The strangeness of our existence and how that relates to existential psychology

This episode is a piece of mine about how an awareness of life’s strangeness might impact us, both positively and negatively, and how that might relate to existential psychology concepts. Topics include: how an awareness of life’s strangeness might be seen to be a core existential stressor (like the fear of death, or fear of isolation); how this might relate to religious/spiritual experience; how this might relate to traumatic experience and PTSD; how being aware of life’s strangeness might make one more likely to embrace nonsensical, low-evidence beliefs of various sorts; how this might relate to mental illness (including psychosis and delusion).

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Psychological aspects in running a restaurant and waiting tables, with Robin Dibble

A talk with Robin Dibble, an experienced Albuquerque-area restaurant professional who’s worked in every aspect of the business, from waiting tables, to cooking, to managing restaurants and night clubs. Topics include: psychological strategies servers use to get more tips; how menu design can affect what people order; reading customer satisfaction as a restaurant manager; the factors in deciding to cut someone off from drinking; lighting and acoustics considerations when designing a comfortable space.

This is a reshare of a 2019 talk. For more details about this episode, see the original post.

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Two former congresspeople, a Democrat and a Republican, talk about toxic polarization

I talk to former members of the House of Representatives Luke Messer (Republican) and Elizabeth Esty (Democrat). We talk about: political polarization; their experiences being in congress during such a highly polarized period of time; their ideas for reducing toxic polarization, and more.

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Aphantasia, inner monologue, and the challenges of describing inner experience, with Russell Hurlburt

A talk with Russell Hurlburt, who’s researched inner experience for more than five decades. He is the author of 6 books and many articles on the topic of mental experience. Transcript is below.

Topics discussed include: The challenges of describing and measuring inner experience; his contributions to improving how we measure and talk about inner experience; the ambiguities in the classification of “aphantasia” (reporting no visual qualities in one’s thought processes); the ambiguities in the “inner monologue” concept; thought on whether dreams are visual or not; and more. 

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Zachary Elwood: Hello and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding people better; you can learn more about it at and you can sign up for a premium subscription there that gets you ad-free episodes and lets you learn about and collaborate on upcoming episodes. 

On this episode I talk to Russell Hurlburt about inner experience, including mental visualization, aphantasia, and inner monologue and narration. Russ has studied inner experiences for more than five decades. To quote from the bio on his professor page at University of Nevada: “In the 1970s, he was the first to use beepers in psychological research and was the creator of the ‘thought sampling’ method. Dr. Hurlburt considers the understanding of inner experience to be a fundamental task of psychology, and has written six books and many articles exploring how best to investigate experience.”

As you may have noticed, there have been a lot of people lately talking about inner experiences, whether that’s aphantasia — which is people saying that their thinking has no visual qualities — or about inner narration, or the lack of inner narration. For this podcast, I’d previously aired an interview I’d done about my own so-called aphantasia, and I thought it’d be interesting to follow that up with a more in-depth one with someone who’s researched that. If you’ve seen aphantasia and inner narration mentioned recently and wondered “What’s going on with that?” or wondered how your own internal experiences would or should be categorized, i think you’ll find this a very interesting talk. We dig into some of the nuances and ambiguities in these areas. And I’ll put some of the resources and books we mention in this talk on the entry for this episode on my site at 

If you’re listening to the audio version of this talk, that audio comes from a video talk I had with Russ. You can find that video on my People Who Read People youtube channel.

Okay, here’s the talk with Russ Hurlburt. Hi, Russ. Thanks for joining me.

Russell Hurlburt: My pleasure.

Zach: Maybe we could start with how you got interested in researching inner experience. I realize that’s probably a big question, but maybe you could summarize your beginning interest in it and what you thought was fairly unexamined in that area.

Russell: Well, that is a big question and it’s basically my entire career, or before that, depending on how you define career. I was an engineer before I was a trumpet player, and then I was a trumpet player before I was a psychologist, and the interest in all of those things goes back to probably before I was an engineer, so several lifetimes ago. But I’ve always thought that other people were the most interesting things on the planet, and I’ve always thought that people’s inner lives were the most interesting part of people. And so the object, I’ve always been interested in that. And in the course of my previous lifetimes, I’ve tried to figure that stuff out and decided that I didn’t know and that psychologists didn’t know and it seemed like nobody knew, and so I set about trying to figure out, well, how would you try to answer that question? And so 50 years ago- a few months ago, actually, 50 years and a few months ago- I figured out that the way to do this was to give somebody a beeper and ask them to report what was going on in their inner experience at the moment of a beep. And 50 years ago, the world was a different place as it is now, and the way that seemed to answer that question then and now, too, for that matter- except for everybody almost except me- would be to have given people a pad of questionnaires that just triggered when the beep went off, what is now called EMA or ESM or something like that. I was the first one to do that. I invented the beeper in 1973 and used it in 1974 and onwards, starting out with something that would nowadays be called ESM or EMA.

Zach: And what’s that stand for?

Russell: ESM is Experience Sampling Method, and EMA is Ecological Momentary Assessment. They’re both more or less the same thing that basically involves giving a random beep or some kind of an external beep to people and asking them to fill out some kind of questionnaire- usually a questionnaire- EMA sometimes uses some biological measurements like heart rate or whatever. There’s a lot of different ways that people use that. But when it comes down to inner experience, most people are doing questionnaires triggered by beeps, which is how I started 50 years ago. But by 48 years ago, I had decided that I wasn’t learning anything that I thought was very interesting so I gave up giving questionnaires and launched into what I now call the Descriptive Experience Sampling method or DES. But it’s a simple method designed to answer a very simple question. Like, a simple question is what’s in your inner experience? What’s your inner experience like when you’re being Zach? I’m not particularly interested in what you’re like being Zach when I’m giving you some kind of an experiment to run, I’m interested in the Zach as Zach goes to the grocery store and interviews people and drives his car and does whatever it is that Zach does. That’s when Zach is interesting. He’s not so interesting when he’s responding to a probe in some kind of a psychological experiment because that’s as much about the experiment as it is about Zach.

Zach: Right, because the observing and the experiment change people and such.

Russell: Right. So my goal would be- my goal still is- to get at what Zach is like when he’s not being interrogated. And so I give you a beeper, you wear the beeper in your everyday life doing whatever it is that you generally do, and every random time at some random times, the thing beeps and your task is to pay attention to what was in your inner experience just before the beep occurred. I call that the moment of the beep but what I really mean is something like the last undisturbed moment just before the beep, which is not really undisturbed, but as best we can to get the last undisturbed moment. Sometimes I call it a microsecond before the beep. It’s not a microsecond and it’s not before.

Zach: You’re trying to capture those unselfmonitored moments.

Russell: That’s exactly right. So, what I want you to do is to capture your self-monitored moment while it’s still in short-term memory, whatever that is, while you still have as direct access to it as you can get. And let’s talk about that.

Zach: Yeah, if you had to recommend one book of yours, is there a favorite one that you recommend for people to understand your thoughts in these areas? Or another resource if it’s not a book.

Russell: I would say a book of mine… If I had to pick one book, it would probably be my 2011 book, which is called… I don’t remember what it’s called, “Exploring Inner Experience”, I think. Cambridge University Press, 2011, whatever that book is called. Oh, it’s called “Moments of Truth”. That’s the book.

Zach: Gotcha.

Russell: But there are two other books that people might be interested in. One is a debate, basically, with a philosopher, Eric Schwitzgebel. That’s my 2007 book. That’s the one that’s called “Describing Inner Experience?” Schwitzgebel is a skeptic about introspective kinds of things and so we have a book-length debate about that. And then my most recent book is sort of like that, except one step more modern, I guess. It’s a debate, in a way with, a literary scholar about inner experience.

Zach: That sounds interesting. Yeah, I wanted to read the Schwitzgebel one. That looked really interesting because you go through examining snippets of people or a specific person’s descriptions of their inner thought and going back and forth with his skepticism and your thoughts on it. Yeah, that looked really interesting.

Russell: That’s exactly what that book is about.

Zach: So, maybe…

Russell: But I guess I should also say I have been creating a website for the last three or four years that I’ll send you the link to it and you can make that available to your folks. But basically, the interviews that I do… So if you were going to be a subject in my research, you’d wear the beeper for a day and we would get together and talk about the half a dozen beeps that you got on that particular day. And you wouldn’t be very good at it because it’s a skill that you have to master like any other skill. And so we would say, “Well, we need to do this again.” And so tomorrow or next week or whenever it’s convenient, we do it again. And then we do it again and then we do it again. And on a second or third day, you’d start to get pretty good at it. And on the fourth, fifth, or sixth day, typically, we would be limiting our discussion pretty much to talking about your inner experience at the moment of these beeps and we’d have ruled out the stuff that isn’t really inner experience, and we’d have ruled out the stuff that isn’t before the beep and isn’t.

And so I have been of recent years, I guess, recording those and putting them entirely on the web with quite carefully drawn transcripts with annotations about what’s happening. So if people are really interested in what we’re talking about here, they can go to that website and spend 100 hours listening to me ask the Zachs of the world what’s going on in their inner experience and read the transcripts and read some discussions about the questions that they might have. Basically, I prepare the transcripts carefully, and then I answer questions that I think people might have or make comments that I think people might have who would be seriously interested in what it takes to find out about Zach’s inner experience.

Zach: I would imagine with all the recent interest in aphantasia and mental imagery and people talking about inner monologues, have you seen an uptick in people reaching out to you in the last few years about those kinds of things? Because it really seems like some of that stuff has gone kind of viral in terms of people writing about it on social media and their experiences and whether they have aphantasia or not, these kinds of things. Have you seen a lot more interest in the last few years?

Russell: Yes. I would say the interest has gone up fairly dramatically in the last seven or ten years or something.

Zach: So, what are your – maybe pivoting to the aphantasia area, what would be your summation of that? Because I’ll say from my perspective, I would classify myself as someone with aphantasia. I don’t identify with reporting mental imagery and these kinds of things. I actually did a previous podcast where someone interviewed me for their podcast on those things asking me questions about that. But at the same time, I see a lot of ambiguity there. I’m very uncertain about… I do get a sense that there are differences that exist because it’s kind of hard for me to understand how somebody could report having something very visual, but I also see a lot of ambiguity in the sense that I’ve talked to a lot of people that are like, “I don’t know if – I’m not sure if I would qualify these things as visual or not or how visual they are,” and a lot of it seems to come down to- for at least some spectrum of the differences- seems to come down to the difficulties of reporting inner experiences. But I’m curious to ask you, do you have a high-level view of how you see that landscape?

Russell: Well, yes. I’ve got lots of views on that subject. The first one I would say is that the skepticism that you’re reporting there is good. I think you ought to be skeptical about that. But the second I would say is that what you should be saying when you’re expressing that skepticism is, “Well, what we need is a good method, and we should spend some time thinking about what the method is.” I’ve spent 50 years thinking about the method, and Descriptive Experience Sampling- DES, what I do- is the best that I can do. That doesn’t mean it’s the ultimate method, it means it’s the best that I’ve been able to find in 50 years of pretty careful looking. And I would say most people don’t look very carefully, and so the methods that they use are not very good. And the methods that they use are sort of like what you’ve described, which is sort of like armchair introspection and trying to decide what my inner experience is like. And I would say that’s a very difficult thing to do. So, that’s the first part of my answer to your question.

Zach: And really quick, I’ll throw in there one interesting example of how hard these things are to describe. When I asked one person about this, they initially said, “Oh, yeah, I would describe it as visual.” And then when I inquired more about it, when I threw in some of the ambiguity of what people said about the ambiguity in those areas, he said something like, “Well, now I’m not clear. Is it mental imagery or am I thinking about mental imagery?” That’s just an example of how difficult it can be, especially for the people that aren’t on the extreme end of saying… There’s some people that are very confident, like, “I see things extremely visually,” but there’s this large swath of people, it seems to me, that are like, “How do I exactly describe those things?” But go on.

Russell: That’s a good interjection. I’m on your side as far as that goes. Because people don’t use the same terminology about their own inner experience as they use about the external world. They don’t know that. People are very ignorant about how they use their own words. And I would say people are pretty ignorant- many people, maybe most people, but many people are quite ignorant about their own inner experience. And so there are a lot of people who are like you who said, if I remember calling correctly, you said something like, “Well, I don’t have very much of this imagery stuff.” And some people, when they say that, are right, and other people, when they say that, are wrong. It can go either way. I have sampled a lot of people who say, “I never have visual imagery,” and yet at some random beeps, they’ve got quite a bit of visual imagery. And vice versa. Other people who say, “I’ve got great visual imagery all the time,” but when we get it to beep, it turns out that they don’t have it. And part of it is the reason that you identified, is that they think of themselves as visual until you really start to ask, “Well, what do you mean by visual again?” And then when you pin them down on that, well, it turns out visual doesn’t have anything to do with something that you would see. And that’s worse, I would say. It’s worse with the inner speech deal because inner speech sort of has a wider uncertainty of definition than maybe even in visual imagery. But all of them are terrible. People are very unspecific about what they mean.


Zach: Oh, go ahead.

Russell: The clearest example for that that I would give is about the word thinking, where you ask people what thinking means and they will tell you, “Well, thinking is some kind of a cognitive thing where I’m trying to decide this kind of a thing.” And then you beep them and they say, “I was thinking about something.” And when it turns out that what thinking means then, when they’re describing their own inner experience, for one person it would mean I’m seeing a visual image. And for another person thinking it’s going to be, I’m talking to myself in inner speech. And for another person, the word thinking, as in I’m thinking, means I have an emotional experience. And for another person, the word thinking means I feel a tingle in my back or something like that. The point that I’m trying to make here is that the word thinking, when applied in the external world, has a Webster kind of definition.

But the word thinking, when applied to me, has a private personal definition, which probably I acquired at age two or three or something like that when I heard my mother or whoever say thinking. And what that meant was, well, there’s something going on in her that I can’t see. So I apply that to me, what’s going on with me with what I can’t see. And so when I apply that word to myself, it means whatever is sort of frequent for me. I call that thinking. So that’s the reason why- or one of the reasons, one of many reasons- why I’m skeptical about questionnaires. Because questionnaires ask questions that use public definitions, and public definitions and private definitions are not the same. And I’m skeptical of armchair introspection because, like you gave in your example where you were giving an easy interview or slight interview with a guy who changed his mind about what was visual, if you really want to know what’s going on in somebody else’s experience, you have to be careful in that interviewing method.

Zach: Yeah, I really liked your… I was reading some of your work and describing the- I think you called it the unsymbolized thinking, I think that was what it was called, where it’s like sometimes if you inquire- like you do inquiring at the moment- sometimes if you really inquire what you’re currently thinking, it’s just a rough non-cognitive thing of like, is this thing going to happen? But it’s not verbal or anything, it’s just like imagining if something’s going to happen. It doesn’t require any verbal or even… But sometimes we’ll put those into words, you know? We’ll put a narrative to it. So we’ll apply the… Yeah, it’s just really hard to pin down exactly what’s going on there. But going back to the aphantasia thing, it’s like you see these kind of confident descriptions sometimes about that. Journalists, for example, or writers will write about like, “Oh, 3% of people have aphantasia or these kinds of things,” whereas to me in just talking to people, I found that that seems really like a strange, overly confident or just wrong way to describe it. Because when I’ve dealt into this with random people, including doing Twitter surveys of people who follow me, it’s like there seems a lot more range of ambiguity, and trying to pinpoint who’s interviewing is highly visual versus not seems really hard to do. But I’m curious if you have a personal take from everything you’ve researched and read. How do you group the general population into highly visual versus non-visual if you do?

Russell: I think since Galton, since Sir Francis Galton, who was sort of the first guy to explore widely the visual nature and he discovered the members of the academy that had reported and he believed them- and I think there’s reason to believe them- widely different frequencies of visual imagery. So I think it’s true. I think it is true that people have widely different frequencies of visual imagery. That’s number one. Number two is I don’t think people are very good reporters about that. As I said a little bit ago, people I think are substantially mistaken about that. So, anybody who tells you they know what the percentage of people is, you could ask them, “Are you doing a method that’s as least as good as Hurlburt’s?” And if they say no, then you should say, “Well, then there’s no reason why I should believe you.” And I’m not saying my method is the best method, I’m saying you got to do something that’s better than just asking somebody.

Zach: Something methodological. Yeah, something with some method to it. Yeah.

Russell: Right. And it can’t be a questionnaire, and it can’t be just a casual interview. You have to have worked out some kind of a method. So, what is aphantasia? I think it’s a more a popular term than it is a… You know? It’s sort of like a [Tennesseer] or something like that. You know, some people play tennis, some people don’t play tennis. There’s a guy who doesn’t play tennis, we’ll give him a name. We’ll call him a Tennessee kind of a thing. You know?

Zach: Yeah, I’m glad to hear you say that because it’s what I’ve gathered. I see so many people using these labels for themselves. And it kind of strikes me. It seems like people in general are so label-happy when it comes to these kinds of ambiguous mental… Whether it’s, you know, it could be autism or any number of things where it’s like, yes, there are some differences, but we’re also too quick to lump ourselves into these categories without really knowing where the boundaries are. I see a lot of people confidently saying like, “Oh, I have aphantasia,” or, “I do or don’t have an inner monologue,” and I just think that that seems to me to be like… It’s almost like an interest of I want to quantify myself, or I want to confidently have some sort of label for these strange inner experience things to kind of make sense of a confusing inner thing. Because I think there’s something almost interesting but also almost stressful in a way to have these large differences with other people, you know, these fundamental differences or at least perceived differences. So it’s almost like we want to be like, “Oh, I’m in this group and other people are in this group.” I don’t know if you have noticed that too, almost like a label-happiness for these kinds of experiences or conditions.

Russell: In broad strokes, I would agree with what you said. I haven’t applied myself to trying to understand why that is that. But that is pretty self-evident, I think. From my point of view, it’s sort of an interesting thing. Because I think inner experience is about the most interesting question that there is. And I think a lot of people agree with that. Maybe even most people agree with that. And I think it’s remarkable how methodologically sloppy people are, including maybe especially psychology or philosophy or whatever, people are not methodologically sophisticated in answering that question. You would think, if you knew what the most interesting question is, that you would work at trying to answer it. But most people, it would appear, would prefer to give an answer than to have the right answer. That’s what people call aphantasia or whatever.

Zach: Yeah. Just in general, surveys in general often strike me just as so bad for whatever it is. It’s like there’s just so much ambiguous language that will mean different things to different people. I’m constantly examining surveys including political psychological surveys, that could mean many different things to many different people. And then you get into inner experience areas where it’s even more ambiguous so the difficulty is hundreds of times harder or something.

Russell: I agree.

Zach: So when it comes to inner monologue, that’s another area where when I’ve tried to inquire about my own thinking, there just seems to be so much ambiguity in the sense that sometimes I am thinking in ways that could be called monologue-like. Sometimes there’s repeating, you know, like a sentence that repeats in my head or is much more verbal than at other times, and other times it’s more like the unsymbolized kind of thinking that you describe where… And sometimes it’s hard to tell what it is, right? It’s like, did I… When I’m thinking about what I just thought, sometimes it’s like… I think a way to see the ambiguity is sometimes what stood out to me was sometimes I will have a fully formed thought that I want to communicate, but it’s quite hard for me to put that into words because I’ll have to work for a while at how do I phrase that? Or I’ll be missing a word. Right? But the thought is there in my head in some way, it’s just clearly not verbal because the fact that you have to work at describing this amorphous thought that you have is hard to get out. That’s what stood out to me in terms of like, yeah, sometimes my inner thought is like I’m writing something. But other times, it’s just amorphous kind of concepts and I have to think about getting those out. But would you agree that that seems to be the case for most people? And so people lumping themselves into like, “I have an inner monologue,” or, “I don’t have inner monologues,” I would imagine that’s a faulty binary framing for most people who have a wide range of experiences if that makes sense.

Russell: That’s a complicated set of questions in there, but let me see whether I can make sense out of it. So, you described a rather wide range of experiential things. Sometimes I got a full sentence, sometimes I’ve got just sort of a hint of something, sometimes there’s a sentence with some holes in it, and sometimes there’s whatever. There were a lot of ‘sometimes’ in there. One question would be, “Well, how much of that should you call inner monologue or inner speech or something?” And the answer to that varies widely. So I think many people who say, “Well, I got under a hundred percent inner speech,” what they mean, if they were halfway careful about that, would mean that all those things that you talked about, I’m going to call those inner speech. And if you’re going to talk about that, then I got a hundred percent about that.

But they don’t usually say that. They usually say, “I just got a hundred percent inner speech.” But if you nail them down, so, okay, I don’t know. Let’s be interested in inner speech. I’m happy to be interested in inner speech, but let’s know what we’re talking about. So, does speech have to involve words? Well, if you say yes, but then inner speech has to involve words. Well, that narrows it down because there’s quite a bit of what you described in the range of your stuff, which is sort of like leaning into something that doesn’t have any words to it. And so then if it has to involve words, does it have to involve a voice if we’re going to call it inner speech? External speech has to involve some kind of an experience of a voice or speaking or something. Well? And it gets to be hard because in the inner world, you can have words without a voice and you can have a voice without words, and you can have a complete sentence and you can have a partial sentence and you can have a hint of a sentence, all those things. And how much of it do you call inner speech? Well, there’s a lot of variability in there.

But I personally think if you’re going to call something speech, it has to have words involved. It at least has to have that. And if it doesn’t have words in it, then you probably shouldn’t call it speech. I think that would be true in the external world, you know? If you heard [knocks on desk], you wouldn’t say, “Oh, my desk was speaking to me.” You would say I heard a knock on my desk or something like that.

Zach: I heard some sensations of some sort. Yeah.

Russell: Yeah, yeah. And if you heard speech or somebody was singing, la, la, la, la, la or whatever, you wouldn’t say, “Well, Russ was speaking.” No, you’d say he was singing or something. So there’s got to be words involved, I think, if you’re going to call it inner speech. But when you do that, and then you get sort of careful about discerning whether there are words present, then the frequency drops dramatically down from a hundred down to 25 or so.

Zach: There’s also this ambiguity around, like people will say, “I hear my inner voice in my voice, basically.” I’ve thought about that too, where I feel like there’s so much ambiguity around that. Because sometimes if I inquire, like, “Oh, I had some sentence or verbal-like thoughts. Is that in a specific voice?” And then there’s almost this element of like, “Well, yeah, I guess it’s in my… It’s the sound of my voice,” but in another way, it’s very amorphous and maybe I’m just fooling myself into thinking like, well, that’s just like the voice I know or think I know. So if I had to put a name to what the sound of that voice is, it’s my voice. And I think there’s a lot of ways to fool yourself but I’ve seen, in that area, people saying, like, “Yes, I hear this voice and it’s in my voice,” and I’m like, “Is it really in your voice? Or are you just…” You know? Sort of like you’ve described it. It’s like we can fool ourselves and see things that aren’t there for those things and assume it would be in our voice and these kinds of things.

Russell: People make all those kinds of assumptions and it gets in the way of their actually paying attention to what’s actually going on in their experience. I call those presuppositions. People have presuppositions about the way things are, and people would prefer to, to corroborate their own presuppositions rather than to find out what the truth actually is. That’s the way most people are, actually, but it doesn’t get you actually at what’s the interesting question. So when I say the interesting question is, “Well, what’s Zach’s inner experience really like?” Some people would say, “Well, you don’t really want to know what Zach’s experience is really like, you want to know what Zach would tell you his experience is really like.” And I would say, “I don’t really care much about what Zach would tell me about his inner experience, I would like to know about his real inner experience. Because he’s going to tell me… What he tells me would be a mix of what his experience is, plus how he wants to present himself, plus what he wants to think about me, plus what he told somebody else and he’s trying to be consistent with that, and any other self-presentation biases that he might have that get mixed up into that.” And all of that stuff makes a mess, which by comparison to what is actually going on in Zach’s experience at the moment was some beep. Well, that would be interesting.

Zach: I could say… I just think, like a lot of human experience, there’s so much chaos and uncertainty and multiple threads going on. People have written about boiling down this really complex and convoluted thing into this single, simple narrative. And I just feel I can sense that in my own thinking. It’s like there can be a tendency to try to put it in some sort of order, but often it just seems like it’s all over the place and it’s really hard to pin down. Like those experiments they did on people with split brains where they would make up explanations for the things that they did, even though they would be doing something or seeing something but wouldn’t know why and would confabulate. It kind of reminds me, too, of the blind spot in your eye where the optic nerve goes in and your vision just kind of smooths it over. It’s like there’s so much of this hiding of all the chaos that goes on under the surface, I feel like, when it comes to our inner reports of what our experience is like. Yeah, sometimes I can just really feel the chaos of like, I don’t really know. There’s all sorts of weird random dead ends and multiple layers going on at the same time, sometimes that…

Russell: What I would say about that is, I think there is chaos. I would prefer to call it multiprocessing, but chaos is as good a word as either one of those is fine with me. The question is-

Zach: Chaotic multiple processing.

Russell: Yeah. The question is whether what you said is a sort of a general characteristic of Zach, or whether it is a, at some particular moment, characteristic of Zach. And so it could be that at some particular moment, Zach is experiencing this chaos that’s all these things going on, or it could be that at some particular moment, Zach has determined, his body has determined, his bag of bones or whatever that is- bones and neurons and synapses and whatever- has determined that for this particular moment, he’s interested in the goldness of the picture that’s in the back of my head. And of all the chaos that he could be interested in, he has zeroed in on that. And at that particular moment, there’s no chaos. I’m zeroed in on that gold. But it’s very difficult for Zach or anybody else to recall that at a particular moment, he was interested in gold because- actually, that’s sort of the overall thing- he was trying to figure out what question is next or what thought about Hurlburt or whatever that was. And the gold, which actually drew him at that particular moment, would be forgotten like a dream on waking, you know? A second later, that’d be gone. But that is, I think, what makes up Zach’s actual inner life. Maybe. Maybe he clearly makes this the figure of his perception or whatever you want to call that, a figure of his consciousness, whatever it was before the footlights of his consciousness. There aren’t any good terms for that. But something becomes centralized, focused, thematized, whatever you want to say about that, for Zach at a particular moment. And then something else at another particular moment, and then something else at a particular moment. Those are the kinds of things that I’m interested in.

Zach: Yeah, it made me think of the trance-like state when you’re focused on something like you’re driving and your mind’s seemingly blank, but who knows what it was really doing. It’s hard to say what it was doing. It’s kind of dreamlike or trance-like or something. And maybe that’s a good. I was going to ask you this thing I’ve wondered about dreams, which I think seems kind of related. And I don’t know how many opinions you have on dreams, but one thing I’ve thought about dreams is that I don’t think, at least for me, I don’t think they’re visual. I think they basically are concepts and ideas that go straight into memory. And they get stored in a similar way because they’re in our memory and so they can have elements of… They can be hard to distinguish from the memories of visual things we’ve seen. But I think, for me, when I remember dreams, it’s often like it’s not like there’s a set image. It’s more like I know things happen. It’s much more conceptual and idea-related. That, to me, seems related to the mental imaging thing because I feel like it helps explain why they’re so ephemeral too in our memory because they don’t have all the solidity of I actually saw something and had all these extra details. It’s just the bare wisps of ideation and concepts coming together. I don’t know how you feel about that, whether dreams or everyone’s dreams are actually visual, if you have any thoughts on that.

Russell: I would say, first, I’m not a dream researcher, so I’m not in a position to say I’m an expert on that subject. Second, I would bet against almost everything that you said in your last question. If I were a betting man, I would guess that most of what you said is not true. I think most people have dreams. Most people that dream probably do dream (or many people, let’s not say most, but let’s say many people, and by many, I mean a lot) dream and it’s entirely visual or a big part of it is visual. I would bet most of the ranch at pretty good odds on that statement being true. It’s the same thing as I would say, there are many people who in their everyday waking life, which I think I do know something about, do have visual imagery. And it makes every bit of sense to say, “I saw whatever that was, but it wasn’t really there. It was in my imagination. So I would say I innerly saw that.” And there are some people who innerly see and convince me- I’m as skeptical as they come, or probably more skeptical than almost anybody you know, or a lot of people. I’m a very skeptical guy. So when somebody says I’m seeing something, I want to know what they’re talking about. And I’m convinced that many people, when they say I’m having an image, they mean I’m innerly seeing something. Other people who will say I’m having an image, they mean something conceptual, like you were describing. But I would say most people who talk about having an image are having some kind of visual experience.

But I don’t want to get us down into counting the number of people who are doing that kind of thing. But from the standpoint of what the phenomenon is, I would say I am 99.9999% sure that some people innerly see things with every bit as clarity and maybe more clarity than external seeing. And it’s just as visual an experience as an external seeing would be, in the sense that there’s colors and there’s forms and there’s motion sometimes, and sometimes it’s clear and sometimes it’s not.

Zach: Have there been studies on brain imaging to see if when people are doing that, do things show up in visual areas? Has there been that kind of stuff? Do you know?

Russell: There has been that kind of stuff. And most of that kind of stuff would corroborate that there is visual. The visual cortex lights up when people are reporting having visual. Those studies are not as good as I would like them to be, but then very few studies are as good as I would like them to be. But because they’re mostly about self-reported, people at this time are saying I’m having a visual image. I think there’s reason to be skeptical about that until you’ve got somebody pretty well-trained and knows what we’re talking about when we mean that. And those studies don’t generally have anywhere near adequate training.

I’ve done one set of studies, one small study or set of studies or whatever, where I’ve put people into the scanner and using the descriptive sampling method I’m talking about, just let them do whatever it is that they’re trying to do or would be happy to do in the scanner. And sometimes there’s visual imagery and sometimes there’s inner speaking and whatever. I think we’ve had enough. Scanner studies require a lot of reps and it’s hard to do this. We’re putting people in the scanner for like 10 hours, it’s a little tough to do that at scale. But I think we’ve done enough. We’ve done enough where I’m pretty convinced that there’s reason to believe that when I tell you that I’ve got a subject and that person’s got visual imagery and it really is seeing, you should believe me. That’s what I think. And you can say, “Well, you know, Russ could be crazy,” which he might be, but I think I have a track record that you shouldn’t just dismiss. Let’s put it that way.

Zach: Have they done a study… Have they noticed, when it comes to lighting up the visual cortex for inner thought things, have they noticed big differences in people in the aphantasia? Kind of like these people report seeing mental imagery and their brains light up in that way and these people don’t report it. Has there been anything like that?

Russell: I’m not particularly an expert in that, but I would pretty be pretty confident answering that question yes.

Zach: Oh, really? Okay. Yeah, I know there hasn’t been actual… From what I was reading, there hasn’t been that much research on the whole aphantasia thing. So it sounds like maybe nobody’s really done that.

Russell: And that could be, too. I don’t claim to be an expert there.

Zach: Gotcha. Gotcha.

Russell: The reason that I’m not particularly interested in that literature is that the…

Zach: They don’t describe… They may be bad describers, is what you’re saying.

Russell: There you go.

Zach: Yeah. Even if they say it, they may not be accurate describers of what’s going on inside. Yeah.

Russell: Right.

Zach: Right. Gotcha. Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, even just the most basic psychological things are so hard to study, so this just seems much harder to study. Well, yeah.

Russell: Let me… I’ve thought about saying this for a while so I’m going to say it now. Let me tell you why armchair introspection is difficult. And by armchair introspection, I mean, well, I’m going to ask myself what’s going on in my inner experience? One of the reasons that that’s difficult is that if you ask yourself, “Well, what’s going on in my inner experience right now?” Well, what’s going on in your inner experience right now is you’re asking yourself the question, “What’s going on in my inner experience right now?” But you think that’s not important. I want to rule that out because, obviously, I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in my experience that goes beyond that. But the problem is you’re ruling out everything that’s there. What’s there when you’re in the armchair introspection mode is the question, the intention of asking yourself what’s going on in my inner experience. That’s what’s in my inner experience. And then you rule it out and you can’t find anything else that’s left. And then you say all kinds of crap after that because you have ruled out what’s actually there. So what you need, I think, is some kind of an external signal to get you to engage in that armchair introspection task without the armchair, which is what the beeper is about. Some people derisively say, “Well, Hurlburt says he’s got a magic beeper,” or whatever. Well, that’s not true. What I say is I have an external signal that has a well-defined characteristic. It’s a beep, and the beep is either not here or it’s there. It has a sudden rise time and it comes at a time that’s not under your control, so you don’t have to ask yourself… And that’s a big deal when it comes to introspection. People will say, critics will say, “Well, you know, you hear the beep and then you’ve got to decide to introspect.” Well, yes, that’s true. But this is a skill that you can amass over a while so that you can do that skill pretty quickly. So the question is, “Well, can you do it quickly enough?”

William James says introspection is like turning up the gas to see what the darkness looks like or something like that. Well, that’s hard to do, but it was harder for James than it is for us because James had to turn up the gas where we have the virtue or the advantage of being able to create a beep in a way that was out of his ability. So, I can’t give you a beep and turn up the light to see what the darkness looks like. But I can, I think, give you a beep that allows you to see what kind of nocturnal animals are there before they get a chance to scurry away into the holes or wherever. And so I’m not getting a complete picture of what the darkness looks like, but I’m getting a picture of the darkness that’s better than armchair introspection work, because armchair introspection is, you know, I got to decide to do this and think about that.

Zach: Yeah, you’re trying to sneak up on it and catch it in the act. Yeah. So, getting back to the dream question because I personally am just very interested in dreams, when you said that you were confident that dreams were visual, there’s also the point that I think was brought up in that book you had with Schwitzgebel,; the point that people reported in the 1950s dreaming in black and white and then they reported dreaming in color. That’s not to say I think I’m not confident at all… I don’t have any confident beliefs that dreams are visual or originate in visual or don’t originate visual, but I’m curious you seem pretty confident in the visual origin of them. And I was just kind of curious what was behind that confidence.

Russell: Why should I be confident about that?

Zach: Mhm. If you are confident. Yeah.

Russell: Setting aside that I’m not going to talk about dreams because I don’t know much about dreams, but I talk about experience in general and I think people can be confident about visual experience in general. And if they can talk about it in general, they should be able to talk about it in their dreams as well, it seems to me, which is… So, why would I be confident about it in their waking life? Well, the example that you gave, I had a participant- a couple, actually- of older folks, they were 75 or 80-ish people. And one woman that I have in mind right now said, “I have quite a lot of visual imagery,” and she did. A beep occurred when she had visual imagery. She told me, “At one beep, I was seeing my flower garden. I wasn’t in my flower garden, but I was imagining my flower garden and I could see the yellows of the daffodils and the red of the roses laid out just like they were in my experience.” And then I had another picture and she said, “I see my piano. And on my piano is a photograph of my son in the army, and he’s in his uniform in front of the flag. And I see this whole scene in color and detail. The picture is looking in this direction and it’s like it really is in the real world.” And so she’s giving me a description that makes sense.

Then on the third day, she says, “You know, I don’t think I’ve been honest with you. I’ve been trying to be honest with you, but I don’t think I have. Because what I am now seeing in my experience is that my visual imagery is in black and white when it occurs. And then when I tell you about it, I colorize it. And I don’t feel myself colorizing. For example, if I were to really have been careful on that second day when I told you I saw my son in front of the flag, I think” she says, “that at the moment of the beep, that vision was in black and white. And there was no red, white, and blue on the flag. There was black and gray and white on the flag. But then when you asked me about it and I reflected back on it and could put all my attention to that, well, then I produced it in color.” And so what I think happens in that kind of thing is that a person, when they get older, loses some of their computational power or whatever that is. I don’t have a theory about computational power. But you’re going to simplify your life. And one important way to simplify your life is to deal with black and white imagery rather than color imagery. If you’re a computer person, you know that a black and white image has a lot fewer pixels to it. A lot fewer bits to it- same number of pixels- a lot fewer bits to it than a color image. Because you’ve got to provide the color information as well as all the rest of the information.

And so the processing on a computer, a computer can process black and white imagery a whole lot faster than it can process color imagery. So what I think happens for older people when they go through life and they’re seeing this image in their mind and seeing that and seeing whatever, and they’re extracting out of that the information that they need, it’s not probably the color information. But when they stop and think about it or stop and focus on some particular aspect, well, then the color information becomes somewhat more salient again and they put it in there. So, that kind of experience with me makes it seem to me, well, here’s a woman who hadn’t… That’s a pretty high-powered theory that she’s spinning. There’s no reason why she would have had that in mind. She didn’t have the theory. What I told her was the theory. She told me, “I was lying to you.” You know? “I was trying to be honest with you, but I think I was lying to you.” Why would she say that if she didn’t really have visual experience that was in some ways black and white and in some other ways in color?

Zach: Yeah. I guess the skeptic would say if she’s thinking of those, if she has the concept of that image of her son’s picture or whatever it is, it’s like that’s sparking all the neurons associated with that. So then later, from all the construction of all the things that spark all those things she’s saying, she’s adding detail like the faultiness of memory and such.

Russell: I agree. I totally agree with that. That’s why the method that I say, the Descriptive Experience Sampling method, has to be iterative. I don’t think we’ve used that word here, but iterative means we got to do this over and over again. Because there’s no way to answer the question that you just asked about an instance which has already occurred. But there is a way to say- and I could say to this woman that we’re talking about here- well, isn’t that interesting? Maybe going forward when the beep happens and the only shot that you’ve got is right then and right then, when the beep happens and you got a visual imagery, well, pay attention to whether it’s in black and white or color. That’s sort of interesting. You’re never going to get a better shot at that, including asking a philosopher about that. Because the skeptics aren’t going forwards, they’re going backwards. They’re given an explanation like you just gave, which is fine, a perfectly good explanation, but it’s not an adequate explanation because the only time the explanation actually counts is at the next beep and the one after that.

Zach: A quick note here. Obviously, I can only speak about my own experiences here, but I will say that even though I think it’d be easy for me to think of my dreams as visual in nature, I think that perception mainly comes from the tendency to assume that things we find in our memory have their origins in visual experiences. But I tend to question that assumption. For example, I seldom have a sense of having seen a dream scene from a specific angle. It’s often more just concepts and ideas that make up a scene. Even when I sometimes have a sense of something being visual, it’s hard for me to say confidently that it was really a visual experience and not, to quote the acquaintance that I spoke with, more like thinking about visualizations. This all reminds me of a strong ketamine trip I had once where I was conscious of having all sorts of conceptual scenes running through my mind. For example, the sense that I was experiencing all sorts of battles and conflicts in the early days of human history, but nothing I experienced was actually visual. But as Russ would probably agree, it’s difficult enough to study waking conscious life. It’s much more difficult to study dreams, which we only consciously remember after they’re over. And of course, it’s possible that because I don’t have mental imagery or don’t see myself as having mental imagery, maybe my dreams are much less visual than other people’s are. Okay. Back to the talk.

If I was going to read the book that you wrote with Schwitzgebel, is that still a good explanation of your ideas in that book? Because I know it was put out a while ago, do you still recommend it as a way to understand your views?

Russell: I haven’t read that book. That book is 15 years old now. I think the answer to that is in general, yes. There are probably some details that I would squirm at about what I said then and what I would probably say now. It’s different now. But I think in broad strokes, the answer to that would be yes.

Zach: Cool. Yeah, I wanted to read that. Yeah, I plan on reading that. Is there anything you wanted to throw in that you think we didn’t touch on that you’d like to mention that you think people would find interesting in this area before we end?

Russell: I would say anybody who’s interested ought to go to my website and poke around and watch it happen. Watch Descriptive Experience Sampling happen.

Zach: And what’s the website?

Russell: I don’t know. I’ll have to send it to you. If you Google me… Let me see what I can-

Zach: Is it live currently?

Russell: Yeah. So if you Google me, you would find my website. And my website is called

Zach: Oh, gotcha. Okay. Yeah, I’ll put a link to it.

Russell: And on the left-hand side of that website is a link that’s called complete DES interviews with annotated transcripts. If you clicked on that link, that would take you to 100 hours worth of interviews with aphantasia people and face blind people and journalists.

Zach: And it’s Was that it?

Russell: Yes. Yeah.

Zach: Okay, that’s great.

Russell: I’ll email it to you and make sure you get it right.

Zach: Yeah. But for people listening, I just want to make sure they checked it out. Okay. Thanks a lot, Russ. This was great and I think people will find this very interesting.

Russell: You’re welcome. My pleasure.

Zach: That was a talk with Russell Hurlburt, the author of several books on inner experience. You can get some links to resources that we mentioned in this talk at the entry for this talk on my site, Thanks for listening.

Music by Small Skies.


How a bus driver predicts the behavior of drivers and passengers, with Brendan Bartholomew

I’ve been resharing some episodes from early in the podcast that were interesting but that didn’t get that many listens. I’ve had a couple longtime podcast listeners tell me this was one of their favorites. A transcript is below.

This is a talk with Brendan Bartholomew, who’s a professional bus driver in San Francisco. We talk about the role understanding and predicting human behavior can play when driving a city bus. Topics discussed include: the importance of thinking ahead about potential pedestrian/traffic dangers; how bus drivers know who’s waiting for a bus and who’s not; thoughts on handling unruly and/or mentally ill passengers; how modern rideshare and scooter traffic have changed things for bus drivers.

For more info, see the original post.

Episode links:



This is the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding human behavior and psychology. You can learn more about it at

This episode will be one from the vault. I’ve been resharing some episodes from early in the podcast that I thought were interesting but that didn’t get that many listens. This one will be a talk with Brendan Bartholomew, who drives a bus in San Francisco. We talk about his skills at reading drivers and road situations in general. I’ve had a couple podcast listeners tell me that this was one of their favorites. 

Before playing the episode, I also wanted to announce that my new book on American political polarization is now out in paperback and ebook. The book’s title is How Contempt Destroys Democracy and this one is aimed at a politically liberal audience. If you’ve appreciated my polarization work, you might like to check that out; I obviously would appreciate any reviews on Amazon or elsewhere, and any mentions to people you know online or wherever else. 

Okay, here’s the talk with Brendan Bartholomew. 

Zachary Elwood: Today’s interview was recorded on March 13th, 2020. I interviewed Brendan Bartholomew, who’s a city bus driver in San Francisco. We talk about how understanding human behavior can play a role when you’re a bus driver. One disclaimer before we start, Brendan speaks only for himself. He doesn’t speak for the organization he works for.

Hey, Brendan, thanks for coming on.

Brendan Bartholomew: Thank you for having me. I’m very excited to be doing this.

Zach: Yeah, I appreciate your time. I should say I first learned about Brendan when I was searching online for stories about people driving buses and I found an article he wrote for CityLab. Brendan, you like to write other things too, right?

Brendan: Yeah, I was a freelance journalist first for the San Mateo Daily Journal. I did that for about a year. And then that kind of transitioned into me spending about four years as a freelance journalist for the San Francisco Examiner, and it’s something I’m very passionate about. I love doing it and I just wish I had time for it now. [laughs]

Zach: I saw in your article about driving buses, you said – this was a quote – “A big part of the training process is teaching future bus drivers to develop a sixth sense about things, to predict dangerous moves by pedestrians and motorists before they happen, so we can avoid collisions without braking hard.” Can you talk a little bit about… Would they give you specific tips on predicting dangerous moves by pedestrians and motorists?

Brendan: You can probably tell from reading my article that I am actually very much in love with that training program. The people in the training department are amazing human beings. They’re some of the funniest, most intelligent, most creative people you could ever hope to meet. And every single one of them has done the job. Every single one of them is a veteran bus driver themselves. And so in terms of tips and tricks, a lot of it has to do with these veteran operators sharing with us their own experiences, you know?

Zach: Scary stories, kind of stuff.

Brendan: Not even just stories. But yeah, there’s certainly a lot of those. But also a lot of… Like, you know, you’re driving the training coach down the road and your trainer is hovering somewhere behind your right shoulder pointing out things that you should be noticing. You’re going down the road and the trainer will be like, “Okay, see that kid over there on that street corner?” You have to be thinking, “What if…” His mom is holding his hand right now, but you have to be thinking, “What if he abruptly breaks away from his mother and comes running into the street?” You know? One of the guys who’s in charge of the training department actually tells a story about a time when he was driving a bus. He was coming abreast of a convenience store and he found himself getting on the brake pedal before he even knew why he was doing it. And it turned out that somehow, some part of his mind- because of how good he was about scanning the environment and making these assessments- some part of his mind realized a kid was about to run into the path of his bus before it even happened. I think if I’m remembering the story correctly, this was a kid who had just stolen something from the convenience store. And so his whole point to us trainees is, for us, it’s not enough that you noticed this kid running out of the convenience store after he’s stolen something, we want you to know that he’s inside there shoplifting before he’s even done it. And of course, that’s not reasonable. But that’s how he illustrates the gravity and the importance and the level of awareness and vigilance that they want to see in their operators.

Zach: There’s so many jobs that have that hidden kind of sixth sense that you can’t really communicate to people just from experience. Yeah.

Brendan: Speaking of the line training that I mentioned – that process during those last two weeks of training where you’re driving the bus actually in revenue service- that was another experience that really stuck out to me. There were moments where I’d be pulling the bus over into a bus stop because there’s somebody standing at the bus stop, and my line trainer would say, “Oh, no, no, she doesn’t want us.” And I’d be like, “How did you know that?” You do develop a certain sixth sense about that. It has to do partly with body language. But I’ve also noticed, with the prevalence of rideshare services, that’s actually a problem for us. There’s a lot of people out there that think it’s perfectly fine to stand at a bus stop and summon Uber or Lyft to come pick them up in the bus stop, which causes us no end of problems because then you can’t get the bus into the bus stop. But oftentimes, you can tell who’s at the bus stop waiting for Uber and Lyft and who’s actually waiting for a bus.

Zach: Right, because they’re just not paying attention. They’re looking at their phone kind of thing.

Brendan: I think part of it has to do with there is a certain stratification in terms of wealth and class in San Francisco. So the people waiting for Uber and Lyft, oftentimes, you can tell by the fact that they’re young and they look well dressed and upwardly mobile that it’s like, “Oh, yeah, okay, those kids are from the tech industry and they’re waiting for Uber or Lyft.” [laughs]

Zach: Let’s talk a little bit more about telling who’s waiting for a stop or not. Do you feel like it’s mainly just about body language? Like either they’re paying attention or they’re not, and then it’s about some class type?

Brendan: Yeah, at the opposite end of the class scale, there are certainly a lot of unhoused individuals in San Francisco. And many of them will habitually sit inside a bus shelter because they have no place to be and so you can oftentimes make a prediction based on whether or not they look like they might be homeless. As you’re approaching a bus stop, the person that’s waiting for the bus to stop, you might notice their head will trick up or they’ll turn and look towards the bus, you know? There are little nuances of body language.

Zach: What about when you’re pulling up to a bus stop and there’s a lot of people around like a crowded stop? I would think it would be hard at crowded stops to know when to pull away because, theoretically, people are coming towards the bus. Do you start to get a sense of, “Oh, this person’s rushing towards the bus, I have to wait,” or, “This person is walking towards the bus, but they’re not hurrying.”

Brendan: Yeah, there have been times where I’ll be mid block, like nowhere near the bus stop itself, and I’ll see somebody in the middle of the block hurrying up or running. And I’m thinking, “Okay, that person is trying to get to the bus stop before the bus does.” And I’ll toot my horn real quick, get their attention, and let them know that I’m aware of their presence so at that point they can relax because they know I’m going to wait for them when I get to the bus stop. The biggest hazard there is they want both wheels of the bus to be within 12 inches of the curb so that people with disabilities don’t trip and fall as they’re trying to get from the curb up into the bus. So for safety sake, you’ve got to get the bus close to the curb. But when there’s a big crowd of people standing at the curb, you really have to pay a lot of attention to whether or not some people in that crowd are going to spill off of the curb and into the space that the bus is in the process of occupying. So, part of that is reading the crowd. But at the same time, you have to respect the fact that your ability to read the crowd is not infallible. You know, honking the horn a little bit to kind of give people… Not an obnoxious honking of the horn, but a brief tap of the horn to let people know, “Hey, there’s a bus coming and maybe you all shouldn’t be standing with your feet hanging over the curb.” You know?

Zach: Yeah, people are pretty unpredictable.

Brendan: Yeah, very much so.

Zach: Do you feel like driving a bus has changed other things in your life like, for example, how you drive a car or how you interact with people or how you read people?

Brendan: Oh, yeah, all of the above. It’s kind of funny. Like in terms of how I interact with people, you know, you’re setting limits for people all day, and oftentimes you have people on the bus who might be dangerous. They might be acting wrong on the bus. So you really start to exercise this muscle of being able to politely confront a person who’s doing wrong in a way that maybe is not going to escalate the situation. And that does kind of translate over into your non-working life. There are times where you might encounter some situation on the street or whatever. Maybe somebody’s cat calling a woman or being racist in public or whatever, and I just find myself kind of being in their way and saying, “Hey, you know what you’re doing right now is really inappropriate.” That kind of thing.

Zach: Gently defusing it.

Brendan: Not necessarily gently, but it’s like-

Zach: Firmly.

Brendan: Yeah. So, there’s that. And then what was the other part of the question? Oh, in terms of how I drive my car. Yeah, I have a very good friend who owns a dog walking business. And on my days off, I love to meet up with her and actually drive her doggy van around with her while she’s picking up dogs and dropping off dogs. And the way she tells it, she’s like, “Muni has ruined you.” Because her little doggie van, it’s this tiny little thing. It’s no wider or longer than a passenger car, but I make these wide turns with it like I think it’s a bus. And oftentimes she’ll be like, “Okay, you’re overlapping with the oncoming traffic lane.” And I refuse to speed and I refuse to go through a yellow light. Because Muni trains us really good on, you know, if you see what they call a stale green light- like, if you’re approaching a green light and you didn’t see that light turn green- you have to be prepared for the fact that it might be about to turn yellow. And we don’t want you running a yellow light. So I’m now the slowest driver in the world, which is still-

Zach: Very safe. Yeah, very safe. That’s good. Good habits to have, for sure.

Brendan: Indeed.

Zach: I read a story on Reddit. There was a Reddit thread about driving buses and somebody had a funny story about I think it was their dad drove a bus. And sometimes when he was driving his car, he would absentmindedly stop at the bus stops. You know? [chuckles]

Brendan: Well, I’ve almost done that. It’s like there are times when I’m in my personal vehicle and I see people standing at bus stops, it’s like you kind of have to stop yourself.

Zach: Yeah, it makes sense.

Brendan: Another thing, actually, there are times in my personal life where you just almost organically happen to run into somebody who’s in crisis, or for whatever reason, stranded somewhere. And you’ll say like, “Well, of course, I’ll give you a ride. That’s what I do.”

Zach: Right. It kind of makes you into much more of a friendly driver when maybe you shouldn’t be that friendly.

Brendan: Yeah. And, of course, the other thing is as a motorist doing this job, it’s really made me very, very conscious of the fact that a cyclist or a pedestrian or somebody on one of those little rented e-bike scooter things could appear where I don’t expect them to be. It’s almost out of nowhere. And so it’s like just driving my personal car around, I’m much more likely to make eye contact with pedestrians and cyclists so they know that I know that they’re. I’m much more likely to yield the right of way to them, even if they’re acting wrong and violating my right of way or whatever.

Zach: Speaking of confronting people and setting limits and other non-bus circumstances, I was curious when they trained you, did they train you on de-escalation kind of scenarios? Or was that mainly something that you learned driving the bus?

Brendan: Both, I’d say. I mentioned in that article I wrote that there’s some training about cultural differences and inclusiveness and what not. As far as de-escalation training, that’s something that SFMTA is in the process of rolling out right now. I believe some of my coworkers have been through that already. And it’s kind of important because they don’t want us carrying weapons. I mean, we’re prohibited. Not even pepper spray. And if you get violently attacked, they’re going to look at the video. And it’s one thing to defend yourself while you’re being violently attacked in the driver’s seat. But if they see you get up out of that driver’s seat and chase the assailant down the street, at that point, they’re going to have a problem with you because they’re going to say, “Hey, your attacker was retreating. At that point, the situation should have been over. Why did you chase that guy down the street?” You know? Basically, the agency is very big on de-escalation.

Zach: Well, I’m surprised they wouldn’t even want you to carry pepper spray. That’d just seem like they would want you to have something like that. But I guess I can see why they wouldn’t want that.

Brendan: Yeah. I mean, it could be a real nightmare and open up quite a can of worms if you ever had an SFMTA employee using pepper spray on somebody for the wrong reasons, you know?

Zach: Right. Yeah, and then the person might have a heart attack or who knows, or they have something and then they’re at fault. Yeah. When you had mentioned scooters a second ago, that made me think I hadn’t really thought about scooters. Those being all over the streets, has that really impacted and made you more nervous on the streets because there’s so many people flying around scooters?

Brendan: Oh, yeah, very much. Those electronic scooters are definitely a problem. A lot of them, people ride them in bike lanes, and people using those devices don’t really pay attention to any of the rules of the road. So it’s very common to have a scooter user suddenly swerve across the path of a bus. There’s this concept of the Idaho Stop, which is the idea that if you’re riding a bicycle, it’s not reasonable to force you to stop for every red light and every stop sign, because then you’ll lose all of your momentum and since your bicycle is not dangerous to other people in the way that a car is. It’s called the Idaho Stop because I believe that was probably one of the first places where it was legalized for a cyclist to go through a stop sign or a red light when it’s safe to do so. The thing about these people with these little electronic sharing economy scooter things is that the existence of an Idaho Stop as a concept has contributed to users of these devices believing that they don’t have to stop for any red light or any stop sign ever. So it’s like when you think in terms of reading people, on the one hand, you might think, “Oh, it’s good to be able to read the body language or the intent of that scooter user and make a prediction about whether or not they’re going to run through that red light.” But the reality is you have to be prepared for every single one of them to do that, no matter what.

Zach: Right. Yeah, because you definitely don’t want to guess wrong.

Brendan: Yeah.

Zach: How often do you have people that start trouble on the bus or scare people on the bus? Is that a fairly frequent thing?

Brendan: It varies depending on which route you’re driving. You know, some routes go through rougher neighborhoods than others. My feeling is the sooner you intervene, the better. It’s interesting you talk about scaring people because there’s a lot of people who get on the bus who will say things that are really scary and that sound quite scary. And if I stopped the bus and tell him something along the lines of, “Hey, listen, I really need you to stop saying those things. I can’t move this bus if you’re saying things that sound threatening,” oftentimes, some people will calm down. And in many cases, mental illness plays a role in this. I’ve noticed San Francisco has a tremendous amount of people that do not have shelter and are out there living with mental illness while also living on the streets, and some of them can be going through a bad spot or a bad patch. I don’t know how to put it, but some of them can be having a crisis or having a bad day and it’ll cause them to say things that sound really scary, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience with mentally ill people. But oftentimes, that’s as far as it goes. It’s just, “Oh, this person is saying stuff that sounds really terrifying, but they have no intention of hurting anybody.” You know? I have a lot of friends on Facebook who are very transparent about their own experience of living with mental illness, and hearing from them has been tremendously helpful for me and guided me a lot in terms of my approach to my mentally ill passengers. At some point, one or more friends have clued me into the fact that a person who’s having what looks like a psychotic episode, if you’re a layperson who doesn’t understand what all of this means, you might think, “Oh, that person is having a psychotic episode. They’re completely irrational and dangerous. There’s nothing you can say to them.” But in terms of having friends with mental illness who have talked to me about this a lot on Facebook, what I’ve learned is that a person might be on my bus saying really lewd whatever, throwing out a bunch of four-letter words, yelling and whatever. And if I go back and talk to them and say, “Hey, I need you to stop saying these things that are threatening or obscene and stop yelling,” sometimes they’ll calm down. They’re not as out of touch with reality as we who are not mentally ill might think they are. They’ll notice, if you’re speaking to them in a way that is respectful. And for a lot of them, they are so marginalized that it has become unusual for them to have somebody with a home and a job address them in a way that is compassionate. Yeah.

Zach: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. I like to ask people when I do rideshare things or taxis, I like to ask them like, “What’s your craziest, wildest experience?” And somebody recently told me their experience of picking somebody up and the passenger started talking about, “Oh, I killed my cat. I did this. I did this,” and I realized he didn’t really know a lot of people with mental illness have these obsessions around death. It doesn’t mean that they actually killed their cat, they probably didn’t. But they like to talk about death and killing and stuff. I think a lot of people just don’t know that so it makes them… You know, people are obviously much more scared than they should be when people say scary things because they don’t realize a lot of times it just goes with the territory of some psychosis and obsession stuff.

Brendan: Yeah.

Zach: Yeah, you must really get good at dealing with people with mental illness.

Brendan: Yeah. And then of course, there’s also a lot of people that are homeless in San Francisco that were not mentally ill when they became homeless. And living on the streets exacerbated things and maybe caused them to either develop mental illness or get into a worse place mentally.

Zach: Let’s talk about traffic patterns. Do you have any examples that come to mind of how you’ve gotten better at reading how cars are moving or having to adjust to how cars are moving and that kind of stuff?

Brendan: Yeah. Definitely a car will have a body language to it. And I don’t know if I can really articulate it. I’m not sure how to put it into words, but cars definitely have body language depending on what the person driving the car is planning to do. An Uber or Lyft sticker in the car’s window oftentimes is a big clue that they might be about to slow down in the middle of the traffic lane and block your bus because they’re waiting for a passenger. Or they might block a bike lane and thus force cyclists to swerve around them into the traffic lane. Yeah, it’s interesting. I’ve noticed, there are people in San Francisco who think they can run red lights with impunity. And oftentimes, I can tell when somebody’s going to run a red light long before they do it. Obviously, the speed at which the car is moving is a big indicator. But it’s like sometimes you can just tell, even if they’re not necessarily speeding. And I don’t know how to explain how you can tell, but it happens.

Zach: Right, some sort of unconscious things you’re picking up.

Brendan: Yeah. Another thing that occurs to me that I wanted to mention is sometimes I feel like there’s a certain ‘feng shui’ to the way streets and roads are designed that in some almost intangible way, set people up for failure. For example, when I drive the 10 Townsend and or the 12 Folsom bus, both of those buses when they’re going towards downtown, they travel on a street called Pacific. On the Pacific, you’re in the North Beach Chinatown neighborhood. And Pacific crosses of Kearney Street, which is this major thoroughfare that goes up towards Broadway. And on Pacific when you’re crossing Kearney, it is almost inevitable that some pedestrians at the far side of that intersection are going to attempt to cross against the light and walk into the path of your bus. It happens so often at that intersection. I would love to see somebody with a lot more education than I possess really study that and figure out what is it about that intersection that is setting pedestrians up for this situation. And it’s usually they’re walking uphill. Usually they’re in groups with their friends and they’re laughing and joking and they don’t look at the cross traffic at all. It predictably happens at that intersection.

Zach: Right. It’s like you look at some… There’s definitely places that have more accidents and others and it’s like you could… I know sometimes they do study what is it exactly about this that’s not obvious that’s causing people to get in an accident?

Brendan: Yeah.

Zach: Interesting area of study. You had mentioned the body language of cars, and I was actually talking to another bus driver who I almost interviewed and he was talking about how he could tell patterns with the type of cars. Like, expensive cars behaved in a certain way. And I think he was saying the more expensive high-end cars would behave more aggressively and rudely to the bus, versus less expensive cars following the rules more. I don’t know if you notice anything like that.

Brendan: Well, yes and no. Because I feel like when you think about something like that, you have to really be on guard against your own confirmation bias. Meaning if you resent this guy because he has a $120,000 BMW and he violates your right of way, that’s going to stick out in your mind and you’re going to remember it more than the person in the Toyota Camry who behaved exactly the same way. But of course, as you might know, there are actually studies out there and think pieces about them on the internet about the idea that BMW drivers do actually habitually drive worse than owners of other cars.

Zach: Haven’t heard that.

Brendan: Yeah, BMW and Prius drivers are kind of notorious. [laughs]

Zach: Interesting. I was getting a ride from a Lyft/Uber driver and he was saying how he thought that Toyota drivers, for some reason, were the worst drivers on the road. And it was funny when he said that. Literally like a second after he said that, a car went zooming by us on the shoulder and sure enough, it was a Toyota. [crosstalk] It was strange that he happened to tell us that and we saw it firsthand. Do you have any opinion on Toyota drivers?

Brendan: No, not at all. Prius drivers have acquired a reputation for themselves, I think, because early on when hybrids were kind of new, there was this phenomenon of hybrid owners would be staring at their dashboard because they’re hypermiling and they’re watching that little gauge that shows exactly how many miles per gallon they’re getting. So Prius drivers kind of became notorious for going slower than the flow of traffic. And people that gravitate towards Priuses tend to be people that are not interested in driving because it’s not a fun driver’s car. So I think Prius drivers acquired a reputation. But no, I don’t have any kind of opinion about Toyota owners in particular.

Zach: Got you. Okay. Maybe it’s a Portland thing, if it is a thing at all.

Brendan: If you’re in the car enthusiast community, there are always car enthusiasts who have opinions, you know? Like, “Oh, Nissan guys are like this,” or, “Ford owners are like that.” But I think that’s just a lot of silliness really.

Zach: Right, it’s like sports teams kind of stuff. Can you think of any other things that come to mind as far as predicting car patterns or traffic patterns?

Brendan: Well, part of operating a bus safely is you have to occupy space in such a way that it makes it impossible for motorists to do dangerous things or discourages them from doing so. For example, when you’re making a right turn in a bus, there’s this phenomenon of the squeeze play, where if you’re turning wide enough that there’s enough room for a cyclist or a motorist to squeeze in between you and the curb while you’re making that right turn, somebody will try it. And, of course, what they don’t realize is that as you’re making the right turn, the space between the bus and the curb is getting narrower and narrower. So when somebody pulls that squeeze play, it’s entirely possible that the bus is going to make contact with them. So the way we’re trained is make that right turn not so wide. You know, lock up the space so that you’re aware of what the back wheel is doing and make sure you look in your right mirror enough times that you’re not making it… I mean, I’m kind of repeating myself here. But, yeah. Another example would be if you’re driving on a street with really narrow lanes that has a lot of parked cars sticking out on the right hand side because maybe the area for parked cars is narrower than it should be, you want to keep the right side of your bus away from those parked cars. It’s especially an issue in San Francisco because our housing crisis is so insane that we have a lot of people who live in RVs and vans now so there are a lot of major thoroughfares with tons of RVs and vans that stick out kind of far from the curb. And so what you want to do is keep the right side of your bus away from those parked vehicles. That means you have to encroach on the lane to the left of the lane that you’re driving in. And one of my trainers very recently told me, “You know what? Don’t just drive with your left-hand tire on that line that divides the lanes because…” Well, I actually brought it up with my trainer. Because if I’m driving with my tire on the stripe that divides the lanes, what happens is motorists will squeeze past me in that lane that’s to my left. And that’s dangerous. So what this trainer told me was go ahead and split those two lanes so you’re occupying 50% of that lane to your left and 50% of that right lane. Because at that point, you’ve taken away the ability of a motorist to split the lane with you and so it’s a lot safer because they’re not going to sideswipe you if they can’t squeeze past you on your left.

Zach: Do you feel like when you actually start getting pretty skilled at something like this, and for a lot of things in general, it’s like you can have that curve of getting so skilled that you get too relaxed and paying attention as much and you go into autopilot. I imagine that’s got to be a risk for skilled bus drivers.

Brendan: Yeah, very much so. I used to have this regular passenger, a woman by the name of Nikki, who had a lot of experience driving buses in Las Vegas and also had a lot of experience as a big rig truck operator. And she used to get on the 19 Polk all the time. She would talk to me about things and she told me that her observation was that two years in is when you really see operators begin to have accidents that are kind of surprising. Because at that point, you know enough and you’re confident enough that you may be a little bit dangerous. [chuckles]

Zach: Right, that must be such a pattern in so many jobs. You start to know enough to get relaxed and then that’s when you’re really dangerous.

Brendan: Yeah, quite possibly. But at the same time, it’s best to not be… I feel like there’s a healthy amount of terror that you should have at all times. The analogy that I think of a lot is I’ve been told that people who fly helicopters have to always be prepared for disaster at all times. There’s this thing called auto-rotation that would allow a helicopter pilot to not have a catastrophic crash even when they lost the engine, because the rotors are still spinning. So you can use this auto-rotation technique to put the helicopter down in a way that’s not a crash when you’ve lost your engine. But the problem is you got to always have a place where the helicopter can be put down if that happens. So what I’ve been told is that helicopter pilots are always constantly scanning the terrain during every second that they’re in the air, always making sure that they are aware of where’s that flat surface that’s wide enough and unobstructed enough that I could put the helicopter down right now if I had to. And I feel like there’s a certain parallel to driving a bus. It’s like you always have to be thinking about what can go wrong right now. What is the disaster that is about to happen if I’m not vigilant? You know?

Zach: Continually scanning the horizon or the road.

Brendan: Yeah, very much so.

Zach: For a couple of summers, I worked for a plumbing company. I drove one of their bigger trucks and I still have nightmares about (bad dreams, anyway) about driving the truck of it flipping over or me hitting something randomly on the road. Did you have any of those fears going in that you had to get over?

Brendan: Oh, yeah. I mentioned that in the article I wrote. Basically, because I’d never driven a large vehicle before I entered Munis’ training program, I certainly found them kind of intimidating. During that first week when you’re doing the obstacle course in the training program, you look in that outside mirror, and there is a flat mirror but there’s also a convex mirror. The convex mirror shows more of what’s out there but it makes everything look small. And so you look in that convex mirror and it’s really kind of scary. Because you can see the sides of the bus and the right rear tire or both rear tires, depending on which mirror, but the thing is you’re looking in there and it’s kind of shocking how far away that back tire is from where you’re sitting. And it really drives home the fact that this is a really large vehicle covered with blind spots, and it’s potentially a very dangerous machine if you operate it wrong. And the first time I ever noticed that, it was legitimately terrifying. But what I eventually began to realize was that those mirrors were my best friends because they allow you to project your consciousness outwards and towards the sides and back of the bus. So in some way, it makes the bus feel smaller because you know what’s going on back there.

Zach: That’s an interesting choice of words, project your consciousness. Because it must be like with driving, you start to feel like actually this is your body. So giving you that awareness of the different parts of the bus, over time, you instinctually start to understand that this bus is kind of yourself in a way. The sense of it.

Brendan: Yeah, I don’t know if I really… It’s weird because it’s like I’ll watch somebody driving one of our buses or just look at one of my co-workers going by and it’s kind of a surreal experience. Because when I’m outside the bus, I’m looking at it and it’s like that thing is larger than some studio apartments in San Francisco. And it’s crazy that I get to drive that thing! You know?

Zach: Yeah, it’s intimidating. One big problem I see with people’s driving abilities in general, not buses, is that so many people don’t know how big their vehicles are. And I’m wondering is that something they really focus on when you do the training? Because that would seem to me to be one of people’s biggest weaknesses.

Brendan: Yeah, that obstacle course during the first week, a lot of it is all about, “Can you get around these orange cones without running them over?” Because are you able to internalize an understanding of, you know, the bus is eight and a half feet wide- I think it’s 10 and a half feet tall and 40 feet long- and are you able to understand that on some kind of deep level? Alot of it is reference points. It’s like you have to use your mirrors to know what the sides of the bus are doing and what the back wheel is doing, especially as you’re going around turns. But there’s also a lot of understanding what reference points you might need to use outside the bus. You know, what part of the bus needs to be lined up with this fixed object in order for me to start turning, so that I’m not turning too soon so I don’t hit the fixed object as I’m trying to steer around it.

Zach: Right, that would be like looking at the windshield and knowing a certain place is the side of your bus kind of thing.

Brendan: Yeah, exactly.

Zach: Anything else stand out as far as really interesting times? Do you have equivalents of when you said your acquaintance seeing somebody running out of the store ahead? Do you have any things that stand out like that where you’re like, “Oh, that was really cool that I knew that.”

Brendan: Oh, yeah, definitely. But I think long and hard about my failures also. And this comes back to reading people. I had this experience a few months ago, where this woman got on the bus and she was just talking wrong. She was saying things that were bad and wrong. It was a crowded bus and it’s like there’s this mental calculus that I did where I’m thinking, “Okay, I could make a big show of the fact that I’m in charge of this environment and I have the authority to deny service to somebody. I could stop the bus right now and tell her she has to get off. Or I could stop the bus right now and tell her she has to behave herself if she wants to ride on the bus.” But my experience has been that oftentimes these situations resolve themselves on their own. And oftentimes, based on where we were, it seemed like maybe probably that person was just going to ride for a couple of blocks and get off. So I did not intervene. And I think about this event a lot because what wound up happening is she actually put her hands on another passenger in a way that was really disturbing and it was hugely dramatic. And at that point, I had to stop the bus and call the people on the radio that give me orders and tell them, “Hey, get some police over here.” She actually exited the bus because there were many passengers around her that intervened in the situation. But that was a tremendous learning experience for me because it was like, basically, I should have trusted my gut and I should have intervened sooner. You know? It’s like if I’d just set the tone a little bit sooner and said, “Hey, you know, you can’t really be saying these threatening crazy things because I can’t operate the bus whilst something like that is happening on board the bus,” I have to wonder if I’d done that much earlier in the situation, maybe she would have never put her hands on that woman, and therefore, that woman would have had a much better experience. You know?

Zach: Must be all sorts of ways to second guess yourself, though. Because who’s to say, if you did it a different way, something worse could have happened or something. But I’m sure you’re always learning about better ways to process.

Brendan: Yeah. Muni, and in their training program, they’re really clear about telling us, “Hey, you’re not the police.” I actually have a co-worker, this guy named [***]. He’s a bodybuilder. And I know from talking to him that he has, you know, he could handle himself in a fight. But he once shared with us his technique when somebody is acting wrong on the bus. His way of approaching it is they’ll stop the bus, and he’ll speak to them in a very calm tone of voice and he’ll say to them, “Look, I can’t tell you what to do. I can’t tell you to get off this bus. But I can’t move this bus as long as you’re on it.” His philosophy on that is basically that at that point, he’s giving them their power. He’s not even ordering them to do anything. He’s telling them… He’s allowing them to make the decision. And because they’re keeping some of their power, it’s a less dangerous situation.

Zach: That makes sense because for people going through mental stuff, the feeling that they’re out of control probably plays a role. So to put the control on them is probably helpful for them avoiding getting angry.

Brendan: Yeah. And my sense was that he wasn’t even necessarily talking about people with mental illness.

Zach: Just anyone.

Brendan: Yeah, sometimes people just are toxic and violent in their speech and demeanor. You know?


What’s the best strategy for reducing polarization: changing the system or culture?, with David Foster

A talk with David Foster, who writes about polarization and media at and is the author of “Moderates of the World Unite!: Reworking the Political Media Complex.” Topics discussed include: the optimal approach for reducing toxic political polarization (cultural change vs systemic changes); defining the word ‘moderate’ and examining some of the negative connotations it has; the difficulty of making any changes in a polarized, high-animosity environment; why some conservatives dislike the idea of making systemic changes; the ideas in David’s book for improving the media environment and political discourse. A transcript is below.

Episode links:

Resources related to or mentioned in our talk:


Zachary Elwood:

Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me Zach Elwood.  This is a podcast about psychology and behavior. You can learn more about it 

Sometimes this podcast focuses on America’s political polarization problem, as I think it’s our most serious problem and also a problem that, by its nature, prevents people from caring about solving the problem. I focus on it because I think not nearly enough people do. 

On today’s episode I talk to David Foster, who writes about polarization and the media landscape on his site and who recently released a book aimed at reducing toxic polarization titled Moderates of the World Unite!: Reworking the Political Media Complex. 

David and I talk about polarization and media, and we focus on the question: what’s the most optimal strategy for trying to reduce toxic polarization? Is it better to focus on making systemic changes, like passing legislation aimed at improving the media environment or other policies? Or is it better to focus on changing the culture; changing the way everyday people think and treat each other? 

David has focused more on the systemic aspects, specifically with regards to the media environment. In my work I’ve focused on more cultural change. So this talk might be interesting to you apart from polarization because the focus is on: how do we change culture for the better? What are the levers we have to pull? 

And for anyone interested in polarization I think this is a very important question that doesn’t get asked enough. Trying to figure out the best ways to spend our time is an important issue; we want to get the most bang for our buck, or for our effort. So it’s David and I’s hope this is of value for people in the bridge-building and depolarization space. 

And just a note that this is a video talk and the video version is on my People Who Read People youtube channel. So if you’re listening on audio and it sounds less edited than usual, that’s why. I’ve been trying to do more video talks. 

Okay, here’s the talk with David Foster, author of “Moderates of the World, Unite!”.

Zach: Let’s start out with, how did you get into this work? What drives your passion in this area? If you want to summarize that, I know that’s a big question.

David Foster: Yeah. Yeah, that is a big question. I mean, the motivation is probably pretty similar to yours and everyone who works in the whole problem of polarization and depolarization. I want to see this country have a more pragmatic problem-solving attitude towards everything. And polarization is making our government, especially the Congress, kind of dysfunctional and unable to do much of anything, as we are currently seeing in the Congress even in the past few weeks. That’s what’s driving me. I guess you could call it idealistic, but I’m really interested in… I think it’s a super important problem and it kind of gets in the way of solving other problems. Yeah, that’s what’s driving me. As you know, my career has been in online course development- eLearning- and my educational background even goes back into studying theory and cognitive science and computer science. I know a lot about learning systems, like technology-based learning systems, and I think maybe that gave me ideas about ways to approach the problem that not everyone would think of. And I rose to a pretty high level, I guess you could say, in that whole sector but decided five years ago that I want to work on this problem because it’s so urgent.

Zach: Is part of your frustration maybe like mine, where you feel a bit of frustration because people aren’t paying enough attention to these things as they should?

David: Yeah. Yeah, huge frustration. And it’s super daunting. You and I have talked a lot and I think we both feel it, you know? I remember a guy who was kind of a mentor who was coaching me, and he described it once, “Well, you know, David, what you’re doing is sort of like standing on the yellow line in between two lanes of traffic speeding in different directions. That’s kind of where the moderates and the people who want to work on polarization are.”

Zach: You need like a thin yellow line flag or something.

David: Yeah, definitely. [laughs] Definitely.

Zach: Maybe we can work on that branding. That might be good.

David: Yeah, that’s a branding opportunity for sure.

Zach: Yeah. Maybe that’s a good segue to talk about, you know, you and I have talked about the two different high-level categories of how to approach this kind of work. You focused on the more systemic changes, like changes to media or policy, and I have focused more on grassroots convincing people of the need for it. Yeah, and I want us to be real frank here because I have my own doubts about whether I’m spending… We can all second guess if we’re spending our time on the right things, but maybe you could talk a little bit about why you have focused on the systemic changes as opposed to the more kind of grassroots mass mainstream convincing efforts.

David: Right. Right. Yeah, it’s a really good question and quite a dilemma. I have to caveat first by saying that I do see a lot of value in grassroots efforts and I admire the work that people are doing. And it can only be a net positive, you know? Even if it doesn’t change the world, every little bit helps. Also, the other caveat is we need multiple approaches. None of us knows which is going to have the most impact and so we should welcome all approaches as I do, and I’m sure you do as well. The analogy– or try out this analogy, I’m curious what you think– My belief is that there’s some value towards focusing on the system-level things in terms of efficiency and productivity and impact. An analogy that I would use is, when inflation is heating up, one approach would be to try to convince all the companies in the country to not raise prices, you know? Or the Fed can raise interest rates and it spreads through the whole system and it’s more efficient and scalable and all those good things. So the analogy in the face of escalating polarization, one approach is to try to convince individuals to work on their own contributions to polarization. And you’ll get some people to do it, for sure, and it helps. But my take on it is that why not, instead, go at the cause of it in the media environments and what’s really causing it? Because it’s my belief that the escalating polarization we’ve had in the last 20 years is not due to a change in human nature. That’s kind of the reverse direction of the causality, in my opinion, that when you’re trying to fix individuals, that’s trying to fix the effects. Whereas, in my opinion, the cause is primarily due to the change in the public media environment.

Zach: Right, environment. Yeah.

David: But not public media, just the media environment.

Zach: Right. Right. Yeah, and I’d say I’m with you in the sense that I don’t have any firm opinions. Actually, talking to you about this in the past made me update my book because I felt like I was downplaying systemic change too much. It’s not that I’m like… I think systemic changes are very good and very important. And like you say, I think we need everybody working on it. Because I think the way I think of what I’m doing or what other organizations who focus on convincing people of the need, I see it as some of those people we convince that it’s a big problem will help create the systemic changes and there needs to be some sort of pressure to work on those things. But yeah, like you say, it’s like I have doubts about what am I or what are any of these organizations really doing. Because if you change a few people’s minds, how much is it doing? But then you can also have those doubts about the systemic change aspect, where it’s like, “How can we really get this gridlocked Congress to pass a systemic change?” So to your point, I see them as [working a concert]. You have to convince enough people to even try it, too, whatever you’re going to try to do systemically. Yeah.

David: Right. Right. Yeah, it’s a chicken and egg problem, for sure. I think one of the things that the grassroots efforts aren’t doing enough of, you know, I agree that if enough people are sort of working on depolarizing themselves and learning how to be more civil and so forth, that could generate some pressure. But it’s not really getting them thinking about the media environment and about what’s… And so if no one’s really thinking about, well, what could Congress even do, that’s not going to put any pressure on Congress. Or at least that’s my concern.

Zach: Yeah. And to your point, I can imagine somebody could easily take… A Republican or a Democrat Congressperson could easily take an idea out of your book and make a bill around it or something, right? Theoretically, that could pretty easily get bipartisan support and could pass and you can make a big impact. So I see your argument that the effort of getting something through to draw attention or to change the immediate environment is theoretically a much bigger payoff for the effort, right? Because I have that sense, too, when say even a few thousand people read my book, for example, it’s like yeah, what does that really do? I think most of that effort is actually wasted but it’s kind of my hope that a few of those people will do something else. Like, a few of those people will be influential. That’s kind of my idea. That’s how I think of it. It’s like, maybe one of those people, for example, could be a congressperson who takes one of your ideas and makes it into a bill.

David: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Zach: That’s kind of how I view the interconnection there, you know? It’s all good stuff and I’m not convinced my approach is the most efficient either.

*** A quick note here. I wanted to say that I think I was underselling cultural change work a little bit here. I don’t work on cultural change stuff only in the hopes that it gets people to work on more systemic changes. That’s underselling what I see is the power and goals there. I think it’s actually easier to change culture than we sometimes think. Sometimes all it can take is a few relatively influential people pushing back on certain behaviors to affect other people’s behaviors, to affect a lot of people’s behaviors. I think many of us have overly pessimistic and fatalistic views about the difficulty of changing culture. I think getting a decent percentage of people to think differently about politics and how we engage with other people can actually make a big difference, especially if some of those people have influential voices and are brave enough to speak up and push back on the incentives and the toxic polarization. I just wanted to clarify that a little bit as I felt I was doing a disservice to the cultural change work.

Okay, back to the talk. ***

David: Well, I’m probably jumping ahead and talking about specific ideas, but you said something about it would be easy enough for a legislator to take one of the ideas in my book and turn it into a bill. I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. Like it’d be that easy.

Zach: Oh, not that easy? It’s possible, though. Right?

David: But it’s possible. Yeah. And unless people are sort of suggesting it, it won’t happen at all. We can get into this if you want but part of the problem is especially on the [unintelligible 00:16:15] who just doesn’t want a lot of people on the Right, who just don’t want the government to do anything. You can make your arguments about how, “Wait, this is fair to both sides what we’re doing here,” but yeah, there will be resistance.

Zach: Yeah, to that point. That was actually… It’s kind of obvious in hindsight, but that didn’t really strike me until pretty recently a few months ago, where I saw a conservative person on Twitter respond to an idea of a government-led depolarization effort. Like you said, they were very much against the idea for the usual conservative reasons of like, “We don’t want government solving this, government’s just going to make it worse.” I hadn’t really realized that but in hindsight, it’s like, yeah, of course, they’d be against a government solution. That’s not to say all conservatives or Republicans would be against that, because clearly Republicans have some government programs they like so if you could convince enough of them, then maybe it will go over well. But yeah, that was an interesting angle too that I hadn’t really seen until recently.

David: Yeah. No, definitely, that’s one of many obstacles and barriers. Yeah. Or headwinds. I don’t know what the right word is. [chuckles]

Zach: Yeah, I think the difficult thing with the gridlock and always thinking in the worst case framing is even if you arrived at something that in better times both sides would agree to mostly, how it often goes is one side will be like, “I think they’re getting a slight advantage,” so they are against it. That’s kind of how a lot of these things end up going, which speaks to just the problem of polarization in general. Yeah.

David: Yeah. But, you know, this is another one of these things where a large portion, I think, a large portion of the country is pretty tired and disgusted with the extreme partisanship and the gridlock. You could even maybe say that a lot of Trump’s base is motivated by the antipathy towards Congress and how they just aren’t paying attention to what they care about or what their needs are. And then there’s the exhausted majority kind of stuff, you know? So I think there’s a hunger for it, but it needs to get more focused. That’s one of the things I hope my book might be, in a small way, helpful in trying to do.

Zach: I do think there’s– even in Congress, I think even if there’s pressure to not talk about it, I think even many of those people want solutions. Right? Because I think many of them, even if they stay quiet for fear of hurting their side or whatever, I think many of them are sick of it.

David: Oh, for sure. Yeah. Oh, like there’s the Problem Solvers Caucus, which that’s kind of their mission; is to sort of bust through all that. But it hasn’t been easy. And no labels, you know? It’s been excoriated by Democrats. Because it’s a spoiler, it’s going to get Trump into office, and so forth. But in spite of all that, I think they have some base of support that wants to look for a different way.

Zach: That’s good to have. It’s like a trial balloon to see how much support those kind of third-party candidates would get. Do you want to talk about the… Let’s talk about your book, if you want to talk about, what were you most proud of when it comes to the proposals in there or what was the most unique ideas? Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

David: Yeah, no, definitely. That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it?

Zach: If you’re willing.

David: Absolutely. Well, I haven’t even said much about the book. So, just to kind of high-level it just to start, the book has two parts to it. One is, it’s kind of an analysis of the way that for-profit media just in the last two to three decades has influenced and caused really rapidly accelerating polarization in the country. Then the second half is, I attempt to provide a vision of several national-level initiatives at a scale that tries to match the size of the problem as a way to potentially turn things around. I can talk a little bit about some of the ideas, but the key theme, I guess, would be that it’s trying to change the national speech environment. And I think it’s going to require, not for every one of the proposals, but for a lot of them, some legislative action to make them happen. That will bring out the free speech or First Amendment absolutist saying, you know, you can’t do that. But a key is that none of the proposals are about any type of censorship or trying to control the content. All of the proposals have to be nonpartisan and have the right governance structures in them and so on.

And the goal is not to change the content of speech anywhere, but the speech environment. You know, the world has changed pretty dramatically in the last two decades. The speech environment, it’s nothing like anything the founders could have ever envisioned. And what we’ve seen is social media is destroying the economic model for journalism and it’s just become this terrible race for profitability, both the social media companies and the news media companies. If you heard the expression ‘cheap speech’ which was coined a few years ago, it’s kind of an acknowledgment that in the old days, there wasn’t very many ways to get speech out there; there was a few networks and so on. And in the new environments, with lots of different TV channels and of course with social media and blogs, we’re just drowned in speech. The founders could have never anticipated that. I believe that the Fourth Estate is supposed to facilitate democratic discourse and I think what we’re looking at is a massive market failure. That’s why I think who else but the government can come in and try to fix the speech environment. The speech environment, not speech. [laughs]

Zach: Right, the environment. Yeah. [crosstalk] Yeah, go ahead.

David: Let me stop there.

Zach: This is something I think about sometimes, I’m curious if you’ve thought a bit about it. I sometimes think about the immense demand for content that all these companies have and how that’s a factor in destabilizing us. It’s like in order to fill these airwaves, these many vacuum of airwaves, people need content. And what are we going to make for content? We’re going to make stuff that presses people’s emotional buttons, right? The demand to create all this to make money, basically, and fill this huge amount of bandwidth we have of content, they create all this stuff that polarizes us and divides us unintentionally, often. But I just see it as this machine for destabilizing us. There’s just so many narratives floating around, so many divisive polarizing narratives, and just so much content. Yeah.

David: Yeah, right. Well, I think in this new era, we should start regarding the really limited amount of attention that individuals have as a precious societal resource that we should stop wasting on sensationalism and polarizing rhetoric and stuff like that. It’s a really precious resource that we should be trying harder to make the best use of for everyone.

Zach: Right. Just think about the millions of hours that people spend on these meaningless shows and watching videos on TikTok. Anyway, I’m digressing and ranting a little bit, but it’s just… I mean, I do that a good amount myself, but… Maybe we can talk about one of your ideas that you’re most proud of. I think you had mentioned something about the– I can’t remember the exact name, but something involving silo. [00:27:06]

David: Yeah, yeah. That’s one I like to… That might be the one I’m proud of at some level, at least. I think it’s kind of creative. Yeah, that one is… In the modern media environment, we have these echo chambers, as they’re called. They may be sometimes overstated, but when you’re in an echo chamber, you only hear the version of reality on that political side. And what you do hear about the other side is mostly a straw man. It’s like—

Zach: Worst-case arguments.

David: Yeah, worst-case arguments. And when you’re in echo chambers, it also contends to push everyone to have more extreme views. Anyway… So the idea for this proposal is to pass a new law that requires all media outlets of all types– and this has never been easy for me to explain real quickly but I’ll do my best– requires all of them to allow a new technical scheme that injects on-the-spot counter-speech into every broadcast or article or whatever. The way that would be done is to register what I call a designated opposition person for each of those news outlets or– I don’t know how granular it would get. And there’d be on all screens, whether it’s a TV screen, computer screen for social media or for news websites, at the end of each associated with each content piece, there would be this recognizable button which I call OPPO, O P P O for opposition. No one’s ever encouraged or required to click on it, but anytime they do, they can get what an opposition person would have to say about that particular content. So can you see how it busts open the echo chamber in a way by inserting… Now, you might think that, okay, that opposition person is just going to spew propaganda and take apart everything that the speaker or writer has to say. Actually, I don’t think it would work that way. Because you know you’re in a unfriendly audience and it’s your job to appeal to them.

Zach: Yeah. You don’t want to drive them away. [crosstalk]

David: You don’t want to drive them away. Yeah. Right. So I don’t know, is that a good explanation? [chuckles]

Zach: Yeah. I think people would have a lot of questions about how the specifics of— [crosstalk]

David: Absolutely. Buy the book and you’ll find out. [laughs]

Zach: Okay. But that idea, it kind of gets to the heart of how I view these things. Because to me, it’s like this divergence of narratives, right? These narratives are growing apart.

David: Oh, yeah.

Zach: So it’s like anything you can do to get people to start considering the better aspects of the other narrative will draw the narratives a little bit closer together. Right?

David: Yes. Yes.

Zach: And that’s how I think about a lot of the stuff I write about. If you engage with the better arguments on the other side, it draws the narratives together. Yeah, to your… I was going to bring up, too, a good example of the whole bubble phenomenon recently was when the Supreme Court was, you know, everybody knew the Supreme Court was going to weigh in on the Colorado ruling to remove Trump from the ballot. That was a good example where in the liberal-leaning sphere, I saw these people act as if it was a certainty that that was a good ruling Colorado made and the only reason the Supreme Court would vote against it would be Conservative bias or pro-Trump bias. Versus I read Tangle News– which I just interviewed Isaac Saul who started Tangle News recently– and I had a much better idea that, oh, from reading that and reading the arguments, I was almost certain that the Supreme Court was going to rule against it and why and what the good reasons were. But the thing I saw in the Liberal-leaning sphere, including people I knew, they spoke as if you had that opinion that that was going to happen or if you thought that those were good arguments, that you were pro-Trump or you had Conservative bias. I think that was just a good example where everyone was shocked, like, “What do you mean that was a unanimous Supreme Court ruling? I was expecting it to be split amongst the usual.” That was just a good example where if your example for your solution for that would be on CNN, there would have been somebody explaining the better arguments and even why Liberals and Democrats should want that because if they went the other way, it could be used against a Democrat president. These kinds of better arguments which I just don’t think many people are exposed to for many of these issues on either side. Yeah.

David: Yeah, we’ve talked about this before. We both believe that most political thinking is in the form of narratives. A term I use a lot in my book for it is ‘talking points’, which are the manifestations in public discourse that sort of create and activate and reinforce narratives—

Zach: —in the pieces of the narrative. Yeah. [crosstalk]

David: Yes. Right. Right. Right.

Zach: Gotcha.

David: I also– I don’t know if this is the ideal place to stick this in but since you brought up the liberal bubble, I just wanted to plug your book. I think it’s so great your approach or your taking of just focusing on one side, for this book anyway.

Zach: Oh, the latest one. Yeah.

David: Yeah, your new one. Right.

Zach: Yeah, to a liberal anti-Trump audience. Yeah.

David: Right. Because there’s so many liberals and progressives who think, “Oh, it’s just that side’s problem,” and they don’t see the way they’re contributing to the polarization themselves. And the way that liberal sanctimony just really pisses people on the Right off to such a deep, deep degree.

Zach: The righteousness.

David: And righteousness. Yeah. Not that there’s not some of that going the other way too, but it’s not totally symmetric in my opinion.

Zach: Yeah, I do often think about the… I mean, there’s all sorts of asymmetries, which I think is an unexamined part of examining American polarization or any conflict as these group asymmetry. It’s like the fact that liberal-leaning people dominate the mainstream media and the Hollywood and academic world, it’s like that is an asymmetry that has effects on how the conflict plays out. And I don’t think those kinds of asymmetries are talked about enough, but…

David: Right.

Zach: Do you want to… Is there anything we haven’t gotten to that’s important that you want to touch on?

David: Well…

Zach: Oh, I was going to ask you about your book title. The word ‘moderates’ can be kind of off-putting to some people because some people are like, “I have views that some people would consider extreme.” I don’t want to be a moderate, you know, but there’s different approaches of explaining or defining what a moderate is. So, maybe you could talk a little bit about how you view that word.

David: Sure. Well, the definition that I use is… There’s a lot of different interpretations. And some of the interpretations of what a moderate is aren’t too complimentary. They’re people who are wishy-washy, indecisive, low information… And that’s true for some people, for sure. So the definition I used in my book, and it’s not a standard definition, but it’s people who despise both the hard Right and hard Left; who are resistant to sort of one-sided grand-sweeping narratives that come from either side.

Zach: When you say despise, you don’t have to hate them as people, just dislike their ideas and approach. Right?

David: Yeah. Well, yes, except for I have a special place in hell in my book for propagandists who intentionally manipulate the system. Most of what’s going on in the system is just economic forces. And I don’t blame journalists or social media companies or anyone, generally, the one bad actors or one category of bad actors are those propagandists.

Zach: You got your nine levels of polarization hell.

David: [chuckles] Exactly. But to your larger point, no, I never despise the people who are in a lot of cases pawns of a lot of this. But, yeah.

Zach: Although I will say the thing that strikes me is some of these people who I think are some of the most, in my mind, honestly kind of gross and despicable people– I’m not going to name any names right now, I talk about them elsewhere– but some of these people are to me like it’s really hard to separate their propaganda from the true belief. Because some of these people, to me, are like their minds have been deranged by conflict. They really do think that they’re in an us versus them battle. And I guess that gets into where they’re willing to the-ends-justify-the-means kind of approaches where they’re like, “Yeah, we’re willing to bend the truth or even even lie because the ends are so justified and…” Not to excuse it, but it’s like some of these people I think have been deranged by conflict. Which I think is the bad thing about conflict and extreme polarization, is that it deranges more and more people to be that way. Right?

David: Sure. Definitely. Yeah. And if I thought the planet was going to be destroyed if I didn’t win, I might be willing to lie too. So your point is well taken. But I will name one name just as a counter-example.

Zach: I’m willing to name some names, you know? I just didn’t want to derail it. But…

David: Oh, well, I’ll just name one. Although I won’t go so far as to say that I know what his true beliefs are. But Christopher Rufo, do you remember that ignominious tweet that he did about three years ago about how he was programming the world to understand the words ‘critical race theory’ in a specific way?

Zach: Yeah, it’s basically like lifting up the curtain and saying, “Here’s my approach to ruining this word and making it toxic in a manipulative deceptive way.” Right?

David: Yeah. He didn’t even… There was no hint of apology, or any sort of self, or any kind of justification. It painted a picture that he regards conservatives as rubes, you know? That the general public, on the Conservative side, is so manipulable and that I can program their thinking and they won’t be any other wiser. I just find that so reprehensible.

Zach: It’s a strange thing, too, because disagree or not, there’s plenty of ways to denigrate those CRT ideas or whatever ideas in the Left, there’s plenty of… You don’t have to do that to demean someone else’s ideas, there’s plenty of legitimate ways that you can disagree. So, yeah. But yeah, to your point, it’s like… I’m pretty sure I mentioned his book. Oh, yeah, I’m pretty sure I mentioned his book about the Marxist ideology on the Left in my recent book as an example of like– I might have taken it out because it’s more for a liberal audience now, but an example of how both sides in conflict will reach for these really elaborate extra pessimistic narratives that go back in history and help build up this narrative of the immense badness and scariness of the other side. And then there is some truth to it, right? Far-left ideas do appear in these dangerous scenarios and there’s been all sorts of bad things and the horrors of communism and stuff in some of these countries. But it’s like to build this narrative, which is what the Left does about how everything on the Right is linking back to this racism and this elaborate narrative, right? Not to say it’s the same, we all have our views about who’s doing it more than the others and who’s doing it worse, but there’s just this tendency to build these elaborate narratives, which is what I see Rufo and these other people doing. And whether he believes it or not, to your point, it’s like he could be doing it purposely as a means to just destroy the brand. Not that he really needs it, because there’s plenty of other people doing it, too. But he could be doing it and painting that picture purposefully, or he could really believe that’s the scariness that he spews on the Left. And it can be hard to say but to your point, yeah, his tweet about kind of saying here’s my strategy for painting these things really negatively kind of shows you where his mind’s at.

David: Yeah. Well, I could say more about it because, you know, I do have a section of my book that kind of drills in– kind of like you did in your first book– drills into specific topics and sort of explores the talking points on each side and how quickly they fall apart if you just look at them briefly. But I talk a bit about Rufo and critical race theory. He has this briefing book that that he puts together for use by, I don’t know, in schools or parents or what have you. And you just look at it and it’s like straw man, straw man, straw man, straw man, one after the other. It’s so transparent. And this thing about– I think we’re going off here a little bit– that Marxism or that critical race theory is Marxist. Who cares? Why should I care about that? [laughs] Marxism is a scare word and it’s just…

Zach: Yeah, there’s all sorts of… It’s quite easy. That’s the thing, getting back to the narrative idea, it’s like the importance of stories. It’s so easy to build… I think that’s a really key fundamental aspect of understanding polarization, too, it’s just so easy to build stories. We can build stories out of nothing, basically. So it’s like, you give us two or three data points so we can build this story around it tying all this stuff together, you know, the story about the threat you’re facing or how bad your enemies are, right? It’s just so easy for us to—

David: Oh, it’s easy to do. Yeah. I mentioned in my book, Daniel Kahneman talks about what he calls the illusion of knowledge. The principle is that we just latch on to these stories, and the world isn’t really as explainable as it seems to be. And in fact, the less you know, the more certain you can feel that your story is a reflection of reality.

Zach: Yeah, I just want to throw in. I’ve been reading this philosopher Kevin Dorst’s work, he’s got a Substack and he talks about basically rational polarization and how we can have both these sides, on any issue, can have these rational narratives and they were reached rationally, and be completely divergent. And it’s all about how you sample information in a complex system because you can’t absorb all the information, you just pick and choose. It’s not to say everybody’s, you know, clearly there’s a lot of irrationality but he’s talking about for a lot of these issues that we argue over, there’s various rational narratives you could put together, but then you add on top the toxic polarization which makes us veer towards the irrational for some of these things. But do you think he’s talking—  He’s talking about a pretty important key part of it, where it’s the fundamental ways that we can rationally diverge on a lot of these complex issues.

David: Absolutely. Yeah. That’s one thing that I, deep in my soul, look around and think, “Where’s the intellectual humility?” I’d love to teach people about how little they know and how much they shouldn’t rely on what they think they know. But that’s a tough one. I got a lot of that out of studying cognitive science and the way that people make inferences and the values that are hidden underneath a lot of it, and so on and so forth. There’s been a lot of great researchers and scholars who’ve written about it, but…

Zach: We need a PBS show or some kind of public service show every day reminding people that they’re idiots, you know? [David laughs] It’s like—

David: “You Are so Dumb” could be the name of it. [laughs]

Zach: It’s like, “I’m an idiot, we’re all idiots, so let’s just walk through how badly we get stuff wrong. That’d actually be a pretty good show.

David: Yeah, I’d watch it.

Zach: Somebody’s probably done something like that. Do you want to talk about anything you feel that we really missed that is important about your work that you want to throw in?

David: Yeah, thank you for asking. Kind of to pull in stuff when we were talking at the very beginning. So, this bust open the silos national initiative that I described earlier, that’s one of seven that I have in the book. The theme is finding ways to help people learn about politics and about political argumentation. But not through anything formal, just in daily life through ways that don’t require any effort or willpower or study. That’s a theme through several of my proposals. But like I said, some of them would definitely require legislative action, which is pretty tough. I just wanted to talk a little bit about… I don’t think we can go straight to any of these proposals. And the route that I have in mind– and it’s partly why I named the book the way I did, you know?

Zach: “Moderates of the World, Unite!”

David: Yes, yes.

Zach: Thought I’d mention it again.

David: Thank you. There could be pros and cons to that title. But a serious part of it is that I think for any of this to happen, it’s going to require a critical mass of engaged moderates to stand up and start demanding change of Congress. And so where my focus is going to be next is to work on ways to create educational materials that even include describing these proposals to people so that they can start to get a vision, not only that, “Oh, there’s ways we could improve it,” but also to get a better sense that, “Gosh, how did we get into this? This is not how the Fourth Estate is supposed to work in theory, even.” And so my hope is that through creating educational materials for college level and even for public spaces, I can play some small role in starting to help develop that critical mass of engaged moderates, you know, that will lead to greater amounts of advocacy. And kind of as a compliment the grassroots depolarization efforts that you and others are working on.

Zach: And eventually you can create a moderate militia to kick off the moderate revolution.

David: [laughs] Go ahead, make fun of me.

Zach: No, you said your book title was supposed to be a little little funny, right?

David: It is. Yeah.

Zach: Moderates revolting.

David: Yeah, workers of the world unite.

Zach: Yeah, yeah. I just wanted to clarify, I wasn’t mocking it. But did you also want to mention, because I really liked your idea about the responses to specifically polarizing tweets or other posts. Did you want to mention that idea really briefly here? In case anyone watching it might, theoretically, someone watching it might want to contact you about the idea or something.

David: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. That’s one issue I’ve started prototyping, and it’s one of the one of the seven proposals in the book. I’m calling it right now at least ‘the schoolmarm’. The vision is to have a large, nonpartisan organization that… The focus, just a backup a little, is on polarizing rhetoric on social media, of which there’s a lot. [laughs] Of course. Not so much about factual falsehoods, and of course not like the illegal stuff which the platform’s themselves are responsible for taking care of and taking down. But the platforms have no incentive to do anything about polarized rhetoric on their platforms and certainly no business interest in doing so. But an external organization could go in and selectively go in and find polarizing posts. And when it does, attaching a little bit of educational material right next to those posts. Of course, it’s not going to get everyone. But if you get enough of them that people start seeing this once in a while even, it’ll raise consciousness and people, when they see polarizing rhetoric, they’ll sort of slow down a little bit and maybe some users will try to temper what they say online a little better. And it’ll just kind of reduce the status of dunking and… So, that’s the schoolmarm.

Zach: Yeah, like that. Getting back to the idea that there is a real demand out there for reducing these team-based ways of thinking and high contempt ways of engaging, I do think you’d see people respond to that. That was one of the… I kind of took a similar small-scale approach with my Twitter, that was basically what I was doing. I was just responding and doing a little bit of that. But I do think there’s a hunger there for it, and I think a lot of times people just don’t even know what that path looks like so they’re looking for, like, “Oh, that’s how this works!” Like, that’s how we do it. I think a lot of people want that, but they just don’t even know how do we get better. You know, what does better discourse look like? Or what do we have to push against exactly? I think that would be… I’m a fan of that. Even just people listening who want to do that on their own, I think that’s like encouraging people to be like, “Hey, go examine why this person’s speech is unreasonable and polarizing,” and not an insulting way, but a persuasive way, to say like, “Hey, can you see how this leads to the toxicity and such?”

David: Right, right. Well, and just to pile on that, Christopher Bail at Duke who’s studied this a lot has measured that the more extreme people on social media are the ones that post by far the most and get promoted the most. And moderates just… They don’t even speak up, you know? It’s too intimidating, they’re going to get… You know? And so people don’t even see moderates. Well, not none, but there’s not that much in the political realm. There’s not that much moderate speech right now. And if there were ways to encourage them to feel comfortable to speak and just bring the temperature down on social media.

Zach: Right. That’s the thing. Yeah, it really does work. I mean, I’ve seen just in my personal life on Facebook with a few friends, it’s like somebody shares something kind of unreasonable and everyone’s like, “Yeah!” And then you make a point about poking a hole in the logic gently, and everyone’s like, “Oh, yeah, you’re right. It’s a good point.” [crosstalk] It’s like it doesn’t actually take that much. But to your point, it’s like so few people feel like getting into those caustic interactions and it’s just not… It takes effort, it takes time, it takes a headache, you risk offending people you know, etc, etc. So there’s always reasons but…

David: Yeah, right. Right.

Zach: Okay. Yeah, this has been great, David. I appreciate it. And yeah, best of luck getting the book out there.

David: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me on your show.

Zach: Sure. Thanks. That was a talk with David Foster. You can learn more about him at his site I’ll include links to some of the things we talked about, including his book at the entry for this episode on my site, And you can learn more about my soon-to-be-released new book on polarization at Thanks for listening. Music by Small Skies.


On social power, the oppressed/oppressor framework, and empathy, with Elizaveta Friesem

Elizaveta Friesem writes about media, communication, and social power (i.e., the concept of power that characterizes people and their relationships). I first interviewed her about media and polarization in 2021; we talked about her book Media Is Us: Understanding Communication and Moving Beyond Blame. Topics we discuss here include: Michel Foucault’s ideas about power (often referenced in liberal academic world); the oppressed/oppressor framework (also often referenced); how simplistic views of social power can be divisive and result in a reduction in people’s empathy; how the free will debate ties into these ideas; political polarization related to some of these ideas. 

Episodes links:

Resources related to or mentioned in this talk:


Note that transcripts will have some errors. If you read something that seems surprising or strange, there’s a good chance it might be a transcription problem.

Zachary Elwood:

Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding human behavior. To learn more about this podcast and my work, go to 

Say you get pulled over by a cop. The cop would seem to have a lot of power over you. He wields authority; he carries a gun; he could theoretically make your life very hard. But then again, you also wield a lot of power over him; for example, if he does something wrong, you could report his behavior and get him in a lot of trouble. Depending on what he did, you could even ruin his life. 

So what is this concept of social power? Who has power over who? Is such a thing even possible to define and quantify in such a complex system as humanity? 

Today I talk to Elizaveta Friesem, who thinks and writes about media and social influence. She’s the author of the book Media Is Us, and I interviewed her about her ideas in that book back in 2021. In that book she made the case that we shouldn’t think of media as something “out there,” some external force that exerts control over us, but as just another manifestation of the interaction of human minds, in a similar way that talking in person is a manifestation of human minds interacting. I thought that was an important point as it tied into how I was thinking about political polarization; that we too often reach for blame of systems and institutions when those systems and institutions are just a bunch of people doing people things. 

In this episode I talk to Elizaveta about social power, referring to the power that people hold over other people. Topics we discuss include: 

  • The philosopher Michel Foucault’s ideas on power, which are often referenced in liberal-leaning academic circles
  • The oppressed/oppressor framework, which is frequently referenced by liberal people these days
  • How simplistic views of social power can be divisive and result in a reduction in people’s empathy 
  • Elizaveta’s ideas on social power
  • How the free will debate ties into these ideas (and, by the way, you might enjoy listening to the last episode before this one, which is a talk with a physicist about free will; I think all these things are related)

I think these ideas we discuss are important; they tie into so many discussions these days. For example, they often come up in the context of American divides, as you can hear some liberal people speak about Republicans as if they’re oppressors, and as if social power is some simple, easily defined element. And this language is often heard in the Israel/Palestine debate, too.

I’ll include some links to things we talk about in the entry for this episode on my site

You can learn about Elizaveta’s work by going to her website If you want to search for her online, her last name is spelled FRIESEM. 

Okay, here’s the talk with Elizaveta Friesem. Hi, Elizaveta. Thanks for coming on the show.

Elizaveta Friesem: Thank you so much for having me again.

Zach: Yeah, my pleasure. Maybe we could start with it seems like I think a lot of people think that Foucault’s theories of human power are rather simplistic and people think that they describe someone having power and then someone not having power. But in your work, you’ve talked about the complexity that Foucault actually brought to the discussion that his work was more complicated than that. Am I getting that right? That there are a lot of people who think that’s what Foucault’s work said that basically, there’s power here and then the people without power over here?

Elizaveta: Well, first of all, I need to clarify that I don’t see myself as a Foucault specialist.[chuckles] I read a few books and I read a lot about him and I chose one part of his writing, one part of his theory that works well for me to explain my own ideas about power. So I wouldn’t speak for other people, I think other people might actually have more complete understanding of Foucault’s work as a whole. Right? But I find his ideas very insightful when he talks specifically in this book called The History of Sexuality. In the first part, there’s one section that he introduces this idea of power as not a binary relationship. And that’s what I find especially important for my own theory of power.

Zach: And you got into being interested in this. Did it come about through your interest in the media examination? Am I getting that right?

Elizaveta: Yeah. I have a background in philosophy. My first doctoral degree was essentially in a humanities and social sciences and I studied in the college of philosophy back in Russia. But then I came to the US and I studied media and communication and then I started noticing this connection. I mean, I saw a lot of people are using post-modernist ideas and Foucault’s ideas to explain society’s problems, and specifically problems related to the media. Then I started thinking more and more about it and I wrote the book “Media Is Us: Understanding Communication and Moving Beyond Blame”. We talked about this book about a year and a half ago, right? Or was it two years? Two years and a half ago.

Zach: Maybe three or two. It’s been a while. Yeah.

Elizaveta: Yes, on this podcast. As I was writing this book, I just realized that I need to talk more about power. Because I read a lot of scholars discussing social society’s problems, which I think is a very important thing to discuss, obviously, because society does have problems and some people are disadvantaged and suffer. But then they were discussing it through the lens that I identified as a lens of blame, sort of dividing everybody into somebody who suffers and somebody who causes suffering just by default. And I just felt that something was wrong there. Personally, I felt that I wanted to dig deeper into that. That’s when I remembered how I studied Foucault back in Russia. He had this idea that power is like a flow. He said power is like a flow that is just running all the time through society. And it’s not something that anybody owns, but rather it’s something that influences everybody’s actions. And it does sound kind of strange and I’d be like what exactly was he talking about, but I felt like it might help me explain what I wanted to explain when I wanted to say we need to go beyond that blame.

Zach: Right. In a recent blog post of yours on your site, you talked about many people’s kind of simplistic idea of power. Like, there’s a king and there’s a peasant as a common example of somebody having power over somebody else. Can you talk a little bit about what you wrote in that post and how you saw more complexity in that dynamic?

Elizaveta: Yeah. You’re referring to a page of my website. I have a website that I specifically dedicate to exploring power as a paradox as opposed to power as a binary. Power as a binary – this is a common perception, so we consider that with just some people have power and some people lack power. Or power is something that you can clearly say, “Okay, I have it,” or, “I don’t have it and the other person has it or doesn’t have it.” Right? And I wanted to explain how it’s more like a paradox that it’s something that you can have and lack at the same time. So I thought that this example with a king and a peasant can describe it well because… Well, first of all, I wanted to take to an example that is sort of detached from the modern debates because I feel like whenever we use examples from controversial issues, then very soon people just stop listening because they’re sort of felling very strong emotions about those issues. So I felt like king and peasant is something that is further removed from our everyday life, but also a very vivid example because you could think of a king as somebody who has absolute power over this peasant, right? So, king has power and can do whatever he wants, and the peasant has zero power. I mean, he makes some choices in his everyday life, you know, when to harvest or whatnot. But then if the king decides to send soldiers to arrest or kill the peasant, the peasant won’t be able to do anything, you know? This sort of relationship. And so I wanted to explain that when we think about power as a paradox, it’s not like we’re saying, “Well, a king and a peasant have the same amount of power.” It’s not like the king has power over the peasant, but the peasant has a power over the king. You know, kind of reversing this relationship. So this is just turning this simplistic binary around. It’s true that the king, in many situations, has more power than the peasant. A king can make a law and then the peasant has to obey this law, for example. Right? If we just focus on this relationship, it’s fairly clear who has power over whom. But it’s not like this is the only relationship in the world. There are other relationships. There are a lot of people around the peasant and around the king.

Zach: And there’s many peasants and only one king too.

Elizaveta: Well, in this specific country. [chuckles]

Zach: Yeah, that’s another thing. If we look at those other relationships, we start noticing that things are not as simple because first of all, the king was born to be a king, right? And he doesn’t necessarily choose to do things that are expected of a king. Now it might sound kind of vague, those examples, but I can give some life to it. I’ve been actually researching life of Louis XIV because I thought this could be an interesting figure to dive into and I’m now working on a page about his life based on a very extensive book that I read written by a historian. So there are plenty of examples to show how Louis XIV, with all the power that he had, he also lacked power in many ways. You know, he became king when he was four. And then as a child, he didn’t have much power at all. He was pushed around and he needed to follow different ceremonies and he was used as a pawn in political games of his relatives and parents. And in general, living in the royal family in a court was tough. This all is not to say that he had worse than a peasant. Obviously, a king like Louis XIV, I don’t think he ever experienced hunger, for example. But there are a lot of things that he couldn’t control. He wanted to control desperately because he was told… He was born into this meaning of absolute power and he was told that he’s supposed to have it. But throughout his life, he had many instances when he couldn’t use power. He had to do what other people wanted him to do or expected him to do. And he had to live according to this idea of monarchy that he didn’t invent the expectations for what it means to be a king. And those expectations, if you think of it, were created before him and supported not just by him and embraced by everybody in France and in Europe of the time. So in this sense, peasant does come into play because believing in the monarchy, believing in the power of religion that gave the king the divine rights to do whatever he wants, supposedly, that everybody in his kingdom played some part in that. Although obviously, people did criticize them and disliked him and some people. Yeah, so that’s where it gets complicated.

Zach: Yeah, it’s like you’re saying, to some extent, these systems around us and the systems of social interaction or whatever are outside of any one person’s control. I think in a lot of people’s minds, what Trump does or says sets the… His supporters just follow along. And I think in that in that context, you can see it’s much more complicated because for example, when Trump was trying to take credit for the vaccine so he wanted to tell his supporters that this was a good thing, we did an amazing thing. And his supporters at that rally booed him, basically, and I think he got the message, “Well, there’s a limit to what I can get even my enthusiastic supporters to go along with.” It’s like he and anyone has a part in this system that is not fully in their control. Right? Would you say that’s an example of what you’re drawing attention to there?

Elizaveta: Yeah, I think it is a good example and I think that… Well, there’s this very good book that if you didn’t read yet I recommend. It’s called “Strangers in Their Own Land”. She wrote it around the time when… A little bit before Trump was elected. And there’s towards the end where she explains his popularity. Like he was at the right time in the right place, that sort of thing. So of course, it’s not like it’s nothing about what he did, but it’s also something about the circumstances that were there and are there that, like you said, allows him to remain popular among some people or I guess a significant amount of people.

Zach: The idea of powers is complex. I think in our first talk, we talked about the cop citizen example in modern times where in a lot of people’s consumption, it’s like, oh, the cop has a lot of power. But the cop has power in one context, like in the in-person interaction, but the citizen can have a lot of power after that interaction. They can clearly file a lawsuit and destroy the cop’s life if the cop does something wrong. So it’s just drawing attention to these sometimes simplistic ideas we have of there’s different there’s different types of power, there’s different power in different context, and especially for a society where you have more recourse for unleashing your power in various ways.

Elizaveta: Yeah, definitely. That’s another good example. Yeah, certainly. You can take any example where people will say, “Well, clearly, there’s a power imbalance.” And I would be like, “Yeah, there is an imbalance on one level. But on some other level, things get complicated.” And that’s where my own theory comes in, which I call theory of micro and macro power. The goal of this theory is to show how we can at the same time acknowledge that there are some imbalances and inequalities, and at the same time, deal with them going beyond blame and using empathy. And empathy comes when we understand that even people who in those micro situations clearly have power, when you zoom out and look at the macro situation, you see that they don’t choose the world where they operate. They don’t choose the ideas that dictate their actions. And you’d think they choose their worldview or their decisions and desires, but there’s an element of choosing. And we can talk about the freewill part. All right. But there’s a lot of not choosing. Let’s put it this way.

Zach: Right. Yeah, and I get the impression that some liberal people, especially the more far-left activist type people, it seems like they can resist the idea that power is complex. And I’m not an expert on how standard this is across academia but it strikes me that a lot of people have a sort of… They communicate a simplistic idea of power in the sense that it’s like these people have power and these people do not. And it seems to me like the reason that they may resist the idea of power being complex is because it can strike them as a blame-the-victim type of thing by implying that people can basically play a role in their own oppression, in some sense, that can seem offensive to them, even though as we stated, clearly there can be bad things that people do and people can be oppressed. But it’s like the idea that the power dynamic is complex can seem offensive. Do you think I’m getting… Is my perception accurate, do you think?

Elizaveta: Yeah, I think definitely the blaming the victim that’s a big no-no. Right? And believe me; I’m spending a lot of time thinking how to phrase my ideas in a way that they don’t seem like I’m blaming victims. And my whole theory that I described right now is to go beyond that to show that there are victims or there can be victims and people can suffer. And you can say, “Hey, this person hurt that person.” And at the same time, you can say, “Hey, but the person who did the hurting, it’s more complicated there.” But there is this danger. I’m always concerned that people can interpret that as like, “Oh, so now instead of empathizing with the victim, you want us to empathize with the perpetrator.” And I’m like, “Well, yeah, I guess you could put it this way. But that’s doesn’t have to be a bad thing.”

Zach: Yeah, I think that’s what’s so hard. I spend a lot of time in my depolarization work trying to think about how to best phrase some of these similar concepts, where it’s like trying to understand the dynamics and how the systemic dynamics of the more contempt people show, basically, the more you’re creating a dynamic and environment where the most polarized people have more power, you know? And trying to see the very human nature of a lot of these things, even for people we may very much dislike or find dangerous, it’s like people can be very challenged or offended by the idea that we can have empathy or try to understand the human aspect for these people we think are bad and dangerous. But I think that’s an important part of lowering toxic polarization or just understanding– like you’re doing– understanding the dynamics.

Elizaveta: Mmh. Yeah.

Zach: Oh, and I realized I was saying his name wrong. It was, as you said, Foucault is the proper pronunciation.

Elizaveta: Oh, he has so many letters there. You know, French spelling.

Zach: Yeah, the French thing threw me off. And many people have criticized his ideas as being pessimistic and dark in the sense of painting this portrait of people’s… Kind of a cynical portrait of people using power and structures of knowledge to control people or oppress people, whether they were doing it intentionally or not. Do you see his ideas… I know you said you’re not an expert, but do you see that some of those ideas are kind of pessimistic about human nature?

Elizaveta: Yeah, I think they’re pessimistic because… Again, maybe there’s somewhere that he wrote something more optimistic, but as far as I know, he focused on problems and he focused on how power is hurting people and creating issues in everybody’s lives. I don’t think he had this suggestion anywhere– I might be wrong– that oh, this is what you can do to get out of this unpleasant situation.

Zach: Yeah, one of the things that stood out to me was when I was just doing a little bit of research on his work. He painted scientific knowledge as another means of social control. He used the example of madness in the 18th century was used to stigmatize people who might not have just fit the ordinary mold. It was a means of control in his description of his theories. I guess that can be a way that it can be perceived as really pessimistic because you could also see those people as they weren’t trying to do that, many of them were probably trying to help people that they thought were unhappy and suffering and such, even if Foucault might think that there was some underlying systemic society thing about control.

Elizaveta: Yeah, he has some important theories related to power and knowledge. Also in the book that I mentioned before, “History of Sexuality”, he talks about sexuality and people’s perception of sexuality and relationship with sexuality through the knowledge about it. You know, what is a good sexuality and what is a bad sexuality? And for him, obviously, that was very relevant because he was a homosexual himself. Yeah. Again, to repeat myself, I don’t think he had any or pointed out any silver lining. I think mostly talked about problems.

Zach: Right. Yeah, and I could see why people think of him as very pessimistic. Because when I read some of this stuff, it was like it’s not how I… I mainly look around and think most people are trying to do what they think is a good thing and trying to help people even if they might be very wrong. But yeah, I can see why people interpreted his writings as being very dark.

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Elizaveta: I try to overcome this in my own work, where I say that, well, we can have hope. There are some things within our power. Although we might be powerless in many ways, I think we can make choices that eventually help us to improve things for everybody. Right? But again, I acknowledge also that that’s my own perception and my own bias, if you will. So I don’t know which one is better or more accurate, you know? Being pessimistic or being hopeful. But I certainly want to be hopeful.

Zach: Oh, and seems like there’s so much complexity too in the realm of human power. There’s so many types of ways to influence people, right? I think a lot of times with these examples, people think of physical force. But then there’s persuasion. You know, when we try to change things in society, we try to use persuasion a lot to change people’s minds. There’s sexual seduction, there’s negotiation… There’s all these various ways that people can exert various power over people and I’m curious if that’s something you’ve done much about or if Foucault talks much about that, if you know.

Elizaveta: Well, that’s where I actually don’t use Foucault for that part. On my website that I mentioned that is dedicated to power specifically, and the name of this project is Power of Meanings, Meanings of Power. I’ve been working on it for about couple of years and it’s structured as a hypertext, which basically means that I have a bunch of pages and then I try to explore different ideas related to power and show connections between them. So the page about Foucault that you mentioned, it’s on that website, and what I’m writing about Louis XIV, that’s another part of this website. And yet another part is where I’m trying to analyze power and show its different types and forms– what you’ve been asking about. And what what you mentioned, I classify more as power is influence. The division that I came up with so far and I might change or I might make it more granular over time is that power is ability. Because we can say, well, I have power to lift a heavy stone, right? Or I have power to realize that I see everything as horrible today because I’m tired. That’s an ability that I can develop and it’s also a kind of power, right? Then there is power as influence. So, power as ability more resides in us, right? Our properties. Then there’s power as influence is about interactions with others. I think I write in one place on this website that it is good to connect it to the idea of limited resources, because there are only so many things in the world and only so many things that so many ways that things can be. When somebody can decide how things should be or who should have things, they influence the way things are. Or they influence other people. So, power is influence. Say if there is an apple on the table, there’s one apple and I get to eat it. So in this particular— And you wanted it, but I got to eat it. So in this particular situation, you can say that I influenced the situation and I influenced you. Because you didn’t get the apple and I got the apple. Yeah.

And then there is power of- like I call it- may power, which I don’t know if it’s a great idea because it sounds like a month, but I meant the permission. Some people are allowed to do some things, but others are not, for example. Right?

Zach: Well, and what was the word you said?

Elizaveta: May. Like, “May I do that?”

Zach: Oh, okay. I got you. May. Yeah.

Elizaveta: I don’t know if I’ll keep this word. So basically, I’m just… Yeah, I started noticing how all of the things we call power, you can see those different types and forms of power. Which doesn’t mean that they exist separately. Me being able to do something also is connected with me influencing other people or the ways things are in the world. And me being allowed to do something is related, obviously, to other people. Because who allows me? It’s other people who allow or don’t allow. So all this division is very artificial, but it’s for the purpose to show that there are all these different forms like these things that we call power. And in each one of those aspects, we can see elements of power like what I can do. And elements of powerlessness. I created this theory that I described earlier about micro and macro power about society existing on different levels, right? There’s this very specific level of interactions between individuals. And it’s easy to say that in this relationship, who has the power over whom. But then we zoom out and then it becomes more complicated. And I know it might be kind of difficult for people to wrap their mind around this– different planes of social reality sounds kind of fancy. I tried to boil down what am I trying to say here in my theory, so I decided that the easiest way would be to say that power always coexists with powerlessness. If you look at those different aspects of power… I’m saying take a specific person and look at them, like Louis XIV, and look at these different aspects of power throughout his life. You will notice that he had power, but he also has powerlessness. You can take any other person and notice the same thing.

Zach: Yeah, there’s certain things they can’t do.

Elizaveta: Yeah. Louis XIV when he was around 20, he fell madly in love with a niece of the Cardinal of the time. And he really wanted to marry her and his mother and the Cardinal told him no. He was devastated but he couldn’t do it, he had to marry the niece of his mother because of the rules of dynastic marriages the kings had to obey. They seldom married for love. That’s just one example.

Zach: I’ve been watching some of The Crown– that show about the British monarchy and their families– and it’s like so much of that is about the limitations. They’re kind of trapped in this system, even as many people would perceive them as having a lot of power. That’s a good show about that kind of dynamic. It seems like reading your work and talking to you previously, it seems like a lot of this work leads back to the question of free will. Am I getting that right? And have you increasingly delved into the free will; the sticky, horrible, confusing topic of free will?

Elizaveta: Yes. Well, to tell you the truth, for a while, I wasn’t thinking about it a lot. I was just thinking about power and the term power, and thinking about when we have it when we don’t have it. And then I think its actually thanks to you, you brought me back to this idea of free will. I certainly knew about this whole debate and I learned about it when I was studying back in Russia in the College of philosophy because it’s a big philosophical debate, and it was kind of here and there in the back of my mind. But then when we were talking during our previous conversation two and a half years ago for the podcast of my book, “Media is Us”, and you said you don’t think that people really have free will and I was like I need to think about that. And I did think about it and I listened to your podcast, the other podcast, the interview with this really cool scientist—

Zach: Daniel Whiteson. Yeah.

Elizaveta: He’s a physicist, right?

Zach: Yeah.

Elizaveta: He wrote the book “We Have No Idea” which I read and I loved it about how little we know about the universe. In this podcast, you talk to him about free will and so I listened to it and I thought more about it and I read more about it. And I realized that actually, my theory of power is just another way of talking about free will, essentially. Because if we say that we have… Having free will equals having power, you know? Not having free will equals not having power. And as I said, I came to the conclusion that essentially, power always coexist with powerlessness. And to translate it into the free will conversation, it means that we don’t have free will in many instances, but in some instances, we do. Okay, maybe a better way to say it. The debate about free will is debate about determinism. Like, our actions are determined, and if so, how much they are determined by factors outside of our control. So my theory basically to translate into the terms of this free will conversation is saying that if determinism is true, there is a big part of determinism in our lives. But there is also an element of free will. And I’m a philosopher so I’m not going to give you precise numbers and tell you like, “In our life we have 95% of determinism or 50% of determinism and then the rest of it is free will.” I don’t know if we can ever answer this question, and that’s why it’s a philosophical question. Because to answer this question, we would need to take a specific person– say you– and then consider all factors in your life and everything in the world, essentially, because it could have. Anything could have influenced the way you are now and the way you live your life now. Things in the past from the beginning of the universes and… [chuckles] We need to consider everything and then think, “Well, okay, does that still have free will in this?”

Zach: Yeah, it seems like any philosophical question about people leads back to the whole free will concept eventually. If you follow it back, that’s kind of like the fundamental human mystery, right? It’s like we’re a part of a system. We’re part of a physical system, we’re made of physical things– leaving aside any religious spiritual questions, let’s just say. If we believe we’re like a physical system, we’re in a physical world with things around us, we can see the argument that there’s no free will because we are just an unfolding of physical things. But then it’s like you bring in consciousness and the feeling that we have free will and that we clearly can change things however we do that, that mystery of human nature, I feel like Foucault’s work and your work it’s kind of tackling this fundamental human mystery of us being part of a system but also feeling like we have agency, whatever that agency is. Yeah.

Elizaveta: Yeah, us being part of the universe in general and with a bunch of different systems that we’re part of.

Zach: And even when you said for your theory, you think that there’s some whatever-it-is percentage of free will, but I think you could also frame it as there’s the system aspects, and then there’s the human individual agency. And maybe you could view that as some form of agency, even if you don’t believe in free will. It’s like that unit of the person is having some impact. Even if you didn’t believe it all in free will, it’s like you could theoretically separate the individuals from the overall system, if that makes sense. I was just trying to formulate it in a way that would make sense to somebody who didn’t believe in free will at all.

Elizaveta: Well, I don’t think actually that talking about impact helps. Because you could say that… Say a person comes to me and punches me in the face, they had an impact over me. I didn’t like it. I have a bruise now. Right? But then it turns out that they have a mental illness, you know, that their action was determined by their mental illness. So, just looking at the impact doesn’t tell us anything about what happened there. King can have immense impact on people around him, doesn’t mean that there is no element of power and powerlessness there.

Zach: Right. Yeah, true. True. Yeah. Well, you don’t have to tell me because you know where I stand on that stuff. And for anybody listening, if they want to listen to talk about free will, it’s not to say that I’m a firm believer that we don’t have free will, it’s more just like I find it unlikely. But I find life so mysterious; it wouldn’t surprise me if we have free will. Anyway, I just don’t want to sound like I’m overly certain on that idea or something. One thing that struck me about your work and the idea of power is that it seems to get at some really root debates in the political polarization sphere. For example, the conservative and liberal philosophies. And one thing I see there is I feel like… So for example, in our political landscape in America, for example, Conservatives philosophy is often framed as putting the emphasis on the power of individuals. They focus on, you know, “The individual has a lot of power, we should let them do what they want.” Whereas liberalism is more associated with putting the emphasis on the ways that people are influenced and controlled by their environment, and we can try to produce better outcomes by shaping their environment and helping them etc. And it seems to me like in the sphere of the political polarization, those two ideas have become unreasonably polarized. Because you have some people speaking as if humans are completely free creatures that aren’t influenced by the things around them on the conservative side and are offended by the idea that there could be some systemic influences on them that help explain their behavior or could help influence their behavior. And then on the liberal side, sometimes there’s this seeming offense of the conservative idea that the focus is on the individual’s freedom. And one example of this is that I think it’s unreasonably polarized. Because if you go to a therapist, for example, they’ll try to make you see the importance of taking responsibility for yourself for being person with agency. They’ll try to help you escape the idea that your problems are the product of your environment. You might be able to see those things, but the idea is to get you to be more at cause and less at effect. That’s kind of what I see. I think all of us have a sense that both of those things are true, that we’re both a product of our environment, that things lead to the way we are and influence us, but yet we also have this agency to control the environment however that happens, leaving aside the free will debate. That’s where I see an unreasonable polarization, and I think that the more reasonable less-polarized way to view it is like, “Yes, both of these things are true.” That kind of helps us see the arguments on both sides of some of these political debates where people are coming from because you can view both of those things as true. It’s like getting back to the fundamental mystery of being a person, right? It’s like we’re influenced by other things and yet we can do a lot. So I’m curious, is that something you’ve thought much about?

Elizaveta: Well, first of all, I wouldn’t be able to speak for conservatives because full disclosure, I do identify myself more as a liberal. So I do… I am aware about a lot of ideas that are on the conservative side but my environment, people I interact with a lot, are liberals. So it’s easier for me to speak about what I observe in that environment. And in that environment, it’s interesting that you made this… I mean, I can certainly understand why you’re saying that Conservatives, for them the idea of individualism is big. Like, “It’s your responsibility. So if you are poor, it’s your responsibility,” kind of thing. I think it’s easy to associate conservatism with this vision.

Zach: Ragged individualism.

Elizaveta: Yeah, “If you didn’t pull yourself by your bootstraps, it’s your fault,” kind of thing. I’m sure there are people out there on the conservative side who say things like that. But speaking about liberalism, I actually see both of the ideas that you just mentioned represented there, but just really apply to different people. The idea is like, “Okay, so we have people who are oppressors and people who are oppressed.” Not everybody phrases it this way. Or people who have power and people who don’t have power. Marginalized, not marginalized. And dominant or… So the people who are suffering or who are disadvantaged by the system, the idea that I encountered is it’s important to acknowledge that those people, their decisions, their life, their worldviews are determined by factors outside of their control. That’s why we should empathize with them and help them. And even if they make some mistakes, say if they commit crimes, it’s because of the environment. And I agree with that because it’s true that if you are born in a poor neighborhood and you grow up with gangs and that’s the life that you know, you might also choose this path. And even if you make mistakes and really big mistakes, you still need to be able to get the second chance or whatnot, right? So when it comes to people who are suffering or who are marginalized, in the mind… Again, as I said of people in the liberal community, that’s how people who are marginalized are ever seeing it. But then we take people who are from the dominant groups or powerful groups, for them, a different standard is applied. So those people, they are individuals, they make choices, and they’re fully responsible. And that’s why we shouldn’t really empathize with them.

Actually, I remember when I was doing my second doctorate degree at Temple University in Philadelphia, and I had this professor that was a great professor– I learned so much from this professor– but I remember I had this conversation with them that really puzzled me and I thought about it for a while. We were talking about gender relationships and inequalities that certainly do exist and I said, “Well, the way I see it is that there are some expectations and assumptions related to gender, and that they affect both men and women. Both men and women suffer from those limiting assumptions.” And the professor said, “Yes, that’s true. But men have power to change it, unlike women. Because they are in power. They are the powerful group, women are not the powerful group. So it’s up to men to change the situation, even if they suffer.” And I didn’t say anything because I needed to think about it. And I did think about it for a long long time and I thought, “Well, I don’t agree with that.”

Zach: It’s too simplistic a framing.

Elizaveta: Yeah. And that’s why exactly… That’s one of the conversations that sparked my ideas about power and the theory of micro and macro power that I mentioned already in this conversation.

Zach: Well, yeah, it makes me think of this conversation I had recently with Yakov Hirsch. It was about the Israel-Palestine conflict but on a deeper level, it was about how when we feel animosity towards people when we’re in conflict, we really lack empathy for the people on the other side who we see as doing bad things or abusing their power or whatever. It reminds me that because I think to your point, one thing that comes to mind is people on the left who will basically insult rich people and act like they’re clearly horrible people just because they have money. And it relates to this lack of empathy that we have where even from a functional standpoint of what is insulting them do, there’s a lack of empathy, which leads to insults, which leads to a lack of caring maybe on the rich fields part where they’re just like, “Well, if I’m going to be insulted by people, why would I help?” And it’s like leaving aside the fact that clearly there are rich people who do good things, and wouldn’t you want to encourage them to do the things you want them to do? So it kind of reminds me this lack of empathy people can have when they are in a dynamic where they feel the power isn’t balanced.

Elizaveta: Yeah. When we think about, well, somebody… They created the situation, they keep it going, they need to change it, it’s their fault. So this is this blame dynamic that I want to help more people see beyond, essentially.

Zach: Yeah, and it sounds cliché and spiritual to say, but the way I think of people is like they’re just me in another form. I could just as easily be them, it’s just a happenstance of chaos and randomness that they’re them and I’m me. I don’t know if that’s how you feel.

Elizaveta: Yeah, that’s an interesting way to put it and I think sometimes this way. I don’t literally think like they are me or I’m them, but I’m thinking how can I judge somebody if I don’t fully understand their circumstance? If I were born in their place and grew up in their environment… When we blame, we assume that free will is almost absolute. Like they chose to… It doesn’t matter what kind of factors are out there that influenced them, they made those choices. But I’m thinking that they’re all those circumstances outside of their control and if I were them, then it was very possible that I would have made those choices that they’re making and I might be disliking. So it’s not about saying oh, what they’re doing is okay. You brought up the example with rich people and said, well, some rich people could do good things. Well, some rich people might do things that are hurting other people, but it’s still not a reason to be like, “Well, they’re evil or they’re bad people.” And it’s not the same as saying what they’re doing is okay. There’s this excuse-explain explain-excuse conflation that I heard in a person doing a really meaningful work around polarization saying– I think his name was Robert Wright, I can send you a link later. But basically, that when we are explaining somebody’s behavior, it’s not the same as excusing it. And you can bring up a more famous figure, Martin Luther King, he was certainly very much fighting against inequalities and over the years, he became more and more adamant and more vocal in his calls for resistance. But at the same time, till his last days, until the end of his life, he was committed to the idea of non-violence; which is essentially the idea that you can resist and you can fight in, but you don’t have to do it through contempt or hate. Violence just breeds more violence and hate just breeds more hate.

Zach: Yeah, I think it so much relates to the political polarization thing because it’s trying to separate the contempt we feel for other people from the disagreements we have with other people. And I think that seeing other people as part of a system and being like yourself and having empathy for them, even as you may think that they are very wrong or even very dangerous and bad, I think it results in a better way of engaging with other people. And I see that as very much related to the depolarization work of reducing contempt. Is there anything… Oh, yeah, I wanted to ask you… It seems like from my perspective, you seem to be in an interesting space of work. Because like you said, you are politically progressive, as I understand it, but your work also questioned some common dominant liberal ideas and academia. For example, in your book, “Media is Us”, you started out that book with a story about some false distorted news in mainstream liberal-leaning media that was making the rounds that specifically was about an allegedly racist Dove soap ad. And you learned that it was a distorted framing and basically wrong framing of it. And you started the book out as a way to talk about the media failures that we perceive and that can make us angry sometimes and that we blame the media for. That’s just one example. And then your work in the power space is also kind of questioning what I think are simplistic ideas about power in the liberal academic space. I’m curious, is that how you see your work? And do you feel like you’d get more notice for your work if you weren’t pushing back on some of these ideas? Or how do you see that?

Elizaveta: Well, there’s a lot of different factors at play. I consciously chose to do my work outside of academia because I like to… There are a lot of limitations for doing scholarship in academia. You need to choose your field and you need to publish in certain journals and certain amount of things and write things a certain way. It’s certainly well intentioned, and it makes sense because you do want to people to be able to focus on some issue and dig it in data, or you want to be able to have good publications or they need to be structured in certain ways. But for me, it didn’t work. I like jumping between disciplines and ideas and drawing ideas from different sources and practices. Like I think about Martin Luther King but then I connect him to the practice of mindfulness and meditation. I think about philosophy and sociology and media, and that it can apply this to politics and parenting and art and everything. And I wanted to be able to just be free in what I write and how I write. So I decided I’m just going to do it on my own through this hypertext that I mentioned before. Honestly, I’m kind of very afraid to go out into the social media. You know yourself that there can be very unpleasant conversations happening there and where people might misinterpret me. I’m unfortunately very sensitive to that. So I’m like, “Okay, I’m just doing this on my own and sharing it little by little.” I’m really grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to share it with more people in this very helpful friendly and supportive space of this podcast. I think it fits perfectly the work that I’m doing. But then you can ask why am I afraid? It is connected to what I’m observing. I do think that some people would not be very receptive to this whole idea of empathy for everyone and trying to talk to people across divides. And you know it perfectly well from your experience. Right? You said that you feel like you’re losing some readers and listeners for you.

Zach: Yeah, the more polarization-related things I do for the podcast, the lower the viewership or the audience gets. [chuckles]

Elizaveta: Yeah, so you said. And I’m sure you had conversations on social media where people would accuse you or attack you…

Zach: Yeah, lots of hate for that stuff. Yeah.

Elizaveta: So there’s certainly something to your assumption that my ideas might go against some dominant ideas or people’s feelings. I don’t know if it’s necessarily just in academia, or in more general, the cultural climate. So yeah, it does go… I feel like it does go against some of those ideas.

Zach: Well, it’s like the whole power conversation. It’s like if the system isn’t ready for your ideas or anyone’s ideas, they won’t be boosted. It’s almost like the systemic qualities of, well, if the system changes in some sense, your ideas and you would have more power. I was just thinking of the systemic element of there’s a limit to what you can do. You’re dependent on the system and its overall vibe. Yeah.

Elizaveta: Yeah, and the system– and I just wanted to say because first of all, system sounds very cold and abstract. The system is just other people.

Zach: The network of people, yeah.

Elizaveta: People doing people doing stuff, understanding things a certain way, doing things a certain way, organizing their practices a certain way. And here’s where we can bring it to the idea of free will and say that it’s not just like, “Okay, well, I am powerless here and I don’t have free will to use in the situation and to change the system.” Actually, I feel like that’s what gives me the boost to keep doing what I’m doing. Because I feel like there are actually people out there like you and people that would be interested and would be receptive and might benefit from my framing. And if I’m doing what I’m doing and they’re doing what they’re doing, that’s how that system that you mentioned changes over time. That’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.

Elizaveta: Yeah, that reminds me of when I wrapped up my “Defusing American Anger” book, which is honestly way too bloated and I know that. It’s way too long. But I ended with thoughts about the fundamental conflict of that paradox of I do believe people have a lot of power. I feel like you, me, or other people have a lot of power. Because sometimes people can clearly change things. They have an impact, right? And it’s like the fundamental paradox of, “Yeah, I can feel that way at the same time as feeling like I or other people are part of this physical system of whatever it is and feel like I don’t think free will is likely,” but at the same time feel like, “Yeah, but I can do things.” That’s kind of like the fundamental paradox of these ideas. Maybe that’s a good place to wrap it up, unless you had any other any other thoughts.

Elizaveta: No, it is a great place. That’s why I framed my scholarship writing as trying to understand the paradoxes of power. Because I think it is a paradox. And it is very difficult to talk about, partially because I think that our human language is just not meant to discuss those things.

Zach: Yeah, we can’t.

Elizaveta: It’s either too simplistic, and then I find myself repeating myself using the same words. Like if you try reading Foucault, you probably fall asleep on the third paragraph because it’s so convoluted. But he does have some interesting ideas. If you reread him several times, you might get somewhere. So just like you said… My take on it is I have hope. Or I want to have hope. Maybe that’s part of how I’m using my power, is that I’m using it to hope. And I think that one thing that I realized about power is that power always has something to do with making an effort. If something happens to you, just like breathing in and out, it’s not a power because you need to… That happens to you, otherwise, you die. Right? But if you learn to control your breathing to influence your mood and calm down, this becomes a form of power. So you put an effort. And empathy is an effort, you know? And so I make an effort and sometimes it’s really hard to hope that we can get somewhere and that we can eventually make the world a better place for everybody. That’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.

Zach: That was a talk with Elizaveta Friesem, last name spelled FRIESEM. Her website is at If you enjoyed this talk, you might like that previous talk I had with her back in 2021 about her book Media Is Us. You might also enjoy the talk about free will, which is just before this episode. 

This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about it and learn how to support my work at I’ve got a book coming out soon about America’s toxic polarization problem called How Contempt Destroys Democracy; you can pre-order that on Amazon. 

Thanks for listening. 


What’s it like living without a belief in free will?, with physicist Daniel Whiteson

A talk with Daniel Whiteson, a professor of physics and astronomy about free will. Daniel is also the co-author of “We Have No Idea,” about the many unknowns remaining in physics, and the co-host of the podcast Daniel and Jorge Explain The Universe

Our talk focuses on something I think isn’t often discussed: what are the effects on one’s life from not believing in free will. How does that change one’s life? What’s one’s experience of life like? Is it dramatically different from the life of someone who believes in free will? Other topics discussed: Our thoughts on why we think free will is unlikely to exist; psychological and emotional aspects of living without a belief in free will; the anxiety and even anger that some people can have about the idea that we lack free will; the idea that a lack of belief in free will can be part of a spiritual, positive way of experiencing the world; and more. 

For a transcript, see here.

Episode links:

This is a reshare of an older podcast episode. For some recommended resources on free will, see the original blog post.


The news is polarizing us. Can Tangle News help?

A talk with journalist Isaac Saul, founder of Tangle News (, which shares takes on current events from across the political spectrum and which I think is great, from a depolarization perspective. Here’s what Isaac said about why he started Tangle:

“I started Tangle because I recognized that the news industry was broken. My work was getting published in a lot of different places, and I realized people trusted it not based on what I was saying — but based on where I was saying it. Readers on the left would trust nothing I wrote if it showed up in a conservative-leaning news outlet, and vice versa. This is how I realized just how strong the information bubble was. So I had a concept I wanted to execute: A newsletter where no matter who you were you would encounter political opinions that you did not agree with.”

About his readership, Isaac says, “Roughly 40% of our readers self-identify as liberal, 30% self-identify as conservative, and the rest say they are independent or outside the left-right binary.”

I think Tangle is doing amazing work, from a polarization-reduction perspectives. I think the more Americans there are who read Tangle, the less toxically polarized we’ll be. Topics we discuss include: aspects of Tangle News that make it depolarizing and anger-reducing; how Isaac conceives of the problem of political polarization; his work debunking “the election was stolen” narratives in 2020, and more.

Transcript is below.

Episode links:

Resources related to or mentioned in this talk:


Zach Elwood: Hello and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast. I’m Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding people better, and understanding ourselves better — and sometimes it focuses on political polarization. You can learn more about this podcast at

A note for anyone listening to the audio version of this; this was recorded as a video talk and you can find that video on the youtube channel for my podcast. 

On this episode, I talk to Isaac Saul, a journalist and the creator of Tangle News – you can subscribe to Tangle and learn more about it at Why Isaac created Tangle, and the work they do, is very much related to toxic polarization. 

I’ll read some things Isaac wrote about why he started Tangle: 

I started Tangle because I recognized that the news industry was broken. My work was getting published in a lot of different places, and I realized people trusted it not based on what I was saying — but based on where I was saying it. Readers on the left would trust nothing I wrote if it showed up in a conservative-leaning news outlet, and vice versa. This is how I realized just how strong the information bubble was. So I had a concept I wanted to execute: A newsletter where no matter who you were you would encounter political opinions that you did not agree with. That seemed healthy to me. Then I launched Tangle as a side project, and as it grew I decided to quit my job and go “all-in” on building it out.

Today, our readers span the political spectrum: Roughly 40% of our readers self-identify as liberal, 30% self-identify as conservative, and the rest say they are independent or outside the left-right binary.

And again, that was Isaac Saul writing about Tangle News. 

One review on his site from a reader says ““Tangle is the best discovery I’ve made in the last month. Isaac Saul has the remarkably unique ability to summarize what both sides of the political aisle are saying in his own words, in a fair and charitable way. Tangle is a daily read for me because it helps me avoid the confirmation bias of just listening to what ‘my side’ is saying, helping me to draw my own conclusions in a more informed way.” end quote

If you haven’t yet checked out Tangle, I highly recommend signing up for it. I really do believe the more Americans read Tangle, the less toxically polarized we’d be, so reading Tangle and sharing it with others is one small and easy thing you can do to combat toxic polarization and team-based thinking. 

Okay here’s the talk with Isaac Saul, of Tangle News…

Zach: Hey, Isaac, thanks for joining me.

Isaac Saul: Thanks for having me. Glad to be here, Zach.

Zach: I just want to say I’m a huge fan of your work. I often promote your work to people. I often say that the more Americans that read Tangle, the less divided and less toxically divided we’ll be, so I just wanted to say that first. And I’m a big fan. I’m curious to ask, too, how do you see the work that Tangle does relating to our toxic polarization problem?

Isaac: Yeah, it’s a really good question. First of all, what’s kind of interesting about my story is I didn’t really get into this work from a mission-oriented perspective, I would say. I created Tangle because I wanted a product like it that didn’t exist anywhere. I found myself feeling like I couldn’t understand what was happening in the news unless I went and read the Wall Street Journal, read the New York Times, read the Huffington Post, read Fox News, read their opinion sections, watched Fox News, watched CNN, listened to a couple of podcasts, and be like, “Oh, now I’ve heard all the perspectives there are about this debate on this one issue, it would be really convenient if this all existed in one place.” And that was kind of the fundamental idea for Tangle. It was explaining an issue and then the debate and why people were divided about it, and then sharing a few views from the Left and sharing a few views from the Right.

What’s happened since we started it is that I’ve seen the effect it’s had on people and I’ve seen the responses when we ask our readers and listeners the impact it’s had on them in surveys that we do at the end of the year in our newsletter. And I felt the experience of consuming the news through the lens of Tangle as the author of Tangle and how it’s changed my own worldviews and my own perspectives about issues and the divisiveness and all those things, and what I’ve seen is that fundamentally, I’m much more open-minded. And I’m much more skeptical and I’m much more respectful of the people who I disagree with because I see the best versions of their arguments and their perspectives out there, and it gives me a way to understand and respect what they think and what they feel. Politics are personal, obviously, but we’re also all products of the experiences we’ve had, the media bubbles we live in, the friend groups we are in. And just as you look at somebody who you might disagree with politically, whether they’re a far Right Trump voter or a far Left Bernie lover or whatever and you think they’re disgusting or wrong or stupid for whatever reason, they feel that way about you too in a lot of ways. And I think it’s important to kind of recognize that fundamentally and start from there with a little humility about your position.

I want Tango to be a place where people from across the political spectrum can gather and trust the news they’re getting and have a sort of starting common ground to jump off from. But as an added bonus, I think I’m seeing that we’re helping people moderate their views a little bit, or just become more respectful or understanding of the other side, which certainly our country needs desperately right now given how divided we are.

Zach: Yeah, that’s the interesting thing about your work, I think, is there’s these meta-level things that are happening with the way you’ve approached it where, for example, like you said, I think the way you’ve done the work makes it easier for people to see how easy it is for people to reach different conclusions on things. For example, your take on Trump being removed from the ballot in Colorado. I think it would help people who their initial reaction– for a lot of people on the Left– was like that was a good decision for a lot of people. But seeing your take on it, even if someone ends up disagreeing with it, helps them see… And including the takes from other sources, too. It just helps people see the range of ideas that one can have. And to me, that’s kind of the fundamental problem of toxic polarization. The contempt that’s involved is because with our narratives becoming more and more diverged, it becomes harder to see the more rational ways that somebody has built their narratives because we’re all filtering the way we want to filter. So, I think that’s a really interesting meta-level aspect of your work. Yeah.

Isaac: Yeah. One of the things I would just say about that is there’s a reason Marjorie Taylor Greene is a household name and other lesser-known representatives or senators are not. And it’s because the Left wants to make her the face of the Republican Party. They want her to be representative of Republican thought because she has views that are further out on the fringe. And that’s kind of the game both sides play. They elevate the worst arguments and the worst people from one side of the aisle and try and do their best to make them representative of the party as a whole or of the thought line as a whole.

Zach: Unintentionally. It’s unconsciously and sometimes consciously. Yeah.

Isaac: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And I think that’s just something important for people to remember. It’s that if you’re a partisan at all or you have strong partisan preferences, you’re not getting the best representation of the other side, typically, and of their arguments. And that’s something we try and do. We show you the fringe, but also show you the really strong more compelling arguments from our estimation as an editorial team, the stuff that we find really compelling. And I think it’s working for a lot of people in that structure.

Zach: The other meta-level thing I think your work does is by giving your take, it actually makes people trust you more. Because especially when we’re more polarized and more divided, there’s often a suspicion of what someone’s biases are or what they think. Because we all have our own opinions, our own takes, our own biases, journalists have theirs, especially when we’re more polarised. But I think giving your take sets people at ease. They know that you’re striving towards the truth. You’re struggling with these ideas that it helps them kind of see behind the process, and I think that vulnerability is hugely important. I’m curious if you’ve seen… Do you see things that way? The benefit there, the strength there.

Isaac: Yeah. When I first started this, including my own personal perspective wasn’t something that I was keen to do. But a lot of people when I was first testing the newsletter format and sending it out to people, the response that I got from tonnes of people was like, “Well, what do you think? You’re the politics reporter.” My friends and family and stuff, they’re like, “I’ve read all these arguments and now I just feel like I’m left with no sort of conclusion..”

Zach: “Guide me.”

Isaac: Yeah. Yeah. And I think what’s been really interesting for me is some people really object to that. I get emails sometimes from new subscribers who are like, “I would love this if your opinion wasn’t in it, but your opinion ruins it because you tip the scales one way or another.” And the way I’ve come to think about it is this is an act of transparency. My promise to you is I’m going to be honest about my view. I include these disclaimers before and after that’s like, “You don’t have to agree with me. This is not supposed to be the end all be all. But I think you’re consuming information that I’m collecting, perspectives I’m collecting, you’re consuming the work of a team that I’ve built. And it’s important for you to know what my views are and it’s probably helpful for you to know. And if my take can offer an original perspective or lens or criticism– which I hope it does sometimes, and I think it does sometimes– then that’s adding something to the conversation.” And when I don’t feel like I know or I don’t have a strong opinion, I just say that. I’ve gotten really good at just saying I actually don’t know where I land on this position because I find both sides’ arguments really compelling, and that’s my take for the day. And sometimes I feel really strongly and yeah, I want to try and convince people of my view, but I give myself that space to do that so elsewhere in the newsletter, we can shoot as straight and down the middle as possible.

Zach: It’s kind of related to an instinct I had when I was writing my “Defusing American Anger” book, which is depolarization-related. I had a similar kind of instinct not just to guide people– because actually in that case, it wasn’t to guide people. Specifically, it was to say… Because people will inevitably assume you have biases, so to make them clear, actually, is by showing that vulnerability and that transparency. I think it makes people trust you more, even if they don’t disagree with you. For example, I’ve disagreed with you on some things, but I know that you’re, like me, striving towards the truth, and we’re all going to disagree on various things. I think that’s the meta-level point. Another meta-level thing you do is you’ve shared the criticisms you get from people on the Left and the Right who say, in a very amusing way, it’s like your share of people being like you obviously have a Republican bias so you obviously have a Democrat slash liberal bias. I think there’s also a meta-level value there, too, of showing how easy it is for us to see other people as biased or other people as having an agenda. So, do you see that the same way of highlighting that complexity there?

Isaac: Yeah, totally. First of all, I do find it amusing. I often get emails that come in five minutes apart of somebody accusing me of being a closet Trumper or being a closet liberal or whatever. So, sometimes it’s kind of a cathartic response to that. Instead of responding to them in a frustrating way, I just share those responses with my readers. But I also think it’s important because it illustrates that not just that different media organizations can be biased or different perspectives might be biased, but that that bias is very much in the eye of the beholder. And our view of what’s bias or our view of what’s tilted one way or the other is informed by our own personal biases. I mean, most of the people who accuse me of being Conservative are Liberal, and most of the people who accuse me of being Liberal are Conservative. It’s not center Left people writing in saying, “I can tell you’re also center Left,” because they might see an article where they feel like their views or my takes are represented and that’s not objectionable to them or whatever. It’s always coming from the other side, which I think has just taught me that that perspective is from the partisan lens. And that’s okay, I just have to be okay with that. And I try and communicate that to people. I say, “You might think my view here or my position here is really right, but guess what? It’s in line with 60% of the country. So, is 60% of the country right? I don’t think so. I think I’m just having a kind of moderate perspective here that’s maybe a pretty commonly held view and this is where I fall.” Sometimes I have really radical views and I know they’re radical. Like, I’ve written about my really extreme political positions. One of my views that I don’t think is political or related to any politics is I’m vehemently anti-prison. A lot of people think I’m very Left because of that. I think that’s ridiculous. A lot of libertarians are also really vehemently anti-prison in a small government perspective, which is part of my worldview too. And so I write about that and it’s like, I know that’s a fringe extreme position and I’m acknowledging that. But it’s fascinating for me when I share a view that I think is pretty down the middle and it brings out all the people sort of accusing me of being one way or the other.

Zach: Yeah, I think it’s… Again, I think it’s highlighting the complexity of these things, you know, these simplistic ideas that many of us have about what’s liberal or what’s conservative. Those words, in a lot of cases, don’t mean much. There’s that book by the Lewis brothers, “The Myth of Left and Right”, which I think was good for examining a lot of the ambiguity in these terms. And people in conflict resolution space will talk about emphasizing the complexity in these areas, or what can break the spell of the filtering for is this us versus them? Is this person on my team or another team? So I think that’s another way that you’re helping break some of that and emphasize that complexity.

Getting back to the first question I asked about toxic polarization, I know that you said when you started this work that wasn’t your focus, but obviously, I would imagine you’ve formed some opinions about the problem of toxic polarization over the years. And I’m curious if you have your own kind of take on how you see the problem. For example, my take is basically that it’s a complex problem, but I think the gist of it is that so many of us have distorted and overly pessimistic views of each other or overly negative views. And that because we’re social creatures, that leads to this feedback loop of increasingly negative views of each other where all of our grievances start getting lumped into these two different buckets. Right? That’s kind of how I view it, as an overly distorted, overly pessimistic set of views that Americans or any group in conflict has that goes into a snowball effect. But I’m curious, do you have your own take on that? What do you think of that conceptualization?

Isaac: Yeah. No, I think that perspective is kind of adjacent to my own in a lot of ways. I definitely, because of the work that I do and my background, I paint a lot of the blame on media. And I think media consumption and the stuff that the news quote-unquote “is feeding people”—which is now basically entertainment—is a huge contributing factor to that kind of negative views or those kinds of negative views people hold of those on the other side of political issues of them. I also think we’re living in an era where people are increasingly online and much less in person and in community with each other. Everything from the attendance of church, to community meetings, to soccer games, to whatever, those kinds of things are really good at exposing people to others in person that they disagree with and learning that they can kind of live side by side with people like that. And I think as a country, we’re doing a lot less of that. There’s a lot of social research out there suggesting that political tribes are sort of the new communities for a lot of Americans and it’s how people feel connected and seen. They join Facebook groups and they join political movements and they get behind candidates, and then they get lined up with a bunch of like-minded people. And like you said, they get into that feedback loop and they just get fed more and more reinforced ideas about the world and their enemies and all this stuff. That really contributes to it. There’s so many different things that I think are happening at once that make it such a hard problem to deal with. I tell people regularly… One of the most common questions I get in the newsletter is, “Hey, I have a daughter who’s a non-binary progressive activist, and I’m a 75-year-old lifelong Conservative and I have no idea how to talk to her. Do you have any advice?” Or, “Hey, my neighbor is a hardcore Trumper and he’s flying the Trump flag and I have no idea how to talk to him.” And I always just say, “Go talk to them.” Actually, the talking is the solution.

I have rules. When people talk to me about politics, I always try and ask three questions before I say anything about my own opinions or start sharing my views. I go into every conversation with the idea that I have more to learn from hearing about this person’s perspective than I have to teach about sharing my own perspective and trying to convince them of my worldview. I think having humility like that is really important and really helpful. Again, I said at the top, politics are personal and most people are informed by their experiences and the media they consume and the social circles they’re in. And you’re not going to break people out of that in one conversation, you’re not going to convince them of something in one conversation, so it’s better to learn and listen and hear and then let them reciprocate that kind of open-mindedness, and then you can sort of share your views. So, that’s the kind of advice I give people who want to bridge that gap. You know, a six-pack of beer or a good meal often helps and that’s a good way to sort of cut through some of the tension and awkwardness. But it’s a really touchy time and I know there are issues that feels super third rail for a lot of people like they can’t possibly be discussed, but I think it’s important that we do. And there’s a time and place for it. I don’t think you should go harangue your boss at work tomorrow about their political views, because you might disagree. But if you’re at a happy hour and something comes up in the news and you’re interested, ask some questions and be open-minded to the answer. And be genuinely open-minded. Don’t just ask questions to try and set them up to get in your little comment or fact or whatever, ask questions and actually listen and learn and try and be understanding of where people are coming from. I think if more of us were doing that, we’d be in a much better spot.

Zach: Yeah, I was just remembering a quote from you from one of your newsletters a few months ago that I retweeted of something like, you know, that the main problem is that so many people think that there’s things we can’t talk about, but the solution is talking about these things more. Yeah, that was a good quote. I’m not doing it justice, but it was better that way. Isaac laughs] Yeah. I often think when people talk about… You know, I think they’re going to be an inclination to feel like, “Well, what do these minor interactions I have with people matter online or in person with my political opponents?” But I think, to what you’re saying, it’s like every positive or respectful interaction you have with somebody that’s your political opponent helps break the cycle of contempt a little bit. You have to think about it in terms of how those things bubble up and help form our culture, and every contemptuous interaction you have deepens our divides. That’s kind of how I think of it and kind of how I started my journey thinking about my own interactions with people online after Trump was elected, for example.

Changing the topic a little bit, I only recently learned that one of the big things that had gotten you a lot of attention for your work was that after the 2020 election or maybe leading up to it too, you had done a thread of various debunking of various ‘the election was rigged’ narratives. And I was curious, was that a planned-out thing that you did? Or was it just in the moment like, “I’m frustrated, I’m passionate, I’m going to start debunking some of these things.”

Isaac: Yeah, a little bit of both, I would say. I mean, I had warned people that these claims were coming. First of all, if you go back to September or August or whatever of 2020, what a lot of Trump officials and Trump himself were saying was, “There’s no way we lose this election unless it’s rigged.” And so they—

Zach: Yeah, I was on his email list. I was seeing that for months before, and I was also sharing and being like, “This is not going to be good.”

Isaac: Yeah. And so in that sense, I was prepared for it and I expected it. I also have a long background of reporting on politics, but specifically, I have reported on elections before and interviewed a lot of election experts and done election security reporting. And so I was pretty well versed in how ballots were certified and how elections just fundamentally worked. And so when I started seeing some of the first claims that the election was being stolen or was stolen pop up, I had really basic answers that were just… Like, I could watch the video and say, “Oh, I know they’re curing a ballot here. This isn’t people filling out someone’s ballot. I know exactly what’s going on here.” And so that helped me kind of start the train where I just said, “I’m going to start tracking these election fraud claims. If you see any, send them to me.” And then I did that for the first four or five hours and I saw my thread blow up on Twitter. And then it was sort of like, “Okay, clear the decks. I’m going to do this for the next 48 hours,” and it was basically like a nonstop marathon in the first few days after the election ended. And then I started getting really confident in what I was doing because first of all, I think one of the things that worked was that I was conceding moments where things might be actual voter fraud. Voter fraud is real. It happens. So there were certain stories that were popping up, really local stories about somebody filling out a bunch of ballots for their family or something that were probably real fraud stories. And when I saw that, I would say, “Okay, I don’t know this. I can’t debunk this one, it might actually be real because this kind of stuff happens in elections. But remember we’re talking about 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 or 70,000 votes in swing states, not some 18-year-old kid stealing his mom and dad’s ballot and filling them out.”

So, I saw that traction happening and felt like I was really well-positioned to address it. A lot of the stuff was really easy and some of it was really hard, it took digging. I didn’t understand what I was looking at, I didn’t even know where the video was from. It had been reposted or reshard so many times that finding the original was impossible. And then I’d dig it up and be like, “Oh, this was actually from 2012 or something. I don’t know why this is going viral.” Yeah, and I think it works and people were really encouraged by it and felt like it was a really good resource. It got tonnes and tonnes of retweets and attention, and I just sort of threaded in some promotions for Tangle in there. And it became my beat a little bit. In the months after 2020, I wrote a bunch of articles about election fraud claims, got interviewed a bunch. I went on a Conservative radio show where the host offered $5,000 to anybody who could stump me with some claim or something and we did a little bit like that. There was a lot of really fun and serious and not-so-serious stuff that came out of it, and part of it was that Tangle grew a lot in that time period, which was really rewarding because it was exhausting and draining and took up a lot of time.

Zach: Real quick, something I wanted to ask you about that I’m curious about. When it comes to the “2000 Mules” movie, do you know of a single resource that would be the greatest resource for a quick form debunking of the claims in that movie?

Isaac: Well, I wrote a piece about “2000 Mules” so I would suggest that.

Zach: Okay, that’s good.

Isaac: Yeah, that was one that came up a year or two after. Which, for what it’s worth, is self evidently kind of ridiculous the whole thing. I mean, the initial claim was that the Dominion Voting Systems were flipping votes. And then there was the Facebook stuff and Mark Zuckerberg and Zuck bucks, and then it was Hunter Biden’s story was suppressed, and then they pivoted to this whole other theory that there were people stuffing ballots in major cities all over the country. The story basically changed every time somebody got this stuff knocked down. And all I would say is I wrote a multi-thousand-word piece on the “2000 Mules” documentary and people can go read it on if they want, but the quickest and easiest way to debunk that stuff is that the Georgia Bureau of Investigations asked Dinesh D’Souza for the evidence he had so they could investigate the claims that he put in the movie, and he wouldn’t turn any of the evidence over. So, I don’t know what else you need to know aside from that, basically.

Zach: I think that’s generally a good way to tell if something’s legitimate. People who want the truth to get out there will not put up any obstacles, they’ll make their data and their information public however they can. And when somebody is not willing to do that– for people who want to help put the pieces together for whatever malfeasance happened– that’s a clear red flag. Yeah. Okay. Yeah, there’s a lot more we could talk about, but I know you’ve got to get going. And I just want to say I’m a huge fan of your work and love reading the newsletter, and I promote it every chance I get. So, thank you.

Isaac: Thanks, Zach. I appreciate the time, man. And yeah, I certainly encourage any of your listeners to check it out and give it a try. They can read for free. We’re a big tent party, so we’re trying to welcome anybody who is trying to assess through some of the BS in the media right now.

Zach: That was Isaac Saul of Tangle News. You can learn more about Tangle and sign up for it at I highly recommend it.


The allure of deciphering behavior, with Rounders creator Brian Koppelman

A talk with screenwriter/producer Brian Koppelman, known for many movies and TV shows, including the poker movie Rounders, the show Billions, and the series Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber. He’s also the host of the podcast The Moment. We talk about: his initial interest in poker; how they got the idea for Rounders; poker tells in Rounders; the allure of figuring out what people’s behavior means; the difficulty of reading behaviors in most real-world situations; and the anxiety-reducing benefits of transcendental meditation.

A transcript is below.

Episode links:

Resources related to our talk:


Zach Elwood: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about it, and sign up for a premium subscription, at

On this episode I talk to Brian Koppelman, who you may know as the writer of the poker movie Rounders, and the creator and writer of a bunch of other shows and movies, including the show Billions, and the recent series about Uber called Superpumped. Brian also has his own podcast called The Moment, and he’s interviewed a ton of interesting people, including celebrities, TV and movie writers and creators, and quite a few poker players. 

One reason I wanted to talk to Brian is because I once, years ago, wrote a blog post about other poker tells in Rounders besides the obvious Oreo cookie tell. Basically some of the things the characters said during the hands mapped over to common verbal patterns that I’ve written about in my poker books. You can find that blog post of mine on or by searching for ‘more poker tells in rounders.’ You might enjoy checking that out before listening actually. So I wanted to ask Brian about that stuff.  

Other topics Brian and I discuss are: what led him to working on Rounders; his childhood interest in poker; his interest in behavioral clues, which I’ve found seem to feature prominently in his work; the difficulties of reading and interpreting behavior in real-world situations; the potential meanings of someone wearing an old Full Tilt poker hat; the downsides of being too confident in thinking you can read people; why you should watch David Mamet’s movie House of Games; his interest in transcendental meditation and the benefits he’s found from that; and his thoughts on what it takes to conduct a good interview.
You can follow Brian on Instagram at @briankoppelman. His website is at

Okay, here’s the talk with Brian Koppelman.

Zach: Hey, Brian, thanks for joining me.

Brian Koppelman: It’s my pleasure to be here with you. As I’ve mentioned to you, I’ve read your stuff and I find it fascinating, compelling, and useful.

Zach: Thanks, Brian. It’s a big honor for you to say that and for you to join me. I’m excited. Maybe we can start with… I’ve watched a good amount of stuff, including “Rounders” and “Billions” and I watched the Uber show recently, “Super Pumped”. And I noticed, I could be imagining it, but it seemed like there was a theme of reading people that was above average in your work. For example, in Billions, you had several instances of Mason getting reads on people and these kinds of things, and some of those clips I uploaded to social media because I found them fun and interesting. Am I right in sensing that you’ve had a longtime interest in people’s behavior and finding clues in the people’s behavior?

Brian: I loved when you put that stuff up on Instagram or wherever else I came across it because it’s always fun. But more than that, it’s rewarding when someone who’s sort of a domain expert picks up on something that you’re doing. And a domain expert whose work you’re aware of. And so for me, that was super cool. It was like, yeah. And for David, when I say me, I’m always talking about David Levien as well, my partner in doing this stuff. Because when I say ‘we’, think about things like domain experts. You know, you’re not making the show, you’re not making the piece of art for people who are experts in whichever particular domain might surface, but you are aware of the fact and we are aware of the fact that if we can get it right in a way that those people notice, then it’s possible that something about the authenticity of that will land for people who just instinctively understand it. Because a lot of that stuff, you know, we go through our lives whether we’re aware of it or not. And in a way, at the beginning, you’re at a disadvantage if you are, “Okay, I can read people. I am now going to pay attention.” In a way, that takes you out of the thing we do as human beings, which is absorb information, process and synthesize that information, and come out with our own behavior. Right?

And so we can get better at that through conscious work, for sure. But we all do it to varying degrees of excellence or non-excellence. And I do think we’ve always been interested in it. As a human, when you start to realize that verbal exchange… Now, it’s great we talk about verbal exchange. When you start to realize that people don’t always… A, they don’t always know what they mean. B, they don’t always say what they mean. Sometimes, they say something close to what they mean, but really what they’re doing is saying something because there’s an end they want to get to. And when you start to realize that there’s information and there’s disinformation, I think it’s useful– or we realize at a certain point– it’s useful to try to open yourself up to be able to apprehend what’s really going on.

Our work features that because we like to write about characters smarter than we are, more attuned than we are, and those kinds of people have the ability to recognize these micro-moments. And I would say, as you are without doubt, David and I are people who read Mike Caro’s work super closely 30 years ago. And “The Book of Tells” began a conversation for us. I mean, really, it began watching the con artist movies and reading about cons, and reading about lying and the way people can catch liars. But then Mike Caro codified in an earlier way or a way that maybe hasn’t been as tested or scientific at the time, but there are certain foundational things Caro talks about. Like first divine, whether somebody is trying… Somebody is aware of the fact that they might be able to reveal themselves. Okay, if they know that, do they think you’re the kind of person who would know people reveal themselves? Okay, do they think you’re watching closely? If they do think you’re watching closely, are they going to try to give you a false signal? And all that stuff when we were young was so fascinating.

Also, the questions that it raises, the work raises these amazing questions. Because I can distinctly remember the first window of time I was playing in high stakes for me no limit games. And there’s this one hand that’s haunted me because the person who I was in a hand with was a really dramatic, very high, strong, dude. He wasn’t intentionally trying to use stuff in “Book of Tells” to throw me off. And he made a giant bet and did a very dramatic look in my eyes. And I knew from Caro that he was bluffing, but I hadn’t yet internalized it. So I knew. And it was this terrible moment for me because– and I’m sure you’ve had this in the beginning of figuring all this stuff out– it was like being a sociologist in a way, but not being able to master myself. Because he makes an all-in bet, my ego is on the line, it’s late at night, it’s way before Rounders, and it’s just the beginning of figuring all this stuff out. And he puts me all in. Back then we’d say tap, you know? He taps me and I look, and he does this dramatic like almost puts his face right in front of mine. And I know, fuck, the book says you’ve got to call, he’s bluffing. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. And I folded and he showed the bluff. And it was this amazing moment of, “No, you got to actually do the work now to internalize it to incorporate it. You have to play this out if you’re going to engage with this stuff.”

It’s one of those things. You say this, and when you talk about the verbal tells, Zachary, in one of your books, most of the time you come up empty. It’s a lot of trawling and there’s nothing there. That’s also important to recognize, the other side of it. Right? Not to fool yourself into believing that you’re hearing or seeing something that’s not there. Or you’re picking up on a subtle piece, but you know what? I don’t actually have certainty here. Maybe it now takes me from 54% to 55%. That’s not enough to really shift my behavior. I’m an amateur, but I find it incredibly fascinating and compelling. It certainly makes sitting in a meeting or in a poker game that much more compelling, right? That’s why it finds its way into the work, I think.

Zach: Now, was that interest in… I think it does get to the crux of drama some of these. You’re talking about the Caro things of somebody implies they’re strong and they’ll be more likely to be weak, or somebody implies they’re weak and they’re more likely to be strong. It is such a crux of fictional drama of people giving false signals about what they want to other people. And I was curious: which came first, if it’s possible to say? Was it that aspect of poker, like deceiving other people? Did that really interest you from a fundamental narrative and drama perspective? Was that part of what drew you toward it?

Brian: One of the things is like, who can find their way to the truth? I would say it’s not about the deception. It’s not as much about the deception, it’s about who is able to see clearly. Who’s the hero who can see clearly what’s going on in the world? Because don’t we want to be… You know, we all want to think, as human beings, that we can walk into a room and understand the dynamics. But if you put three people in a room, there’s no way you can understand the dynamics. This is not a political statement, but Barack Obama– as a human, forget him politically. I’m a huge Barack Obama fan but that doesn’t matter. The point is you get the sense that there are certain people who their intellect and their life experience made them have to use their intellect in a way that they learned how to decipher systems and systems of human interaction and behavior so that they could harness it in a way. Yeah, I’ve been fascinated by this for my whole… Not my whole life, but for a long time. Look, I grew up in a house where my dad had poker chips and he gambled too much on sports, and conversations about whether one could really have an edge were conversations that certainly happened. But I have a question for you, which is, what’s the extent of your ability to turn it off? Someone who spent so much time studying the way humans revealed themselves, the ways they try to resist revealing themselves, the way they use themselves for advantage or not, I just would imagine that a lot of interactions that you have become kind of freighted with this knowledge you pick up, whether you want to or not, or is it, “Okay, I’m tuning in, or I’m not tuning in.” How does that function for you?

Zach: Yeah. I think for one, I’d say that I’m quite humble about real world applications of these things. There are certain things I will get clues from, but a lot of times there’s a lot of noise in real-world things where it’s hard to say, “Oh, did they say it for this reason, this reason, this reason?” And I’ve written about that, too, of there’s a lot of these so-called behavior experts who will spout off confidently about like, “Oh, what does it mean when they said such and such or did such and such in an interrogation or interview setting?” But I think in a lot of those cases, there can be a lot of noise and a lot of ambiguity. But I do pick up good clues, and I’ve actually thought about writing a book or something about little clues and workplace or colleague intercommunications. Because I do see a good amount of that kind of stuff interpersonally and professionally and stuff. But I think the times that you’re certain about that stuff are few and far between. And oftentimes, it’s like poker too where it’s kind of just supporting something you already guessed or there wouldn’t be that much amazing insight behind it anyway. But I do think the verbal stuff is really powerful. I like to tell people, if you’re really interested in understanding behavior and getting information out of reading stuff like Mark McClish’s book, “I Know You’re Lying”, which is about interpreting verbal statements, hidden meanings in verbal and written statements, that stuff’s just much more powerful than trying to use nonverbal physical behavior.

A quick note here that I have a previous episode, one of the most popular ones, where I interview Mark McClish about searching for hidden meanings and statements. Back to the talk.

But yeah, it’s also just something too where, like, I’m not going to… It’s kind of a politeness to… It wears you out also to think about it too much, too. There’s a few reasons why you just may not be always on and thinking about at full bore or such.

Brian: Yeah, because people lie so much. And if you go through life constantly looking— sometimes they’re lying because they think it’s the kinder thing to do. Sometimes they’re lying because they can’t bring themselves to have to face whatever it is. And I just imagine if you’re someone who’s studied this the way you have, it might be at times. This gets to what you’re inching away. Like when you’re a writer of the kind that I am, I’m always trying to look through other people’s eyes. I’m always trying to empathize through their point of view. So, I’m thinking about if I had the skill set that you had, your hard-won skill set, I’m thinking about what it must be like. It’s like the way I’ve studied con artists, I can sometimes see things coming. It’s also like, people, I think, often we as humans, don’t want to necessarily… Let’s say you can divine… You know, someone you like says, “Hey, I have a special invitation, I want to give you something,” you want to believe it’s a special invitation. You don’t want to believe that they’re bringing you there because it’s going to serve them or their need. It’s easier to just think, “Oh, isn’t that sweet?”

Zach: Right, you don’t want to know. You don’t want to delve too deep.

Brian: Yeah. You want to go like, “Oh, it’s sweet that they thought of me,” instead of going like, “Ugh, special invitation, I know what that means.” You know? It’s easier to just kind of flow through. Right? So character-wise, people who are going to be vigilant with themselves and say, “No, you know what? I’m going to do the hard work of that kind of vigilance because the enterprise needs that,” and then they get certainty too. Because you’re 100% right, and often, the information is faulty. Someone could say three McClish buzzwords, and actually not be fucking lying. The good player knows to take a step back and look at the… I heard those words, what that should do is awaken you. That should awaken you. Now, take a look. Now, put all the other elements together. As opposed to just going, “Oh, that guy’s full of.”

Zach: Like in real life, too, you have to weigh the risks, the dangers of being wrong, right? Even if I think this might make it more likely, for example, if I think somebody said something in real life non-poker situation and made me think that they’re not telling the truth, there could be major downsides to accusing someone of lying, right? So you have to think about what is the actual usefulness, even if you suspect it may be true. These kinds of things. Yeah.

Brian: Yeah, I was going to… It’s funny, we’re not doing this on video, but I happen to be wearing a very old– I bet you this is a 17-year-old, and it looks all beat up, really old, Full Tilt Poker hat. If we were on video, I was going to say to you like, “It’s a perfect kind of thing.” Because what is it? It could have no meaning wearing that hat to someone who’s in the world of poker. It could mean I don’t really know the significance of what they did and who got hurt. It could mean I’m telling you I don’t give a fuck about… I was going to say it’s like one of those things where, “Or it could literally just be I grabbed the hat that’s been in my closet, and I didn’t look at that and I put on my head.” It could signal a lot of different… Wearing that hat, to somebody… Basically, wearing this hat in the world to the gym is meaningless. But wearing the hat talking to someone in the world of poker is meaningful, or could be meaningful. And I was going to ask you about it. So, the answer is I’m fascinated by this shit and that’s why I write about it. Because semiotics are fascinating, man. Especially figuring out what the semiotic signal is, and who’s aware of iconography and who’s not aware of it, and all sorts of ways. You know?

Zach: I think it gets back to something you said about its good to be a bit humble and not be overconfident in these things. Because, like we said, there can be so many meanings. So I think in the real world context, there’s a real value to sitting back and being like, “Well, I’m not going to reach any confident conclusions without good reason.” Because yeah, there just can be so much noise in these things and it can make you a bit neurotic to start thinking like, “Oh, I’m going to definitely be a Sherlock Holmes and pull out all these minute conclusions about things that I could convince myself are right but they’re wrong.

Brian: Yeah. I was reading something the other day where someone said– someone I like, someone I respect wrote a post about how to tell if you’re not in a good game, basically. How do you know if you may be sitting with people? And I thought it was really great. They said just because they’re wearing a hoodie and glasses doesn’t necessarily mean—

Zach: They’re a pro.

Brian: It could mean they’ve just watched TV. But then one of the other things was the way they handled chips. And I’m not sure. Because a lot of people play now enough poker that they know how to handle chips.

Zach: Right, they can rifle them and such. Yeah.

Brian: You know? I mean, I could do a lot with chips. I can really rifle them… If you sat with me to poker play, you would know I’ve played thousands of hours of poker. But I don’t know that that would tell you that I’m a winning poker player, or what level winning poker player. Maybe it would just make you pay a little bit of attention to me. What would it tell you, though, if you sat at a table– cause I want to know– and some dude or woman was wearing what was very clearly a really weather-beaten beat-up Full Tilt Poker hat? Would you imagine? Would you sort of ascribe anything to it?

Zach: It’s getting back to some of the things we talked about, like you said, there could be multiple interpretations. I think the thing I would jump to immediately is they’ve probably been playing for a while, no matter what that tells you. They could have got it at a thrift store, sure, but it’s probable that they’ve been playing for a while. But again, like you’re saying, does that mean they’re good? Or maybe they just lost a bunch of money on Full Tilt back in the day and they’re still bad? I don’t know. Yeah, it’s hard to reach a conclusion sometimes.

Brian: Yeah. But also, you might be able to. There might be information in that.

Zach: True. True.

Brian: I don’t know. That’s why I find all this stuff incredible. And House of Games– I don’t want to downplay it– House of Games– you know, the ring and the fact that the ring was a fake, you know? The whole first sequence there. And anyone listening to this should watch that movie, David Mamet’s House of Games. And even though the poker is kind of bullshitty intentionally or whatever, the way that they talk about that stuff. I think I saw that movie in college and i was like, “Oh, this is important.” Because I was already playing so much poker and I was already so interested, but I for sure hadn’t found “Book of Tells” yet. I found “Book of Tells” a couple years later. I found [Doyle’s] book maybe right after that had some stuff about how to read people. It was more of a mythical thing. And I’m 57 years old, so back then when I was in college, I think most people would assume if someone looked you in the eyes that you had a hand. Of course, now it’s all changed. You really still have to figure out if the person’s been trained. If they’ve read. It still works, by the way. That one, Caro’s one thing, which was just often people will look away if they had a hand and look at you if they’re bluffing. If they’re not intentionally showing you that, if they’re not educated, or if they don’t know, that does… Ever since that moment when I was young, I can’t tell you the number of times that’s paid off for me. Once you can figure out if the person’s doing it how many steps away from the idiot they think you are, basically.

Zach: A quick note here. I didn’t want to get too in the weeds on this during the talk and interrupt Brian and I’s discussion. But I did want to mention that I do think eye contact after betting is a pretty complex area of behavior more complex than what Mike Caro wrote about. I actually think the reverse pattern is more common. Someone making a big bet, who’s willing to stare at you and make eye contact with you is more tied to relaxation and a strong hand than it is to bluffing. But there can, of course, be different patterns and it’s also possible that the pattern Mike Caro talked about– the opposite pattern of staring at people when bluffing– may be more common in certain player pools or maybe more common to the past. The most complete description of what I think about eye contact can be found in my final Poker Tells book, “Exploiting Poker Tells” Okay, back to the talk.

Zach: I was curious. I was reading something about your decision how you decided to work on Rounders. And maybe the article was wrong because it made it sound like you didn’t actually know that much about poker or hadn’t played that much before then and you just thought that maybe poker would make a really good subject.

Brian: Yeah, it’s 180 degrees wrong.

Zach: Okay. Yeah, that’s not surprising. I read so many wrong things online. So based on what you were just saying, I was like, well, that’s got to be wrong. Because it sounds like you were pretty familiar with poker when you decided to write Rounders.

Brian: I’ve written about this before, but when I was eight years old, I was at sleepaway camp. And there’s this word, it doesn’t mean what it sounds like, this word canteen. But it doesn’t mean a canteen you drink out of. Canteen is where you could buy things like candy and stuff. And then your parents would give you money that was your canteen money for the whole summer. I don’t know. Was it $12 or $9? Whatever it was back then. $20. But you had access to that money, but it was for this one purpose and it would be kept in an envelope in this bunk that I was in at camp. A bunch of these dudes played poker with my dad because he had these chips in the house. He had a carousel of chips in the house but he didn’t play poker much back then. More sports betting. But these bunkmates of mine knew how to play and we played and I got cleaned out. I lost my whole canteen money, gone. And it upset me so much that I was like, “I gotta learn what the fuck this game is.” And so I pursued poker a lot and in various ways over a long period. It was in my 20s when… In college, my senior year, every day we ended up playing a lot of hearts. That’s why Hearts got in “Rounders” in that one scene in the jail. But we were playing a lot of hearts, and also poker. And I learned really valuable lessons because this one friend of mine was better. And we played gin a lot but then I went and read some gin books. And when I got better, he stopped playing against me. And I was like, “Oh, that’s amazing. I don’t have that discipline.” You know? He was really good gambler and he was just like, “Oh, Koppelman got better than me at gin, so that’s an activity we’re not doing.” I would not have had that capacity at all back then. I did not have that kind of self-control as a 19-year-old. Not nearly, you know? This is the way the story got completed, I think. I loved poker, and I was in the record business and I got married young and I married the right person. So, a certain kind of activity, if I was on a business trip, was off-limits for me and happily off-limits. But still, there was time. And I found the bike and I found [commers] and I just started going to those places when I was 26 years old, 25, 24. I was in those places all the time. And it was amazing that that existed. David and I had not yet started… So when I was in [commers] and the bike, everytime I was in LA, I would go play. That’s when I started reading poker books.

Then a friend of mine, in the end of 1995– I know the date, December 15th, 1995– I was with a friend and I was telling him how much I love playing poker in LA. I was back in New York. And a guy I work with said, “Well, you know there are these underground clubs in New York.” And I said, “I’ve always heard about it and wanted to go, but I have no contacts or connections so I don’t know.” And he said, “There’s this guy who tangentially is in our business too, but really, he helps manage the Mayfair Club– which is this club on 24th Street– and I can get you in.” That was at a lunch on that day and that night I went. And this part, which is the part that you heard, I go to the Mayfair but not as a screenwriter, I go to the Mayfair because I can’t believe that this exists. I sit down with this guy, Joe Bagels. And the first night, I started first. And the way they spoke, I lost all the money I had. I maxed out my ATM card, like $700 or something. I don’t remember. I brought 400 bucks and then I lost another 350 bucks at the time. I wasn’t going to take credit from them. I wasn’t going to whatever. And I did leave there and call David. By then we’d been talking about trying to find something to write, and I did leave there and say, “I know what the movie we’re going to write.” Because we were already going to write about these two kids. We already had Worm. Worm’s based on a guy I went to college with. They were going to be gamblers of some sort. We already had the scene where the Mike character’s name who’s Matt then goes and finds Worm in a gym because I used to go to the gym in the middle of the night and break in to shoot baskets to clear my head. And that was something we’d always thought about. So we had this idea. But when I went to the poker club, that was when I and Dave were like, “Well, okay, but now we got to really dive in. Who are the characters? What do they want?” That’s when the process started.

Zach: Yes, I wanted to talk a little bit about this blog post I wrote 10-plus years ago about tells in “Rounders” and I’ll just describe it a little bit for people listening. So, everyone knows about the Oreo cookie tell in Rounders; Teddy KGB opening the Oreos indicating he has a strong hand. But there were some other behaviors in “Rounders” that were common tells that weren’t at the center of the plot. In this blog post of mine, I talked about examples of what I’ve referred to as disclaimers, which I later called missdirections in my book, “Verbal Poker Tells”. Basically, these were verbal statements that misdirect attention away from someone’s true reason for doing something. For example, at one point, the main character Mike says, “Yeah, I’m going to go all in because I don’t think you got the spades.” He’s implying he’s going all in mainly because he thinks KGB did not make the flush when actually Mike’s got a very strong hand so he’s misdirecting attention away from the real reason for him going all in. Another way to think about this is that it’s basically Mike Caro’s weak means strong, strong means weak patterns. I don’t know if we mentioned that yet. Mike Caro’s book makes a cameo in “Rounders”. I want to throw that in there too. There were a few more instances of that kind of misdirection in “Rounders”. One thing I was curious about when I wrote that blog post was if you were kind of aware of that at the time and just thought that we need to obviously have them talk in entertaining dramatic ways with each other, you know, to hell with whether that’s common and people might perceive that as a poker tell. Or was it maybe something you thought about afterwards and you’re like, “Oh, that’s actually something that is a common poker tell that happens a lot.” Would you care to share your thoughts on all that?

Brian: Well, I would say, if you go back one step further, why did Mike write about that? Why is that a thing that exists? It’s because it’s the thing people do. Not now. Not in 2024. But in a pre-internet world, people behaved. They just behaved how they behaved. They spoke how they spoke. They tried to gain advantage when they could gain advantage in those settings. And saying something like, “I don’t think you got spades,” as you know, it depends on how many [yardley]. Right? It depends on how many steps away from the idiot I think you are. So he could be trying to communicate to Teddy KGB, it doesn’t matter what you have, man. You could have the flush, I still can beat you because I have a full house. It could be a very sophisticated bluff. That can be a bluff if you know the other person is hip to what you might be doing. Right? Look, the the idea… We had read… I will say, at the time, I was talking to the person who owned the Gamblers bookshop in Vegas all the time and I was reading. I have this collection of books which I’m staring at it now. It’s a giant collection of poker books stuff, many of which are from back men. And so yeah, we were reading all that stuff and figuring out the ways people talked. Also, we were in the Mayfair Club and the Diamond Club and the VFW hall, and writing down shit that people said and watching it. So yes, some of the dialogue is obviously torqued up. Nobody’s said three stacks of high society, not since 1911. But the idea of the ways in which people communicate, the ways in which people signal strength signal strength? I mean, yeah, we were conscious of that, but also conscious of the utility of seeming to signal that you’re revealing a tell when in fact, you’re doing something else. It’s just that Teddy had the one hand that it didn’t matter what the fuck Mike had. Because quads are under the table because Mike has one of each, right? So Teddy had the only hand better than Mike.

Zach: Again, I didn’t want to bother Brian about it during our talk, but I’ll just say that I do think the verbal statements in Rounders that I wrote about in my blog post show up like many standard and reliable common verbal poker tells you’ll find amongst a fairly mediocre player pool. Of course, anything is possible; as Brian says, experienced poker players might say such things in real life; I’m just talking about common patterns. And in this, some of the behaviors are just standard weak-means-strong behaviors – what I call weak-hand-statements in my book Verbal Poker Tells – weak-hand statements are players saying things that weaken their range in various ways, directly or indirectly. You actually don’t find even good players switching this up much —- this pattern for weak-hand statements is quite reliable; surprisingly reliable. 

And the degree of subtlety is a big factor here. When I say that the verbal tells in Rounders are good examples of commonly found verbal tells from bad players, what I mean is that the behaviors are fairly over-the-top and obvious. In the hand we were talking about, the Mike character acted stressed out and said “Time” like he needed more time to think, and then that’s when he said “I don’t think you have the spades” and went all in. Just quite over the top in terms of trying to act weak and uncertain when he had a strong hand. That’s what I was trying to communicate in my blog post; not that such behaviors couldn’t be found from very good players, or couldn’t be switched up, but just that the very unsubtle presentation of them made them seem like the behaviors you’d find from fairly inexperienced players.  

If you’re interested to learn more about why I think that, I’d recommend checking out my book Verbal Poker Tells. A lot of that book actually deals with the concept of weak-hand statements, and the different ways they show up. 

Actually, kind of funny, related to that, there’s a hand from the 2009 WSOP that Matt Damon where he does some very similar over the top behaviors —acting very stressed out and uncertain when he flops a full house. Matt Damon’s behavior in that hand basically, to me, gives away how inexperienced at poker he is – and it reminds me of his character’s behavior in Rounders. If that helps explain it a little better. In the blog post for this episode entry, I’ll include some links to these resources I’ve mentioned. 

Sorry to Brian for all this post-interview disagreement. I didn’t want to hold up our interview too much but I did want to dig into this a bit more because I thought poker players would find it interesting, and because I wanted to defend the ideas in my blog post a bit. Okay back to the talk.

Zach: So, I actually didn’t know how many interviews you have done for your podcast at the moment. I saw that you interviewed more than 400 people and you had so many interesting people in there. I was actually reading some reviews of your podcast people had written and somebody said that they thought that you were maybe one of the best interviewers in the country, just because of how you’ve gotten so many people to talk openly and be vulnerable about their life and these kinds of things. I’m curious, how do you feel about your skills as an interviewer? Have you seen them get a lot better over time since you started that endeavor?

Brian: Here’s a good thing to talk about. I would say I don’t spend that much time in general. I do when I’m weightlifting. But other than that, I spend a lot of time in general in tennis, I guess, or sports. But trying to fix myself at a point in a graph and sort of evaluate that, instead, I would rather say, “Okay, I feel like that interview wasn’t great. Why? I wasn’t curious enough about the person I was interviewing. Next time I should make sure that I’m only interviewing people about whom I have great curiosity. Because when I’m really curious, when I’m really fascinated, the interview is going to be great because it’s going to feel like a conversation and everyone’s going to hear that I can’t believe how lucky I am that I get to engage in this.” And it’s really outwardly directed. It’s really directed. It’s very inward, and then it’s like, “Does the notion of having this conversation fire me up in a way that it’s worth it to put in the work have to put in to do a great job?” That’s really what I’m thinking about. I mean, it really is. I’m just thinking about all the amount of work I have to do. Because I will not phone in an interview, I will not fake the funk. I’ll read the fucking books and I’ll listen to the thing and I’ll watch the thing. So I have to be fascinated by somebody either by their story, their work, the life that they’ve lived, or something they’ve said. And so I would say the most important thing is guest selection. The most important thing of being a good interviewer in a podcast scenario is guest selection. If you have the right guests for you, then the interviews will be great. If you don’t, it’s very hard, then you have to just… Look, in my whole life, I try to put myself in a position where I’m working from a place of curiosity and fascination. I said yes to this because I’m really fascinated by your work and the way you think. So I knew what does matter, I could be on either side of this conversation. It’s a conversation I want to have. I basically say no to some number, like 75% of the podcast requests and beyond podcasts. I mean, I mostly just saying no. Because I’ve gotten to— I didn’t. That wasn’t my policy 10 years ago, but I’m a little tucked down. So I would just rather not do it. I don’t need…

Zach: You need the spark.

Brian: I get very little out of this kind of thing except the engagement with the person I’m talking to.

Zach: To your point. I’ve had that learning, too, where I’ve said I’d interview people for my podcast, mainly they’d be nice. Or because I thought I was doing it for other people, those are the ones that always turn out the worst for me. Like you said, it’s like you’ve got to have that spark and really want to ask some specific questions. Yeah.

Brian: Yeah, totally. Right? You do! You have to feel… You have to feel an engagement. Of course, everyone’s been in a situation where they’ve done something to be kind. And by the way, that’s a really valid thing. But the product won’t be amazing and you got to say to yourself, “Well, sometimes that’s a balancing act.” But I don’t do it. I can’t. I got to a point where I would rather not do anything. I mean, I have to be engaged or it’s not worth it. It’s back to what I love about poker. When I sit at the poker table, I’m never bored. I’ve never been bored at a poker table.

Zach: Always something to watch and observe.

Brian: Yeah, and I don’t understand. I get it. I don’t understand. We all do it. But I’m not on my phone when I’m at the poker table. It’s the same thing. Honestly, in the last six or seven months I’ve become really crazily obsessed with lifting weights and learning about it and figuring it out. And I think one of the things is when you’re doing sets to failure, you truly are forced to be present. You’re engaged in something where you’re trying to improve and you have to bring everything to bear in that moment. You know? And poker done the right way, I think it’s the same thing. Yes, you’re having a conversation. Yes, you’re with your friends. Yes, it’s great. Yes, there are laughs. But can you say alert during that? Can you stay focused? Can you stay curious? Can you stay engaged? Can you keep listening? Can you pick something up? And as you state in your books, you might not pick up a sign for a whole night of poker. You could still win, by the way. You can still play well. And you might not really hear the thing that makes you make a certain move. Or you might even be in— Like, the moment you can really tell somebody has it or doesn’t have it, you might not even be in their fucking head. But you’ll learn it for next time. So, it’s not that different. Everything I do, I try to make it be something that I can have that level of engagement.

Zach: Are you going to write a “Rounders” for weightlifting? Is that a script idea?

Brian: It’s tough. There is actually one. There’s an angle on it. By the way, I mean, talk about subcultures. Dude, that’s a subculture that is so intense. The arguments that people in the world of lifting have with each other about literally… You could get guys calling each other the worst— Smart guys with PhDs calling each other the worst names ever about five to seven reps versus ten to twelve reps. Literally, you could have people devoting hours of podcasts to just downvoting somebody who thinks that a five-cent range is worse than a ten-cent range. It’s amazing. It’s like I had no idea of the words about that until I got into it, you know? No different than starting hand arguments or position arguments. It’s the same thing.

Zach: Do you mind if I ask you about transcendental meditation?

Brian: I’m totally happy. I love talking about it. Yep.

Zach: I know that you’re a big proponent of that and I was wondering, if you explained it to a lay audience, how would you pitch it? What are the benefits that you get from it?

Brian: Like Tim Ferriss says, I think he said something along these lines– I’m paraphrasing, I’m not quoting him– that it might be the thing that is most in common among the guests that he’s had on his show is that they do some form of meditation. I think I started meditating in 2011. And I want to say this succinctly. For me, the benefit is it reduced the physical manifestations of anxiety by something like 80% or 85%.

Zach: Wow.

Brian: One of the things is that when people want to sell stuff, they’ll say it makes your anxiety disappear. And we as human beings go, “Well, that’s bullshit.” Because nothing can. Because we’re humans and we know we’re mortal, so we have anxiety. But it just made the physical manifestations– the stomach or the heart– suddenly quickly. A month in, that stuff just went… The [line] just went way down on it. And that alone is enough. Then clarity of thought, peacefulness, sense of wellbeing. Look, I’m talking about lifting, but I’ve always been someone who exercises a lot. And part of why I started lifting and stuff is because as you get older, if you let yourself stay out of shape and you still play sports really hard, you can just hurt yourself all the time. And if you’re fat like I was, it’s just bad. So I had to start. Then you throw the cardio piece and you’re like, “Well, I got to do the other thing too.” So exercise has always been meditative, too, for me. I can get to that sort of alpha state that they call it, you know? Meditation is 20 minutes. The way I do it, Translated Meditation TM, there’s a book by David Lynch, the great filmmaker, the book is called “Catching the Big Fish” and he talks about it in a way that I find incredibly compelling. But essentially, you’re repeating a nonsense word to yourself quietly in your brain for 20 minutes twice a day. It’s very easy and it’s very calming. I just feel better doing it. I had a lot of questions going in. I had read all the sort of negative things about TM and I was very aware of it, I had very clear rules for myself about the ways in which I would engage. I would go take these lessons and then that’s the extent of my involvement. And it’s been, by the way, the extent. I’ve never gone on some retreat or thing. It’s just that I find this technique useful. And I’m just always after. It’s hard being a person, and so whatever makes being a person a little bit easier, I’ll take it. It goes back to the thing I said about mortality. We understand people are fragile, that means the people you love are fragile. And that stuff scary sometimes. So, anything that’ll help I’m interested in. Exercise is a huge one. Walking, not just as exercise, but walking is really helpful. Journaling is helpful, I think. And I think translated meditation, for me, is just very useful.

Zach: The form of the meditation, is it always the same? So, it’s 20 minutes of repeating the mantra and it doesn’t vary from that?

Brian: But the thing is, when you learn TM, it’s not rigid. You’re not forcing yourself to say this mantra over and over again. You’re allowing this mantra to surface and you’re kind of engaging with it. And then sometimes your thoughts come in. It’s like other meditation you’ve heard of. Your thoughts come in and then your thoughts move out and the mantra resurfaces. It’s just being in that space. And I’ll say I will not play. I do the morning meditation every single day in my life. I haven’t missed one since 2011. And I’d say I do the one in the afternoon 70% or 80% of the time, depends on the period. Right now I’m in a period of time where I’m doing it every day, but sometimes life makes it hard to the second one. But I will never play poker at night without doing this. Never. It’s a zero for me. Maybe I did it twice. And I just know. Like, I will meditate this afternoon before I go play poker tonight, for sure. And that will be useful. It will reset me in a way. It doesn’t mean I’m going to win, by the way. I could still lose.

Zach: And you said it’s something you say internally, you don’t say it out loud? Is that right?

Brian: Correct. You never say it out loud.

Zach: Is your mantra a secret? Or can you say what it is?

Brian: No, you don’t say what it is. And the reason is, you don’t want to attach anything to it. Really it’s a word sound noise. You don’t want to attach someone’s reaction. You don’t want to attach that moment. It really is just something to break the cycle of the pattern of thoughts.

Zach: You don’t want association.

Brian: No, you don’t want any. And no one knows it. In fact, because it’s like some state secret. It’s not special, it’s just because it keeps it pristine.

Zach: Do you have your own thoughts on what the mechanism is by how it helps you? Is it basically like… Because you said these other thoughts come in and you basically are able to kind of brush them aside, do you think it kind of sets you up to be more easily able to brush aside things?

Brian: Yeah, I don’t know. I was reading a book– this is not translated, this is a way to get to the answer– I was reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, he’s this amazing Buddhist. He had this phrase that he said he repeated to himself and he found it very useful. And I’ve done this not as TM, because it’s not TM, but I’ve done this sometimes to go to bed at night if I somehow am not able to fall asleep and my thoughts racing. He says, “I am not my body. I’m not even my mind.” By repeating that to himself, not out loud, it’s a reminder in a way that the thoughts you think aren’t necessarily valid. We all have thought things that we didn’t put into action or that turned out to be wrong, right? So just reminding yourself, yeah, you might feel a twinge in your knee, but you are not the twinge in your knee. It’s useful. Anything to create a tiny bit of separation from the thoughts that kind of own us most of the time and our essential nature, anyway that we can sort of separate those slightly, I think has tremendous benefit. And I think TM, though I don’t know, I really don’t know the answer to this, but what it feels like to me is that there’s probably a cycle of counterproductive thoughts that we all have. Who knows where they’re from? Who knows when we took them on? Whether they’re worries, fears, self-criticism, whatever the thing is, the mantra has a way of like if that thing is a circle that’s just going and going, maybe the mantra just kind of takes us somewhere else away from that and breaks it so that you have a minute to just have some peace.

Zach: Yeah, that makes sense. It’s like breaking the rumination or the ruts that we get into our normal—

Brian: Yeah, exactly right. Ruts. People should look at— I mean, there’s a lot of EEG studies and stuff, brainwave studies, and they’re doing more and more. There’s a lot of science now on this question. I was even reading recently… Recently, I put into two different AI engines a bunch of questions about meditation and the various forms, and about what the science said. And I was really prepared to be told that it’s all been debunked, but it just hasn’t been. The science really stands up for its benefits and you can just find that out. That’s just out there, people looking at the brainwaves and stuff.

Zach: Yeah. And like you said, there’s some understandable mechanisms by which you can see it helping you. And it’s now like some things you hear about you’re like, “That makes no sense.” You can see the logic there. Yeah. Well, it’s been great talking to you. It’s a big honor. I’ve always enjoyed your work, I always look forward to what you’re working on next. So, thanks a lot for talking to me.

Brian: Thank you. And as I said at the beginning, and I mean it, your work is valuable. I’m really glad that you’re doing it. I often wish you were just sitting next to me at a poker table so you could tell me what the fuck was going on, man, when I can’t figure it out for myself. [Zach chuckles]

Zach: Well, thanks, Brian.

Zach: All right, take care.

Zach: That was a talk with screenwriter, producer, and director, Brian Koppelman. Brian is also the host of the podcast The Moment. You can learn more about him at

If you’re a poker player and enjoyed this talk, you might like some other poker related talks I’ve done for this podcast; you can find a compilation of all the game and sports related episodes on my site  And if you want to learn more about my poker tells work, check out my site 

Thanks for listening.


How a pro poker player reads tells, with Dara O’Kearney

A talk with professional poker player Dara O’Kearney on the subject of poker tells (aka, behavioral patterns in poker). Dara is the co-host of The Chip Race, one of the most popular poker podcasts, and the author of several books, including GTO Poker Simplified. We talk about: the importance of poker tells compared to strategy; how Dara’s views on tells have changed over time; some ways poker players can get info from opponents (e.g., insulting them or being nice to them); some poker hands where opponent behaviors played a role in a decision. 

This is a reshare of a 2021 episode. For more details about topics discussed, see the original post.

Episode details:


Tips on interrogating people for information and confessions, with David Zulawski

A talk with David Zulawski, who’s an expert in interrogation and interview techniques, the cofounder of Wicklander Zulawski and Associates, and the author of Practical Aspects of Interview and Interrogation.

Topics discussed include: Why is the non-confrontational, rapport-focused technique he recommends the best one? Why is it important to downplay the significance of a crime? Why is it important to try to prevent someone from denying the crime/accusation?  Why is it important to not tell a suspect all the evidence you have against them? What are some behavioral clues a suspect is lying or telling the truth?

Episode links:

This is a reshare of a 2018 talk. For more details about this talk and a transcript, see the original post.