Why are we so gullible?, with Brian Dunning

A talk with Brian Dunning, who you might call a professional skeptic. He has been doing the Skeptoid podcast since 2006, and is the creator of multiple books and video projects aimed at promoting critical thinking and skepticism. We talk about the reasons why we’re so often drawn to pseudoscience, bullshit, and no/low-evidence ideas in general. I also ask him what he thinks about a range of things, including chiropractic work, acupuncture, UFOs, eye movement desensitization therapy (EMDT), the placebo effect, and more. 

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How big a problem are hate crimes in the U.S.?, with Wilfred Reilly

Wilfred Reilly is a political scientist, Kentucky State University professor, and author of the 2019 book Hate Crime Hoax. I wanted to talk to Reilly about the nature of hate crimes in America. One reason I wanted to discuss this is because our perceptions of hate crimes, and racism more generally, are a factor in our us-versus-them polarization, and so examining nuance in this area can be helpful for depolarization purposes.

Topics discussed include: how hate crimes are tracked; why it can be hard to get a clear picture of hate crime numbers; the logic of ‘hate crime’ as a legal designation; irresponsible media coverage of racism-related issues; the motivations of people who fake hate crimes; distorted perceptions of American hate crimes and racism; how distorted perceptions can amplify polarization; and what it’s like working on these topics while teaching at a historically black college. 

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About this podcast: why I do it and why I think it’s important

This is all about the People Who Read People podcast. Topics discussed include: what led to me starting this podcast; what my goals with it were and how they’ve changed over time; my approach to who I interview and the questions I ask; why I focus on polarization-related topics and why I think that’s important; details on audience numbers and financial stuff.

Episode links:


Examining American antisemitism, with James Kirchick

A talk with journalist and author James Kirchick ( about antisemitism. Topics discussed include: the origins of various varieties of American antisemitism, controversial statements about Jewish people from Kanye West and Whoopi Goldberg; Donald Trump; Israel; George Soros; Louis Farrakhan; Black Hebrew Israelites; the term “globalist”, and more.

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Is liberal bias impeding U.S. depolarization and conflict resolution efforts?, with Guy Burgess

A talk with conflict resolution specialist Guy Burgess, who, along with his wife Heidi Burgess, run the project Guy and Heidi wrote a paper in 2022 titled “Applying conflict resolution insights to the hyper‐polarized, society‐wide conflicts threatening liberal democracies.

A transcript of this talk is below. I talk with Guy about: how conflict resolution principles might be applied to U.S. polarization problems; the importance of addressing liberal-side contributions to polarization; the common objections people can have to seeing polarization as a problem that both sides must tackle; how some in the conflict resolution space may be hindered from helping by their own liberal bias and polarization; the Burgesses’ ideas for what society must do to reduce polarization to more healthy levels, and more.

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Note that this transcript will contain errors. 

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

As you probably know if you’ve listened to this podcast before, I often focus on polarization- and depolarization-related topics. In this episode, I talk to conflict resolution specialist Guy Burgess about the problem of American polarization, with a focus on liberal-side contributions to the problem.

And to be clear up front: if you’re politically liberal, thinking about how liberals are contributing to our divides does not mean you have to believe that both political groups contribute equally to the problem of polarization. In other words, you can continue thinking that one side is much worse than the other side while also working on understanding what drives our divides and thinking about ways we can reduce those divides.

And the reason I sometimes focus on liberal-side contributions is because I think it’s something that liberals don’t like to talk about, and many liberals have a blind spot about what those contributions even are. And if we’re going to solve our very serious problems, we need many more people to be willing to take open, honest looks at our polarization problems and be willing to do the hard work of trying to solve those problems. And I’d also say that it’s especially important for liberals to think about these things because we can only influence our own group; we can only influence people who are similar to us; our righteous judgments of the other side and desires that they improve themselves have no real influence on them. Research shows change of a group must come from within, so we need more people, both conservatives and liberals, thinking about these things and thinking about how they can make their own political groups less toxic.

I learned about Guy Burgess because a friend of mine who works in mediation and conflict resolution, Eleanor Bravo, sent me a paper that Guy and his wife Heidi had written titled Applying conflict resolution insights to the hyper‐polarized, society‐wide conflicts threatening liberal democracies.

And one of the things that stood out to me in that paper was that Guy and Heidi briefly discussed liberal-side contributions. I’ll quote one of the more pertinent lines from the paper: they wrote that the objective of the left seems to be to quote “cancel and drive from the public square anyone who has ever expressed the slightest doubt about the merits of any aspect of the progressive agenda.” end quote.

They also mention conservative-side contributions in the paper, but the thing that is noteworthy about this is that it’s rare to see conflict resolution and peacekeeping organizations and experts be willing to even discuss liberal-side contributions. And the reason for this probably isn’t that surprising: many of the people who work in those fields are politically liberal and thus may have their own blind spots and biases, and even apart from that they can face peer pressure from their colleagues to not talk about such things in their papers and public discussions.

And if you’re new to my podcast and haven’t heard me cover these topics in past episodes, and are wondering ‘Wait, what’s he talking about; how are liberals contributing to our divides?’, I think you should listen to this talk, and also listen to some of my past episodes on this topic. You might also like a book I started reading recently called Beyond Contempt, by Erica Etelson. Etelson is a dedicated progressive, and her book focuses on the ways in which liberals speak in dismissive and insulting ways about conservatives and how that riles up conservative anger and contributes to the very things liberals are upset about. If you’re curious to learn more about the topic of liberal-side contributions to our divides, I’ll include some relevant resources in the blog post for this episode, which you can find at

If you’re someone who scoffs at the idea that liberals need to do more to work towards healing our divides, I’d ask you to question your certainty around that. Is your scoffing at that idea much different than the conservatives who would scoff at that idea, who would insist that the problem is entirely the fault of the left, and that their side doesn’t have to do anything to fix the problem? Are you willing to examine the reasons why many experts in conflict resolution, including some politically liberal people, think it’s important to discuss liberal-side contributions to our divides? Are you willing to examine why it is that some people, including some liberals, have written articles and books about the ways in which liberals contribute?

Are you willing to examine why it is that Guy and Heidi Burgess can express frustration with some of their colleagues in the conflict resolution space for, to paraphrase here, often acting more like liberal activists than conflict resolution professionals?

If you’re someone who scoffs at the idea of depolarization, I hope you take some time to think about these ideas and learn more about these ideas, because it’s a very important topic, perhaps the most important topic of all. And it may be that more of us need to recognize the importance of this topic and attempt to rise above our emotional and reactive stances on these things if we’re going to avoid worst-case scenarios.

So a little bit about Guy Burgess: he’s a conflict resolution specialist who, along with his wife, Heidi Burgess, operate the project Beyond Intractability, which you can find at Guy and Heidi have a long and respected career of working on conflict resolution, and are well known in the conflict resolution space. It’s impossible for me to boil down their work in a quick way, but I’ll give a few of the highlights:

  • They founded the Conflict Information Consortium in 1988 at the University of Colorado.
  • They created a knowledge base they called Beyond Intractability, which was focused on tools for resolving very entrenched, so-called intractable, conflicts.
  • They wrote the book Justice Without Violence, and the book Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution.

And just a note: these are very hard topics to talk about. Whenever I do these polarization-related interviews, I always wish I’d said some things differently, or feel I missed a vital point, or feel that my suboptimal wording will likely cause some people to misunderstand me. Aside from my own mistakes, the polarized nature of our society means that some people will be filtering any of these discussions through a very pessimistic lens, looking for any small misstep or thing they disagree with as an indicator that the whole concept of depolarization is faulty and oblivious. These are extremely hard conversations to have; and I think the hardness of them, the risk of offending our friends and family and colleagues, the risk of being perceived as foolish and naive, is a major reason people avoid these conversations, on both sides. We become more scared of offending our side, more scared of helping the other side, or even of just being perceived by others as being not sufficiently pure or moral. But I think more of us need to see the value in having these conversations, and see that accomplishing very important things, like healing divides that pose existential threats to a country or society, requires a lot more people to make themselves uncomfortable. It requires more bravery, more patience, more long-term thinking, and more cutting of slack to the people around us.

If there’s something in this talk that offends you, or a major point you think that is being missed in these discussions, maybe you’d take the time to write to me about your thoughts. You can do that at my site using the contact form. I’ll actually be spending the entire next month working on my depolarization book so I would appreciate any thoughts you’d care to share.

Zach: Okay, here’s the talk with Guy Burgess.

Hi Guy, thanks for coming on the show.

Guy Burgess: Thank you. I’m looking forward to this.

Zach: Let’s start out with a little bit about your background. What are the most relevant parts of your career that you think puts you in a good place to have ideas about how to reduce American polarization if you could give a summary of, I know it’s a long career but maybe summarize the high points.

Guy Burgess: First of all, I should say that pretty much everything that I’ve done going way back to graduate school days which were in the ’70s, a long, long time ago, I’ve done with my wife and partner Heidi Burgess and we’ve been working as a team for a very long time. And some folks think that’s our most persuasive conflict resolution credential. The other thing, we both have PhDs in sociology but we’ve never worked in a disciplinary department. Our careers have been spent entirely in interdisciplinary settings and we’ve worked really at the intersection of research, teaching and practice. We’ve engaged in a variety of conflict resolution efforts of one sort or another as practitioners. Done spent a lot of years teaching and probably most of our time doing research and trying to compile and bring together what the conflict and conflict related fields collectively know about how to deal with our most difficult problems.

So the biggest thing that happened in our career and this goes back to the late ’80s, we received a major grant from the Hewlett Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation supported us for over 20 years. And they were at the time establishing a series of university based conflict resolution research centers. And we were the only one between Northwestern and Stanford in each of these centers and they eventually got to be 10 or 15 of them, specialized in different things. And what we chose to specialize on was intractable conflict. And this goes back to the late ’80s. And that was a time when an organization called the Society for Professionals in Dispute Resolution, which was the precursor to the Association for Conflict Resolution that exists today, put out a manual on how to deal with public policy dispute resolution. And this was a time during the first great energy crisis in the ’70s and early ’80s where the problem was not climate change.

The problem was political restrictions in the global energy supply. And there were proposals to build giant energy facilities all over the country and they were extremely controversial. And there were lots of conflicts about that and we were involved in those. But at any rate, what Spider did was they put out a manual and it had, the first half of it was how to identify really intractable conflicts that as a mediator you should stay away from because you don’t stand a prayer of being able to get through these without some sort of terrible blow up. And we thought that it would be good to have an organization that’s specialized in trying to understand and deal with these intractable conflicts. And the other thing that we specialized in, again, under the support of the Hewlett Foundation was using these new technologies of computers and telecommunications and all.

This was a time that actually was before the IBM PC when we first started exchanging information about how to deal with conflict electronically. It was on five and a quarter inch floppy discs. And we’ve tried to improve that over the years as the technologies improve. And the other thing that’s exceptional about our career is that since we never really worked in a practitioner organization or a tenure track faculty position, that we’ve been generalists. And we are a society of specialists and everybody knows a lot about a narrow field in dispute resolution. It’s a particular kind of mediation perhaps. And there are very few people who have a chance to spend their career looking at what lots of different people in different fields are doing and trying to fit it all together. So what we did under a support from the Hewlett Foundation is we build a series of knowledge bases that are increasingly sophisticated and they’re full of lots and lots of information and we’ve never been able to quite find the perfect way of organizing it all.

And we’ve never had anywhere near as much money as a task like this really needs. But we’ve still been able to pull together an awful lot of insights from lots and lots of very different people. And when we first started this, we thought that there would be lots of different views on how to deal with conflict. And while that’s certainly true, what we really found is that there are lots of people working on different aspects of conflict from different perspectives. And if you start putting them together, it gives you a very different view of the overall situation. So one of the essays that we have is builds on the old metaphor of the blind men and the elephant where you have all of these blind men approaching the elephant and one encounters the leg and decides it’s like a tree and one encounters the soft, fussy tail and thinks it’s nice and somebody else runs into the tusk and so on and so forth.

But what we’re giggling with is a giant monster in terms of intractable conflict that really is threatening pretty much everything that we care about. And it’s so big and in many ways we all have our own versions of blindfolds on that. We can only understand parts of it. And it’s hard to get an image of what the whole big thing is and how to deal with it. So what we’ve been focused on with our knowledge based systems and the of theory of how to try to organize this is how do we combine what we collectively know into a strategy for dealing with a problem that’s as big and complex as intractable conflict and what we’re calling in our latest effort, the hyper polarization problem.

Zach: I first learned about your work through a paper recently. It was called Applying Conflict Resolution Insights to the Hyper Polarized Society-wide Conflicts, threatening Liberal Democracies. Maybe you could talk a little bit about the goals with that. What were you trying to communicate and what were the most important points, would you say?

Guy Burgess: Well, what we did with that paper and we don’t write many academic papers and academic papers tend to be very full of jargon written for narrow audiences. And there are a lot of problems with them. And the fact they tend to be insanely expensive and only people at universities with access to libraries can really access them. But the conflict resolution quarterly was starting something different and they were going to start publishing a different kind of article. They called them feature articles and the idea was to raise questions that the field of conflict resolution and more broadly peace building ought to be talking about, thinking about. And they invited us to write such an article and we’d been a bit frustrated, I think you could say, on how little the conflict resolution community was doing to help society address these hyper polarized conflicts that are tearing us apart.

And so we decided to write an article that was a bit of a challenge to the field to do more that also outlined a strategy, again, for trying to bring together our different areas of expertise into a comprehensive effort. So that’s what we wrote. And I’ll talk a little bit more about the key points of that article. But we also set up on our website, which is and online discussion. So we now have a lengthy series of articles that have been written in response to our article and responses to those articles. And we’re continuing to encourage people to contribute their ideas to this discussion. We have a sub stack newsletter that comes out with summaries on the latest things that we receive to the discussion every week or so. And that’s been really very exciting and we’re getting a lot of people to start grappling with this problem.

We tried something similar a couple years ago. We tried to push something we called the Constructive Conflict Initiative. And there what we argued was that the conflict problem is as serious and difficult a threat to humanity as something like climate change or infectious diseases as we’ve recently discovered. And in that, I tell the story of how as a young PhD just out of graduate school, I had a chance to work at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. And this was 10, 15 years before Wikipedia thinks the climate change movement started. And at that time, there were a few scientists who were studying climate, and these are guys who were accustomed to writing very scientific papers and going to very scientific conferences and talking to people in pretty much the same field. And they knew lots about atmospheric physics and chemistry and all of that.

And they just discovered that we are in the process of dramatically altering the global climate system, and that they needed to tell the world that fundamental changes in every element of society need to be made or we’re facing what over the next century or so could be a real catastrophe. This was when they were just starting to say, “Okay, how do we take this understanding of climate problems and turn it into a global political movement?” And in the next 25 years or so, they developed it to the point where they won a Nobel Peace Prize for it. And that was 15 years ago or something. And we’re still a long way from having addressed the problem but I think that there are a similarly small number of people who understand and they’re working in relatively isolated fields looking at human interactions in one’s way or another. How really far we are from being able to build the kind of global collaborative system that we need to deal with the problems that we face and that we need to start thinking about how to change all this. And we over time are going to have to mobilize something comparable in scope to the climate change response. Five years ago, we had real trouble persuading people that that was the case. And with this latest effort, that’s a lot more people are understanding this and are willing to start engaging the problem which is very encouraging really.

Zach: Yeah. What stood out to me reading your paper and your other work was just how similar it was to my thoughts in terms of seeing polarization, extreme polarization as the most significant threat we’re facing in the sense that if we can’t solve this problem, we can’t solve the other problems. And aside from even the conflict it represents, it’s just a distraction from solving other very serious problems. And also the fact that you talk about liberal contributions and how people on the liberal side need to do more which I think is something I talk about a good amount in this podcast and it’s been disappointing to me to see how that seems to be something liberals even educated academic people and conflict resolution people seem to really avoid talking about the contributions there or what liberals can do.

And I think it makes sense in the sense that it’s understandable that polarization is so hard to get around so that these are often liberal people who are either themselves pretty polarized, pretty biased or else they feel pressured to avoid talking about those things. And sometimes I’ve even had conversations with people I’ve interviewed where they’ll be more willing to talk about those things off the record and not really want to talk about it on the record. So I’m curious, do you see, when it comes to trying to find these multiply or very massively parallel efforts to try to reduce polarization, do you see the obstacle there as just getting people to even recognize polarization as a problem worth reducing?

Guy Burgess: That’s certainly a issue and there’s a sense in which, well no, I’m back up a little bit. Well, one of the most lively parts of this discussion that we’ve been having really reveals the deep tension between the peace building worldview or a conflict resolution worldview and a progressive worldview of social justice. And at the extreme we had been having an exchange with one of our colleagues who was really torn. And on the one hand he hears the argument that we are at the beginning stages or maybe not even the beginning stages, maybe the mid stages, the transition from a democracy to some sort of terrible authoritarian rule. And that if we talk in conciliatory terms and try to understand the other side and empathize and try to really diffuse the conflict, what we’re really doing is playing into the hands of the authoritarian wannabes who are going to make the same transition that we saw in Nazi Germany and take over the society.

And then we’re going to be in really big trouble. And the argument here is that the threat is so severe that we need to mobilize all of the resources available in the society. And that includes the conflict resolution and peace building field to the task of fighting systemic oppression and these authoritarian trends in our society. And at the other hand, you have those and a lot of this comes from people who have been instrumental in trying to help war torn societies, reconcile their differences and recover. And they see that even in society’s plagued by terrible authoritarian strong man rule, there’s also an underlying conflict. And there are fundamental, reasonable, substantive important differences between various elements of the society that play into the conflict and make authoritarianism possible. And this is what you might call the divide and conquer syndrome. And this goes way back thousands of years in human history where people have tried to deliberately divide societies as a way of gaining control.

And so at one end or one side, you have that. And then the other side, and what we’ve been trying to talk up is the notion that we need to reframe conflict from the conflicts we face. Right now we think of them in us versus then terms and we tune in to the news every morning and we anxiously look to see whether our side, whether it’s progressive or conservative, won some points yesterday in the news or whether they lost. And everything is reduced to what at least one fellow called political hobbyism where it’s a spectator sport and you keep rooting for the home team and it gets all sort of silly like that. And we certainly have seen that, in fact, in many ways the recent election is kind of the end of the season of one season of this us versus them political contest and we’re just embarking on the next one. And a lot of the news coverage is sometimes it’s called horse race coverage, who’s ahead, who’s behind?

Zach: A small note here, people have been writing books for decades about how the so-called horse race coverage of politics has undermined democracy and increased our divides. On the liberal side, outlets like Fox News get a lot of the attention for increasing divides but it’s possible to have a view that a lot of mainstream media increases our divides. An early book I read on this topic was from 1997, it was titled Breaking the News, how the Media Undermined American Democracy. That book and other books and papers from around that time talked about how covering politics and elections like sports as a game of wins and losses of victories and humiliations, instead of focusing on the ideas and the issues made people perceive politics to be like sports. If you have many media outlets treating politics basically like a sports game, it’s not surprising that it will trigger people’s us versus them emotions. The same emotions that can make people so angry and emotional about sports. This is just to say, when one starts to dig into the large monster that is polarization, one can find plenty of factors and plenty of blame to spread around our society. Okay, back to the talk.

Guy Burgess: But what we’ve been trying to talk up is that we reframe the conflict, so it’s not us versus them but that there are, we focus instead on a series of complex and destructive conflict dynamics that make it difficult for large and diverse societies to live together in peace and mutually supportive ways. And that we need to systematically understand those dynamics and find ways of correcting them. Now if you can reframe things that way, what you do is you take people from being opposed to one another to cooperating on the same task of trying to control these destructive conflict dynamics. And so that’s, I think, a way to look at things. And then as you do this, then you raise the question and it’s hard for both liberals and conservatives to see this sometimes is that these dynamics bend your mind in a sense that you wind up doing things and believing things that you wouldn’t ordinarily do and believe because of these pressures. And so we can go into a little more detail on what these things are but you mentioned a massively parallel peace building or problem solving idea. And basically what it focuses on is trying to get a lot of different organizations doing different things to go after different dynamics in a way that collectively can attack a large portion of them enough to alter the trends in society.

Zach: Yeah. And to give a couple examples here, I mean some of the things that you’ll hear liberal people say in pushing that against depolarization framings or goals, you might hear the quote from Desmond Tutu that goes, if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. That’s one thing you sometimes hear. Another one in a similar vein is we are tolerant of anything except intolerance. And I think maybe you could talk a little bit about more about what those arguments are missing. For example, the one thing that stands out is that sometimes that relies over a huge amount of complexity. For example, you can find some of the left activist framings of things very arguable and subjective that where even people on their own side will disagree with them about the harms being done or how exactly to find the problems.

I think that one of the things we see and it’s just a natural thing of polarization, I think, where both sides have these righteous and very certain framings of things that they don’t like to hear people disagree with. I think there’s that on the left where even though we can find a lot of complexity and nuance on any specific subject, you often hear these big statements of how there cannot be any negotiation or any negotiation is itself a harm. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about maybe that discussion that’s come up.

Guy Burgess: Yeah, well that’s absolutely critical and it’s a very difficult one to work through. A couple of the things that we’ve been talking about that address this, one paper that we just posted to this discussion is something I call the QED syndrome. And when I was in high school, I learned in geometry class that I’m supposed to write QED at the bottom of any proof. And when I prove something like, “Hey, that’s a real fact.” Now I can rely on this going forward. And it seems to me that this same principle applies to a lot of society’s big conflicts that from one line of reasoning, you will work through something and come to a conclusion and say, “Aha, this is absolutely it.” The example that I use in the articles about climate change, there’s some folks that look at a particular line of evidence and come to the conclusion that climate is an emergency.

And if we don’t drop absolutely everything and subordinate pretty much every other human concern at redoing the energy system, we’re going to be facing a new retrievable catastrophe. Once you decide that you believe that, then a whole series of decisions flow from that. And then you start thinking that anybody who disagrees with that is part of the problem and they have to be opposed. And you think of it in us versus them terms. Likewise, you will have groups that with a different line of evidence conclude that it’s all just a scam designed to sell solar collectors and electric vehicles. You’ll find other folks that argue and this is a stronger argument. I think that the situation is serious but not as serious as it’s sometimes made out to be. And that we do have more time to respond and we do have time to think things through carefully and make sure that what we’re doing will in fact work and to preserve the economic viability of the society which are ultimately going to need in order to be able to adapt to inevitable climate changes.

So there are a whole series of different arguments and I can have a longer list there. The same sort of thing applies to social justice issues. You can come up with a line of reasoning that convinces you that racism is behind everything and it explains all that there is in society. And then there are a whole series of other arguments. But once you get to this QED point where you’ve decided that you really have got it all figured out, then you quit thinking about other competing arguments. You decide that they’re disinformation. And the truth is the world that we live in is so complex that there are a lot of these and there are different lines of reasoning that take you to somewhat different conclusions. And the only way that we’re ever really going to solve the problems is by really engaging these debates and trying to look at the strengths and weaknesses of them and trying to combine what people learn from different perspectives. So part of the argument is that going back to the destructive dynamics, a lot of the dynamics that the Democrats claim afflict the left also afflict the right, also afflict the left. And so you need to look at those as well. Going a little too far in too many directions here. Why don’t we stop there and let you pose? And these are huge questions.

Zach: Oh, yeah. It’s so hard to talk about. And that’s part of the problem with these things is just such a monster as you say. Getting back to you, talking about the motivated reasoning, this filtering of everything through these specific narratives that we’ve built up. The more emotional and angry and fearful we are, the more motivated reasoning we have that’s motivated by these emotions we have as opposed to stepping back and being like, “Well, is the righteous narrative I’ve crafted the actual truth? Can I see how well meaning and rational people might be able to have a different perspective on these things even people on my own side?” And I think it gets back to that reframing you talked about where as opposed to viewing things like an us versus them framing, you can continue working towards the things you want to work towards while trying to speak in depolarizing and persuasive ways.

And I would argue that that’s actually a much more effective way to achieve the things you want to achieve on both sides. Both sides have a better chance of I think persuading and reaching their goals as opposed to creating this us versus them war where really nobody wins really and you have the possibility for societal and democracy destruction and such. Wasn’t really a question there but let me continue on. Let’s see. One of the things you talk about in your paper are the bad faith actors, the people who deliberately inflame tensions for their own profit or ego, other things. And one thing that strikes me in that area is the more polarized the society becomes, the harder it can become to distinguish the bad faith actors from the true believers.

And polarization itself leads us to perceive the other side with more paranoia and distrust leads us to viewing some of the true believers on the other side as being disingenuous and liars because we literally just can’t understand how people can believe those things. And so I think that points to maybe being cautious in general even while we work towards depolarizing, being cautious about assuming some people are bad faith. And I’m curious if you have any thoughts on the hardships of distinguishing bad faith actors from true believers who may still be deliberately polarizing but are actual true believers.

Guy Burgess: Yeah. I think the bad faith actor sections, I think one of the major contributions that really came out of that paper that we tend to think of things and hyper polarize. That is two polls. There’s the left and the right Republicans and Democrats in this country and something comparable in other countries. But I think it makes a lot of sense to think in terms of three sets of actors. There’s grassroots citizens on the left and the right and there are a variety of kinds of bad faith actors who are folks who have figured out how to profit from our conflicts and they amplify them but they don’t really care about one side or the other. It’s the conflict that’s in their best interest. Now, some of these folks are divide and conquer authoritarian wannabes. There’s a great book on The Dictator’s Handbook that basically is the time tested strategy for seizing dictatorial control of a society. And a lot of it implies this kind of deliberate inflaming of conflict. But there’s also in our society, and this I think is a big part of the problem, the structure of the media tends to reward those who provide more inflammatory content. One of the features of the internet is that as we’ve moved essentially all political reporting and opinion pieces onto the internet, there is very detailed tracking not only of who reads things but how long they spend reading it, who they share to others, how much they are engaged by it.

And you have news outlets that have figured out that the only way in which they can remain financially viable is by building and retaining a large audience. And you do that by giving your audience what it wants to hear and what people like to hear is they, well, and this goes back to some of the psychological vulnerabilities, the destructive conflict dynamics that we need to figure out ways to control. But one of these is worst case bias and this is a deeply embedded psychological bias. There are studies that show that the fear part of the brain is literally wired ahead of the hope part of the brain. And things that are scary or threatening will get our attention way ahead of things that are hopeful and promising. So one of the ways in which media outlets get our attention is by sending us scary stories.

But scary stories are most attractive when they are a coupled with an account of how this was a narrow, a scary encounter but we’re going to win. And you feel self-righteous and you feel like if you keep staying in the course, you’re going get through this all right. So you get that kind of material spread on both the left and the right. This is in editorial papers and you can look over time at how there have even been studies that have looked at how the content of headlines over time has gotten more and more inflammatory. How major news sources on the left and the right increasingly focus on a relatively narrow audience and tell them what they want to hear. Those audiences stick with a cluster of similar news stories. They come to regard any other view as disinformation or worse.

The algorithms that drive social media are basically take this and amplify it tremendously. The thing about broadcast news or newspapers is that you have to write one thing that goes to thousands or millions of people and it has to seem sort of reasonable to millions of people. The thing about social media is that you can tailor your propaganda or your bias news reporting to very precisely to what a particular individual is likely to fall for or find attractive. And that information is never seen by the larger community. There’s no real way to tell what’s going on. We now have very sophisticated algorithms. I was just reading an article on how TikTok is especially scary in this regard to really psychoanalyze people with an astonishing degree of sophistication and figure out using these artificial intelligence driven algorithms exactly what bits of information will inflame the reader to get whatever opinion it is that you want.

And so this kind of micro targeting is a whole new level of propaganda. The other thing that’s scary is that some of this is quite intentional. Some of it is being pursued by hostile foreign powers to an unknown degree. Some of it is being pursued by political campaigns that feel really compelled to use every available trick to try to win over votes from the other side. It’s all hidden and dark and you don’t know who’s paying for it or what their motives are. And it’s a big part of what’s pushing us ever further apart. And so a big part of conflict resolution or efforts to try to diffuse all of this, is figuring out how to control this kind of inflammatory media dynamic.

Zach: A small note here. Regarding social media, a lot of the attention in this area tends to focus on the ways in which social media companies try to get our attention and arouse our emotion. A lot of the focus is on product decisions, in other words. But in the previous episode of this podcast, I focus on the ways in which social media and internet communication generally may have some inherent properties that amplifier divides in bad thinking. And maybe the inherent aspects are much more the problem than are the product decisions. For example, we behave worse to each other when we’re distant from each other and the internet is a form of communication at a distance. For another example, research shows that we’re less likely to change our minds when we write down our beliefs. And the internet induces us to write down our beliefs on a wide range of topics.

So it could be making us more hardened and stubborn in our beliefs. So if that topic interests you, you might like that old episode. Okay. Back to the talk. One thing we’ve talked about it a little bit, but maybe we could focus on it a little bit more. The obstacles that, the mostly liberal conflict resolution and peace building group of people have in tackling polarization. One thing you say in the paper is one cannot bridge the left right divisions while advocating for a progressive agenda with which the conflict field is largely aligned. Our interventions cannot succeed if we also advocate for values and policies that are contributing to hyperpolarization. And maybe you could talk a little bit about how possible do you see it as that these things will be effective because as you say, to get more people to think about these things the people that will help spread these messages. It seems a pretty big obstacle that they’re suffering from, in my opinion, suffering from the same polarization and peer pressure that tends to affect polarized societies generally.

Guy Burgess: Well, there are a couple of things here. One, I think it’s important to distinguish neutral peace building roles from ad social justice advocacy. And social justice can be defined differently depending on the community one belongs to. And one of the debates we’ve had in this discussion is whether or not this peace building role is even legitimate. And we argue that you certainly need peace builders to try to find some way to get parties to diffuse all of this. The other thing that we argue for is something we call, and there’s a big section on our website focused to this, something we call constructive advocacy or constructive conflict. And there are a lot of things that the conflict resolution field insights that come out of the field about ways people hear and respond to opposing ideas, how escalation and polarization dynamics work, what leads people to misunderstand one another, how you can communicate in ways that actually do promote understanding.

So the idea is to help people understand advocacy strategies that because they’re based in a more sophisticated understanding of conflict dynamics are more likely to work and less likely to inflame opposition and drive the escalation spiral. An awful lot of the things people do as part of their advocacy efforts really wind up making things worse. It’s great fun to have a snarky reply that puts down the other side but that’s what inflames opposition. And if you approach people in a more respectful way, you can still, well, basically it’s a chance of arguing your case without provoking the kind of backlash that’s counterproductive. So there are a whole series of ideas on how to be more effective advocates but that’s a fundamentally different role than the neutral mediator peace building role. And we need both of these.

Zach: Yeah, and it feels really connected to me too, the more I have thought about it. I was reading Erica Edison’s book beyond contempt about basically how liberals can be more persuasive in the arguments and also take a depolarizing approach. And I was thinking of her book as mainly a depolarization related book but to her it would be a book about how to actually accomplish your goals more effectively. And the more I thought about it, those things are so intertwined. I mean, to me they’re basically the same. And, and it doesn’t matter which side you’re talking about, these are just ways to actually accomplish your goals more effectively. And in the process you are actually taking a depolarizing approach. And maybe that’s a good segue into this question I had.

The thing that strikes me is that it’s a very important concept that I feel is often overlooked. It seems like the more polarized we become, the more we tend to forget what the role of a democracy is. That the role of a democracy is not to achieve some paradise of whatever sort any specific person envisions. The point isn’t to create a place where everything is right as we envision it. The point is merely to resolve differences of opinions without political violence. And I think for many people, as we become more polarized, that they become increasingly intolerant of the idea of not getting their way because they perceive things in such largely good versus evil ways. I think we need to remind ourselves that what the nature of democracy is and that we will have political losses and that we will have things that happen that we think are very wrong and so will the other side. d I think, I’m curious what you think of that as far as like something to focus on. Something to keep in mind as people work on these problems. Because I think at the end of the day, we do have to face the fact that the reality that we live in a world that people can believe vastly different things than us and have their own complex reasons for believing those things and we have to keep that in mind.

Guy Burgess: Now, one of the most important ideas and well, one of the other articles in this discussion focuses on vision. And if we don’t have a sense of where we want to go, it’s going to be awfully hard to get there. And one of the things we’ve done over the years with our students is ask them to describe, offer their vision of what a peaceful society looks like. And almost always they come back with a description of what society would look like if everybody finally agreed that their side had it right and that their vision for the future prevailed and nobody disagreed with it. That’s the sort of advocate’s dream is that the other side will finally decide that they were right all along and everything will be fine. But what we really need is a vision of not how one image of social justice will prevail but an image of how to build a society in which we have diverse communities with different images of social justice and how they can coexist and tolerate one another and still able to work together on areas of common interest.

And that’s a very different image. The democratic vision is something that underlies and makes possible a diverse society. Without it, the diversity will wind up tearing itself apart. And that’s sort of what we’re looking at the moment. So that’s one way of looking at it. Another thing that we talk about is something we call pragmatic empathy or I sometimes use the phrase bridge building or not bridge building, mirror building. The idea is to see yourself as others see you. And once you do that, then you get a sense of what makes others so mad at you and willing to fight so hard. And you can then start asking questions about, well, do I really need to do those things? Or maybe if we did it this way, I wouldn’t provoke so much opposition but I’d still get the things that I really care about.

And once you make that kind of jump, then our chances of working through our problems are a whole lot better, I think. And offer one example of this that I was thinking about this morning actually, and this goes to I think the core of the left’s contribution to the problem and maybe can help people understand this a little better. But right now we have an elaborate legal structure that has emerged to protect what you might call protected classes. These are groups that liberals have progressively over the last several decades argued are being unfairly discriminated against by society whether it’s on racial grounds or gender or any of these things. That civil rights laws have been expanded to protect those groups. And that we’ve now reached the point where anything that’s seen as threatening or well, that I guess the next point is we add to this a whole set of harassment kind of rules where now embodied in title and a lot of other legislation, there are rules that if people make you feel bad for whatever your identity is, that’s actionable.

And there are all these stories of people getting fired or otherwise canceled for doing things that members of such protected groups feel infringe upon their right. And that all seems absolutely fine and there’s lots of very good reasons behind a lot of this, but it gets to the point where it’s so pervasive that it’s inspired a huge backlash. And a way to think about this and to try to understand it for folks on the left is imagine that we had another society that was, say, predominantly ruled by traditional Christian values. And when you apply for a job, you had to write an essay that says how much you support traditional Christian views on issues like sex and morality and family structure, or that when you went to publish a book, you had your manuscript went through sensitivity readers that would review it and see if there was anything that traditional Christians found objectionable. You could tell the story for quite a while. But the truth is that there are similar institutions enforcing progressive views on these issues and that’s what makes the right mad. And had that situation been reversed, had there been conservative leaning institutions enforcing things in the same sort of way, that would’ve inspired a similar response on the left.

Zach: A note here. One very good book about the unreasonableness and badness of some of these kinds of things is titled The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, The Academy and the Hunt for Political Heresies. That book was written by Robert Boyers, a politically liberal university professor who edit Salmagundi, a respected literary magazine. If you’re someone who doubts that these things are problems, I’d highly recommend checking out that book. At the very least, you’ll walk away with a better understanding of what it is that rational and well-meaning people can see as very big problems in this area. Back to the talk.

Guy Burgess: And what you need to do is to craft some sort of middle ground where you have a set of principles that apply equally to people regardless of their beliefs. So for instance, you can’t wear political branded clothes to work. That’s different from saying you can wear a Black Lives Matter hat but not a MEGA hat. I think that if we would recognize this kind of tension and try to find a mutually acceptable set of principles that would protect folks on both the left and the right, we’d really go a long way towards diffusing our current problems. There’d still be these bad faith actors that will try to undermine something like that. I mean, there’s got to be a way to push back against that.

Zach: Yeah. It reminds me of, I was listening to a depolarization aim talk the other day that had involved Erica Edison and she had a great quote, which was something like liberals often have a delusion that if you can prevent people from talking about something that they aren’t thinking it or prevent them from thinking about it. But the more we act as if we can’t talk about certain things, the more the people that want to talk about those things will find that information elsewhere including from some extreme people if those are the only people talking about an issue. So it gets to that point of we need to acknowledge that people do want to talk about these things that they don’t always accept the liberal explanations of certain things or the liberal framings of things. And that’s the more we can try to talk about that and not treat those people as outcast depending on the topic of course.

Guy Burgess: Now one of the lines I use is that we need a more diverse diversity. The basic principles that the left is articulated on how to make a diverse society work are by and large pretty solid. It just needs to be extended beyond the liberal coalition. You could make a similar phrase, we need a more intersectional intersectionality that extends the same sort of respect for differences outside of the liberal coalition as well as within.

Zach: Yeah. You see that a lot with liberal writing off of racial minority conservative views and such and acting like those, that tends to be those views are disrespected or treated as not legitimate views or something. Those kinds of things. Yeah. Maybe you’d like to talk about what are you working on these days. Do you want to talk about any projects that you have in store right now?

Guy Burgess: Well, the next big thing that we’re working on, and this goes back to this notion of massively parallel approaches to problem, that maybe should back up a little bit. There’s a important distinction to be made between what are called complicated systems. And this is what people are really good at. When you build tools, they’re complicated. You understand how they work, they’re blueprints. It could be an airplane, could be something really complicated, computers, the internet, but these are all things that somebody’s designed, somebody has the plans for. You get quick feedback if it doesn’t work. If it doesn’t work, you get out and you fix it and you know what it’s supposed to do. And people are very good at that sort of thing. And then there’s complex systems and complex systems evolve. They’re not designed. They’re better thought of in terms of organic metaphors, ecological metaphors that includes society where you have lots and lots of different people doing different things for different reason, interacting in a complex ecosystem in ways that push the aggregate of society in one direction or another.

Now we tend to think that the way you fix the hyperpolarization problem, as you treat it like a complicated system, you come up with a plan and a set of institutional changes, and if you do this, this, and this, then everything will be better. And it doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. What instead you have is you have this vast gigantic society and with lots of different people trying to do things that in their own way and for their own reasons, they think will make not only their lives better, but with a certain degree of altruism, the community’s lives better. So the solution to the hyperpolarization problem is not to have somebody with the great peace plan. And there are lots and lots of books out there where people say, “Okay, this is the way we fix it.” But instead what we want to do is to identify a very broad range of things that me doing to control these bad faith actors to deal with the inherent vulnerabilities of human society that make us more prone to polarization and conflict to deal with a whole set of objective problems like climate change.

And so what we imagine and this goes back to how today’s modern computing systems have gotten so unbelievably sophisticated, is that they don’t have one super smart processor. What they have is lots and lots of little processors working in massively parallel ways that do big things. So what we’re trying to first of all do is build a catalog of the broad categories of things that need doing to make democracy work. And here we try to focus on democracy, not as a set of political institutions, but the dispute handling system. And it picks up a lot of the insights of the conflict field like a dispute handling system needs to promote mutual understanding across the society. It needs to control escalation. It needs to be able to objectively analyze problems. It needs a common vision that everybody can support. It needs collaborative problem solving, all of these things.

And so what we’re doing is trying to identify things in each of these categories that could contribute to a healthier society. Then we’ve been involved in organizations like the Bridge Alliance, which is an alliance of something like 200 different organizations with something like 5 million members that are all trying to work on helping to depolarize our society in different ways and that they’re affiliated with other groups that are trying to do things in other ways and basically build a catalog of all of the different things that people are trying to do to make things better and to help people identify them, identify where the gaps are, identify, “Hey, this was a great idea, worked in Kentucky, we could do this in Colorado.” So it becomes a matchmaking kind of thing. And sometimes talk of the Google Maps approach to conflict resolution or complex conflict resolution.

And what Google does is they have a map and if you turn on the traffic layer, it highlights all of the places where the transportation system isn’t working. And it will highlight sometimes that there’s actual construction going on to fix these. But the idea in extending this is we need a map of all of the places in which the conflict system that runs our society isn’t working. And then you extend the Google Map metaphor by adding the highway idea. So the idea is that you get people to look at the big picture, find places where things aren’t going right and then adopt or take responsibility for fixing one of them. And that’s ultimately the way that we do big things. That’s the only way humans have ever done big things is you take a giant problem and you break it down into pieces, you get people to volunteer to work on those pieces, and sometimes they have to raise the money to do that and do it.

One of the, I have a slideshow on this on the website that looks at the example of open source software. Our system runs on what’s called a lamp server, Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. Those are all open source programming languages. And we use Drupal which is a content management system. And in Drupal it’s fascinating. You can go into the sort of back end of the system and see who volunteered to write every line of code basically in this entire incredibly sophisticated program. And you have this continuing process where people will say, “Well, this program isn’t working right here, I’m going to take responsibility for fixing that.” And they fix it and they upgrade the system and everybody gets a copy of the new upgraded thing. And that’s how the internet works. This open source stuff has a vastly larger share of the internet than the closed source proprietary stuff. And we need to do something like that with the conflict problem. So what we’re trying to do is to start to build the catalog of the things that need doing and the things that people are doing to work on all that.

Zach: Yeah, that’s great. The work I do on the podcast and then in this depolarization, book I’m working on, one of the things I emphasize is I don’t think I have answers. I’m more just somebody who wants other people to think more about these things that I’ve read about and think about. And I think to solve the problem, like you’re saying, we need to reach some critical mass of people even recognizing what the problem is and working on the problem. But I think yeah, we’re pretty far away from that because I think the challenge is that polarization just creates, naturally creates an environment where even discussing the problem of polarization is difficult. And that’s the core problem we face. And yeah, thanks a lot for your time, Guy. This has been great and I appreciate your work and thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Guy Burgess: Well, thank you. I enjoyed the conversation and we should stay in touch and certainly the kinds of things that you’re doing are just one of the- and an important element of this massively parallel approach.

Zach: That was conflict resolution specialist Guy Burgess. You can learn more and his and Heidi’s work at Their recent paper, the one that led to me wanting to interview either Guy or Heidi, was titled Applying conflict resolution insights to the hyper‐polarized, society‐wide conflicts threatening liberal democracies. And just a reminder that on their website they include discussions about their work and about their ideas, if you’d like to see some of those debates. 

In my opinion, it’s very important for everyone, liberals and conservatives, to think more about what they can do on their side to help reduce polarization, and to speak out when they see people on their side behaving in unreasonable and divisive ways. The reason for that is simple: we only can influence our own group; we can’t influence the other group. If we want to solve this problem, we have to focus more on our group, and less on the other group. And that’s something backed up by group psychology research; I recently wrote a piece laying out the arguments and research behind that; you can find it on my Medium blog, which you can find by searching for ‘zachary elwood polarization medium’. 

If you enjoyed this talk, I think you’d enjoy checking out the other past episodes I’ve done on polarization. A popular recent one was a talk with Matthew Hornsey about group psychology and persuasion. For other polarization-related talks, go to my site

If you have enjoyed this podcast, please share it with your friends and family. Helping me get more listeners is the main way you can encourage me to work more on this podcast. I also appreciate you leaving me a review on Apple Podcasts. 

Thanks for listening.



The art of recruiting, with Blake Mobley

A talk with Blake Mobley about the business of recruiting: matching job seekers with companies that are hiring. Blake is the co-founder and managing director of recruiting company Keeper Recruiting (, which specializes in biotech.

Topics discussed include: what the process of recruiting is like; how Keeper Recruiting learns pertinent details about job seekers; the metrics by which recruiting companies are judged to be successful; the different “core motivators” people can have in their lives and how that relates to recruiting; personality tests; and Blake’s earlier career in the intelligence community and how he sees that relating to his recruiting work.

Episode links:

Related resources:


Dealing with anxiety and mental health issues as a college student

I was interviewed on Mahima Samraik‘s podcast Breaking The Facts about my struggles with anxiety and mental issues as a young man, which led to me dropping out of college in the middle of my second year of college. We talk about what that experience was like; recommendations for people dealing with similar problems; and the obstacles that can get in the way of getting help. 

Episode links:



Understanding madness, with Richard Bentall

A talk with psychologist Richard Bentall, author of the well known book “Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature,” which is an examination of the psychological causes of the symptoms associated with psychosis, schizophrenia, mania, and other mental issues. Richard Bentall is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Sheffield.

A transcript of this talk is below. Topics we talk about include: the experiences and mental struggles that can lead to symptoms associated with psychosis and other mental illness; how theories of mental illness have changed over time; pushback and criticism of psychology-focused explanations of mental illness; aspects of madness that most of us experience at some point; the role of feelings of isolation in madness; the difference between beliefs and delusions; and my own mental struggles as a young man. 

Episode links:

Resources discussed in this episode or related to the topic:


Zach Elwood: Hello and 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

On this episode I interview the psychologist Richard Bentall about mental illness, psychosis, and so-called schizophrenia. Bentall is probably most well known for his 2004 book Madness Explained, which is a fantastic book that I highly recommend. It won the British Psychological Society Book Award, and is widely regarded as a groundbreaking work in the world of psychology. When it comes to psychology, for me personally, it’s up there as one of the most important books ever written, alongside Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy.

In that book, and in his work in general, Bentall attempts to show how various symptoms of so-called madness are understandable human responses to various forms of stress and anxiety and trauma. In other words, he focuses on the psychological causes of madness, the factors related to the workings of our minds, as opposed to potential biological causes.

In this episode, we talk about how theories about the causes of mental illness have changed over time; we talk about pushback and criticisms to psychology-focused theories of madness; we talk about how it is that mental stresses can result in madness; and we talk about how we might distinguish strange but fairly common beliefs from delusions.

Along the way, I also talk about my own mental struggles as a young man; If you’re interested to hear more about that, I recommend a previous episode where I talked to Nathan Filer about psychosis and schizophrenia. And if you’re interested in mental health topics in general, you might also like a talk I had with Scott Stossel about understanding and dealing with anxiety. I also have a talk about existential psychology and therapy with the psychologist Kirk Schneider.

A little more about Richard Bentall: he’s a Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Sheffield. In 1989 he received the British Psychological Society’s May Davidson Award for his contribution to the field of Clinical Psychology. He’s written several books, including “Doctoring the Mind: Is Our Current Treatment of Mental Illness Really Any Good?”, and one titled “Think You’re Crazy? Think Again: A Resource Book for Cognitive Therapy for Psychosis.” A 2021 Guardian article about Bentall was titled “Richard Bentall: the man who lost his brother – then revolutionized psychology”, and it’s a good read if you’d like to quickly learn more about his work and life story.

Okay, here’s the talk with Richard Bentall.

Hi Richard, thanks for coming on.

Richard Bentall: Hi. It’s good to be here.

Zach: So, maybe we can start with the idea that symptoms of so-called madness; the idea that those symptoms can be explained by psychological processes is seen by some people as controversial. And I know that when you first started writing about these kinds of ideas which I think was back in the ’80s you started some of this work, those ideas were more controversial than they are now. Maybe you could give an overview of how the mental health field as a whole has their views of such ideas has changed over time and some of those ideas have become more accepted.

Richard Bentall: Yeah. Okay. That’s actually quite a big topic but I’ll try and deal with the highlights, really.

Zach: Yeah, that’s a big one.

Richard Bentall: So throughout most of the history of psychiatry, research into mental illness is focused on diagnostic categories. So, people have been divided into different groups of patients according to whether they have a diagnosis of schizophrenia, a major depression, or whatever. And that seems superficially quite a sensible thing to do, it’s an idea which goes back at least to the work of Kraepelin in the latter half of the 19th century. So for most research studies, for example, people are divided. You find that there’s a target group of patients who have particular diagnosis, say schizophrenia, versus healthy people who don’t have a diagnosis, and also sometimes a control psychiatric diagnosis. So you might have three groups; you might have schizophrenia patients, depressed patients and controls, and the hope is to find out something about schizophrenia. Of course that’s built on the assumption that the people who have the diagnosis of schizophrenia all have something in common, which makes them different than people in the comparison groups.

And quite early on in my career, it came to me. It wasn’t a particularly original idea, I don’t think. I can think of other people who said things to me which made me think along these lines but it came to me that schizophrenia in particular wasn’t a coherent entity where that assumption could be upheld. In fact when you looked at people who had diagnosis of schizophrenia, they had a wide range of different types of symptoms. And therefore it wasn’t really all that surprising that almost every variable known to influence human behavior at some time or other had been held out as a potential causal factor in schizophrenia, but for none of them it did it seem that the evidence was particularly consistent. That’s exactly what you get if you compared people who according to diagnoses, which were actually masking a great deal of heterogeneity within the diagnosis. So I wondered what you could do about that and the thought came to me that maybe if we couldn’t decide on what the core features of schizophrenia were, we could certainly agree on who, for example, had auditory hallucinations and who had paranoid beliefs. So I started to do research in the mid 1980s which was targeting people just based on those particular symptoms. Initially I started looking at people who were experiencing hearing voices. I was a bit influenced by my PhD which I’d actually done before my clinical training, and which was nothing to do with schizophrenia but it was actually about various aspects of child development, but was very influenced by the ideas of a Russian psychologist called Vygotsky who was interested in the way that children learn to think in words, a process which culminates in what you call inner speech– we all have this inner dialogue in our head. And it occurred to me that, whoa, whatever’s going on in auditory hallucinations is got to be something which is related to that process. And that led me fairly quickly to the idea that when people hear voices, what they’re actually hearing is their own inner speech or inner voice which they are somehow failing to recognize as belonging to themselves. 

So while I was still in clinical training, I carried out my first study of hallucinations to test that hypothesis and actually I generated a result which has been replicated many times since. I think it’s probably my most replicated study, although the way I carried it out back in the day involved some very crude technology compared to the techniques which we have available today. But anyway, from there I went on to think about, well, what could lead people to have paranoid beliefs and so on? And that whole kind of approach became this idea of trying to develop a separate understanding for each of the different symptoms. And the idea is that once you’ve explained each of the symptoms, there’s no schizophrenia left to explain. Once you explain why people hear voices, why they have delusions, why they have what we call thought disorder which is actually a sort of speech disorder, why they have the so-called negative symptoms which is the ones which are associated with loss of motivation and loss of feeling… Once you explained those with separate theories for each of them, there’s no schizophrenia left to account for. And you’re right, it was a fairly controversial idea early in the day. People, I think, varied in terms of the way they responded to it. A lot of the psychiatrists I actually worked with at the time, because I was involved in face-to-face clinical work at the time, I think they thought I was kind of nice but useless– like somebody who had wacky ideas but they didn’t see me as certainly not harmful to put it like that. Whereas some people in the psychiatric establishment, senior people who got very annoyed about the suggestion that schizophrenia wasn’t a coherent entity and they got quite hostile, I would say at times. But as time rolled on more and more psychologists and physicians started to focus on symptoms. I wasn’t the only person I’m sure who kicked off this movement, other people at roughly the same time had also begun to look at individual symptoms. And we’re now in a position where research on symptoms is very well established. It’s a huge industry, in fact. In fact I find it almost impossible to keep up with it.

There’s a lot of research on particularly hearing voices, hallucinations, and there’s a lot of research on paranoid delusions, less research on some of the other symptoms, but it’s still there. So it has become quite widely accepted. And when I first started in that area, my methods were psychological ones because I was a psychologist obviously. But the borderlines between psychology and biology have dissolved in those three decades largely, mainly due to the invention of advanced neuro imaging techniques particularly MRI. Which means that psychologists can now carry out psychological tests on people and at the same time see what’s happening in the brain while people deal with those tests. So you can see using a technique, functional magnetic resonance imaging which I’m sure you’ve heard of. You can see which parts of the brain are active when a patient tries to solve a particular type of problem, for example, and then you can compare the brain activity in patients to other people. But again, you can do that kind of research focusing specifically on symptoms. And so I don’t think it’s controversial anymore to do research on symptoms. It’s still to some extent controversial, the idea that schizophrenia isn’t over meaningful a concept in the way it’s been traditionally used. But even that has become much less controversial in the sense that there are prominent people in main stream psychiatry who would argue that certainly the diagnostic system is not fit for purpose and that the concept of schizophrenia in particular is problematic. And that’s led in the last 10 years to a number of efforts to try and think of ways of developing better ways of classifying patients. 

So, just an important point to add here and then I’ll stop for your next question. The important point to add is that there are some people who don’t like the idea of classifying patients at all. They think that somehow it’s dehumanizing, objectifying, and that each patient is unique. Of course it’s true that in many ways each patient is unique, but in order to make progress scientifically and also in order to have some pragmatic ways of estimating for example how many people are likely to need psychiatric treatment at any particular time in history, which is an important issue for public health people, or in order to find out for example which drugs are going to be most effective for which people, you do need to have some way of putting patients into groups to find groups which are meaningful. 

So I think where we are now is that people accept there’s a very widespread acceptance that, for example, the Diagnostic and Statistical manual of the American Psychiatric Association, the only positive thing to be said about it is that it’s pragmatic and easy to use, but nobody really believes that the categories in the DSM correspond to how nature is.

And there’s quite a lot of search going on for alternatives. There’s some big research programs trying to develop alternative ways of thinking about those of classifying psychiatric conditions.

Zach: So it seems like some of the initial pushback in the– a few decades ago anyway some of that pushback about thinking about the psychological aspects of psychosis and schizophrenia might be seen to be due to some of the more irresponsible psychological theories that happened before that, like the idea of the schizophrenic mother. So I’m curious, do you see that as at least accounting for some of the reason why people didn’t want to delve into some of the psychological aspects of it?

Richard Bentall: Yeah, so it certainly, I think that’s true that if you look at some of the theories you should propose in the 1960s, which tended to put, I think where blame is actually, right. In fact, they tend to locate the blame for the problems of young adults on squarely on parents who were sometimes described in ways which make them almost seem like monsters, the refrigerator mother, for example. So when psychiatry took a biological turn in the 1980s, one of the reasons for that industry was that people thought that somehow that biological theories were less stigmatizing. Actually, they thought that somehow, that if you said that somebody who had schizophrenia had a brain disease, you were saying it was neither their fault nor the fault of anybody in their family.

And a lot of what was at the time called mental health literacy campaigns were based around that idea. And people used phrases like it’s a disease like any other or sometimes you’d hear people say, in fact, you see clinicians saying to patients, you’ve got something a bit like diabetes. It’s a chemical imbalance, I’m afraid like a diabetic person, you’re going to have to take your drugs for the rest of your life. But that’s what’s happened. And actually the situation around that is actually quite complex and nuanced. So what’s emerged is that a lot of evidence emerged that family relationships do affect the development of mental illness in offspring in children who later go on in adulthood to develop psychosis. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that now, and I’m always very careful, however, about how I talk about it, because in my entire clinical career, and I should just say as a caveat that I’ve not been doing face to face clinical work for about 10 years, but I did quite a lot over the years. In my entire career, I don’t think I ever met the parents of a psychotic patient who was a monster.

Actually, they seemed to be very distressed people whose hearts were broken very often by seeing their sons and daughters undergo these profound difficulties, which were, that you could see the grief sometimes in parents, as they could see. Every parent wants their children to have a bright, wonderful, happy future. And to have that stolen, as it seems, by this whatever it was, nobody really understood it. Schizophrenia, it was breaking their hearts. Sometimes it was leading them to do things which actually made things worse. So, this is where we come to the idea of expressed emotion. So, here’s quite a lot of research which shows it’s probably one of the most well demonstrated things in psychiatry. The way that a parent reacts to a child’s emerging mental illness can affect the course of that illness as it goes on.

Particularly if the parent is hypercritical or over controlling, then that tends to mean that the mental illness will persist and will be much less likely to resolve. The thing about that though, is that if you think about those two characteristics of the parents being critical and over controlling, I mean, which parent, in all honesty can say they’ve never done that. I’ve got two kids and two step kids, and I know that I’ve failed to meet my own standards of parenthood on quite a few occasions to be fair to myself, when driven to distraction by teenage behavior. So everybody does those things to some extent. And the other thing about them is that, of course, people sometimes do them more when they see their children in trouble. If you see a child who’s constantly somehow making bad decisions or it looks like they’re making bad decisions, the temptations become highly critical.

Or if you feel guilty about the fact that they’re developing psychological problems and you think, “Oh my God, what have I done to cause this?” Then of course you’ll be over controlling and overprotective. So parental behavior does have an influence on the emerging mental health symptoms of children. There’s absolutely no doubt about that. But often it’s not always because parents do bad things. Sometimes they do bad things for sure, but it’s always for that reason. Sometimes it’s parents trying to do their level best in a way which is actually making things worse.

Zach: These things are just so complex. And I think, there’s often this tendency to look for these simple narratives of good and bad, but it’s like narcissism too. We all have narcissism, we’re all narcissistic in a sense, and we sometimes, even the best of us can behave in narcissistic ways in certain situations, and these certain complex things unfold. And I think that’s what to remember about, that becomes a destigmatizing thing about this, thinking about the psychological aspects, it’s like these are such complex processes and systems and people’s minds can go down rabbit holes. I think of my own experiences where it involved smoking a lot of marijuana when I was in college and leading to me having my mental issues and dropping out of college. And that’s just one factor. And I think when people tend to look for these simplistic narratives about things.

Richard Bentall: Yeah. So I mean, what the research tells us is all these different things interact. So marijuana’s the kind of interesting one. Lots of social circumstances which push young people to take marijuana, and actually most young people try it to some degree, but for some people we know, I think we’re pretty certain high degree of certainty but it’s very bad for them. It produces psychotic reactions. But there are all sorts of social circumstances which will tend to make somebody more likely to take marijuana. And if they do take marijuana, to take it frequently and to use for self me medication. And those might include biological factors, of course, it could be that there’s some genetic, I don’t know, any research you suggest it, but it wouldn’t surprise me that some people are got more for whatever reasons, might have a genetic tendency to put themselves in that situation, if I can put it like that. We don’t know but it wouldn’t strike me as weird if it turned out that that was the case.

Zach: A small note here, if you’re someone who hasn’t heard about the link between marijuana and mental issues and thinks that might be an exaggerated connection, I’d invite you to read up on that connection. There’s a lot of research and writing on it. For what it’s worth, I actually still smoke marijuana occasionally, so I’m definitely not anti-marijuana. But for me personally, I believe it was an amplifying factor in my mental breakdown as a young man in the same way that it seems to be a contributing factor in many case studies you can read. I think I was predisposed to some bad outcomes due to me already being a very anxious young person who had previously suffered panic attacks in high school and such. And in my case, I think it was less about trying to self-medicate than it was about me wanting to feel cool and fit in despite being very unhappy and anxious.

And also, I think some young people can be quite fragile because they haven’t developed a strong sense of self and models of the world to think about marijuana as that it can really amplify our visceral sensation of things in the same way that marijuana can make listening to music or watching a movie more viscerally exciting and captivating. It can also lend a visceral realness to our random trains of thought, including our dark and disturbing and depressing trains of thought. So I just want to clarify that point about marijuana a little bit. As I’ve often seen people express skepticism about marijuana’s role in mental illness, there’s a lot to talk about there. 

Okay. Back to the talk.

Zach: So for me, the idea that there are psychological causes for madness is pretty easy to understand, because I went through some pretty painful mental experiences when I was young in college. It involved me feeling like I was on the verge of madness. I dropped out of college mid-year due to no longer being able to function. So I can relate to much of the things you write about in Madness Explained in a pretty visceral way, because it’s easy for me to remember how easy it is to become distanced from reality, especially when one is socially isolated and suffering. But I think for a lot of people that’s hard to understand just due to most of us taking our so-called normal minds for granted. So when we’re feeling good and feeling like so-called normal people, we have all sorts of healthy narratives going on in the background, like “I’m an independent agent interacting with other independent entities, and I’m able to enjoy these interactions I have with these other people. I have various goals that I can work towards that will increase my happiness.” These kinds of things.

And I think we tend to take for granted those kinds of really complex forms of narratives and modeling and modeling of self and modeling of other people. And as someone who went through basically what seems to me like, it was almost like a stripping away of all those social narratives and so-called normal narratives, and just being left with this real existential terror and shock at the weirdness of life. So I can see the things you write about in your book; I can relate to them and see how there are all these layers of meaning and narratives that make someone normal to other people and seeing those layers of meaning and narratives as just tremendously complex. And I’m curious if you see one of the challenges we face in trying to understand psychosis and madness is just that there are these things that we take for granted about normal life that are much more complex than they seem to be.

Richard Bentall: Yeah. So, I mean, I can’t remember who said it, but somebody said the thing about Freud was that he recognized that nearly everybody’s mad and they’re more aware of another; that’s a bastardization of Freud, I guess. But my point is that actually I think you make a very important point, which is that normal mental life is pretty weird and we underestimate its weirdness a lot of the time. And that comes out in all sorts of different ways. So one of the things for which it comes out with is that people who are going through a psychotic episode, they often feel very alone. They feel alone because they think they’re completely different than everybody else. And they think that nobody else will understand how they’re feeling, and they find it very difficult to express how they’re feeling or what they’re experiencing.

And that’s a terrifying situation to be in. You feel that your own mind is slipping away, but you are alone. Nobody can possibly help you because nobody can understand. But actually, if we look at epidemiological evidence, one of the things we find is that first of all, that these experiences are much more common than people used to think. So for example, it’s been estimated that, I mean, it’s crudely that roughly about 10% of the population at some point in their lives experiences hearing voices in somewhere some way or another. And actually there are quite a few people who had that experience who are living perfectly normal lives perfectly successful lives in the population without receiving or seeking psychiatric health. That was a great insight of Dutch psychiatrists, Marius Romme and I’m sure you’ve heard of. But Romme even went as far as to the MEA formed a club for a society for people hear voices, which was initially called resonance in Holland, and which supported the international hearing voices movement which has been a great force for good, I think, and maybe I can relate an anecdote, which I actually mentioned in my book about that movement because Marius invited me to give a talk to a conference of people who hear voices.

And this is back in the 1990s, and this seemed to be like a pretty strange thing to be doing because I was used to talking to mental health professionals, but not talking to a conference for people who hear voices. So I was a bit anxious about how it was going to go. And as just before I walked into the lecture theater, Marius said to me probably one of the most important things which anybody’s ever said to me, which was he said, “Richard, I really like your research on hallucinations, but the trouble is you do want to cure people who hear voices, don’t you? I want to liberate them. I think they’re like homosexuals in the 1950s. They need liberating, not curing.” And that’s a very powerful thought, I think. But going back to the weirdness of ordinary life issue, it’s certainly true that a lot more people hear voices than most people imagine.

But it’s also true that there are lots of, if we look at beliefs, for example, strange beliefs that there are a lot of people have straight beliefs as well. Now that sometimes it’s quite difficult to tell the difference between what’s a delusional belief and which is how a psychiatrist would define this abnormal belief that the person with psychosis might have. It’s difficult to tell the difference between what’s a delusional belief and what’s a non delusional belief, particularly in an era when there’s, for example, a lot of conspiracy theories going around on the internet. So this has become, that particular question is a preoccupation of mine. And I’ve began to do research specifically comparing the beliefs of the so-called delusional beliefs of psychiatric patients with, for example, very strongly held political beliefs or religious beliefs. One problem in that area, in terms of the way that other people approached it in the past is that people just take mundane beliefs for granted. So, for example, there’s a whole program of research on delusions about the phenomenology of delusions. Phenomenology is basically the experience of having these types of beliefs. Yeah. And phenomenologically inspired researchers spend a lot of time interrogating small numbers of patients about their experiences related to say their paranoid beliefs. And the bottom line is that what they usually end up saying is, behind these beliefs, there is some altered sense of self in the world. So it said, for example, that people who that paranoia is often preceded by a period, which in German is described as [foreign speech], which is this sort of sense that there is something in the offing, something’s about to happen, there’s something not quite right. And that precedes the onset of the paranoid delusion. But actually, if you look at narratives of people who’ve had religious conversion experiences, you find very much the same thing. But that’s been ignored by researchers because they’ve just taken mundane beliefs for granted. Actually a lot of stuff which goes on in the so-called healthy minds, it’s pretty weird.

Zach: Yeah. And the thing I was trying to get at, which I might not have explained, well, it’s something I often think about when I was trying to make sense of my own mental struggles as a young man, the thing I return to often is the idea that there’s just so much bandwidth and complex modeling processing power that’s required to be a so-called normal person. You have to have these models of other people. You have to have this model of your own self. You have to have this model for how yourself is perceived by the others around you. You have to keep all the social rules that dictate what is acceptable normal behavior in mind when you interact with others. And it just seems to me like such a large amount of bandwidth and processing.

And then when you’re in the world of other people if you start to feel bad, you start to feel anxious, depressed, you can start to have all these balls that we usually juggle interacting with other people or thinking about ourselves as social creatures. It becomes harder to keep all those balls in the air. And so you have this cascading effect where our narratives about ourself and our place in the world become more strange and less functional, less realistic, and we can start to have these weird ideas just based on this cascading effect of us not being able to keep all these ideas of others and self in mind at the same time. And I’m curious if is that something, as someone who’s an amateur, I don’t really have a sense of if that makes sense or if people have talked about that in the mental health literature.

Richard Bentall: Yeah. So there’s quite a big American particularly psychological literature on intentional limitations and their role in psychosis. It’s certainly true that people who suffer from psychotic disorders do have reduced attention span. In fact, Kraepelin recognized that in the 1890s. So in his accounts, his descriptions of people with what he called dementia praecox, what was later renamed as schizophrenia. And it’s certainly true that in ordinary everyday life, we have to juggle all these things as you’ve described. So I’m trying to think of somebody who’s formulated it in quite the same way as you have and I’m not quite sort of, nothing’s coming to mind immediately, but what you’ve described doesn’t sound to me particularly implausible actually as an account that if you imagine that if your capacity or working memory capacity, your intentional capacity is impaired, then ordinary everyday situations are going to be much more problematic and stressful.

And I suppose one of the things related to that is that a lot of the social psychological processes which underlie everyday social life are normally automatic. So a good example would be what developmental psychologists misleadingly call theory of mind. Theory of mind is the ability to understand or be able to guess what other people are thinking. It’s called theory of mind because a better term will be mentalizing, actually, because it’s an ability, it’s called theory of mind because the concept was first brought to attention by celebrated paper by David Premack about chimpanzees actually won’t, the title of paper was, does a chimpanzee have a theory of Mind? So we know that certain people find mentalizing or understanding other people’s mental states much more difficult than others, notably people with autistic disorders. And indeed there are some people who argue that that is the central problem in autism, although that’s disputed about whether that is the case. And it’s certainly true, and I’ve done studies myself going back a while now, it showed that when people are acutely ill, that their theory of mind skills, their ability to think about other people’s mental states are impaired. So there is certainly some evidence which fits with our idea, which is, if our processing capacity is handicapped in some way, then it’s going to make social situations much more tricky and actually more frightening.

Zach: The thing that strikes me there is when I was going through my mental struggles, I had this very visceral feeling. When I felt like I was losing my mind, I felt like I was a million miles away from basically other people. I felt like I was almost on like metaphorically another planet and it was losing these, it strikes me that losing these narratives about if we feel that we’re so isolated in our own minds and we, we basically are going into our own minds then we lose these narratives about it even being important to pay attention to the things that other people think are important. So I’m reminded of you open madness explain with your work with the mentally ill women at the mental hospital who you were trying to walk them through these attention paying exercises. But it’s like if they don’t even have the narrative that such things are important, they’re not going to. Their lack of paying attention.

Richard Bentall: What you’re referring to is my first ever work with people with psychosis when I was still a student and was, what can I say? I’m quite embarrassed about it, really in some ways compared to,

Zach: But you were young.

Richard Bentall: Certainly in terms of my understanding of psychosis at the time was very minimal, but so was everybody else’s, I think. Yeah. Now we just had this idea we could actually teach people to improve their attentional skills by getting them to, actually, the ideas came from, it’s linked to this in the speech idea. The idea was that if you get people to talk to themselves while they’re doing whatever they’re doing but to literally instruct themselves, it will focus our attention. We got a change in people’s performance on simple IQ type tests but I’m sure that improvement lasted for about five minutes.

Zach: Yeah. I think it gets back to that idea of the kinds of tests, it’s like the early testing of mentally ill people, having them try to recite things. It’s like, well, if their narratives are not in their world that they’re living in, such things do not matter at all. Whereas we’re in the world of living with other people, and so we care what others think where they’re just not in that frame of reference of the normal test. Just there’s only so much you can learn if their narratives are not matching ours.

Richard Bentall: So I guess one thing which is just reacting to what you’re saying is that actually that this ties in with something which I’m preoccupied with at the moment. I was mentioning earlier on that I’m interested in what makes a belief a delusion as opposed to, for example, if you take something like QAnon, like expressive theory which is associated with the MAGA movement in the United States. I mean, on the surface it seems just as crazy. So I can use that termas anything which you’ll see in the psychiatric hospital. I mean, some of these people believe that there is some vast conspiracy led by the Democrats to sexually abused children worldwide and even drain hormones for their bodies. So I’d say it’s pretty crazy. And yet it’s not usually considered to be a delusion.

One of the things which makes delusions different than other types of beliefs is that they’re generally not shared. So delusion there’s only only one person who believes in delusion, a particular patient. Whereas things like QAnon, they’re shared by lots of different people. And that points to something which is quite important about belief formation in general life, which is most of us get our beliefs in interaction with other people. So belief formation is a social process. You discuss what you think with other people, you negotiate a shared understanding of what’s really going on and beliefs get passed from one person to another. There’s some people like that process to the process of viral infection, but none of that seems to be happening in the case of delusions. And I’ve come to think that in a way psychologists have missed the point a bit about delusions because what we’ve done is we’ve spent the last 20 or 30 years trying to look at reasoning in people with, say, paranoid beliefs.

And there’s not a huge amount of literature which seems to show, well, if you test people on this psychological task, they seem to be reasoning a little bit different than everybody else. It’s usually nothing particularly dramatic. And I think I might be missing the point, it’s more to do with the way that police are constructed in collaboration with other people, which is seems to be the problem in delusions. And that to me would say that even though I think that say QAnon is a pretty crazy theory, I wouldn’t really say it’s a delusional theory in a way, the fact that it’s shared, it’s a narrative developed by lots of people interacting with each other is makes it precisely not a delusional belief. Doesn’t mean it’s a correct belief, by the way.

Zach: Yeah. I think the I mean, and then as society’s become more polarized and more angry, it becomes easier to have these high animosity, strange beliefs that are paranoid about the other side doing things. That those things become more common. So I definitely, I believe you’re working on a book now about those topics and I can see the map over for all of it. And one thing that strikes me too, I mean, one of the takeaways from my own mental struggles was being very skeptical when I thought that I’m now very skeptical when I think I have some sort of truth that other people don’t have which is one of the things that was one of the things that led me down a dark path was thinking like, oh and some of it had aspects of positive things too or feeling positive where I thought I was reaching some form of enlightenment, I was reading books about Buddhist schools of thought and so at the same time as I was becoming distanced in a socially painful way, I was also having these periods of feeling like I was a genius and things like that.

So I think it maps over to some of the experiences so-called normal people can have, where we feel that we’ve reached these realizations about narratives that explain the world or explain our place in it and it’s good to be skeptical of those things because reality is largely defined by our interactions with other people so-called reality. So there can be negative sides to delving off into these other worlds, whether it’s like QAnon or what other unusual or unlikely worldviews. Would you agree that a big part of mental illness and mental struggles maybe in general is when we go off in our own heads a bit and reach these narratives that are not agreed on by other people? Would you largely say that’s it?

Richard Bentall: Yeah, no, that’s in a sense my point really, I suppose that’s normally the narratives, we have to use your terminology, they’re constrained by our social relations. They’re checked by other people formally or informally. Your friend says, “Nah, I don’t think that’s what’s going on.” Or they say”Have you thought about this? That might be.” So on. Those kind of things. And in a coalition, you develop your beliefs in a coalition. But if you’re isolated, if you’re frightened of other people, which of course will increase your isolation, then you can’t form as coalitions. So the whatever’s going on in your head is unconstrained. It isn’t limited, it isn’t moderated by anybody else. We all have, I think, pretty crazy ideas which go through our heads. I know I do, every so often, but what most of us can do is either it gets dismissed for us by somebody else who we discuss it with, or we dismiss it ourselves because we go, no, I think that’s a crazy idea.

I’ll give you an example. I use this example when I’m talking to students. It always creates a bit of amusement, an almost everyday occurrence if you are a academic researcher which is a good model of paranoia. So if you’re researcher, what happens is you write a scientific paper and it takes you ages to do it. You finesse it as well as you can. You stick it in the poor submission portal as it is these days. We used to post them back in the old days. But you put it in the submission portal of whatever journal you are hoping will accept it. And usually you will start out by aiming high, you’ll find some journal, we’ll think of some journal which has got a really high, what we call citation impact, which is otherwise it’s read by a lot of people but they’re difficult to get into because they’ve got a vast number of people sending papers done.

So I send it there, and then you wait and you wait and you wait and weeks go by. And then finally you get this email back and the email says something like, “Dear Professor Bentall, thank you for submitting your paper on paranoia in UK academic staff to the journal of very excellent psychopathology research. At this journal, we have considered your submission very carefully and asked free expert reviewers to review it. The reviewers all identify strengths in your work.” And you’re reading this thing and you’re going, no, come on, come on. What’s the bottom line? And then you get after a while. So sometimes it goes, “But unfortunately, some important weaknesses were also identified, which are,” And then they go, “We can only accept 5% of papers, which is submitted to our journal. So unfortunately we must decline your submission.”

And what’s the first thing which happens to an academic in that situation? Well, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in feeling pretty paranoid. So what happens is, very often you go kind like, “Who else is working in this area? Who are those three referees? Let me look what they’ve read. Oh, those bastards.” And you get very angry. You could easily develop a paranoid worldview that all the other scientists are against it and so on. And so actually some people do develop that paranoid worldview, but most of us, what happens is we get very upset and then we go and have a cup of tea in Britain, a cup of tea, I don’t know what it would be in North America, probably coffee. But you go and you sit back and you relax a bit and you think, that journal is a pretty hard journal to get into.

Also, what the referees said wasn’t completely wrong. There were some things I could do to improve the research or maybe the way I reported it and so on. And you slowly taught yourself round to thinking, now this is just what happens. It’s just one of those things I need to see if I can learn from the referees reports to improve the paper, but I’ll send it to another journal and get in somewhere. So you talk yourself out of your paranoid episode. And whenever I talk about this to, use that example with either students or in academic conferences, there’s always smiles around the room because everybody recognizes that feeling, the feeling of paranoia when you have a paper rejected. The problem with, I think people are very isolated or with that cognition is compromised for whatever reason, maybe because they’re emotionally distressed and their working memories is limited or whatever, but it’s much more difficult to talk yourself out of a strange belief like that. So, whereas your average university professor can go, hold it, I’m being a bit paranoid. No, I’d be a bit more realistic about this. I need to calm down. I have my cup of tea. Maybe it’s simply the case that a lot of people with psychosis can’t do that.

Zach: Do you want to talk a little bit about what you’re working on right now with your book?

Richard Bentall: I’m still involved in clinical trials and the one thing we haven’t talked about is the role of trauma in psychosis. So one of the things which has emerged in the last 10, 15 years, I think, is that very often people with psychosis have some significant social trauma in the past. Going back to what I said about parents, of course it’s very important to recognize it’s not always the parents who are responsible for those traumas, but it appears that we’ve now got quite a lot of evidence that that traumatic factors are one of the causal factors in what type of causal factor in psychosis, for sure. So I’m involved in clinical trials to develop treatments which are targeting particularly trauma related mechanisms. But apart from that, yeah, no, I’m writing a book. It’s been going on. I’m not going to say how long I’ve been writing it for because it’s too embarrassing.

But a long time ago I came to the conclusion that I didn’t really understand what a delusion was. I’d been doing research on delusions for 20 years. I thought I’d discovered some vaguely useful things, but I thought that the whole area was a bit stuck. That we’re doing, seeing a lot of studies come out where people are doing the same old thing more or less or another with slight variations. And it suddenly struck me that part of the problem was we didn’t really know what a belief is. Which seems a bit strange because beliefs are central concept in all of the social sciences. Arguably you could say that it’s a focus on belief, which is what distinguishes the social from the natural sciences. Sociologists talk about beliefs, anthropologists talk about beliefs, historians talk about beliefs. Psychologists talk about beliefs, but there’s no coherent understanding of what beliefs are.

And it seemed to me that if we could have a better understanding of how beliefs are generated and what they are involved in general, that would inform our understanding delusions. So I’ve been involved in this task of, I basically managed to get a contract quite from a very well known public, well from Penguin, where I said I don’t know what a delusion is, but if you give me a contract, I’ll write a book. And by the time I finished writing the book, I’ll know. And amazingly they did because they were very happy with previous books I published and I had no idea how difficult that task would turn out to be. So I’m currently writing quite a, I’m just polishing off a lot of sections and about political beliefs, for example, and it turns out there’s a lot we can learn about belief systems in general by looking at political beliefs.

And those have some applications to thinking about the beliefs of psychiatric patients. The problem with it’s endlessly fascinating so I found myself today trying to improve a section I’d already written about the left right spectrum where fascist ideology fitted into it and I could end up.

Zach: Going deep.

Richard Bentall: Could end up going down a day. That’s a rabbit hole which I could have disappeared in for three weeks so I won’t. I written a huge long section about Ezra Pound, the American modernist poet who, I don’t know if you’ve heard about the story of Ezra Pound but.

Zach: Not sure.

Richard Bentall: Ezra Pound, put it briefly Ezra Pound modernist poet, fascist and psychotic question mark, because he was somebody who had quite appalling political views really. He was a sport of fascism. He was viral anti semite. He was an American citizen who did radio broadcast on behalf of the Italian government during the Second World War. And at the end of the second World War was arrested by the FBI and indicted for treason, potentially faced the death penalty, at which point it was decided that he was psychotic and he spent the next 12 years in the psychiatric hospital. Looking into the life of Ezra Pound, it really is difficult to, it’s a fantastic story about how difficult it’s to tell what is just an awful political belief or what is a delusion. Just say, I’m finding it’s enormously enjoyable, but I’m spending far much, it’s taking far too long.

Zach: Quick question, if you do have time for them. One thing I’ve been curious about is in mental illness, do you write about at all the idea that sometimes when someone’s not feeling well, they can have a hard time telling a belief from a passing thought? And so like a passing thought can in the way that we shrug it off and say, that was a weird passing thought we had. They might dwell on it and start to think that was it.

Richard Bentall: Yeah. So that is one of the things I haven’t actually written anything about that in the book yet, but I will be covering that. But some interesting ideas from psychotherapists around that, actually, I don’t know if you’ve heard of acceptance and commitment theory?

Zach: No.

Richard Bentall: Therapy, sorry. It’s sort of brand of CBT. I mean, therapists are always trying to invent new brands of therapy which I’m not sure is always a good thing. But anyway, but there’s some interesting ideas in ACT particularly ACT therapists put a lot of emphasis on the idea that people find it very difficult to distinguish their thoughts from themselves. So you have, all of us got these thoughts going through our heads of feelings and so on, and we can become so preoccupied with them that we think they’re reality basically.

And so what ACT therapists try and do is do, one of the things they do is they try and help people to see, to distance from her thoughts with the idea that once they’ve done that, then they can actually pursue aspects of a life which are actually more important and more valuable to them. So, an ACT therapist use a lot of metaphors. So, and I did do a little bit of ACT therapy before I stopped seeing patients. It was a very new psychotherapy then but I found it quite powerful actually. So one of the metaphors will be to ask, say to the patient, well imagine your mind is a chess board and there’s black squares and white squares. But unlike a traditional chess board, it goes on forever. It stretches forever in each direction.

And there are black pieces and white pieces trying to clubber each other. The bad thoughts and the good thoughts trying to clubber each other. Unfortunately if although the white thoughts, the white pieces can win for a while, they’ll always be some more black pieces. And then the therapist says, so where do you think you are in this picture? And I can remember a patient saying to me, well, oh, I think I’m a little gray piece somewhere in the middle. And the answer is no, you’re not. You’re the chess board. The board. And that’s the point that the thoughts are not you you’re just the space where they happen.

Zach: You wrote about this related to your, something you mentioned in madness explaining which was the studies that showed that people that were more intolerant or that the strange actions of their mind bothered them more, were more likely to have issues. Getting used to the idea that our mind can do strange things and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And that’s even normal.

Richard Bentall: Yeah. So, there’s a whole psychological literature on what’s called metacognitive beliefs, which is your beliefs about your beliefs. And if you have a set of standards for your own mind, if I can put it that way, which your own mind can’t meet, then you’re going to become highly distressed. You’re going to think you’re weird, that you’re different than everybody else and your mind is completely out of control but if you accept that your mind just makes mistakes, does weird things every so often, then that pathway doesn’t have to be followed if it speaks to me.

Zach Elwood: That was the psychologist Richard Bentall, author of Madness Explained and many other respected books on psychology. If you want to know more about him, you can check out the entry for this episode on my site I’ll put some links to his work there, and some other resources related to things we talked about. 

This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. If you like this podcast, please do me a favor and recommend it to your friends and family. Helping me gain listeners is the best way you can encourage me to work more on this podcast. 

And just a reminder that I have several previous episodes that deal with mental illness and mental health. 

Thanks for listening. 


Reading tells in football, with Larry Hart

A talk with Larry Hart (Twitter: @coachlarryhart), a football coach at the University of Houston, and the author of the book The Recruit’s Playbook.

Topics discussed include: common behavioral patterns (tells) in American football that are used to get an edge on opponents and teams; reading signals that opponent coaches give to players; the importance of reviewing game tape; some red flags in the recruiting process; the mental stresses of being a professional athlete; and more.

Episode links:

Resources discussed in this episode or related to the topic:


How do we respond when our sense of meaning is threatened?, with Steven Heine

A talk with cultural psychologist Steven Heine (twitter: @StevenHeine4) about how we react to our sense of meaning being threatened. What happens when our mental framework of how the world works doesn’t hold up and things seem chaotic? What happens when our sense of what’s meaningful in our lives is threatened? A transcript is included below.

Topics discussed include: 

  • Heine et al’s Meaning Maintenance Model theory, which proposes that our need for meaning is fluid and that threats to meaning in one area can cause us to try to shore up meaning in another area
  • How ‘meaning’ is defined in this context
  • Existential crises, including mid-life crises and adolescent angst, and how those relate to threats to meaning
  • How our human need for narratives and stories relates to our need for meaning
  • How political polarization might be related to threats to meaning
  • Potentially positive aspects of threats to meaning, such as those that might be present in hallucinogenics-taking and in literature

Episode links:

Resources discussed in this episode or related to the topic:


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 If you like this podcast, please share it with your friends and family; the more listens and reviews it gets, the more I’ll be encouraged to work on it. 

I think we’d all likely agree that meaning is very important to us humans. We want to feel like we live in a stable world where certain things are associated with certain other things; we like conceptual stability; things being chaotic and unpredictable can be threatening. We also like to feel like our lives have meaning, however we define that; we like to feel like we’re engaged in things that matter. 

On this episode I talk to Steven Heine about how humans react to our sense of meaning being threatened. What happens when our mental frameworks of how the world works don’t hold up and things seem chaotic? What happens when our sense of what’s meaningful in our lives is threatened? 

Steven and his colleagues have proposed a theory they call the “meaning maintenance model”. A 2006 paper by Steven and his colleagues, Travis Proulx and Kathleen Vohs, was titled ​The meaning maintenance model: on the coherence of social motivations. I’ll quote from the abstract of that paper: 

The meaning maintenance model proposes that people have a need for meaning; that is, a need to perceive events through a prism of mental representations of expected relations that organizes their perceptions of the world. When people’s sense of meaning is threatened, they reaffirm alternative representations as a way to regain meaning-a process termed fluid compensation. According to the model, people can reaffirm meaning in domains that are different from the domain in which the threat occurred. Evidence for fluid compensation can be observed following a variety of psychological threats, including most especially threats to the self, such as self-esteem threats, feelings of uncertainty, interpersonal rejection, and mortality salience. People respond to these diverse threats in highly similar ways, which suggests that a range of psychological motivations are expressions of a singular impulse to generate and maintain a sense of meaning.

Here’s some information about Steven Heine from his professor page on the University of British Columbia website: 

He is Distinguished University Scholar and Professor of Social and Cultural Psychology at the University of British Columbia. His research has challenged key psychological assumptions in self-esteem, meaning, and the ways that people understand genetic constructs. He is the author of many journal articles and books in the fields of social and cultural psychology including Cultural Psychology, the top-selling textbook in the field. In 2016, he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. 

Steven is also currently working on a book with the working title, ‘Navigating the absurd: The science of existentialism’, to be published by the publisher Basic Books.’

In this episode, Steven and I talk about threats to meaning and how we handle that; we talk about political polarization and how that might be related to threats to meaning; we talk about existential crises, like the so-called mid-life crisis and adolescent angst; we talk about examples of threats to meaning from our own lives; we talk about the anxiety that having a lot of freedom and choice can paradoxically have for us; and we talk about the theoretically positive aspects of having one’s worldviews and meaning thrown off kilter, as can happen when things cause us to update our perceptions of the world, or, for example, with psychedelics. 

Okay here’s the talk with Steven Heine.

Zach: Hi, Steven. Thanks for coming on.

Steven: Hi, Zach. Thanks a lot for having me on.

Zach: So, in your Meaning Maintenance paper from 2006, you start out by talking about a 1949 study that involved switching the colors of playing card suits and seeing how people reacted to that. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that study and how that relates to the Meaning Maintenance Model.

Steven: Sure. That’s one of my favorite studies by Jerome Bruner and Leo Postman back in 1949. They did something very simple in the study. They showed their participants, university students, some playing cards, one after another and they just asked the people, “What card do you see?” They added a key unexpected element to the study. Beforehand, they painted over the colors on these playing cards with a very still hand so that they changed the colors of the hearts and diamonds to black and the color of the spades and clubs to red, at least for some of these cards. And it was very curious what happened when they showed people these, these anomalous cards, because the first reaction of almost everybody was that they didn’t see any anomalies. They just reported the card as they expected it to be.

So if they were shown a red six of spades, they reported it either as a red six of hearts, or as a six of black spades. And so they didn’t even see the anomaly, they just saw the cards as though they were normal. And then after continuing to show people these cards, they noticed something curious. A significant portion of their participants started to get very anxious and they seemed very distressed. They said their participants were experiencing a disruption. And one of their participants even blurted out that, “My God, I can’t tell that’s a playing card or what that is. I don’t know what a heart is. I don’t know what a spade is,” and they really seem quite distressed. And this is a curious reaction because why should people care about playing cards?

But what Jerome Bruner was interested in there was showing how people depend on these meaning frameworks for making sense of the world. That is, we have these expected associations that we expect to see in the world so that we expect diamonds are red and clubs are black, and these are really well transit associations. And so when they’re violated, this creates this distress in us. So this led us to, we include this study to introduce our idea in, uh, what we call a meaning maintenance model. And what we’re arguing there is that people have a need to maintain a sense of meaning in the world. That we’re always trying to feel that everything around us makes sense and that fits according to our expectations of what things mean. Perhaps I should just maybe offer a definition of meaning here because meaning is one of those words that’s hard to know what it means exactly.

Zach: So broad.

Steven: Yeah. And really, I think there’s two useful definitions of meaning here. But one which people usually call general meaning is that meaning is just really expected associations. That is what ideas we expect to co-occur with any kind of event or thing. So if you were to think, what does your podcast mean to you, it would be all of the ideas that, that you associate with it, or what does Joe Biden mean to you? Or what does COVID mean to you? And it’s just all of the different associations that you would have. And so really what meaning is then is these relations between ideas that we expect and we can have many, many different ideas that are associated with any given event. And these are organized into these meaning frameworks.

So in the study with the playing cards, they were taking a very simple meaning framework that playing cards, there’s 13 cards for suits to colors, knowing that those associations are so reliably seen, like you really don’t encounter black diamonds very often. That they were interested in seeing what happens when you violate this sense of meaning. And so in our model, what we are arguing is that because people are trying to maintain meaning, they become really bothered in or experience of disruption when they encounter something that seems meaningless, at least that violates the expected associations that they have with that. So we have argued that there are a few different kinds of responses that people make when this happens. Two of these responses have been very well studied in the literature, and they go back to the 1950s, for instance, 1950s, there was this Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget.

And he was interested in how little kids go about making sense of the world because in many ways the world doesn’t make much sense to a little kid because a lot of it’s very new to them. So he is interested in, well, what happens when a kid encounter something that doesn’t make sense, that is new to them? And he argued there’s two different reactions that the kids will have there. One which he calls assimilation. I prefer the term faking meaning. And this is when you encounter something that doesn’t make sense, you force it into your existing meaning framework so that it seems to make sense. And this is what happened in Jerome Bruner’s playing card study. That people didn’t see an anomaly. They would see a red six of spades as the six of hearts.

That’s how they would see it. So that’s one reaction that we see the world as we want to see it. And so we have these anomalies out there and we just force them into it so that they-

Zach: Set our model.

Steven: Exactly. And a second response he had, he calls accommodation where I prefer the term making meaning. And that if you have something that doesn’t make sense, you can then change your meaning framework. So that after seeing these playing cards where you have red spades, at some point people were like, “Oh, I understand this deck of cards includes red spades.” That they actually change their understanding of at least this particular deck of cards. So these are these two reactions that have been studied many different ways that they’ve also been studied in terms of how people make sense of traumatic life events.

When things happen to them, they undermine their existing understanding of what life is all about, and that people have to make these changes to their meaning frameworks. But the thing with the second response of making meaning is that it’s really difficult to do. It’s really time consuming and effortful to do. And this paper, 1949 paper by Jerome Bruner, it was picked up, it was noticed by this philosopher of science named Thomas Kuhn, who is interested in how scientific knowledge progresses. What he argues that when scientists have these theories and they encounter new facts that are at odds with these theories, they have to change their theories. But this isn’t something that they can easily do actually. Max Plunk once famously said that science progresses one funeral at a time.

Meaning that scientists will often die with their theories, own theories rather than update them with the new information. That we are just so dependent on these meaning frameworks that recreate, that they’re really hard to change, that we become very dependent on these being frameworks. And for scientists, their whole life might be dedicated to a particular theory that’s really hard for them to change it. So what we’re interested in our models is, well, what happens when people experience this meaning threat something that doesn’t make sense. And if they don’t have the time and resources available to make new meaning out of it, to understand it, what do they do? And what we propose here is that people seek meaning somewhere else. Then the idea is that we need to feel that things make sense.

That’s the default state we feel a need to be in. And when we don’t feel this, we have this deep sense of uncertainty. It’s deeply unsettling and, alienating, creates a lot of existential anxiety. And so what we argue is that another response when people encounter something that doesn’t make sense is that they turn to those other aspects of their life that give them meaning. So they turn to something else that makes sense and they increase their commitment to it. They double down on their existing beliefs, which ground them in another meaning framework that makes sense again. So they can return to that feeling that the world makes sense, everything’s okay. And this can be in something completely unrelated to the initial problem that they encountered. So that’s in a nutshell, what our meaning maintenance model is all about.

Zach: So is there a specific example that comes to mind from a study that is a good example of someone shoring up meaning from one threat into another arena?

Steven: Sure. My favorite study at least one that we had conducted, Travis Proulx and myself, we had conducted this study actually after we had written this paper where we are arguing that so many different psychological phenomena fit this idea that we have. Although a big challenge with our model is that it’s a very abstract model. And that there already exists other theories that have predicted these different responses that people have two meaning threats within the limits of these other theories. So just some example, theories like cognitive dissonance is a theory where when people encounter something that doesn’t make sense in their own behavior, that they change the way that they think about themselves in order for it to make sense. But we wanted to come up with a way of threatening people’s meaning that didn’t fit with any of these other existing theories.

And so we thought about it for a while, and then we thought, we are going to expose people to something that looks impossible. We’re going to expose people to a real life magic trick. What we did is we had people, they came into a lab and they were interacting with an experimenter, and they were completing some questionnaires and experimenter kept handing them the next questionnaire. And then at one moment unexpected to the participants, we swapped the experimenters just outside of their view with another person who didn’t look anything like the original person, but was wearing the exact same outfit.

Zach: Little gas lighting going on.

Steven: Exactly. Some major gas lighting going on. And remarkably, over 90% of our participants don’t notice, at least consciously notice that they’re now dealing with another person. Although from what our results show, that at some level they notice something wasn’t right. And they had this feeling that something wasn’t right, something they couldn’t make sense of. After they had this experience, we gave people this measure that’s been used in many other studies that finds that when people feel this threat to themselves, they become more likely to try to defend the status quo that is in this case here, that they want to punish someone who has broken rules with the idea that if we have rules, we expect rules to be followed. They impose a set of order on the world.

So when people are feeling unsettled here, something’s going on, I don’t know what it is, they can ground themselves again by imposing this set of order here that people who break the rules need to be punished. And that’s exactly what we found in this study. That despite that people had no conscious awareness that anything untoward, it just happened to them, they showed this reaction of wanting to punish rule breakers more. And we show this in three separate studies, it seems to be a reliable effect. And I was really this probably the study that I’ve been most excited about in my career because at the time we thought, there’s just no way this should work out. At least intuitively I don’t have any conscious awareness of ever wanting to react to things like this.

But it made sense according to our theory, and we thought we would gamble and go for it. And it worked out in this way. And the participants just, it was really quite funny how they really had no idea that this person had changed. We had one participant who came in and they actually were friends with the second experimenter, the one that they got changed into. And so we changed into the second experimenter, and the person’s like, “Oh my God, I am so out of it today. I didn’t even recognize you.” And they completely showed this faking meaning response. It’s like seeing a card for the color you assume it to be. Just assuming that-

Zach: Fit their model.

Steven: Yeah. They forced it to make sense.

Zach: So how big an effect is it there? I mean, that’s a relatively minor switch, but I’m curious how big an effect.

Steven: We see a significant change in their attitude. It’s not like a night or day change. It’s not like they’re now responding completely differently than how they normally respond. It’s, people become just a little=

Zach: A little bit more.

Steven: A little bit more. And in general, what we find is that people become a little bit more of an exaggerated version of themselves here, that they double down on their existing attitudes. And people can do it in different ways so that liberal people become super liberals after this kind of experience and conservative people become super conservative. It pushes them more in this direction that they already are in.

Zach: So when it comes to the definition of meaning, we can use meaning in a big sense as in like, our life has meaning, or we feel that we’re afraid that life is meaningless. And I’m curious how you see that as comparing to the small granular definition of meaning being having stability of one’s worldview for specific domains. Is it maybe that the big sense of meaning is the accumulation or combination of the smaller definitions of meaning?

Steven: That’s a great question. Before I was giving one definition of meaning, which is typically called general meaning. The big meaning that you’re talking to here is often called a sense of existential meaning. And I think it’s still based on the same underlying structure of expected ideas going together with the difference being that when people talk about meaning in life and existential meaning, they are connecting another set of meanings to these ideas. And these are meanings that connect us to teleological concerns that transcend our everyday lives. They connect us to ideas about having a sense of purpose is a key element in this existential meaning, to having a sense of significance that we matter in the world. And also just a sense of value, what we desire to have.

And so these are just another set of kinds of meanings, kind of ideas that we link to things. And still, I think it’s a very similar idea that when people have a crisis of meaninglessness in their lives, they’re usually talking about more of these sort of existential concerns and that people have a desire then to reestablish this set of meaning in terms of finding a way to pursue a meaningful life. And so I think it’s a similar idea that it’s just linking ideas together, but when we talk about meaning in life, it’s just these are more transcendent teleological meanings.

Zach: It’s almost like we desire this stable framework and then it’s almost like our existential sense of meaning is like ourself being part of that framework in a big sense. So it seems like there’s something about the self being part of the framework

Steven: Exactly. So I think there’s really three main kinds of meanings that we are aspiring to maintain. One is this meanings of ourselves. I want to understand who I am, why I’m doing the things that I’m doing,. We also care about the meanings in the world. We want to understand what the world is like. And then we want to understand our place within that world, how we fit in that world, how ourselves fit into that world. And we are trying to maintain these key sources of meaning as we aspire for a meaningful life.

Zach: So there could be that the so-called existential crises of various some so-called midlife crises might be one type of that, another might be adolescent angst. How do you see these kinds of crises relating to the threats to meaning?

Steven: Yes. So I think as we go about living our lives that we sometimes encounter these events in our life that just really threaten the sense of meaning. And it’s quite common for people to experience those two key times in life that you just brought up. And so adolescent angst is what I think is the existential crisis that people have at a young age in adolescence or early adulthood. And I’m a cultural psychologist by trade. In addition to studying meaning, I’m interested in how cultures vary in the ways that they go about trying to find meaning in their lives. And one striking finding from the anthropological literature is that this idea of adolescent angst is not a cultural universal by any means. And in most small scale societies, they don’t have this idea that adolescent is a time of chaos and turbulence.

Every society recognizes adolescence as a distinct phase in life. But the idea that it’s a turbulent, chaotic time of a lot of angst is not by any means universal. The kinds of cultures that have more of this adolescent angst are those that are more industrialized individualistic societies where people have a lot of different options about the kind of life they’re going to lead. And in adolescence, this is when you have this first existential crisis, potential existential crisis is trying to figure out what life am I going to lead? And when you have lots of options, it can be overwhelming, and trying to figure out what is the right life that I’m gonna lead. And people might try various sorts of things. People in small scale societies at least in terms of what they’re going to do for a career, this is not something that they have a lot of options. They’re going to do what their parents did and what everyone else in their society does. It’s not something they have to figure out. If you’re from a small scale farming society, what are you gonna do with your life? You’re going to farm? That’s like really the only option. But in individualistic, industrialized societies, what are you going to do with your life while there are so many different possibilities that people can pursue, and in trying to figure out this, what life am I going to lead, that adolescents go through a great deal of angst as they try to figure this out. And this has been getting worse over time as this period of adolescence has been expanding, this period of time when people are in this preparatory phase in life.

Now call it emerging adulthood or failure to launch. And the idea that people are now in their 20s or even into their 30s, still haven’t really figured out what life it is that they’re going to lead. And if you look at that, there’s some common benchmarks that have been used for what is achieving adulthood. And it’s things like finishing your training and education, getting a secure position, moving out of your parents’ home, getting your own place, getting married and having kids, although these last two maybe aren’t universally pursued anymore. And those have just been getting later and later as time goes on, and people are in this longer period of this existential angst where they’re trying to figure out what life are they going to lead.

Zach: Yeah. I’ve heard that referred to as the paradox of choice, that there was a book called The Paradox of Choice that talked about that idea. And I can definitely feel that in my life where we just have so much choice and freedom to make decisions about where are you gonna live? What kind of job are you going to pursue? Who are you going to date? All these kinds of choices. And that can be stressful. Freedom is a stressful thing.

Steven: Yeah. This is something that the original existential philosophers used to talk a lot about. So, like John Paul Sartre would say that life is the choices that you make and that it’s up to you to figure out what kind of life to live. And that sounds exhilarating. So many different choices. I get to choose, that’s so exciting. But at the same time, we’re responsible for all of the choices that we make then. We’re responsible for the life that we lead. And that brings with it a lot of anxiety. And I think if you go back in western history in the past, back to the medieval era, there really weren’t nearly as many choices to be made. That people would largely inherit the occupation of their parents.

That that was really quite common. Arranged marriages were still quite common in Europe and elsewhere around the world. So you didn’t who am I going to spend my life with? And also in at least much of Europe, there wasn’t really much of a competing sense of which God should you worship. It was kind of the town virtually everyone shared the same religion. You didn’t have to figure that out. And now people have to figure out what career, there’s thousands of different possible careers. They’re trying to find a partner and they’re on apps with, again, thousands of different options, so many different ways of getting it wrong. And society has been secularizing in a way that people are turning away from traditional religions.

But interestingly, they’re not that many of them are turning towards atheism. That’s increasing a little bit. What’s increasing the most though is people are becoming what they call spiritual but not religious, where they’re creating their own spiritual set of beliefs, This smorgasboard approach to the hereafter that I’m going to believe in horoscopes maybe and maybe some crystals, maybe I’ll meditate, maybe some yoga, that people will have this potpourri collection of different spiritual concerns. And again, it’s just like all the more things that people are responsible for, that they’re responsible for all these different aspects of our lives, and now they’re even responsible for the hereafter that they are choosing the path that they are going to take. And this brings with it just a huge amount of responsibility and what comes with that is this existential anxiety.

Zach: Do you think it’s true that by having all these choices, it’s almost like we’re drawn to the fact of how arbitrary our choices are and that can feel like a threat to meaning of sensing that ?

Steven: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. I mean, I often look back at life choices I made. So my own adolescent angst experience or existential crisis that I had, it was when I was 19 years old and I had started off at university as a business student. And I lucked out at the age of 19. I got this great internship through this international exchange program where I got to work for a marketing company in Helsinki, Finland. And this had been at that time my dream job. I thought I want to get into this international marketing, and I’m so lucky to have this. And anyways, once I had this job, I immediately had this very strong feeling that this isn’t the right job for me. And I switched to psychology at that point, and I often look back, think, well, what if I hadn’t done that switch that the whole life path that I have been on since then would be changed. I have a very different career. I have a different social network. I would have many more business friends, and now I have more professor friends. I wouldn’t have met my wife. I would probably end up living in a different place. It’s this one decision and I’m living a very different life. And that’s kind of, uh, unsettling to think about sometimes. I mean, how many of these decisions are we making in life?

Zach: What does it mean? What does it all mean?

Steven: Exactly.

Zach: So I’m curious if you have examples from your personal life that you see as related to the Meaning Maintenance Model. And I could give a few examples if you want, but I’m curious if some come to mind for you examples of maybe having meaning threatened in one sphere and then ensuring it up in another.

Steven: Yeah. Well, one example for my own life is when I had my second existential crisis, which was my midlife crisis which I had at 48, and I got divorced. That’s a very unsettling time when life as I knew it– all the different aspects of my life– I’ve interpreted through the lens of being married to this particular person. So that was all very upended. And what I recognized that I was doing a lot of in the immediate aftermath of that was I had become a lot more nostalgic. I found myself visiting a lot of places from my past and reflecting on all these memories from my past. And my reactions actually are not unusual at all. This is a very common reaction that people have when they’re feeling that their lives are disrupted. They seek out nostalgia, and I think what nostalgia does here is that it restores a sense of meaning because you’re reflecting on your life story on who you are as a person and these different events that you had in your past that are part of you and are part of the reason that you became the person that you are today. That’s what you find is that when people are feeling, if they’re feeling lonelier or if they’re just feeling anxious or they’re feeling a little meaningless, they become a little more nostalgic. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that right now it said that we’re living in the age of nostalgia, again that everything is retro. We see this on movies that are coming out. There a lot of remakes of movies in the past, whether it be things like Ghostbusters or things like Stranger Things isn’t a remake, but a big part of the show is the setting of the ’80s and revisiting this. I think people are quite anxious these days. This is an anxious time. This is one thing that we’re collectively doing is turning to the past. And in doing so, reflecting on these earlier chapters of our life story.

Zach: A small note here, in a previous episode, I talked to Jannine Lasaleta about the psychological factors involved in nostalgia. We examined why it is that nostalgia is so powerful and why we find it so meaningful. One thing we examined was how our feelings of nostalgia can make us more carefree with our money. That being one reason, companies like to try to use nostalgia in their advertising. Okay, back to the interview. 

For examples from my life, because I can definitely feel the things you talk about in my life. One example was similar to yours. If I’ve had an argument with my wife or if I feel socially isolated for some other reason, I can feel a desire to shift from social things to more intellectual pursuits. It is a need to compensate and put my sense of meaning in other things a little bit. Then the vice versa, if I feel like I’m not doing much on these intellectual pursuits or I feel like I’ve made a mistake or if I feel like I don’t really have a sense of community there, I’ll go back the other way and focus more on social things and… That’s just an example of how we can switch our focus of where we get our sense of meaning from, of what’s important throughout our lives, and even throughout the week or whatever. 

Steven: Exactly. Those are great examples of it. We just need to feel that life has meaning. We can get that through many different ways. It’s just what current thoughts are in our head, that our current thoughts we want to make sense and be some aspect of ourselves that give our lives meaning. That can be satisfied by so many different ways. People are all unique. They all have these unique meaning frameworks, unique things that give their lives meaning. So people turn to different things when they’re confronting these challenges of life.

Zach: Am I understanding correctly that would set your model, your theory apart from some other comparable theories is you’re focusing on the fluidity and the equal nature of where people can find their meaning, that it’s very fluid? Was I getting that right?

Steven: I think what our model is showing is that people can respond to a meaning threat in a very fluid way by turning to a very different domain of life. You don’t have to… For instance, there’s theories about needing belongingness and what a lot of findings show that when people feel lonely so that their belongingness is threatened, they try to seek out other relationships as a way of responding to that perceived lack of interpersonal connection. I think that’s very true that people definitely do that. 

But what we’re showing is that you can satisfy the underlying need for meaning that’s been disrupted by feeling lonelier interpersonal rejection by turning to something completely different, something that gives you feelings of certainty in some other areas or something that just reflects on core aspects of yourself. You can affirm yourself. You can dispel those bothersome feelings that originated from feeling intrapersonal rejection. It originated in this one specific domain, but can be tackled by a very different domain. Yes, that’s what’s unique about our theory.

Zach: A small note here, the meaning maintenance model has been compared to terror management theory, which is a theory that posits that our existential fears around death and mortality play a big role in our behavior and our desire to form meaning. The fluid of the aspect of the meaning maintenance model is one thing that makes it unique and sets it apart. If you’d like to read more about that, I’d recommend reading the Wikipedia entry for terror management theory. It mentions the meaning maintenance model there and how it relates. Also, Steven Heine and his colleagues this year did an analysis of the terror management literature. Back to the interview. 

So when I was young, a young man, I had some serious mental struggles. So I’ve spent a good amount of time thinking about these kinds of topics and about how we build narratives and stories as ways to create meaning in our lives in a kind of way that’s taken for granted. Because we have these underlying narratives about our place in the world that we don’t really examine that allow us to lead so-called normal or functional lives, these narratives around who we are and our relationship to the world, our relationship to others. One thing that strikes me there is it just seems like there’s so many different kinds of stories we can create. There’s almost no limit on the kinds of stories humans can create because we are such storytellers. That’s such a part of who we are. 

I see that as related to the meaning maintenance model ideas in the sense that we can construct so many narratives that give us stability about our place in the world. It’s almost like there’s multiple solutions and a game theory sense of forming different narratives that allow us to feel comfortable and not just swimming in constant chaos and anxiety. We all have that as a major goal to reach that kind of stability and not feel anxious. So I’m curious what you think of all that? Do you see our drive to construct stories and narratives as related to our drive to construct meaning?

Steven: Yes, that’s a great point. I definitely think so. And that these meaning frameworks that we have about the world get can get very complex or the ones that we have about herself get very complex. They often can have some contradictory parts of, if you just think of like who am I, and you realize that well, okay, yesterday I was with my college friends and was acting quite silly. Then today I was at work and acting quite professional. Then I was driving and I was screaming obscenities at the passenger in the car beside me because he cut me off. 

Looking at this, you’ll see, well, what is the common thread here that don’t seem to be very consistent, or even just comparing me now versus when I was in high school or yesterday, I was dead set on losing some weight, but today I’m sitting in front of the TV with some Haagen-Dazs. 

In many ways, we’re not very consistent. I think this is the key value of stories here that we rely on to organize this information about ourselves and about our world that I think there’s a lot of theories in psychology that emphasizes that we experience the world through stories, that we have a story about who we are and we have stories about what the world is like. The nice thing about the stories is that they can simplify, they can connect all these disparate parts together that we can edit our stories, erase the parts that don’t fit in so well and make things fit a certain theme. I think then that people really try to defend these stories, like we’re committed to the stories, like this is who I am, like I’m committed to this idea. 

So yeah, if you encounter something that’s at odds with that, well, you need to defend your story and you need to focus on another aspect of your life story that fits with this theme that you think captures the real you. Yeah, I think we’re doing this.

But when we tell stories about ourselves and when we’re telling stories about the world like what is the world like, we are telling the story and we want it to be consistent. What’s remarkable is just how different people’s stories can be. If you just think like, what are people’s stories about the COVID pandemic? Some people see this as this is a huge threat to their wellbeing and their loved ones and a big challenge to society. Other people think this is all overblown or this is a hoax or billionaires are trying to control us by putting microchips in us. 

People have a story that is trying to connect these different events that are happening to us. Even though really, you would think it’s the same events that are happening in the world, at some level there must be some objective reality. But we perceive these events through the lenses of the story that we’re telling them. We tell very different stories, but we want our stories to be consistent. When you encounter new information, it’s got to be find a way to weave that into the story that we’re telling.

Zach: I focused a good amount on the podcast on us versus them political polarization and one thing that strikes me in that area that seems underexamined is how stressful it can be to have big conflicts and big differences and how we perceive reality and our narratives. Aside from the more obvious and superficial aspects of disagreeing with people and arguing over important topics, I think there’s this more fundamental anxiety around the meaning maintenance type ideas that we look around and we see others around us, our neighbors, the other people in our society is believing such vastly different things and just the knowledge that we see that meaning can be so hard to establish, that reality can be so hard to agree upon. It can be existentially stressful for the reasons that we’ve talked about. It’s like the cards having a different color, but on a really large scale we look around and we just perceive this kind of chaos of meaning around us. 

That to me, it strikes me that that can be feeding into the polarization in the sense that that threat to meaning that we perceive can make us really want to double down on our ideas and be like, oh, we’re going to decide this once and for all. This is the narrative and this is the right narrative. And we latch more strongly on to our narratives and such. That adds to the depolarization session. I’m curious if you agree with that playing a role in the polarization cycle.

Steven: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. I think that this is one underappreciated cost of polarization. Polarization makes it hard to govern. It can lead to violence. There’s a lot of discussion of the familiar parts about it. But I think just as you were saying here that the fact that we don’t all share the same story about things, in some ways we’re not really living in the same shared reality anymore, that this can be really undermining for us. It’s because we want to feel certain, we want to feel that our understanding of the world is right so that way we feel that we can predict things and we can have control over things and we can act effectively. But we never really know what’s right and what’s true. We don’t have any direct access to that, so we have to infer it. 

One thing that makes us feel much more confident that our stories are right is when everyone around us agrees with us. If it’s like if everyone’s agreeing that this is the way things are, then you feel much more certain, I’ve got it all figured out. My understanding of the world is right. I know how to act. I know the rules of the game. I know what I need to do. But when we find out that half of the country has a completely different story for what’s going on, that the stories don’t overlap much at all. And so, here we are trying to feel a sense that yes, I know what’s happening. I know what to do in the world. Now it’s just being undermined by the fact that these other people are saying the exact opposite of what I’m saying. How can I be so sure that I’m right when half the country says the opposite? I think this is contributing to this level of uncertainty and anxiety that’s in the world today. 

This polarization here, which it’s been especially increasing in the US, there’s a number of different ways of measuring polarization so that the US in particular showed this big jump lately, and I think this is contributing to all of the tensions and the underlying anxieties that people are experiencing.

Zach: A note here, if you’re interested in learning more about polarization and how it’s been increasing in the world, the episode before this one was a talk about that. Back to the interview. 

I’m curious if you have any thoughts about how these ideas map over to mental illness. For example, it’s known that immigrants have higher rates of mental illness than average. This can be seen to relate maybe to meaning maintenance ideas and that it can be harder for immigrants to construct meaning in a pretty alien environment, they’re more aware of the kind of the chaos and the conflict conflicts and meaning than other people are who live in more than the social majority, culture and such. I’m curious if you have any thoughts you’d care to share about mapping over of those two things. 

Steven: Yeah, I think immigrants are often experiencing another kind of existential crisis. As a cultural psychologist, my field has a slogan or a mantra that says culture itself make each other up. It’s the idea that we live in this ecology of cultural meanings that tell us what is valued, what is appropriate, what is forbidden, what is tolerated. These are the norms that we live in. And that shapes our psychology. It shapes the way that we perceive the world make sense of it and try to work towards leading a satisfying and meaningful life. 

The challenge that immigrants face is that their selves have been shaped by one particular culture, and then they move to another different cultural framework where the meanings around them can be really quite different and they’re no longer a good match, their self is no longer a good match for the cultural environment around them. They go through what is termed culture shock is the experience that people go through, this distressing experience after they’ve moved to a new place that can persist for up to a few years, this period where one really isn’t a good match with the cultural meanings around one. 

This is something that’s very alienating and it creates a lot of distress so that immigrants have more health problems while they’re going through this culture shock period. This is like undermining their physical health and undermining their mental health. It’s only over time where they self-adjust to this new set of meanings that they are living with that they get over this this period of culture shock. 

The amount of culture shock that an immigrant experiences, one thing that predicts it is just how different are the two cultures that they are moving between. That if you’re moving between two of similar cultures, it’s not that hard to learn this new meaning framework. But if you’re moving between two very different cultures that differ in many aspects, then this is particularly challenging and people from more distant cultures have had more of this culture shock.

Zach: Yeah, they also say that kids who move around a good amount when they’re young are more likely to have emotional and psychological issues, and that seems related to that too. I can just imagine… Well, I definitely remember one of my psychological issues started when I had a panic attack on my first day of high school because I went to basically a new high school system with new people. Then also in college, the stress of going to college and new people and new environment, those are all stressful situations that force us to have to build up new sets of meanings and [inaudible].

Steven: Yeah, those kinds of transitions can create a lot of distress. Mental illness is more likely to be experienced when people are going through the kinds of anxieties that come from experiencing these meaning threats, that if people are feeling that their life doesn’t really make much sense, if people are feeling that their life is low in that sense of meaning, these people are more vulnerable to depression and anxiety and substance abuse and self-harm, that there’s real consequences, there’s a lot on the line for feeling that you’re living a meaningful life. These kinds of big transitions like that are the kinds of things that can pose some challenges for us. 

Zach: When it comes to the best reading you’d recommend for people who want to dig into these concepts more, what would you recommend? Maybe your 2006 paper or what else?

Steven: Yes, in addition to our 2006 paper, I like a 2010 paper that I wrote with Travis Proulx called The Frog in Kierkegaard’s Beer. This paper, the title of it is referring to this observation by Kierkegaard who is contrasting experience of death with the surprise that you would feel if you were drinking a beer and you would discover a live frog in it, just it’s exactly that it’s the same kind of thing, this thing that we can’t fully process and make sense of. Anyways, in that paper we describe a slightly more up to date version of our meaning maintenance model. 

I also like a paper also done with Travis Proulx in 2009 called Connections from Kafka where we were exploring how when people feel threats to their meaning, including by reading surreal stories that don’t make sense. Kafka was a master at that like eliciting this very alienating feeling of like what is going on, that people are primed to seek out meaning and they can actually learn new things a little better, that they pick up on some patterns that they are less likely to detect when they’re not feeling this sense of meaninglessness. 

I’m working on a book right now. It’s not going to be out for another… It’s supposed to be out next year. It’s supposed to be done next year. I’ll need a good tailwind to finish it then. The working title is called Navigating the Absurd: The Science of Existentialism, where I’m exploring really the kind of ideas we’ve been talking about here in this podcast, just how this desire for meaning that we have, how it shapes the ways that we interact with the world and that we try to make sense of things, try to make sense of ourself and we try to pursue a meaningful life.

Zach: Yeah, that you get on the subject of literature changing our worldview and using these meaning threatening situations and narratives to make us see the world in new ways. There’s positive aspects of that. For example, that’s why people like one of the benefits of hallucinogenics is breaking up people’s way of seeing the world and making them see it in new ways. Also on art, like you mentioned Kafka, I think of Flannery O’Connor. One of her things was trying to have these shocking endings to some of her short stories that would make people see the world in a different way. She had a religious goal there because she was Catholic, but the same idea applied where she was basically trying to threaten their meaning a bit and make them see the world as the mysterious and the mind-blowing thing it was in that sense.

Steven: Yeah. Well, I do think art is an especially powerful way for eliciting this feeling, the feeling that we get when things don’t make sense. I like to label that feeling the uncanny, it’s something that Flannery called it too. It’s often described as a feeling of the unfamiliar familiar so that you’re sensing something that feels normal, but there’s something not quite right. This is what the surrealists I think did this especially well, paintings by like René Magritte or Salvador Dali, films like David Lynch, and it was especially good at eliciting this feeling. I think art is just so good at eliciting this emotional reaction. Really, I think it’s stemming from the emotion that we get, that feeling that something’s not right and that’s prompting this. 

Your point about hallucinogenic drugs I think is a great one there. Now it looks like some of these drugs are going to be approved it looks like FDA approval for use in therapy. Why there’s so much excitement around them is because they really do seem to be able to have this enduring change of how you make sense of your life, how you make sense of your world. The existing kinds of meds that people are prescribed when they’re facing mental illness challenges are ones that you need to be regularly taking, these antidepressants that you need to take every day to help people to function at their best. 

Whereas these initial trials that are coming out of these studies with the psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin and LSD and MDMA and ketamine that people are having these lasting changes from having this one very intense experience when they I think are connecting themselves to some new transcendent concerns that they hadn’t realized before. And they are perceiving their life differently. And they have memories for those, that those seem to have provide some lasting changes. So there’s a lot of excitement about the potential that these drugs have in helping people to cope with the many challenges that this new era of anxiety is throwing at us. 

Zach: Yeah, I think the interesting thing about the threats to meaning is it can be negative, of course, but there’s also an excitement and a mystery about it because it opens up these new ways of viewing the world as exciting and mysterious and strange. That can have a negative, you can view that negatively or as scary or you can view it on the other side of the coin as that’s exciting, that’s making the world a wild place now in ways that it wasn’t before for some people. So there’s different sides of the threat demeaning coin, I guess.

Steven: Right, yeah. I think that’s why it’s important that that these new therapies are being conducted in a therapeutic context where there is someone there to help lead people through their experience. Because there is some risk to people just that they talk about in a certain matter a great deal when people are exploring with these psychedelic drugs that if they’re in the wrong mindset, it can be a very frightening devastating experience. So it can go both ways. That’s why I think that all of these trials that are going on are, together with using the context of a guide, [crosstalk] through.

Zach: Yeah, bad trips are a real thing. Okay, well, this has been great. Steven, thanks a lot for your time and I appreciate you coming on.

Steven: All right. Thanks a lot for having me. It was a lot of fun.

Zach: That was professor Steven Heine talking about the meaning maintenance model. 

One of the big takeaways for me in examining this research is how threats to meaning might make us cling more to the status quo: in other words, threats to meaning can make us more intolerant of those who violate the rules of our group, and make us cling more closely to the rules and stereotypical traits of our group. The reason I initially found Steven’s research was that I was interested in that exact idea: how extreme polarization, in making it more apparent just how much our perceptions of reality can diverge from our neighbors, can make us want to cling more strongly to our group’s narratives, and how that itself can be an amplifying effect on polarization. And if you want to read more on that idea, Steven and his colleagues’ 2006 paper on the meaning maintenance model goes into more detail on how threats to meaning can be related to people’s attempts to reinforce their group identity. 

I want to thank Matthew Hornsey, who’s a group psychology researcher and who I interviewed in a previous episode. He answered some questions I had about this topic, and gave me some links to papers that eventually led to me reaching out to Steven Heine. 

If you enjoyed this podcast, I’d recommend checking out some other episodes I have on some related topics. For example, one episode is a talk with existential psychologist Kirk Schneider, and in that one we talk about how the strangeness and mystery of existence can affect us psychologically, and how that might relate to our political conflicts. 

For more information about this podcast, go to I have entries for the episodes that include links to papers and other resources we talk about. 

If you like this podcast, please share it with your friends and family. The more people listen to it, the more I’m encouraged to do more interviews. 

Thanks for listening,


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. Transcript is included below.

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.

Episode links:

Resources discussed in this episode or related to the topic:


Zach: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding other people, and better understanding ourselves. To learn more about this podcast, go to If you like this podcast, please share it with your friends and family; that would be hugely appreciated, because the more listens it gets, the more I’m encouraged to do more episodes.

Did you know that research shows that most countries have been growing increasingly polarized since 2005? For this episode, I talk with Andrew O’Donohue about polarization, with a focus on how polarization plays out across the world in various countries, and on the psychological drivers behind polarization. 

If you’re someone who wonders how a divided country might be able to heal, or if you’re someone who is skeptical or uncertain if polarization is really a big problem, I hope you give this episode a listen. I think these are very important topics; to me, they’re literally the most important topics we could be talking about. 

I’d also say if you enjoy this podcast, I have quite a few other episodes on polarization-related topics. If you go to my website and look for the post for this episode, you’ll see links to those episodes and other resources related to this topic. 

Andrew O’Donohue is a political scientist known for his research and writing on polarization and the challenges facing democracy. He is the Carl J. Friedrich Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate in the Government Department at Harvard University, as well as National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. His book, Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization, looks at why divisions have deepened in numerous democracies and what can be done to heal them. Previously, he was a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

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

Regarding Andrew’s book Democracies Divided: I interviewed Andrew’s co-author, Thomas Carothers, for this podcast about some similar topics, with more of a focus on what leads to democracy breakdown and authoritarian regimes. So if you enjoy this talk, you will probably enjoy that earlier one. 

Okay, here’s the interview with Andrew O’Donohue.

Hi, Andrew. Thanks for coming on.

Andrew: Hi, Zach. Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Zach: So I’ve talked a good amount about polarization in this podcast in the past, but maybe a good starting point for people who don’t have that context would be to try to define what we mean by polarization, because there can be different categories of polarization such as ideological and then more emotional us versus them polarization. Then there can be the point that some amount of polarization is normal and even helpful in many cases because it’s normal to disagree and things like that. So would you be up for explaining a bit about the usual context and meaning when people talk about extreme polarization being a problem?

Andrew: I think this is the perfect place to start because one thing that I think is really crucial to understand about polarization is that in many ways it’s a Goldilocks problem. So on the one hand as you pointed out, you can actually have too little polarization. And I think one thing that surprises many people is that in the 1950s, the American Political Scientist Association– a group of political scientists– came out and said the main problem with American political parties is they’re not polarized enough. So, as you pointed out, one essential feature of a democracy is that citizens need to be given meaningful choices. And so I think the key place to start is that on the one hand, you do need a certain amount of policy or programmatic differentiation between the parties. But on the other hand, where polarization becomes really dangerous and often deadly for democracy is when polarization takes on an affective dimension. And by affective, I mean a really emotional basis that’s rooted in people’s social identities; a feeling not just that I disagree with the other side, but that I hate the other side, that I wouldn’t want to be friends with someone from the other side. Then that, I think, is when we think about polarization that can be deadly to democracy, the polarization that tips into this, the category of too much polarization.

Zach: So I’m someone who believes that the effect of the emotion-based us versus them polarization is the biggest problem we face. And I’d say not just in America, but across the world. I just see us humans as having such a huge flaw on our psychology that makes us so often come to hate each other and see each other in distorted ways and it becomes this cycle that so often happens. And I see it as not just dangerous on its own and how it leads to violence and wars, but also it makes us spend all of our energy and focus on these fights and creates this gridlock that prevents us from solving other serious problems that are huge threats. But there are many people who don’t see polarization as a problem, and some of those people will even scoff that it’s a problem at all. Some of those people will have views like, “Well, of course we’re polarized. The other side is just so horrible and we can’t bargain with those people or negotiate with them.” That view is a pretty common one I hear from people on both sides and that’s just the nature of polarization. And some of those people are very polarized. Some of those people want a lot more polarization who they feel like they’re in a good versus evil war. They really view the other side with moral scorn and a lot of hatred and fear. And then there’s other people that simply just aren’t aware that there’s anything that unusual going on, and that kind of response from them would be something like, “Well, we’ve always been divided. It’s not as bad as people think.” And imagine that you’ve heard all sorts of these types of arguments that get in the way of people acknowledging or thinking about polarization as a problem. And I’m curious, is there an elevator pitch that you have about why should people care about polarization, especially for the people that think the other side is bad so polarization’s not a problem, it’s not our problem.

Andrew: I think that one of the key insights that we came away with and here I’m drawing on a book project that I did with my co-editor, Tom Carothers, is that polarization often takes on a life of its own and becomes self-reinforcing and escalates much faster than people might expect. So to start with the people who say polarization is not really a problem, I think that what that perspective often misses is that polarization often becomes this intensely escalating cycle where tit for tat gestures escalate beyond what people ever intended. That what was once a normal partisan battle can escalate to the point where democratic institutions, societal cohesion is under threat and even political violence begins to break out. And that once this cycle of polarization begins, it’s extremely difficult to reign in once you have episodes of political violence.

We’ve seen this in the United States, but also in other places like Kenya in 2007, India today, it’s extremely hard to get polarization on check. So I would say to those people, the polarization is almost like a forest fire, that it can grow out of proportion extremely quickly. To those who say that the other side is so horrible that no redemption is possible and that this is a good versus an evil struggle, I think there are really two key problems with that view. And the first is that that ignores the possibility of working with people who are on the other side, who are willing to work with you, the people in the United States, for example, that we might see as Liz Cheneys or Joe Manchins. But there are genuinely certain people who occupy a center position and that often working with those people, they casting it as a good versus evil struggle, ignores the possibility of collaborating with those people.

But secondly, I think that another problem is that when that kind of polarization sets in, you often find that the dynamics within one side become toxic in themselves. The people are afraid to call out the people that they sort see are leading their side and they become willing to tolerate undemocratic behavior even by the person on their side in the name of sticking it to the other side, beating the other side at all costs. And I think a really interesting study of this was done by two political scientistsMatt Graham and Milan Svolik from Yale, and they find that when candidates are very starkly polarized on the ballot, ordinary Americans are willing to vote for politicians who enforce decidedly anti-democratic positions. And it’s because they see themselves as locked in a struggle versus good and evil, and because they think I need to vote for my side because the other side is even worse. So I think that the key problem is that that good versus legal relationship can lead to you even excusing a certain amount of evil behavior or anti-democratic behavior to be more precise from its own side.

Zach: And one argument I make about polarization in trying to get people to see it as a big problem is that seeing it as a problem doesn’t mean you can’t work very hard towards a political goal. And it doesn’t mean you can’t criticize people who you think are doing bad things. I think for many people they think that acknowledging polarization as a problem somehow hurts them noodles then in some way, makes them weaker or makes them forced to negotiate in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. But I think the big point there is that you can still work very hard towards a political goal, but it’s about recognizing the divides of us versus them language that really plays a role in these dynamics. And I’m curious if you would agree there that it’s about seeing how the language we use and especially about the entire other group and like you mentioned, the distorted views we can have of conflating everybody in the other group as being all the same as the worst people in that group and how that plays into the dynamics and makes the other group more angry and so on part of that cycle. So I’m curious, do you think I’m getting at a good point there that it’s about focusing on how we contribute with our language to these divides?

Andrew: I think that’s a great point and that often the framing of these debates is part of what makes issues that otherwise would not be extremely polarizing, quite polarizing. But I think that this is one thing that is difficult is that often for ordinary citizens, the framing of these debates feels like it can be outside of our control. And part of that is because political leaders in many ways set the agenda and set the agenda deliberately in terms of stark us versus the minor race because they know that that is effective towards rallying their political base, rallying political support, making their side feel like they’re under attack. So I agree that I think a lot of it is, and in many ways it’s often possible to reach consensus on certain issues by avoiding that us versus them framing. But part of the problem is that political incentives often lead politicians to frame it in us versus them terms on a very narrow basis as a matter of political survival more than it is about achieving a concrete policy goal.

Zach: Right. I think that’s a good point about the leaders, the people that can either be the most polarized people in the group, the political leads, or else they’re trying to to use polarization, harness it for their own power and such or to get things done. I think it can be important to separate how we talk about our fellow citizens from how we talk about the political leaders or specific people. And I think that’s a big part of how our language plays into this because, for example, say we’re angry at Trump and we speak in ways that insult the entire other group and vice versa too for both groups we speak in. And so these people, the people that are amplifying the polarization are really in the midst of the us versus them battle can make us speak in ways that insult the entire other group which leads into these vicious cycles of us versus them thinking.

Andrew: Absolutely.

Zach: And one specific example that came to mind for that, I was reading a book aimed at healing America and aimed at depolarization by David Blankenhorn, who was the co-founder of the depolarization group, Braver Angels. He also happens to be a scholar of Abraham Lincoln. And in that bookwhich I can’t actually remember, I think it’s called something about our better angels, our bravery angels, the book title, but he talks about how Abraham Lincoln, even when he made very forceful choices, very hard, tough choices, he never used dehumanizing language about his political opponents. And Blankenhorn gives examples of that about how even in the midst of that extreme conflict, he was always cognizant to speak, attempt to appeal to make rational arguments, make persuasive arguments, and not dehumanize his opponents before and during the Civil War. So I thought that was a really interesting example of what the point is here. It’s not like you can’t make tough decisions and work hard towards things, but it’s about recognizing how your rhetoric and the way you behave and speak about the entire other group really play into these things. And I’m curious if you think that’s a good example.

Andrew: I think that the evidence is extremely strongly supportive of this idea that both political rhetoric matters, but also the media of communication makes a huge difference too. So to start with the first point about Lincoln, I think unfortunately what we’re seeing right now is the precise opposite or the mirror image. So in one case study that we conducted in this book, Democracies Divided on polarization globally, we looked at the case of polling and what we saw was that when the ruling Law and Justice party, a populist right wing party, chose to make immigration one of their major campaign issues and started really digging in on an antimigrant message. Public opinion polling on immigration just changed almost overnight. I think that resistance to refugees increased by 30% points in the span of a few months. So the key thing here is that often these attitudes are extremely malleable and that political leaders who whip up antagonism or often hatred against minority groups, end up changing people’s attitudes very quickly. But the second thing is that, as we know, these political messages aren’t just being communicated in a vacuum. So I think there’s certain media that actually lend themselves very well in the modern era to depolarization and to your credit, I think podcasting is one of them. There’s not really, in the same way that you could have a clickbaity headline, it’s very rare to have a clickbaity podcast because we’re getting into these issues and they’re nuanced. Of course, they’re, but the problem is that oftenand this will be a familiar argument to youis that social media organizations often amplify the most divisive or angry or emotive messages. And we’ve seen this in studies where people are actually randomly assigned to delete their Facebook. They’re paid to delete their Facebook. And what we find is that these individuals, they become less polarized just by virtue of having been assigned to delete their social media. What’s interesting too is that they also become less informed because they no longer can rely on Facebook as a source of information, for example. But so I think that the other key change from Lincoln Zero is that the incentives are all structured the wrong way to reward in many ways this polarizing rhetoric.

Zach: That’s a good point about how quickly the views in society can change. It’s almost as if once we have a certain level of us versus them feelings in a society, it’s almost like things can change overnight as far as how that emotion is expressed, which helps explain why things can change so quickly because it’s just such a turbulent environment. So it’s like, look over here, here’s another thing for you to be polarized around. One big obstacle I’ve seen when it comes to polarization and the people who don’t want to consider it as a problem, or even offended that people talk about polarization as a problem, I think people will feel threatened by that because the implication is that there’s something for both sides to work on in a polarized environment that you’re basically acknowledging that both sides can be contributing. And when you do that,it feels like you’re helping the other side or hurting your side. So when attempting to talk about polarization, you’ll hear a lot of criticisms like that’s a false equivalency. You’re making a both sides argument. One side is much worse, that you can’t compare these groups. So even trying to talk about polarization can trigger these tribal emotions and it seems like polarization creates an environment where it’s hard to even talk about polarization. And I see that as the reason polarization is just so hard to combat despite it being so ubiquitous throughout history and throughout the world. Currently, it’s like our tribal instincts make us unsuited to even talk about the underlying emotional causes out of fear of hurting our side or helping the other side. And an argument I’ve made for that is to try to overcome that obstacle is that you can continue thinking one side is much worse than your group while still believing and trying to see how us versus them polarization is a problem and thinking about how these things contribute and thinking about how to reduce it. So I’m curious if you would agree with all that or have anything to add there.

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Andrew: Well, I do think that one thing that is a background condition is really crucial, and that even before we talk about this issue of the blame game, both sides do need to factually agree that polarization is a problem. And sometimes that’s not even possible. So in the case of Turkey today, an extremely polarized society where a very illiberal president, Tayyip Erdoğan, has relentlessly polarized society in particular through tactics of repression. One major problem is that his supporters,specially parliamentarians politicians, systematically deny that there is polarization in Turkey society. And they say, this is just the opposition complaining, but there is no polarization. And in those kinds of situations, it’s extremely hard for any reform to occur that in cases where you are actually able to make progress on polarization, often unfortunately there needs to be some cataclysmic event that leads both sides to just shake out of it, like a fever for the fever to break. One example of this that we looked at in the book is Kenya after the election violence in 2007, which killed more than 1,000 people, where civil society, parties from both sides got together in a really serious way to draft the 2010 Constitution, which has not been perfect, but has created some institutions in Kenya as in particular really powerful Supreme Court to moderate that violence and to moderate that polarization. To your point though, I do think that you’re very right that both sides often end up playing the blame game and trying to prove that the other side is at fault, but that that’s really not a path that leads to anywhere productive. In the first place, it’s almost impossible to get politicians to admit that they’re at fault. They have no incentive to do so. But second, when you make the argument that the other side is the one to blame,ften you end up giving up hope that there are people on the other side that you could work with. And for example, I see this because a lot of people in the United States claim, especially liberal commentators, of course, that the Republican Party is to blame or the Republican Party has radicalized. And what I worry is that those people often give up hope of working with moderate Republicans, the people like Liz Cheney, and they instead target their arguments almost exclusively at liberal or democratic audiences. And I think that that’s the wrong approach, and I think that it’s something that often comes out of the idea that polarization in the US is asymmetric, that there’s no one on the other side that we could work with.

Zach: Yeah. Getting into that idea of one of the common obstacles or criticisms is the idea that we can’t negotiate with these people, and for an example, like on the liberal side, you’ll hear, we can’t negotiate on voting rights. And on the conservative side, you might hear, we can’t negotiate on trans issues with liberals who want to allow mutilation of kids. And to be clear, these aren’t my beliefs, I’m just quoting what I hear from both sides, these kinds of things. But that elides over a lot of nuance because the truth is that unless you want to enter a war, at some level, you do have to negotiate. You do have to reach negotiations because the truth is just that our fellow citizens do believe such vastly different things than us, and we do have to coexist with our fellow citizens. And I think the idea that, you know, negotiation isn’t possible or dialogue isn’t possible is impossible, is exactly part of the problem because if you start believing that, then the only option left is basically some sort of war. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on those kinds of we can’t negotiate types of statements.

Andrew: Well, Zach, I think this is one of the most difficult moral dilemmas that polarization poses, which is that often, especially in democracies, polarization results in significant anti-democratic behavior. And the question becomes whether or not we can, or within a society, people who stand up for and believe in democratic values should negotiate with decidedly anti-democratic figures. And different societies have struck this balance in different ways. In Latin America, after some extremely bloody and repressive and brutal military dictatorships, civilian governments often thought that the only way that they could rebuild democracy was to give some level of impunity to military torturers effectively. And there’s an argument that people in the left on the United States might make that voting rights should be non-negotiable. The other side is anti-democratic if they’re trying to make it harder for people to vote. And I think that that’s a balance that different democratic societies strike in different ways. There’s no one right answer to that question of whether or not it’s appropriate to negotiate with a side on the other side that is flagrantly violating democratic rules is and potentially in cases of dictatorships engaging in human rights violations.

Zach: A small note here in case it came across that I was acting like voting rights were trivial or something that we could easily compromise on, it’s definitely a serious topic, but I think there’s a lot more nuance even in that area than many people are aware of. For example, the fact that with all the anger around Georgia’s voting laws, it’s still easier to vote in Georgia than in quite a few other states, including some Democrat majority states. This is not to say that voting restrictions are not a problem and there’s nothing to worry about, but just to say that it’s possible to see some of the rhetoric around that topic as exaggerated in a way that makes it harder to have helpful conversations. And for another example, a majority of people, including a majority of Democrats, are shown in surveys to support requiring ID to vote. This is just to say that sometimes the issues we think are clearly a case of good versus bad can have a lot of nuance and a lot of room to make both sides happy, or at least both sides equally unhappy. And the more we talk about these issues as good versus bad and binary, and the more we act as if the other political group are completely irrational and incapable of discourse, the more we’ll accentuate our divides. But obviously there are no easy answers, especially the more polarized and high conflict as society becomes. Okay, back to the interview.

Zach: Yeah, there’s definitely no easy answers. The more these things get worse, I think that’s what makes these things just so hard to talk about because there’s always gonna be a range of responses and views of what the proper responses are.

Andrew: And can I add one, one point on this? I think that I wanna be extremely clear here, which is to say that I don’t think that reducing polarization is necessarily an end in itself. That reducing polarization should always be the goal of democratic activists and organizers. And I think that the best example of this is that pushing for democratic change, especially bringing new groups into politics, is often highly polarizing. And the US is a fantastic example of this, that during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, people that we now think of as rightly as American heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King were extremely polarizing and often hated figures. And so this is a pattern that repeats itself in other democracies that have serious democratic deficits, but often overcoming those deficits, especially of exclusion can be a tremendously polarizing process and often violent.

Zach: Yeah, it’s definitely not easy to talk about these things. And I would say when it comes to practical takeaways, if I had to sum things up about how I see it, it’s like aiming for depolarization is about thinking about the distorted ways that we speak about the other group and looking for ways to reduce that. It doesn’t mean not criticize or not working towards things. I think it’s just thinking about all the distorted things that we say, like on social media, like, this group is X and being aware that we can often make the same arguments but make them in a way that is more persuasive to the other side or towards the people in the middle. I think that’s the practical thing to me is focusing on like how we speak and really thinking about how we might be contributing.

Andrew: I think that’s a valuable framing that polarization, it certainly in those cases should not be gratuitous as you’re pointing out that conflict is not necessarily bad in a democracy, but it shouldn’t be in this way that distortedly demonizes the other side.

Zach: So you’ve studied polarization around the world and how it happens in many countries, how it plays out. And I’ve read that polarization has been rising in most countries since 2005. And maybe you could give a brief overview of that research and tell me if that’s an accurate summary of the way things are in the world currently.

Andrew: And I think that this is a key argument that my co-editor Tom Carothers and I make in our book Democracies Divided, is that polarization isn’t just an American problem, it’s a global one. That in many ways polarization in the United States stands out in terms of how old it is that we argue that polarization has been really gradually intensifying since the 1960s. But that if Americans take a broader view, we have a lot to learn from other countries because polarization is genuinely tearing at the seams of democracies globally. Countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Poland, Turkey, Venezuela, all of these countries have experienced really sharp affective polarization around deep identity divides. So to your first point, I think it’s absolutely true in sort of survey data run by The Varieties of Democracy Project that polarization appears to be an increasing trend. Scholars have of course debated the causes of that, whether it’s globally applicable forces like social media or more particular domestic forces like the rise of populist or illiberal leaders. But one thing that I would point out thinking in global terms is that the more– in the book we looked at the experiences of other divided democracies– the more we realized that US polarization is extremely unusual and extremely worrying. 

The first thing that was unusual, and I’ve mentioned this, is that polarization in the United States has been accumulating for a very long time. Today’s divisions date back at least to the 1960s, so 60 years. And most other cases of polarization are much more recent in origin. Another thing is that the US effect of polarization is extremely distinctive and that it combines a combination of ethnic, religious and ideological divisions. In many other countries, polarization really hinges on one of those key identities. 

In Kenya, it’s the division between the Kikuyu and Luo and Kalenjin and other ethnic groups that often drives polarization. In Turkey, the polarization is in particular rooted around Islamist versus secularist conceptions of Turkish national identity. But in the United States, this is something that we as Americans don’t often think about because it’s the air that we breathe. Ethnic, religious, and ideological divisions really interlock in a very powerful way that we call the iron triangle of polarization in the United States. On the one hand, the US is part of this global picture, rising polarization, but there are reasons to be in particular very concerned about the United States.

Zach: So obviously, every country is unique with its own issues and different types of governance and different personalities to name a few factors. But I’m curious if you see the underlying human psychology, the group versus group psychology that arises, do you see it as being pretty much the same?

Andrew: I do think that polarizing leaders often appeal to very similar types of social identity divides and that this division between ingroup and outgroup is deeply rooted in human psychology. I think that the social or emotional bases that leaders appeal to is often different. There are different kinds of ideologies for example that leaders appeal to on the left or on the right. Polarization isn’t of all the same flavor, you could say, in every different country. But I think that these divisions appeal to deeply rooted human impulses. You need to look no further than how much people love sports teams, how much we get emotionally attached to a sports team. The stakes are so low in practical speaking terms for me whether or not the Yankees win, but we’re just emotionally attached to our group. 

So I think that this desire for this group has a tendency in human life is just an incredibly powerful force. And mobilizing that into political conflict, of course, supercharges this us versus them divide. Because often so much is at stake in terms of policy resources and status in a country when these polarized divides are mobilized.

Zach: Would it be accurate to say that if there are a good number of people in a country that have high poverty and don’t have much to eat, that seems to me like it might be a separate emotional, psychological thing going on like a different class of polarization if you’ve got those kinds of things leading to polarization versus like countries that are doing better financially and such that they come to be very polarized. Is that accurate to say?

Andrew: That’s very interesting. Actually, in this book Democracies Divided, we looked at nine different countries that are along a very broad spectrum of the income distribution, so extremely wealthy countries like the United States, more middle-income countries like Poland and Turkey and then also lower income countries like Bangladesh and India. We didn’t find actually that poverty or the relative level of income in these countries made the difference in terms of shaping the variety of polarization. 

What we did find is that often it’s not the amount of income that makes a difference, but rather a sense of relative deprivation that precipitates in a cycle of anger against the political class, which is not the same as polarization. But two great examples of this are Turkey in 2002 and then Venezuela in the late 1990s. Just to briefly summarize, I think that in cases where a massive economic crisis really undermines the standard of living, people often revolt against the political class and that this creates an opportunity because the political parties are so weak for a polarizing figure like a Chavez in Venezuela or an Erdogan in Turkey to come to power. 

So I think that really the key is often a relative decline in living standards brought about by an economic crisis. It doesn’t necessarily cause polarization, but it can weaken and debilitate existing political parties and create the opportunity for a new polarizing force to come to power.

Zach: When it comes to comparing the polarization in the United States with other countries either up today in countries today or countries in the past, are there certain countries, other nations that you see as somewhat similar in terms of how polarization is playing out here?

Andrew: Absolutely. To begin as I mentioned, I do think that US polarization is extremely distinctive. But I think that as the US starts looking for ways to manage our divisions, we need to be thinking about comparative cases. Two countries in particular come to mind. The first perhaps surprisingly for many Americans is the Latin American country of Chile during the 1970s. 

Chile, many Americans may not know, was the model poster child for democracy in Latin America in the 1960s, the 1970s. It was seen as having one of the most effective rule of law systems, the most stable democracies, one of the most prosperous economies. Polarization ripped Chilean democracy apart. In the specific case of Chile, actually, the United States was involved in fomenting the 1973 coup d’état. 

Second, I think that other countries that are similar are often Eastern European cases like Poland and also Turkey that combined this ideological polarization often with religious or ethnic tones. I think that in these cases, one of the unfortunate lessons is that polarization can often totally overrun the rule of law institutions that we think will keep political competition in bounds. Poland is a really sobering example of this that the constitutional court in Poland, basically the tribunal ruled that the incumbent government populist far-right government couldn’t appoint certain justices to the Supreme Court. The president of Poland just refused to listen and obey what the constitutional orders. In Turkey as well, judicial independence is basically been driven into the ground. 

I think that what’s really sobering about these comparative cases is the sheer extent of democratic erosion that’s been experienced in the Chilean case where polarization destroyed a very old democracy that people thought would be able to withstand it and in places like Poland and Turkey where institutions are not as deeply rooted as they are in the United States. But nonetheless, they’ve been extremely weakened in their capacity to constrain the government.

Zach: One thing I’ve wondered is you hear a lot of examples of right-wing authoritarian countries that have resulted from polarization. I know it can be hard to exactly quantify things in those terms, but I’m curious, are there well-known examples more associated with liberal or left-wing polarization and authoritarianism? Hugo Chavez is my understanding he would be categorized as a left-wing populist. Is that accurate? If that’s true, are there other examples like that?

Andrew: Yes. In fact, perhaps surprisingly, the Latin American political scientist Sebastian Mazzuca has argued that polarizing left-wing populist parties are in many ways more dangerous for democracy than populist right wing parties. That is to say given the fact that you have a populist party that’s come to power and wants to erode your democracy, would you rather it be a far-right party or a far-left party? 

Perhaps counterintuitively, Mazzuca’s point is that left-wing parties that came to power like Chavez in Venezuela but also the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Evo Morales in Bolivia, that because these left-wing parties centered their political message on expanding state programs, expanding resources, including cash transfers to the poor, built up the state apparatus in many ways by investing in new social programs, these regimes turned out to be quite durable in terms of staying in power because they were providing lots of resources to voters. Those resources ultimately became a certain form of clientelism or a tit for tat we the Chavez guys are going to give you the resources in exchange for votes that this became a mechanism through which they stayed in power. I think that there are certainly examples of left-wing governments that have moved towards authoritarian politics. 

The other thing I would say is that I think many Americans misunderstand the right-wing governments in places like Poland and Turkey. We often think of these people as being right-wing in the sense of perhaps economically conservative when in fact it couldn’t be further from the truth that the Law and Justice government in Poland, the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, both of these right-wing parties are conservative on religious issues, for example, but they spend a ton of money, they dole out patronage, they provide support for new families, child allowances, these kinds of things. That is a huge part of their appeal, which is that they give a lot of money to ordinary citizens, and especially to their supporters. 

I think that there’s a mixed picture here. The story isn’t totally one of right-wing governments eroding democracy, that in many ways it’s a more complex one.

Zach: I’ve been pretty surprised and maybe even shocked at how little polarization as a concept is discussed by politicians and journalists and pundits and such. As we’ve discussed, it’s such a super common human dynamic and happens to so many countries and yet it barely seems talked about outside of academic world or a few people that are interested in depolarization. I think that gets back to what we were talking about how polarization creates an environment where it’s hard to talk about polarization. But I’m curious if do you think if we took the approach of trying to get more people to talk about it and treat that as a valuable thing to promote and got more people talking about it, do you think that’s one way to combat and lower the temperature on these things?

Andrew: I think that is very important, because I think that in many ways politics generally suffers from the problem, and I’m not just talking about the United States but more broadly, the problem of extreme motivated voices dominating the conversation. Just take a very concrete and tangible example, gun rights in the United States. There is a very broad majority of Americans who support universal background checks or some form of background checks before purchasing, especially the most lethal firearms, but you very rarely hear from the ordinary Americans… I might say, let’s put you in that position, Zach. You may be a gun rights advocate or a gun control advocate. I don’t know. 

But my point more broadly is that on issues where there is actually mass agreement on an issue, one problem is that the extreme voices tend to dominate. This is, for example, groups like the National Rifle Association, or NRA, which is a very loud voice speaking up for the maximalist position on the right to own and bear arms. 

I think that part of the problem that you’re very astutely pointing out is that these voices in the middle, people who care about the polarization, who care about a more central politics are often drowned out in conversation by people who have very specific policy demands. Because people who care very deeply about a specific policy, whether it’s for example a total ban on abortion or a total ban on a specific type of legal firearm, those voices tend to dominate the conversation much more than people advocating for lowering the temperature in the room.

Zach: And it might be obvious, but even aside from the depolarization attempts, the people aimed at depolarization, it seems just even trying to have that conversation is so hard even just to broach a subject. I guess maybe it’s related. It’s all related. You can’t talk about depolarization. You can’t talk about polarization. But it’s just so strange to me that it’s such a common human dynamic. And so obviously inside of us, for us to behave this way is so common, but it’s like why don’t you see people talking on the news about journalist talking more about all this is similar to other things that have happened throughout history or are happening now throughout the world. 

We have this almost like some people have said it’s due to our sense of American exceptionalism that we’re different, but I almost think it’s just due to how polarization works. Because we in a polarized environment, a polarized society will always see its own issues as being unique and important and not really related to these other things that have happened to other people, then that’s what’s so pernicious about polarization because it feels the thing you’re going through is so important, it’s so life or death or whatever. That is what makes it so powerful that it’s not relatable to these other things, even though they’ve happened a million times.

Andrew: I think that’s a crucial point that in many ways, every country is dealing with its own struggle over national identity. What we find looking across different cases of polarization is that really often the core of the issue is fundamentally different conceptions of national identity. So different ideas of India, for example, is India a secular country or is it a Hindu nation? In Turkey, is Turkey an Islamic country first and foremost or is it a secular state? In the United States, what should the rule of religion be in public life? These are very… The specific context and history of course plays out in a different way, but there is a clear pattern of differences fundamentally related to national identity and to brilliant scholars of polarization. 

Jennifer McCoy who you’ve hosted on the podcast and her colleague Murat Somer find that this is what they call formative rifts that often in the process of creating a country, there are unresolved divisions about what that national identity should be like. That is something that every country grapples with in its own unique way, but it’s a common pattern that we have a lot to learn from other cases, especially the United States where we’re often closed to that kind of comparative perspective.

Zach: It’s my own belief that many liberals are a bit oblivious to the ways in which liberals can contribute to polarization. I think for me, the obliviousness from some people is just due to the fact that liberal thought and perspectives dominate so much of mainstream media in the form of TV, news, shows, movies, educational institutions. And so, this can make it pretty hard to really understand other points of view, even reasonable and well-meaning points of view on the conservative side, and to really see how some liberal rhetoric can be seen as divisive. So basically, the idea that it’s a bit of a bubble basically.

A small note here, if you’re looking for an example of what I mean by some liberal rhetoric being divisive, I’d recommend a previous episode of mine where I interviewed Leonie Huddy on the topic of liberal side perceptions of racism in America. I’d also recommend checking out John McWhorter’s book Woke Racism, which examines some of the divisive aspects of liberal side stances on racism. 

One politically liberal political researcher I corresponded with said that he believed that more than half of our challenge with polarization was getting liberals to see the ways in which they contributed to polarization. To take another example, and a recent paper by Heidi and Guy Burgess about applying conflict resolution strategies to polarization, they said the following, “The objective of the progressive left seems more ambitious. To cancel and drive from the public square, anyone who has ever expressed the slightest doubt about the merits of any aspect of the progressive agenda.” Those are just a few examples. 

I think it’s important to understand how it is that rational and well-meaning people can see liberals as being divisive. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with that, but I do think making the attempt to see those points of view can help us understand our fellow Americans a bit better and make dialogue more possible. 

Okay, back to the interview.

What’s your take on that? Do you think the more we talk about these problems do you think more people will be aware of the ways they might be contributing?

Andrew: I think in any context to polarization, whether willingly or consciously or not, both sides are contributing to polarization. I think that the biggest way you see this is often certain kinds of purity tests that take place in terms of the willingness of individuals to engage in conversation in good faith dialogue. That often part of the problem is that certain people perspectives are seen as immediately disqualifying, that there’s no need for further conversation, that that’s the end of the story. But I think that this is a problem too that often both sides live in a certain form of echo chamber, that certain types of media should have constantly exposed individuals to one perspective even if they try to be balanced in terms of the issues that they prioritize and otherwise. 

But I think what’s difficult is that in any polarized society, there’s not really a neutral position. So the best that you can do is try to incorporate as a collectively as possible different perspectives to listen and to avoid that kind of critique. So I think you’re absolutely right that on both sides, people are often not fully conscious of the ways in which they’re contributing to polarization.

Zach: I’m curious if you have any thoughts about the idea that the modern world in making us more isolated from each other, more lonely as shown in studies and such has created a situation that is conducive to more polarization? Because it seems like the more lonely we are, the more isolated we are from each other socially, the more we’ll look not to the people around us for meaning, but the more we’ll look to these big distant fights, these more conceptual fights about who we are and these fights that give us a sense of meaning. I’m curious if you think that our increased isolation in the modern world could be a big factor here in explaining what seems to be almost like a modern pandemic of polarization?

Andrew: That is a fascinating question. I think the world is going through a huge test of this right now as we look at the political aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic, that increased isolation and loneliness due to people’s political preferences? I think that there is evidence, as you pointed out, that loneliness can shape political preferences in that way. But polarization and loneliness can also be deemed mobilizing. It can demobilize people politically, people become less politically active. Or in terms of political science, they have a lower sense of efficacy or a feeling that they can change the world, get involved in politics, for example. So I think that the jury is still out on that question. 

One thing I will point out though, as you’ve said, is that often that polarization is deeply entrenched in human psychology in many ways, these kinds of us versus them divisions. I think that what has changed is not necessarily perhaps that people are more lonely, but that they have much greater access to people who are willing to spread deeper polarizing messages. So if you think about this in a variety of contexts, it seems that political establishments that previously represented centrist political positions have been losing ground. This is partially because of media contro,l the way that social media has increased the ability of new politicians like a Trump or a Bolsonaro in Brazil to spread polarizing messages and circumvent the new usual channels of the media like TV. But it’s also the way that people like Trump and Bolsonaro are able to crowdsource funds as part of their campaign. So I think that part of the modern world’s effect has also been that political parties that were once moderators of the democratic discussion are becoming less powerful and less capable of shielding us from or constraining the most polarizing voices in the system.

Zach: Yeah, that gets into something I think about a good amount, which is we often talk about the role of social media or the role of media or whatever. I think it’s a mistake to view social media as like this separate thing from all the other technology and media that’s been in process for decades cable TV and all this stuff, the internet in general. To me, it’s like it’s just this amplification of information load, these messages flying all around us. We’re bombarded in the modern age with messages with information. It’s almost like all these things are just an amplification of what humans do in the first place. We already clearly have the capacity to be polarized pre-high technology. But then you add in basically like this accelerant, this amphetamine of human experience, these messages flying everywhere around us and it allows us to build these perspectives, these narratives, these us versus them narratives just that much more quickly because we’ve got these messages flying around. So it’s almost like I really see these things as just an accelerant of human social interactions, whether that there’s good aspects of that obviously and there’s dark aspects of social psychology. That’s how I view it. I’m curious if you have any thoughts there?

Andrew: No, I think that’s exactly right that in many ways social media is the intensification of a previous trend toward the diversification of the media landscape, that the rise of new cable channels like Fox TV, for example, are represented in the late 1990s and early 2000s and a broader symptom of a world in which political establishments have much less control over who is going to be on the ballot, who’s going to be the president.

Zach: This is great. I think we covered a lot of things. Is there anything else you’d like to mention that we haven’t mentioned?

Andrew: Just that I think podcasts are a great medium for deconstructing or rather pushing back against polarization. It’s great to have a long thoughtful conversation. So thank you, Zach.

Zach: Thanks, Andrew.

That was Andrew O’Donohue, co-author of Democracies Divided. And just a reminder that I interviewed Andrew’s co-author, Thomas Carothers, in an earlier episode. 

And just a reminder that I have other polarization-related episodes. If you go to my site and look at the page for this episode, you’ll find some links to those. If I had to recommend one episode, I’d say check out the recent interview with Thomas Hornsey, where we talk about group psychology and polarization, and persuasion. 

I also wanted to say that it’s hard to talk about these topics. It is hard to talk about polarization because by talking about it, you touch on such controversial and emotion-producing topics. It’s a bit like walking through a minefield, because no matter how careful you are to speak in persuasive or bridge-building ways, in a polarized society there will be a good number of people on both sides of an issue who will take offense at the things you say, who will hear something that angers them and say “these depolarization people are clueless, they don’t really understand what’s going on.” Personally I’ve experienced people on both sides filtering the things I say through the worst possible interpretations, essentially sifting my language for signs of insults to their group, or signs of having hidden, malicious motives, or just of being clueless and oblivious. 

I mention this just to say that hopefully you can see how for a society to get better, it might require more people to try to overcome our emotional reactions a bit more, and listen to more viewpoints, and try to see the well meaning motivations and goals of others, and examine their ideas. And sometimes those ideas will at first seem strange or insulting or oblivious to us, but sometimes they’ll make more sense the more you think about them and see how they can be practically applied. 

This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. Again, if you like this podcast, please share it with your family and friends. 


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.

Episode links:

Resources discussed in this episode or related to the topic:


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

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.