that we’re really not going to solve the problems. We’re not gonna see the problem. That, I think, is bothersome. It is worrying to me because if we want to be clear-sighted, for me as an educator, one of the things and the places we get started is with education. And equal educational access would seem pretty important. That’s at least a beginning place where we can start to perhaps have that conversation. I’ll just say one of the difficulties that we have is understanding the difference between individual merit– so, you know, I should get rewarded for the things that I do– and then how do we reconcile that with the fact that we have group inequities in our society? I think we have to acknowledge that we do. If we look across different racial and ethnic groups, there are different outcomes on average. Some of that may be baked, it may not be anything to do with people’s attitudes. It may be baked into other aspects of our institutions that need some examination. But that’s a more complex way of thinking about things. We have to understand a place like Long Island, “Well, why are those school districts like that?” Part of it is residential segregation for us as a history. We are one of the most segregated suburban places in the country, and the tax base is very different in the school districts and so you can spill it out, you can play it out. There’s a long story in there. And it isn’t just about people’s attitudes towards each other, although that doesn’t help those attitudes. That’s a long way of getting back to saying it would be really good to have a sort of rational assessment of what these problems are without yelling and screaming at each other.

Zach: Right. That’s what strikes me about polarisation. Extreme polarisation is just so bad because it kind of prevents solving problems, you know? It prevents us from having nuanced conversations. It leads so many people to take simplistic views of things or just views that are pushing against the extremity perceived on the other side. It all sets up to just prevent anyone from solving an actual problem.

Leonie: Yeah, definitely bothers me. [laughs] I get very exercised about that because I think people just don’t understand politics. Politics is always about compromise, we’re never going to get exactly what we want. We live in a diverse society and so it’s really about listening and understanding. And I do think that this name-calling, hurling things at each other across these divides is completely counterproductive. It would be good if we can take the temperature down and listen to each other more. One thing that I’ll say about that is I think that the younger generation of let’s say, younger White Americans have grown up in a more diverse society. And when I look at their attitudes, and again not calling anyone racist but on the scales and so on, they tend to show more tolerant attitudes than older generations. In that sense, there may be greater capacity to listen to what’s going on on both sides of these debates, and maybe more open-mindedness. I think of that generation as one, let’s say the under 30s, as having grown up in a more diverse society in the US with more diverse students in schools and so on. And so they’ve had more contact and harbor less of these prejudices towards people of other groups. It sometimes helps to know people from another background, that seems to be one of the things that helps tamp down this name-calling and heated opposition.

Zach: I was going to go back down to a granular level, you had briefly touched on the specific questions about some of these kinds of surveys that we’re talking about but the thing that strikes me in that area is that even at this very specific question level on these surveys, there’s just so much room for ambiguity and different interpretations of the questions and different interpretations of the answers to the questions. I’ll take one example here. Let’s see. There’s often a question about agreeing or disagreeing with a statement like, “Racial problems in the US are rare, isolated occasions.” Another one is, “Government officials pay less attention to a complaint from a Black person than from a White person.” The assumption often is that people’s inability to recognize that racism is a problem or a big problem, or their unwillingness to say it’s a big problem is itself a sign of racism. But that strikes me is just such a big assumption because it’s possible to imagine people living in areas or environments where they simply don’t perceive that racism is a problem, or they watch the news that doesn’t present racism as a problem. Or even as having different definitions of what rare or isolated occasions mean in a country of 300 million people. That’s just one example but it strikes me with all these questions that there’s so much room for interpretation and what kind of strikes me with some of the interpretations like for example, the USA Today headline article that I mentioned. It’s like there’s often these filtering of all these things to the worst-case interpretation. I’m wondering if you see some of that ambiguity in the questions themselves?

Leonie: Let me draw a distinction that I think is an important one in some of our work when we’ve asked these questions. And we’ve posed, you know, what’s the explanation for, let’s say, these differences in economic outcomes? We divide those explanations up into what we will call internal attributions. In other words, we blame people themselves for their failures and say that there is a weakness of character or so on, leading towards a more prejudicial judgment about a group of people, and distinguish that from societal explanations. So in other words, there’s been a history of discrimination in our country or discrimination exists. Those are two very different things. And it’s hard to say that this perception of the current existence of discrimination has anything to do with other aspects of a prejudicial judgment about the group. I think discrimination is really hard for people to see. I mean, if you live in a certain area, maybe you never seen it, you don’t know it, you haven’t experienced it, you’re unaware of it. I think it’s very difficult to call that racial prejudice. These judgments about whether discrimination exists or hard to make. Even a person who experiences it isn’t sure if they were disadvantaged because they were a woman or somebody from a particular group. We could reflexively say it’s that, but it turns out that when we look at people’s attitudes, those judgments about whether society discriminates are very different from saying that there is a deficient character to a group of people or that they are inferior in some ways.

That tells me that discrimination is something else. It’s got to do with perhaps where we live, what we experience, how we understand the world. And that, again, is different from judging a group of people negatively or saying that they’re all terrible people. I would prefer to say prejudice against a group of people is the ladder that I’m making very broad, negative generalizations about them as people. “I don’t like them, I think they’re inferior perhaps, I think they’ve got really negative attributes, and I’ve labeled them all the same.” That’s closer to our concept, I think, of group prejudice. But acknowledging that or knowing or even being aware of discrimination is much more complex. It isn’t the same thing and I think that’s where we’ve gotten tangled up to some degree. And I think that where you were pointing a little bit.

Zach: I want to ask you too about something I’ve, in previous recent episodes, I’ve talked about examining survey results and interpretations of survey results. One factor that seems relatively unexamined to me is there can be in very polarised societies on these surveys, I feel like that can be a venting factor where people are just using the surveys to kind of vent frustration at the other side. I wonder if you’ve seen any examination of that or think that can be a factor in making people more likely to answer survey questions in a way that’s just like venting, “I want to make a point against the other side by answering this in a way that may not even reflect the way they really feel.”

Leonie: It’s hard to say, that’s really difficult to get at. One of the things that we can do is try to look at how their answer goes with other attitudes that they have in a survey. When people answer these questions, we’re taking them at face value to some extent. We can’t hook them up to something and say, “Lie detector test. Are they lying? Is this real?” We can’t really do that. It’s very, very difficult. But what we can do is sort of see well, how does that go along with their other positions? Is there a consistency? Does this seem out of line with the other things that we were saying. One thing that we tend to forget is that there are gradations in all things. We talked about how positive or negatively someone feels about another group, but it’s also true for how they feel about the political parties. So while we have a small group on both sides that are very intense and hold very negative attitudes towards each other, there’s a whole bunch of people in the middle who don’t do that. We tend to lose sight of them because they’re quiet. So what I would say is when I ask people how strongly they identify with a political party, how much it means to them and so on, they’ll be the ones that express the most negativity towards the other side. I think if we look at their behavior, it might be consistent with their behavior as well. Again, it’s a small group of people but it’s very hard to say they may actually feel this kind of negativity towards the other side. It may be moderated when they actually meet someone, they might have to tone it down, so that’s another matter. We all know that our behavior has to be conditioned to some extent on circumstances and context. We can’t always just express our attitudes if it results in someone punching you, you know? There are constraints on our behavior. But  I don’t see any reason in this case, I think that when people say those things– and we’ve done some experimentation by let’s say grading someone in terms of how strongly they identify with their political party and then making them read something that is threatening towards the political party. Typically, the strongest identifiers will say the most angry about these things. That seems to be consistent with the behavior, they’re more likely to do things. Anger seems to be motivating them to take actions. So I don’t really have any reason to think that it’s fake. I actually think some people feel pretty strongly about this. But again, it’s a minority. The strongest are a small group on both political sides, and then we have gradations and people in the middle.

Zach: Yeah. And I know people who say some pretty extreme things like all cops are Nazis. They might vent these kinds of things on social media but then when you actually talk to them, of course they don’t actually believe that. That’s the kind of thing I was thinking. But yeah, not to say that there’s, you know, clearly there are things to study there. I guess that’s the kind of dynamic I was thinking of in these areas of people just being very angry, and also the fact that a lot of these surveys tend to happen more and more online these days as opposed to in-person, which I think somebody studied that, that people can have different responses online than they would in person for social reasons and things like that.

Leonie: Yeah. We have to remember that there’s a range, even though I might hold a particular attitude, I can say different things in different contexts. And so if possible, then online makes me more inflamed in general because that’s where I’d spout off on social media. What we would think is that typically, the social desirability pressures are less intense online. Now, that’s based on research concerning sensitive topics like sexual behavior, other things that people don’t want to move to, they’re more likely to be honest when they’re asked without a person. So I think it depends on who you think you’re talking to, if there is an interview and someone’s asking that question. The person’s thinking, “Who am I talking to?” And if they think they’re talking to someone who agrees with them, maybe they express stronger positions. The general notion is that online should get rid of some of that. I guess we need to do more research on that to figure that out. It’s an interesting proposition.

Zach: Do you want to mention anything else that you wanted to say that we didn’t get around to?

Leonie: I’ll say one thing about polarisation, because this is some of the work that I have been doing more recently, looking at these partisan identities. I’m just interested in what I’d call intergroup relations, so that just means that there are some common concepts, explanations, processes that cut across all of these different group relations. And so recently, we were doing some work looking at how we can decrease negative feelings about the other political party. Basically, this is back to the idea that if we don’t think the other side hates us, we can calm things down a bit. In that particular study, there were several studies where people read about Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell in a restaurant where they were either nice to each other or they were insulting each other. And then independently were agreeing or disagreeing on immigration matters. And we found that their agreement or disagreement didn’t really matter that much, what helped to make us more positive towards the other side was the fact that they were nice to each other. So showing that our leaders can actually be warm and have a pleasant and congenial relationship helps to decrease this idea that the other side hates us. The takeaway here is if we could see some better behavior from our leaders or people on either side of these political divides, it would help to take the temperature down a little bit and make it easier to, “Listen, we can disagree, we have to disagree. We will always disagree. This is the nature of politics. We will never all agree about things.” But the question is, can we do that in a way that results in us listening to each other and making concessions and compromising or not? And I think we’ve reached a bad place in American politics where that is increasingly unlikely.

Zach: Thank you, Leonie. This has been great. Thanks for coming on and talking about this.

Leonie: My pleasure, Zach. Pleasure to be here.

Zach: That was a talk with political scientist, Leonie Huddy. You can learn more about her work by searching for her name and finding her Google Scholar page, or her StonyBrook University professor page.

If you’d like to read the paper that initially interested me in interviewing Leonie, that paper is titled “On Assessing the Political Effects of Racial Prejudice”. 

One thing that we didn’t get to discuss, but which was discussed in that paper, was the ambiguity that’s also present for some of the ‘unconscious racism’ or ‘unconscious bias’ types of tests. This is another area where there has been a mainstream interest in these tests, and an understanding that such tests reveal prejudice and racism in people that people aren’t aware of. But the reality is that these kinds of tests are much less revealing and much less accurate than is widely perceived in the mainstream. 

If you’re interested in learning more about this, I’d recommend as a starting point a Vox article by German Lopez titled “For years, this popular test measured anyone’s racial bias. But it might not work after all.” The synopsis for that piece reads: “People took the implicit association test to gauge their subconscious racism. Now the researchers behind the test admit it can’t always do that.”

To quote from one paragraph in that: “The research so far comes down somewhere in the middle of the debate. It seems like the IAT predicts some variance in discriminatory behaviors, but its predictive power to this end seems to be quite small: Depending on the study, the estimate ranges from less than 1 percent to 5.5 percent. With percentages so small, it’s questionable just how useful the IAT really is for predicting biased behavior — even in the aggregate.” end quote

If you’d like to see some of these resources, I’ll have some of the ones discussed at the entry for this episode at my behavior-podcast.com site. 

If I had one point I hope you take with you from this episode, it’s that we should be more skeptical of people and media that use the kinds of research discussed here to support their claims that a large swath of America is racist. 

I think we should all try to aim for nuance on this topic, and on all topics that feed into our us-versus-them divides. We should attempt to question and push back when people and media make over-confident assertions that we see as relying on weak or ambiguous data. I think the more we do that, the more we’ll combat false and exaggerated us-versus-them narratives and the more we’ll reduce animosity. 

I’m currently working on a book aimed at healing American divides and reducing polarization. If you’d like to read some of the kinds of ideas I’ll be talking about in that book, you can check out a piece I just wrote: it’s on my Medium blog and it’s called “The importance of criticizing your own political side in reducing political polarization.” To find it, you can search for “medium zach elwood political polarization” and you’ll probably find it. That piece discusses an idea that I believe is one of our major paths out of polarization: convincing more people to criticize bad and polarized thinking they see in their own political group. So if you care about American stability and reducing dysfunction, I hope you check it out. 

This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about it at behavior-podcast.com. If you appreciate my work, please leave me a review on iTunes; it’s the most popular podcast platform so it’s definitely the place where a review is most appreciated. I make no money on this podcast and spend a good deal of time on it. So if you think I’m doing good things and want to send me some financial support to encourage me to do this more, you can send money to my Patreon, at patreon.com/zachelwood, that’s zach elwood.