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podcast

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:

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podcast

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, see the original post.

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podcast

Analyzing behavior and motivations in the Robbi Jade Lew poker hand, with Yakov Hirsch

This is a talk with professional poker player Yakov Hirsch about the well known high-stakes poker incident where amateur Robbi Jade Lew was accused of cheating by professional player Garrett Adelstein. We give our takes on the hand, and the overall situation, and we talk about Robbi’s possible motivations and thought processes during this hand, and also about our reads on what her behavior might indicate about her thinking.

This talk is only available on YouTube because of the references to visuals:

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podcast

“You want me to have cognitive empathy for Trump?!”: a talk with Yakov Hirsch

A talk about trying to understand Trump’s anger at the liberal-leaning news media and how that relates to American polarization. This is from a video talk I had with Yakov Hirsch (twitter.com/yakovhirsch) in November of 2023 (the first part of this talk is here). A transcript is below.

Other topics discussed include: Trump-Russia media coverage; Americans’ polarized views of Trump; the importance of trying to understand others’ views, even people we perceive as very wrong and dangerous; the importance of cognitive empathy; the seemingly widespread lack of empathy these days; and American polarization and conflict dynamics.

Episode links:

Resources related to or mentioned in this talk:

TRANSCRIPT

Zach Elwood: Hello, and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast. I’m Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding other people, and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at peoplewhoreadpeople.com. What you’re watching now is a second part of a talk I had with Yakov Hirsch in late November of 2023. I separated that talk into three parts. The first one was focused on the Middle East conflict and anti-Semitism and I’ve already shared that episode. The one you’re watching now is about Trump and American polarization. In this talk, we mostly focus on Trump and his high animosity relationship with the media, and the divergent polarized views that Americans can have of Trump. 

If you’re listening to this on audio, just note that this was a talk Yakov and I had on video. So if you want to watch the video, head over to my YouTube channel. That will also help explain why it seems a bit more rough and informal than usual. I didn’t edit our talk as I usually do for the audio episodes. As you’ll see, Yakov is someone like myself who tries his best to get into the heads of other people to understand what the reasons are for their actions. He attempts to have empathy for them. And he’s committed to doing this even for people he very much disagrees with, or even for people he thinks are doing harm and are dangerous. This is a similar underlying thread in both Yakov and I’s work, the idea that you can try to understand the more rational and understandable and human reasons for people’s behaviors, even while thinking they’re very wrong. And I think for many people, there can be a perception that trying to reach those understandings and having an empathy is naivete and weakness, whereas I see doing such things as a great strength. When you try to do such things, you’ll be less likely to amplify a conflict and make it worse. And I think taking such approaches less obviously makes it more likely you’ll actually be able to achieve your own goals. 

This talk may be a challenging one for some people. There can be a feeling like you’re asking me to try to have empathy for Trump. He’s nuts and dangerous. And I get that, it’s a challenging thing for me too. I sometimes have those feelings, too. It’s like, am I being the sucker here. But I think there’s something very important in that difficulty. All around us, we can see how conflict grows worse by people giving up on understanding other people’s narratives and views. They write those people off, they see them as objects or as evil. People cease to care how their own actions and ways of speaking can help drive other people’s aggressive and divisive behaviors. For example, in this specific case, it’s important to see how aggressive and biased responses to Trump and Trump voters are a big part of what drives support for Trump. 

If we want things to get better, we must be willing to try to understand other people, even when that’s painful and challenging, and even when it makes us feel kind of gross inside. If you’d like to learn more about the American polarization problem, you might check out my book, “Defusing American Anger.” You can learn more about that at american-anger.com or you can sign up for my Substack newsletter about polarization. You can find that link linked to that on my site, also at american-anger.com. I also have an excerpt from my book “Defusing American Anger” on there that’s specifically about our distorted and polarized perceptions of Trump. You can find that in the book excerpts section on the site. Okay, here’s the talk with Yakov Hirsch. Note that this video starts out with Yakov and I in the middle of talking about the Middle East conflict, and that’s because this is the second part of the talk we had leading into us talking about Trump.

Yakov Hirsch: You have to think of Israel’s perspective because what happened to them is the most terrible thing that can happen to a country. If it happens to any other country, they would do the same thing as Israel. But here’s the issue. They are living every day with the story, whereas the rest of the world, they saw the story and most people said, “Oh my God, that’s so horrible.” But at some point, they are on to the new story. And the new story is every day innocents dying and Israel doing what they’re doing. Meanwhile, in Israel, when they look at their world, they say, “Didn’t you see what happened to us?” That’s what Bari Weiss said at some point. The people are celebrating Jewish death. Right? Anyone who’s demonstrating against the war is celebrating Jewish death. Because don’t you remember what happened to us? That you don’t empathize with what happened to us and the whole narrative that they have— their whole ideology— if you don’t agree that ideology is the real world, that makes you on the side of Hamas. Right? That’s our situation and everyone chooses to fight it differently. I mean, you have all these depolarization things, but look what you’re up against— people who have ideologies, and they’re saying it’s political science. They’re not saying this is my politics, they’re saying this is the truth about the world, and more evidence and more evidence and more evidence. Right?

Zach: Yeah, and maybe that’s a good point to segue because yeah, the more I’ve looked into the liberal academic work around the claims of high amounts of racism amongst conservatives and Trump voters, a lot of that work is just so weak to me. And I’m not the only person that says that. Musa al-Gharbi, an academic, wrote a great paper called “Race and the Race for the White House” that examined some of the really bad, and frankly, just kind of amazingly bad to me academic work that was used to take the worst possible framing of what this data says about what Conservatives and what Trump voters believe. And I was actually kind of astounded because those are the things that were used to then paint this picture. They were like the foundation of what journalists would point to or pundits would point to or Democrat politicians would point to build their case of like, this is the horrible White supremacist and bigots that we’re up against, you know? It was almost just taken as a fact in some very influential quarters that these things were true. But then you go look at the data that the things are built on and it’s just such bad academic work. For example, the book that got a lot of attention was “Strangers in Their Own Land” which was kind of the sociological examination of Louisiana Trump voters or Conservatives in general. But as Musa al-Gharbi pointed out in his work, people held this up as like saying a lot of significant things about Conservatives in general, whereas, actually, it was just examining a few people in the most deep red place in America, so, of course, you’re going to find the more extreme narratives there. And then, even within that, it seemed like the author, Hochschild– I think was the name– was taking the most pessimistic interpretations even within that framing just to say but these are the pieces of workbooks or academic work that are used to build this narrative that these people are basically evil, you know, in a similar way that I would say that happens in other conflicts or happens with Palestinians or… I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that.

Yakov: Yes. I mean, this is… Again, its ideology. This quote ‘academic’, it’s an ideology. Meaning that he has this idea and he could muster whatever evidence he wants and then he writes this thing. And the people with this ideology of Whites are racist, you just keep on accumulating to people who are receptive for whatever victimhood or whatever it is. For whatever reason that you’re receptive to this, you are masking this data. And everyone’s like, “Yeah, of course, it’s obvious already.” Right? It’s obvious. Now, think about the people who do the depolarization work. What do they do? They bring people and human beings together. Ideologies are about ideas. Ideology says, “You see those people? This is what they believe.” Depolarization is you put people together and they like, “Oh, you have twins too? Oh, my God, I have twins! What is—” It’s human beings, right? They’re not ideological. But these people are telling you, “No, everyone’s ideological. All the White people out there.” Each side is saying the other side is the one that’s ideological. But basically, everyone is less ideological than the people who are saying.

Zach: Right. Exactly.

Yakov: They’re the ones who are ideological, not the people they’re talking about.

Zach: Yeah, and what comes to mind there… I actually wanted to write a piece about the complex narratives that people on both sides of the American polarization, the complex pessimistic narratives that people build. For example, you have Christopher Rufo who wrote this book about the creeping malicious Marxism that was on the Left. He painted this portrait of “Oh, this stuff comes from these very bad people back in the day, and it’s all just this narrative that’s come forward into our time, you know? In the same way that some liberals do with the more pessimistic White supremacist framings. But Rufo and other people are building this narrative of those people that you see who have those beliefs on the college campuses, deep in their heart, they want to destroy tradition and they want to create this Marxist wonderland or whatever he says. I haven’t read his book but I just read the summaries, but it’s the same kind of trying to reach for this most pessimistic narrative about who these people on this other side is. And that’s just the nature of what conflict does to people. It makes us uncurious, it makes us unempathetic, and it makes us filter for the reality that we want to see about the other side. Yeah.

Yakov: Now think of Bernie Sanders when he ran in 2016. Bernie Sanders, this is very interesting, because Bernie Sanders is not ideological. Right? He doesn’t go with it giving speeches about this side. No. He’s saying, “All the people are in this together. Right? Your problem, you have nothing to do with this person across the country, but you’re both American and we should cut tack.” Whatever his solution is, he wasn’t ideological. And someone like him is the solution. Some magnetic politician. Because if you look at the people who tried to destroy Bernie Sanders, I’m not talking about… I’m talking to the idea people. The people who are the most ideological and need these ideological battles, right? This is how Conservatives got into MSNBC because they’re very good at waging ideological war. They wage. And if you look at those people, look at what they wrote about Bernie Sanders. The venom, the hatred, it’s because he’s not fighting the fight that they think needs to be fought. So these ideas are very, very important when you’re trying to make sense of politics.

Zach: You’ll now be hearing an ad. I don’t endorse these ads, and I encourage you to remain skeptical of all ads.

[ad plays]

Zach: Yeah. And interestingly from the depolarization angle too, a point I often bring up is a lot of liberals don’t know that Bernie Sanders was very anti-immigration for most of his career up until recently. He called illegal immigration like lax immigration laws a Koch brothers scheme because he thought that using cheap labor were ways that people with money got more money. And and a lot of liberals don’t know that, but I like to reference it as an argument to say well, you presumably don’t think Bernie Sanders is racist for his… You know, he has a very liberal background for his stances on immigration. And I’d like to make that point to say, well, if you can see how that doesn’t require racism to have those views, maybe you can be a little bit more empathetic to the Conservatives who have those views.

Yakov: Again, no hate. Think about that. Every politician. But Biden’s talking about hate. Hate, hate, hate. Every politician is hate! Bernie Sanders, no hate. Right?

Zach: I did really like him the more I’ve read about him and learned about him. Yeah, I like his approach and his way of disagreeing with people basically. So yeah, maybe we can switch to Trump himself. Because one of the things I wanted to talk to you about, the main thing was your thoughts, you know, basically having cognitive empathy for Trump even as– I’ll give the usual disclaimer– I think he’s a very narcissistic and dangerous person in his narcissism. And I thought that since I read an early book, “Trumped!” which is about his Atlantic City days written by a high-level casino executive that showcased Trump’s personality flaws being present way back in the ’80s and being responsible for his Atlantic City casino failures. But all that said, I think he’s very badly narcissistic. But I also agree with some of the things you and I have talked about, which was there are some really understandable reasons for why Trump behaved as he did, including having legitimate grievances with how the media treated him. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that.

Yakov: Yes. In February 2017, Trump gave a news conference, which I believe any historian who wants to really understand what happened here, if they were to watch that news conference, it would be eye-opening. Because in this news conference, Trump was totally authentic, was being himself, and if you’re able to get by the judging and if you’re able to look at Trump and be a political scientist, if you could imagine being Trump to really understand what’s happening, our journalists, their job should be to look at that and say, “Oh, this is what Trump thinks. This is what Trump feels about that. He got worked up when he was talking about that,” so people understand what’s going on in Trump’s head. But the audience that wasn’t, they don’t even think their job was that. Their job was to condemn and to say how awful he was, right? So, the whole media attitude towards Trump, whatever he is, we’re not judging. Right? Whatever. He could be the worst person in the world we’re trying to understand. So this news conference is so easy to see what Trump is saying. We’re getting his opinion. And when you listen to his opinion, and that’s when we both saw this, it was like Trump knows he’s nothing to Russia. You just look at him and it’s so obvious that he’s telling the quote, truth. Right? And we’ve all become so ideological that when you look at Trump, you can’t even… It’s just like, “Trump, I hate you!” You can’t even think of his perspective. But then you understand the whole world. If we can see that image, right?

Zach: I want to play a few minutes of that because you drawing attention to that, I honestly had not watched much long-form press conferences. Most of my awareness of that was in short forms, but you got me to watch most of this, which is like a pretty long thing. It was an hour and a half or something. And some of the things that stood out to me were, A, I’ve written about the bad and irresponsible press coverage of the Trump-Russia stuff. And people who are curious about that, I’ll put links in the description for this. But there’s many even progressive people that have written about the quite bad press coverage and the way politicians spoke as if it was like a certainty that Trump had colluded with Russia and these kinds of things. And Glenn Greenwald wrote a good article. No matter what you think of Glenn Greenwald, I’m not a big fan because I find him very polarizing, but he had written a really good examination of just really bad Trump-Russia mainstream press coverage. So you drew my attention to this press conference, which I agree was very interesting.

A quick note here, I was initially thinking of adding in some footage from the 2017 press conference that we were referencing here. Instead, I’m just going to include some links to that video in the entry for this episode on my site, peoplewhoreadpeople.com. I think Yakov is right in that that was one of the more interesting press conferences from Trump’s administration, and seeing how he talked about the Trump Russia coverage and understanding his relationship with the media. Okay, back to the talk.

The things that stood out to me were he was much more eloquent than I remember him being and I think part of that is, you know, my perception of that whole relationship him with the press or him with liberals in general was that he became increasingly both angry and mad, and I think, too, by the interaction. It was like a mutually rage-amplifying relationship, I felt like. Because, as you say, Matt Taibbi wrote a book, “Hate Inc”, which examined some of the liberal inclinations to push back on. They were like, “We’re not going to take this. We’ve got to be even more aggressive with our approach, you know? That was our failure or something.” But this kind of mutual radicalization, that struck me. Because, as you say, he struck me as… Even with some of the insults he would throw, he struck me as somebody trying to reach out to them and say, “Look, you’re being very unfair to me. If you did a better job, I would be your biggest fan.”

Yakov: He says let’s not fight. I just want to bring up one of the things we’re trying to… Think about what he said. He said Hillary got questions before one of the debates. Right? And he hit the press. “Can you imagine if I would have gotten questions before the debate?” If let’s say it turns out Trump got it and somehow some guy gave him the result, and think about how he sees the world, nothing happened. It wasn’t even a story. Right? So when he presents that, he doesn’t get an answer. And it’s true he’s right about it. So he keeps on making this argument to show that his view of the world is the accurate one. And it is. One of the things he said is accurate.

Zach: Yeah, it’s understandable. And I think it’s very important to see that.

Yakov: You can’t understand Trump. Sorry, you can’t understand Trump without understanding all the things he knows to be true. And now we have a very different Trump from the one that’s 2016. That’s a very big problem.

Zach: Right. He’s gone down this path, which I think to your point, it’s like you have to be willing to examine how he went down that path. It’s important to understand that too. And I think what the us-versus-them feelings or narratives do to us is like… I mean, you talk about this stuff to some liberal people and they just have no curiosity about any of that aspect. It’s just like, “We know he’s bad. The voters are dangerous, we know January 6th happened. We’re not curious about this interplay and the relationship of how these things play out.” And it’s really the lack of curiosity about the dynamics that gets me.

Yakov: So if we’re trying to understand truth, again, we would go to the Trump voters and we’d interview all of them. “What do you like how he’s on trial? What do you think of that?” And we would be able to come up with an explanation. These are the main reasons why Trump voters still like Trump. And what I believe is it would be very different from the people who are saying this is what they believe. And we have to– just from what we’re speaking about here– imagine those Trump voters who are watching that video which we both watched and they’re like, “Yeah, look, he’s making sense. He doesn’t… Look, it’s the media!” Everything Trump says is quote, true. And they’re not even responding. And as we both know, some Columbia journalism reviewed this big project, which was an ex-New York Times journalist who wrote the war against the war against Trump, which compiles all this misinformation. So this happened in the real world, and you didn’t have big discussions in magazines saying let’s talk about this. They ignored it. So what does this mean? The media is playing politics, but they’re claiming their political science. In other words, they’re talking to a Trump voter, “How could you vote for someone…” You know, these moral arguments. But no, you’re political. You have your own reasons. Whatever it is, you’re not objective. And they see that. So of course, it’s totally understandable to be like, “Yeah, I don’t care. Of course, I’m on Trump’s side in this fight.”

Zach: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s the really important thing. In conflict, such an important thing is understanding how so much of support for Trump or support for a leader in a conflict is about your anger at the other side. It’s not necessarily or not even often probably about really liking that person, it’s more like that person represents the fight against what you dislike on the other side. And the case of the pretty bad coverage and framings and punditry around Trump Russia stuff or Trump’s racism or his voters’ racism, all that stuff is sufficient to me to understand what bothers people. You can understand the animosity, to me, just based on those things, like examining those things and seeing why people are so angry. And for people curious about this, I will include, like a lot of resources, including resources by progressives or people that are not fans of Trump– like, they were very much scared of Trump, but who have examined these issues. But I think for a lot of people, that’s hard to… They don’t really want to see those things.

Yakov: Let me give you an example of the right way to cover Trump, the responsible way which should have been done in 2016. At some point, Trump said– I forgot what court case it was, but it was a Mexican judge. And he said that Mexican judge can’t be honest or something like that, he’s going to be biased. Now, if you want to make a case against Trump, if you want to make a case to the American people, you’d say, “Hey, don’t you understand that we can’t have a president who says this person is not fair because of the race?” Imagine everyone listening to him, they go to court, they don’t like the… It’s like, no, he believes that because of… So, no matter what we think of Trump, we cannot have a president who says this judge is not fair because he’s a Mexican. Right? That should be enough. Whatever the opposition is to this President, this is what… That eliminates—

Zach: There’s plenty of legitimate things to focus on without taking the worst possible interpretation of everything.

Yakov: It’s just making fun of ridiculing him. I mean, it’s just absurd what’s happening.

Zach: Or things like him telling Congress people born in this country to go back to their countries. That’s objectively bad. We don’t need to reach for all these other interpretations. Maybe I’ll just put in a video clip of the Trump conference later just so people can see a little bit of it. I don’t think we need to play it. But I’ll just play a little bit and if people are interested, I think they’ll watch more. So yeah, we can skip that. But let’s see, I’m going to get my notes here.

Yakov: I mean, think about what we’re facing, the challenge we’re facing. On the one side, the media or however you want to call them, Washington or whatever, I don’t know the right words, they see Trump is being put on trial, he’s the most popular, it looks like he’s going to be the nominee, right? And all of these people believe that this is the end of democracy, and therefore, their reporting and their takes on everything is it’s the end of democracy. And the other side Trump’s going to be taunting the media. “Haha, you know what I’m going to do when I become President? I’m going to put you all in jail. Haha.”

Zach: This just ramps up more and more. Yeah.

Yakov: So, like I said, they’re experiencing the world in different ways. And who’s supposed to be the responsible one? The media is supposed to be the responsible one. Instead, they’re more ideological than Trump. That’s the secret. In 2016, Trump didn’t come here white nationalist. He was not ideological. When you listen to him when he got to work, he really wanted to quote, “Make America great.” Right? He was proud. If you look at his interaction, think about every day he’d go to work, get things done, he’d go home, he’d go to his bedroom, he’d turn on CNN and be like, “No, that’s not what happened. That’s a lie.” Right? And he’d throw the remote at the TV.

Zach: Yeah. Speaking of worst-case interpretations, like the whole thing about interpreting ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan as an obviously racist slogan, yet when you look into that history, it’s like both Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton used it at least once in some of their campaigns. There’s examples of that. And it’s a very easy-to-understand slogan because most people would interpret it, or I think most Trump voters are interpreting it as like, “There was a time when we had many more jobs and the main streets weren’t decimated and small towns were decimated.” But to reach for this ultra-pessimistic interpretation of like, “Oh, they just want a time when White people had more control.” And that’s the very pessimistic—

Yakov: As soon as this became the approach to Trump in 2016 by the media, what we have now became inevitable. Inevitable. Because you have each side interpreting the weight differently, and it keeps adding up. And here we are. Right?

Zach: The very nature of conflict. Yeah. It ramps up insults, leads to insults, threats, perceived threats—

Yakov: That’s the thing. Each side becomes more ideological. They keep on collecting more things that they’re right about.

Zach: Right. Yeah, that’s what led to things like people writing as if the January 6th event was a White supremacist event. People would write about it as if it was clearly evidently just about a White supremacist overthrow of the government, when you can look at the pictures of the people there and there’s clearly a significant number of racial minority Trump voters, and all it takes to be at that event is a belief that the election is being stolen. And if the President is telling you the election is stolen, a lot of people are going to believe that. It doesn’t require any more—

Yakov: January 6th is a perfect example because it’s a fight about meaning. What does this event mean? And one side tells you what it means and they didn’t stop telling you what it means. Right? But I don’t think political science, if they were to interview every person and find out why you would want to hurt anyone, the report they’d come back with is very different from the report of the media. In fact, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, he spoke to someone on that march, and what did this person tell him? What did he quote? He said this person said the worst White nationalist things imaginable. That’s the thing. These people, ideologues, this is to help their interpretation. So it’s a big problem to understand reality.

Zach: We live in a big country. That’s what I often emphasize. It’s like, you know we have 330 million people in this country, you can’t just pick out pieces of information and build a simplistic narrative in such a complex world, you know? Yeah. Okay. Getting back to one thing you and I talked about was both you and I had an early read in 2017 that the Trump Russia stuff wasn’t going to amount to stuff. And I didn’t go on record on that but it was something that was early in my mind and it was based on the fact that… It kind of relates to the poker tells stuff where one of the most reliable tells in poker is if somebody’s making a big bet and they’re just very relaxed and don’t have anything to and they’re just very effusive and are willing to talk about the hand and they’re willing to talk about what they have, those are all really good signs that they’re relaxed and are value betting. They’re not bluffing, right? In a similar way, not to say that this is a hundred percent or anything, but when I saw Trump talking about the Trump Russia stuff in such an effusive way and just went on for long stretches of time about it, even like him saying that thing of in 2016 before he was elected where he’s kind of kidding around things where he’s like, “Russia, if you have those Hillary Clinton emails…” I think he initially said, “Russia or China or anybody, if you have the emails, send them to me,” kind of in a mocking way. And then he later repeated, like, “Russia, if you have them, I’d like to get them.” That read to me like the other behaviors as this is not a guy who was trying to hide associations with Russia. Because even if you think Trump’s a lunatic, it just would be very unusual, in my opinion, for somebody to be completely relaxed talking about Russia. And including in the press conference that we were referencing earlier, he just seemed very genuine to me about talking about Russia talking about, “Hey, I have no involvement over there, I own no businesses blah, blah, blah.” When people would talk about, “Oh, this Trump Russia thing is going to expose so many things,” I was like, “I really don’t think that’s going to happen.” Sure, maybe I could be wrong. Obviously, these things aren’t foolproof, but that was my read of the situation.

Yakov: The question is, what is he… We’re curious about what is he thinking. What was he thinking when he said that? And if you just open your eyes, you see he’s thinking it. He’s making a joke. He’s ridiculing the whole thing. That’s all we need to know. You can’t have a take, “No, he’s sending messages.” No, you just look at him. For instance, I’ll give an example that the audience should understand. In an interrogation when police interrogate suspects, if you have 20 years of interrogation, and if a woman gets killed and you bring the husband there and you start asking the husband questions, if the husband acts a certain way when you ask him where he was that morning and starts going off, “At 20 minutes, I went there and stopped and it was 7-Eleven,” they know from experience, people who do that are 98.7% guilty. Because a normal person would be like, “Why… You think I did it?” All of that. So, think about that as a tell. If you’re paying attention, you’ll say no, this person wouldn’t do that if this was the case. So poker, when you’re sitting and playing hundreds of hours on you see the same thing over and over and over, you can’t help but say, oh, when someone does that, it means that.” Now, of course, you have to correct it. Anyhow…

Zach: Yeah, a great example that was, you know, these are all just anecdotal but the real power is in the patterns of them. But like Chris Watts, you know, he killed his wife and children and you watch that footage of him interacting with the cops and he’s just really cagey and doesn’t say much because he’s afraid of, you know, how can my words be interpreted? But somebody who isn’t afraid of being caught in anything, they’ll talk about anything. And people have disagreed with me about this. I had someone I know write to me and say, “But Trump’s a sociopath. He’s an extreme narcissist. You can’t take those normal things.” And I’m like, “I think you can, actually.” Because it wasn’t like… Maybe if Trump was already charged in a court of law or something and had nothing to lose, he would behave abnormally. But everybody has something to lose. That’s the nature of bluffing too. You have something to lose so it kind of exerts an influence to act in certain ways. So if Trump had been colluding with Russia, it’s pretty unlikely to me that he would be able to speak so freely about these things, because he had to be worrying about like, “Well, how are people going to interpret this? What are they going to find? What information are they going to find in how I word this?” But the fact that he just spoke so loosely and the fact that with him doing the thing about like, “Hey, Russia, if you have Hillary Clinton’s emails…” some people interpret that as if he’s making a message to them. Like, if you were colluding with Russia, you wouldn’t have to put it on live TV for everyone to see. That’d be the last thing you would want to do if you were colluding with Russia because you wouldn’t want to draw attention to the fact that you were colluding with Russia, right? You would do it with a back channel. To me, it was the complete opposite of what people were filtering it through their lens of how can I make this fit my view of Trump and my extremely negative view of Trump.

Yakov: Here’s the secret, Trump is transparent. Every other president you ever interviewed, you didn’t know what they were thinking. Basically, if you pay attention, Trump is transparent. Just look at him, and he tells you what’s going on.

Zach: Another example– and for people interested in this, I have a whole chapter in my book where I go through the extremely pessimistic interpretations of things that are top of people’s mind for the horrible things Trump has said like Mexicans rapists thing, or the other example was in one of the debates with Biden. He said something like… They were like, “What do you think of the Proud Boys?” And he was like, “Proud Boys stand by.” But to me, I spent a lot of time interpreting people’s language and I wrote a whole book on verbal poker tells. To me, that stood out as no, he was basically just trying to not give points to people who want to paint Proud Boys as a significant problem and he’s basically trying to say, “Proud Boys, let the police do their work.” He was basically trying to… The more important part of his statement was stand back or whatever and then he just said stand by, but people interpret that as if he was sending some military command to them. And I’m like that’s the most pessimistic way to interpret what happened, as if Trump is some great communicator that he planned ahead to send this secret message to these people, when we know he just speaks off the cuff and speaks really loosely.

Yakov: Think about what he said. “I am the least racist and anti-Semitic person in the world.” Right? So he said those things. Now, let’s imagine what did Trump mean when he said that. In his mind, there’s this African American who brings his car in a certain time, he gives him this amount of money for it. Basically, he doesn’t see someone and think negative thoughts because of their race. This is the same thing with Jews. He doesn’t think like that. So this is the way he says it. Like, “What are you talking about?” Right? And the responses, what do you mean that…

Zach: I won’t go that far. I think he—

Yakov: Listen, I said what he said about the Mexican.

Zach: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Yakov: That’s the most racist thing in the world. I’m just saying to think what he… Of course, he’s not right. But when he says it, what does he mean? You have to understand is he just crazy? [inaudible]

Zach: I don’t want to defend him too much because I do think he is, in some sense, a bit crazy. Because you read this book “Trumped!” and it’s like he didn’t have any memory about things he would do because I think he’s just such a narcissist. And there was a valid thing in there about him making that statement about Black people being lazy, which I think was a valid thing. But to the point that we’re making, though, it’s like you can believe all those things and still think that a lot of stuff— [crosstalk]

Yakov: I have no idea whatever the evidence is about him, I have no idea how racist he is. I’m just saying—

Zach: Yeah, we’re more focused… The thing I focus on is the way people, no matter what they think of Trump, is the way they try to act as if like, “Well, clearly, Trump voters must see the horrible things that I see about him too.” That’s the other very bad conflict thing where people assume that because I think this person is horrible or whatever I think of them, then therefore, I can judge these people. Whereas those people have a completely different view of that person and just do not see the same world, you know?

Yakov: If you look at which journalists are popular, they are the ones who are condemning and judging and having a moral crusade, right? And your side, you love moral crusades. It’s very good to indict the other side. But that’s the end of the world, right? Because this is not what’s really happening, but every day, it’s like, “Oh, my—” Think about, just as an example, Republican politicians and how they should behave towards Trump. So, you have these journalists saying, “Oh, my God, this person. If he doesn’t do this, he has to…” You have to think about their perspective, even if they don’t like Trump and they’re forced and whatever, right? But there’s nothing like that.

Zach: Yeah, totally. That’s hugely important, too. It’s like people interpreting, you know, Republicans not speaking up in the worst possible ways. It’s like, “They must be fully on board with everything he’s saying,” or the worst possible interpretations. Whereas there’s much more mundane explanations in the same way you can imagine if there was a Democrat who was doing extreme things, Democrats wouldn’t want to talk about that because they wouldn’t want to give points to the other side and these kinds of things. And also, some Republicans are presumably waiting for the madness to die down and they don’t want to get involved in it, and maybe they’re like, “Some of this will go away, hopefully.” So that there’s more generous interpretations of it. Yeah.

Yakov: Right, because they’re about ideas. And they match up human behavior and say, “Oh, you see?” So when you think about people as people, you try to—

Zach: Figure them out. Yeah.

Yakov: Different story, right? This is going to be a problem.

Zach: Yeah, for sure. It’s getting worse. Seems like it’s getting worse on social media.

Yakov: I don’t know how we’re going to survive the next year.

Zach: Honestly, people think I’m very pessimistic, but I don’t think humanity will survive for a couple more decades or three. Because we’re going to have bigger and bigger weapons, it seems like all the countries are becoming more polarized. The polarization, to me, is the existential threat because we’re going to have people that can make manmade diseases in their basements and stuff, you know? This kind of stuff. So I just think people that act like this is some side problem, to me, it’s like this failure of empathy, and how we behave in conflicts is the main course to me.

Yakov: Because think about what the media is telling every US citizen. “Which side are you on?” This is what they’re presenting to every American. Whose side are you on? So, this has been presented. They’re not interested. They just want to bring home food for their family. “No, which side are you on? Are you going to vote for a president who did this?” This is a big problem.

Zach: That was the second part of a talk that I had with Yakov Hirsch in November of 2023. One thing I meant to talk about in this talk but didn’t get around to was something that I think is very important for understanding Trump’s personality and the way he behaves. Trump simply doesn’t want to do what other people want to tell him to do. If someone tells him you should do this or you must do this, he won’t want to do it. I think that personality trait alone helps account for so many of the interactions he’s had with the press and other people where people pressure him and he acts avoidant and stubborn. For people who’d like to understand Trump’s personality, I highly recommend the 1991 book, “Trumped!” which was written by John O’Donnell. It’s a very good book for understanding long-term personality aspects of Trump that go back to his Atlantic City casino days. For example, the book talks about his extremely poor memory, his narcissistic traits, his unreasonable fits of rage, his tendency to pit his underlings against each other to make them try to win his favor, and other things. It’s just a very good and well-written book, and it was written by one of Trump’s high-level casino executives. John O’Donnell said he wrote that book out of a desire to let other people know what Trump was really like.

This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zachary Elwood. You can learn more about it at peoplewhoreadpeople.com. If you’d like to learn more about American polarization, check out my site american-dashanger.com, which includes information about my book and about my Substack newsletter. Thanks for listening.

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podcast

The overstatement of antisemitism, and the importance of understanding even our enemies, with Yakov Hirsch

A second talk with Yakov Hirsch, who writes about the Middle East conflict and about “Hasbara culture”: what he sees as the tendency of some Israel-defending people to be overly antagonistic and us-vs-them in their thinking (for example, unfairly framing criticism of Israel as “antisemitic”).

If you haven’t heard our first talk, I recommend listening to that first. The audio for this episode comes from a video talk Yakov and I had: that video is here. A transcript of this talk is below.

This talk is more generally about the nature of conflict, and about how conflict can make us perceive the world and the people around us in overly pessimistic and antagonistic ways, which in turn leads to more conflict. It’s also about the importance of trying to have cognitive empathy for people we disagree with and see the world from their perspective; even for people we may think are harmful and dangerous.  This will be followed by a second talk where Yakov and I talk about American polarization and our polarized views of Trump. 

Episode links:

Resources:

TRANSCRIPT

Disclaimer for these transcripts: they’re not perfect and will contain inaccuracies.

Zach Elwood: Hello and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast. I’m Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding other people, and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at peoplewhoreadpeople.com.

In November of 2023 I talked to Yakov Hirsch about antisemitism and the Middle East conflict, and about trying to understand other people’s perspectives even when we greatly disagree with them. If you haven’t listened to that one, I recommend that one because it’s a more solid introduction to Yakov’s ideas; we talk about the Holocaust and about the “banality of evil” and more. This talk you’re watching now is more of a follow-up. 

Yakov is someone who writes about what he calls Hasbara Culture; what he sees as a tendency of some Jewish Israel-defending people to be overly us-vs-them and antagonistic in their thinking; one manifestation of this would be people being too quick to call people and ideas ‘antisemitic’ when they’re not actually antisemitic. For example, you will often hear people describe harsh criticism of Israel as antisemitic, even when that connection seems subjective and very debatable.

You can find various things online that Yakov has written about so-called Hasbara culture and other related topics by searching for his name; you can also follow him on Twitter at YakovHirsch; his name is spelled YAKOV HIRSCH. 

This episode you’re watching now is a second talk I had with Yakov. We return to some topics we touched on in the first talk. For any audio listeners, this was a talk recorded on video so if you want to watch it in video format, head over to my youtube channel. 

Also, during this talk Yakov and I got on the subject of American polarization and Trump. Also, because Yakov is a pro poker player, we talked about poker. So I’ve split this talk into three parts; the first one, the one you’re watching now, is about the Middle East conflict and antisemitism. The second one will be about Trump, Trump supporters, our divergent, polarized views on Trump, and the American divide. The third part will be us talking about the high stakes poker story of Robbi Jade Lew being accused of cheating. 

Okay here’s the talk with Yakov Hirsch.

Hi, Yakov, how’s it going?

Yakov Hirsch: Pretty good.

Zach: Thanks for joining me to talk more about some tough things to carry on the conversation we had earlier. Maybe we get started with… For things that were top of your mind, for things that we didn’t cover well or didn’t touch on in the first talk we had about Israel-Palestine aspects topics, what’s top of your mind there? Would you say?

Yakov: The most important take from that story is that there was a fight between politics and political science, and the politics beat the political science. And I’d like to explain what that means, and this will help us going forward. Whenever we talk about this idea of political science versus politics, it will help us navigate the issues we’re going to discuss.

Zach: Okay. Yeah, would you like to kick it off? Because I could get kick it off.

Yakov: Yeah, sure.

Zach: Okay.

Yakov: Okay. In the last podcast, I said that there was this fight between two historians in the 1990s and it was really important and complex business. But I’m going to sum it up like this. There was a historian, Christopher Browning, and a different historian, Goldhagen, and they had a fight about certain Germans. We all know that during World War Two during the Holocaust, when Germans killed the Jews, a lot of them were ideological. In other words, they grew up with the Nazis and they were just basically brainwashed to hate the Jews. So when they killed the Jews, it was like, “Yes, I’m killing Jews.” But this historian Browning discovered that some German soldiers were not like that. Some German soldiers killed the Jews because they didn’t want to look bad in front of the guy who was killing the Jews. Meaning it wasn’t really anti-Semitism that—

Zach: Peer pressure kinds of factors. Yeah.

Yakov: So, this other book, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” came along– this Goldhagen– and he said, “No, you’re wrong. All Germans, when they killed the Jews, they killed the Jews because they hated the Jews. It was this evil thing that was in their mind.” And not just normal, human… In other words, we can’t learn and it’s not universal. Whatever we saw about the Germans killing the Jews, Christopher Browning was saying, “Well, we could learn this for the next genocide, right? Look how people behave in this situation.” And Goldhagen said, “No, no, you’re wrong. There’s nothing universal about the story. We can’t learn about the German killing the Jew or anything about any other soldier anywhere else.” Right? And Browning said, “No, no, no, this is a human thing. In this situation, when you’re ordered to kill someone, you will kill that person even if you’re like’ I don’t feel like killing the person.” Right? So in this fight, the historians believed Browning and the public believed Goldhagen that there was something called the eliminationist anti-Semitism and the German had it. And the last podcast, I showed how this idea affected the world. But the bottom line is that the political scientist, which was the real historian, which was Browning, was defeated. So now—

Zach: In the public’s or in the mainstream or something. Yeah.

Yakov: Now I’m going to quote Hilberg. This is where we start. Hilberg was like the dean of Holocaust historians. He reviewed the fight and this is what he said at the end of the review. “Goldhagen wanted to describe what these men were thinking in the course of such actions.” And he says they were thinking about… They were evil! This is what he said. It was not factual evidence that convinced him for he had none. Goldhagen mentioned these words often in the 600 pages and avid others like unspeakable murderers, horrific, illogical, vitriolic, and gruesome. The adjectives are accusatory. They are taken from the domain of politics and not political science. By the end of 1996, it was clear that in sharp distinction from lay readers, much of the academic world had wiped Goldhagen off the map. Okay? So now, I’m going to explain to the viewer what does this mean. What’s the difference between politics and political science? I’m going to give you this example.

You see, on YouTube or wherever on TV, where a serial killer after they’re in prison for a few years, you have these experts come to interview the guy. Right? They come with the pads, they’re FBI, they’re learning to become FBI experts, they’re interviewing every serial killer and profiler, etc. You will notice that when they talk to the killer or to the serial killer, they’re very nice. Right? They’re not judging him, not saying, “How could you do what you did?” They’re like, “Do you want something to drink?” And they will ask them questions, “What did you feel like when you were doing this?” They really need to know the truth. Right?

Zach: They’re detectives. Yeah.

Yakov: Right, they’re really detectives and they need to know what they can get from this person, which will help the world understand what gets someone to be a serial killer. So it’s very important to be objective there, right? To not influence, not get angry at the person. You’re just going to be objective. You’re not going to judge this person as you’re writing your report. You’re not going to write in the middle, “I cannot believe that guy is such an animal.” Right? If someone were to start writing that in report, we’d be like, “Well, we can’t take this person… This person had a cousin that was killed by a serial killer or something. This researcher.” Right? So the political scientist is the one who’s really being objective

Zach: Or the psychologist. [crosstalk] Yeah.

Yakov: This is what Hilberg used. Right?

Zach: Contrasting it with politicians. Yeah, yeah.

Yakov: Right. So that’s the importance. And now I’m going to show you, in our world, examples. We’re going to talk about what’s going on today. I’m going to show you the examples where you have politics, which we should all believe, “yes, that’s quote, objective,” versus political science. Right? And if we’re able to identify when we’re looking at a situation what’s politics and what’s political science, it will help us understand the world. For instance, yesterday in The New York Review of Books, there—

Zach: Before you start the examples, I do want to say that since we’re kind of wrapping up the last episode, I think one of your points or one of the major points of that last episode or last talk was about how when you view people through a lens of they have this… You know, they kind of like are inhuman, they’re evil, they’re these kind of pathologies that are inexplicable and can’t be compared to other humans. When you when you do that, you create a wall of not really being interested in understanding what drives them. You’ve kind of put them in this class where you are more easily able to…

Yakov: It’s all about cognitive empathy. When you have the scientists, they are trying to imagine being the serial killer. They’re trying to get into a set and be that person and say, “Oh, so that’s what this is about.”

Zach: And it’s almost like when other people do bad things, it makes us less cognitively… You know, we’re less empathetic to them. But that can be a real problem if you’re, you know?

Yakov: We are judging, right? We’re always struggling. But there are people who are trying to understand and not judge. So I just want to give you this example of Hamas and then we can move on to whatever you want. Okay? So in The Atlantic, which is the most influential magazine, a writer there wrote an article about Hamas. Okay? And I’m going to read you the reaction of an opinion writer of the Washington Post, what he said about this article in The Atlantic about Hamas. He said, “My biggest critique is the assumption in Yair Rosenberg’s piece that evil acts are inherently irrational, and therefore, Hamas is best understood as an irrational actor. There’s no room for contingency, agency, or individuals in this account. ISIS was as sadistic as they come. But those of us who worked on ISIS spent a lot of time trying to understand the complexities of the group in a nuanced analytical way. It wasn’t enough to simply say that ISIS was evil and be done with it. That would be useless. It’s almost too obvious to state, so I feel a bit silly saying it but terrorism doesn’t just fall from the sky. Terrorism isn’t quote, not inevitable. There’s a whole body of academic research on what makes the resort to terrorist acts more or less likely. It makes me nervous when an article about Hamas doesn’t quote any experts on Hamas. There are researchers who have spent years studying basically everything Hamas said or done. Can you really write an article on the group without engaging [unintelligible 00:11:56]?” And he lists these other books. He said, “How would you write an article about Hamas without people who have spent their whole life trying to understand Hamas?” When we write serious articles, we take all these experts, and we… Yeah, Yair Rosenberg is not an expert on Hamas, but the point is that article wasn’t talking about Hamas. The article was too much evil. It was enough to say that Hamas is evil and this is the…

Yair Rosenberg is an expert on evil, so he wrote about evil. Whereas when you’re apolitical, you want to understand. In other words, you would like to interview every Hamas member to really understand what happened. Just like we did with the serial killer, you’d say, “Hey, how’d you get…?” You’d try to find out how I got here. Now, just one more, same with Hamas. This is Eric Levitz, New York Magazine. He wrote an article about Sam Harris who has the same view as Yair Rosenberg, and this is what he says. “Sam Harris says the Israel-Hamas war is a battle between “civilization and savagery” – and that Palestinian terrorism is motivated solely by radical Islam, not any earthly grievance. Which shows that atheists aren’t immune to fundamentalist thinking. Ironically, Harris’s own position resembles religious fanaticism in its willful incuriosity. On Israel-Palestine, the celebrated atheist refuses to test the dogmatic tenets of a Manichaen worldview against either the historical record or present-day evidence. Instead of challenging his audience to grapple with the complex origins of the present war, he serves them a fairy tale in which the forces of “civilization” struggle against evildoers, whose malevolence derives from no political history or context but merely from their demonic possession by the mind-virus of jihad. Okay?

And Robert Wright, one other time he also critiqued… There was a fight about the understanding of the American terrorist, and one side said he had ‘jihadi’ intent. Right? And Robert Wright responded. He said, “What does that mean?” He said we have to look at this person, we have to investigate, and you put all these together. That’s how you get to be a jihadi. Right? He said jihadi is like a bomb. It’s not one ingredient. It takes a whole bunch of things together, and that ends up with a jihadi. So this is an example of where you have experts. The arguments about the German was that he was evil. That argument now wins debates, right? If you use that evil argument, it defeats the people who say, “Let’s try to understand it better. Okay, this terrorist, what’s Hamas? Why did… Was there ever a time when they wanted peace with Israel?” All of that stuff.

Zach: Well, yeah. I listened to that Sam Harris, his recent one, where he basically was doing what you were describing where it was… I’m usually a fan of Sam Harris, I think he often goes into a lot of nuance, but on this, he did seem very simplistic because it seemed to just be making arguments like “Hamas does bad things, you know, much worse things on these levels like hiding behind their own people and these kinds of things. Therefore, you can’t compare them, and therefore, you must side with Israel.” That’s what his argument seemed to be. But it seemed to be like that’s a very simplistic framing because as you’re saying, it doesn’t get into the curiosity of why are they doing what they’re doing.

And even if you believe, Sam Harris makes a big thing of… He criticizes Islam, which I think there’s points there, too, but even that is like isn’t Islam also one of other factors too in the way these people behave? You know, it’s very simplistic to just say they’re driven by fundamentalist Islam, I’ll leave it at that.

Yakov: Sam Harris lives in the world of ideas and not people. Because according to Sam Harris, every Muslim has a little bit of ISIS in them. He says it all comes from the Koran, and the question with each Muslim is where are you in the continuum to ISIS? But that’s not the real world. The hate that he has contributed to, if you’re living on the street and the Muslims moved down your block and you’ve been listening to Sam Harris, you’d think to yourself, “Okay, where are they on the ISIS spectrum or on the jihadi spectrum?” And then when you see people reacting to Harris, they’re like, “You don’t know any Muslims. These are not real.” Right? So he thinks about ideas rather than human beings.

Zach: Well, it reminds me of some far-right people who would say very pessimistic things about Islam, about Muslims, but then you just look at the statistics of how many terrorist attacks are there really when you get down to it? Obviously, it’s a problem, it’s a big problem, but it’s also like there’s many Muslims living in America that don’t commit jihad or terrorist acts.

Yakov: Yeah, that’s why it’s so important to have cognitive empathy with the White racist. Because they, like Sam Harris, they again believe that this Muslim is sort of happy when they’re not real Americans.

Zach: Right, they’re cheering secretly or outwardly.

Yakov: The issue is if they were to somehow move into and they become neighbors with a Muslim in a few months, everything about the world will change because they’d see, “Oh, this person’s just like me! A normal person.” Right? They have these ideas which are not true about the world. So when you make arguments, it’s very important which argument you use against the racist for him to say, “Oh, I understand where I might be thinking wrong.” Rather than calling him racist things like okay, that’s what we do. You’re evil.

Zach: Yeah. And I will say, too, I think Sam Harris has also made some good points in that. People calling Sam Harris racist and such for that is wrong to me, too, because even if you disagree with him, he’s trying to make a point about a religion. Many people making points about negative aspects of Christianity aren’t called racist, you know? So just to throw in there that I do appreciate Sam Harris—a lot of what he says—but I do think on this thing, I was finding myself being like… I think he’s lighting over a lot of nuance there. Yeah.

Yakov: He’s saying because of political correctness, that we’re not telling the truth. He says, “All these professors, all these things they are saying, they’re only saying what they’re saying because they have to be politically correct.” So with one sentence, he wipes away all the experts.

Zach: Right, he’s erasing all of the nuance and—

Yakov: He’s erasing political science with statements like that. He’s erasing political science and we’re left with articles like that in The Atlantic. And—

Zach: Oh, yeah, I was going to move on to something related, but…

Yakov: No, and that’s why you end just for the present day, where you have experts saying that Israel is close to committing genocide. You have Holocaust experts in the New York Times. These people don’t go on TV, right? They do research. And now Omer Bartov, one of the great Holocaust historians, is going on every show that we’ll have him and he’s saying Israel is about to commit genocide or is committing genocide. And it’s ignored because ‘Oh, he must be a leftist. He must…’ That’s how if you ask The Atlantic, “Look, this guy…” “Oh, he must be pro…” You know, we don’t listen to experts anymore. Right?

Zach: Although from some people’s perspective, there’s a lot of anti-Israel and pro-Palestine bias in mainstream media. How do you see that? Because I know people who have some valid criticisms, like one of the recent ones with the New York Times rushing to the story about—

Yakov: I am not taking a stand. I’m not judging [inaudible]. I am stating the fact. I don’t have a position on any of these things, okay? [crosstalk] I’m not an expert. But I do know that Omer Bartov is an expert. And I do know that this guy, I’m trying to have cognitive empathy with this busy guy, and he’s stopping what he’s doing– an Israeli Jew– and he’s writing op-eds in the New York Times and going everywhere and he’s saying the Prime Minister of the country said these people are Amalek, are from the Bible. And he’s telling, basically, the civilians and Hamas are the same thing, and what’s happening is the genocide in front of us. So what I’m saying because of this mix-up, I don’t know if it’s genocide, but what I’m saying is The Atlantic doesn’t cover that because he—

Zach: Right, I get what you’re saying. I think that what both you and I are trying to do is trying to examine the understandable ways people can disagree and not try to paint people that have a different view than us as these monsters. I think that’s what you and I are both fighting about at a high level. Yeah.

Yakov: Can I share a tweet of a girl in a college, a Jewish girl in a college, and she had this march with other pro-Palestinian people? And she’s telling everybody…

Zach: Oh, yeah, that one.

Yakov: Right, so think about that. The difference between this Jewish girl who’s at some school march against the war or something like that, she said from the river to the sea. And in this tweet, she’s describing… When you listen to this person, it’s like she’s just trying to do good, there’s nothing that’s described above. She says, “Oh, my friends are so sensitive to me because I’m Jewish. They asked me if…” And it’s like, we have no problems here. Right? No one hates the Jews, everything is great.

Zach: It’s overstated. Yeah.

Yakov: You’re the people that’s creating all this hatred in the school by misinterpreting what’s going on.

Zach: That was an eloquent tweet. Yeah, I saw that one.

Yakov: Right. I just want to say that’s like us being the scientist into the surreal.

Zach: What the people are actually thinking. Yeah. Yeah, that corresponds to what I’m seeing. I see so many people speaking in the most pessimistic ways on both sides. It’s like they’ll interpret a statement feeling bad about Israel’s suffering or feeling bad about Palestinian suffering. People will interpret those in various worst-case scenarios. I see this playing out so many times and I see people interpreting pro-Palestinian marches as being for Hamas or being for terrorism. And as with a lot of conflict, the perceptions of how much maliciousness there are or there is seems very overstated compared to when you actually look at the things that are happening and what people are saying.

Yakov: It’s because the two sides have a different experience of the world. I just want to say this. When some of the pro-Palestines look at Hamas, in the back of their mind, do you know what they say? They say to themselves, “What do you expect?” Or something like that. And that’s why politicals they say yes, if you occupy a people at some point– which is what Israeli security officers say. So just that thought, the thought of– of course, the way Hamas behaved, we have to understand why they did what they did– but just the idea that if you occupy people… You know, like I say, all the security people told Netanyahu all these years there’s going to be an explosion, you can’t keep on doing this. Right. But if you even do that, that’s not good, because Hamas is evil. You can’t respond to the Hamas’s evil. And the whole world is seeing that babies is the problem, right? They see the babies and what are they told? “Hamas is evil.” And the next day, they see more babies and what are they told? “You know how evil Hamas is? And you’re sympathetic with evil.” So it’s two different experiences of the world and each side doesn’t understand the other side. And this might be a civil war before the Trump civil war next year for the election. Because it’s totally different and each side doesn’t even understand the way the other side experiences the world. Right? Just one last thing. For Israeli Jews, this really was! They’re talking about this like it wasn’t a holocaust. Meaning the IDF is now going into 1940 whatever and then fighting the Nazis. Right? This is the story. Right? And the other people are saying, “What do you mean we are killing the baby?” Whereas a lot of the leaders are saying it’s all, you know, they’re all the same. There’s no difference.

Zach: You shared a tweet yesterday, I think it was by Bari Weiss, where she was calling something Holocaust denial, which didn’t seem like Holocaust denial to me. But you draw attention to a lot of those kinds of things.

Yakov: Right. I mean, it’s the Jewish people with the most influence. I wrote an article, “Bari Weiss Wants to Speak For The Jews”. And to speak for the Jews, I just want to show you this book what political science is. It’s a book called “Victimhood Discourse in Contemporary Israel.” So, this is what social scientists do. They look at the discourse in all this holocaust talk and they analyze it. You have 10 different experts and they write them and analyze one aspect of the victimhood, and they try to make sense of how the holocaust, of our understanding of the holocaust, how we came to where we were, and how threatening it is. Right? That’s political science. So, what Bari Weiss does is not political science but the people who follow her believe that she’s saying political science. It’s very important. She’s not saying, “Oh, this is my opinion because I was brought up Jewish.” She’s like, “No, this is the truth!” And meanwhile, it’s just politics. So she takes innocent people, right? For instance, I just want to say this was The Harvard Crimson. They wrote this article at some point during the war. And at the end, possibly the writer was describing the cutting off the heads or whatever, something like that, and on the bottom it said, “This hasn’t been substantiated yet.” So imagine being the editor. You’ll have to produce these articles and you need to state the truth. That’s if you think about the human beings doing this stuff.

But Bari Weiss said, “No, this is…” She called it Holocaust denial in real-time. So when she says that she’s… All the people she’s talking to in the Jewish community, they are made to feel and they already feel that it is 1939 Germany– which is what I’ve been describing for however many years– that this is the success of this worldview, it’s only going to get worse. Because there will be terrorist attacks against Jews, unfortunately, because there are enough Muslims watching what’s happening. And Israel says, “We’re the Jewish state.” Every which way, they say, “We’re the Jewish state. We’re the Jewish state. Jews have to march for Israel, you don’t have to.” So when a Muslim– there are people out there as Sam Harris, how many jihadists are out there– or as Robert writes, how people might become jihadis, is at some point, someone’s going to see this. This is reality. I’m not saying that it has to happen. And they’re going to do an act of hopefully not whatever. And the interpretation of that event is not going to be that some Muslim is watching this killing and he just killed someone. Instead, Bari Weiss and what I call Hasbara culture is it’s the beginning of the end. That means the whole story about what that person did, that one terrorist attack, we can’t have cognitive empathy. This meaning of that act is now turned into something totally different. That totally different thing is the most influential force in politics. And that’s what I write about. That’s why each tweet is important because I’m saying, “Look at what’s happening. Think about the real world and think about the interpretation.”

And that’s why your real Holocaust scholar is going into the New York Review of Books and saying, “You cannot do this. Israel is a powerful state with the most modern weapons, and you’re talking about them as if it’s during the Warsaw Ghetto. You keep on telling Netanyahu…” Think about it. He told his people this is tribal war against our eternal enemies. Right? So Bari Weiss is cultivating to the most influential person in cultivating that that is the reality. That there is a holocaust again. Right? I’ve been very harsh on her. Some social scientists, which I quote, believe, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe it’s the Holocaust all the time, you can just tell me… Like I said, she is responsible for so much anti-Semitism by this behavior. Okay.

Zach: Yeah, I want to make some analogies there to the liberal-conservative conflict in America, but I’m going to come back to that because I see some… [crosstalk Conflict, no matter how it happens, has so many analogous things. And then there’s the asymmetry aspect of who’s perceived or who is more powerful and feeling more weak in a society like I would say conservatives do. They feel like they don’t have power is what allows them to do more aggressive things because they feel like they’re fighting this ultra-powerful force so that that allows them to be more okay with somebody like Trump who takes a more aggressive approach in the way they speak and these kinds of things or the way they act. A lot of people will like that analogy on both sides but I think there’s very much something to the perceived asymmetry of power and making you feel more okay with aggressive or doing horrible things, basically. But I want to come back to that. I do want to touch on something that I think we could have touched on more in our last talk, which I think is important because it’s something you’ve written about. It’s about how, and this is just a general aspect of conflict where people will take out pieces of bad behavior, you know, one-off or rare bad behaviors and hold them up as if they’re super meaningful, so that in the context of Israel-Palestine or antisemitism, that might be somebody taking a tweet and showcasing it and being like, “Look at this horrible anti-Semitic direct message that somebody sent me.” And people act as if that is significant, when the number of people who have those views can be very, very low and some of the messages can be sent by children or these kinds of things or just trolls looking to get reactions. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that.

Yakov: Okay, so there’s this word ‘ideology’ that’s thrown around. What does it mean to be ideological? To be ideological is you have a particular view of the world, which you feel strongly about, and when you see in the real-world proof or something that confirms this idea of this ideology, you say, “Oh, this!” Right? So you spend your life, you’re not thinking about your ideology, you don’t know you have an ideology, right? You think this is truth because this is your experience, right? And you keep on showing more evidence how right you see. You say, “I told you. I told you. I told you!” And the people who say I am speaking from political science, they have the most influence. If you can convince people that you’re speaking with authority, right? But these people, the only authority they have is because they’re saying. And they’re very good at making the case. They’re very good at making the case for their ideology. And the better case they make, the more people will be looking and say, “Yeah!” And if you’re at all susceptible to that idea, it’s like, “Oh, my God, you see, this person has the truth.” Because if you have a similar ideology, you’ll tell your friends, “Go listen to this person.” And they’re like, “Yeah, unbelievable.” Because they take examples you didn’t think of. Like, “Yeah, he’s right!” Because you’re not aware. Like, hold on, step back. What will they say? That’s what we have to have happen. That’s what we have to be political scientists. We have to say, “Hold on. Why do I think that this…” That’s why there’s such a danger to the world is because the stuff people believe that’s confirmed by all the social media that they get.

Zach: It’s the very nature of bias and conflict polarization. It’s just so easy to build a biased worldview because you just start building from the things that you see. And once you start looking at it in a huge, complex world, it’s pretty easy to pull out those things. I mean, I saw that with some of the narratives in America around the immense racism and hate crimes and such. Some of those stories I would see, and Wilfred Reilly wrote a whole book about a lot of the hoaxes there and how media often ran with credulous interpretations of some of these stories, and you would see… For example, you might see like, oh, there was a swastika drawn somewhere and people would act as if that was a significant symbol of something going on in that neighborhood. But clearly, that could be just a young kid trying their best to get a reaction from people, and the easiest way to get a reaction and cause drama is to put a swastika on something. So, these kinds of things where people would use those things to build a narrative about this deep anti-Semitism. But it’s like, is that really what’s happening? Are they… Who are those people?

Yakov: Hey, what you’re saying is a hundred percent true. Of course, these things… Now, if you were to write that in an article or on a podcast, there would be people reacting to that. Right. And therefore, you wouldn’t say it. Right? Because, “Hold on, you’re saying anti-Semitism doesn’t exist? Why are you even talking about this?” Right? Therefore, any reflection of the real world, if it’s a threat to a certain narrative– which is what I write about, this hasbara culture– the reaction is they don’t have cognitive empathy with you like, “Oh, it’s true what he’s saying.” They don’t look at the world. Right? Like, “Yeah, it is true. It doesn’t matter. One tweet? We don’t know what one tweet means.” Jeffrey Goldberg in 2016 of The Atlantic took a whole bunch of Nazi tweets, and this very influential article showed 15 examples, and he interpreted the meaning of each tweet. Meaning when you read it, you think the person who sent this tweet wants to kill Jews like this. Right? So each tweet, he made into an idea that this is the ideology of the person sending it. ‘That’s what it is. This is the ideology of the people sending the tweets. This tweet says so.’ I’m just as very ethnocentric to this behavior, but how… Just a second. [sips water] But that influence, when you are the editor-in-chief, when you put that into the world that every tweet means, then it’s over. I’m basically…

Zach: Well, there’s plenty of documented cases too. Yeah, reaching for confident assumptions about what people are thinking with all these one-off messages. I mean, there was a recent story about the Israel-Hamas thing where somebody found all these anti-Semitic messages on a message board of the college. I can’t remember which college. And people were also acting as if this had great significance. But to me, the things you don’t know are… That could literally be one person, that could be one asocial mentally unwell person, that could even be… You know, there’s cases of people faking hate crimes to get attention for a cause. So it’s like, you don’t know.

Yakov: Of course, this is the world we live in. We’re living in a moral panic. Okay? This is a moral panic. Just the bigger picture, there is a state, Israel… We’re stepping outside, right? If someone from another planet comes, what do they see? They see a state fighting with these other people, right? And they see people who are more loyal to one side, and the other side. Right. And the people who are on this side, when they see what Israel is doing, they’re going to experience it a certain way. So if everything is interpreted from your perspective or if there’s no other side, if there’s no other perspective but your perspective, don’t you realize how that makes me feel? That’s what Israel… You have to think of Israel’s perspective because what happened to them is a terrible thing that can happen to a country. And if it happens to any other country, they would do the same thing as Israel. But here’s the issue. They are living every day with the story based on the rest of the world. They saw the story and most people said, “Oh, my God, that’s so horrible.” But at some point, they’re on to the new story, and the new story is every day innocents dying and Israel doing what they’re doing. Meanwhile, in Israel, when they look at their world, they say, “Didn’t you see what happened to us?”

That’s what Bari Weiss said at some point. “These people are celebrating Jewish death. Anyone who’s demonstrating against the war is celebrating Jewish death. Because don’t you remember what happened to us? You don’t empathize with what happened to us.” And the whole narrative that they have—their whole ideology—if you don’t agree their ideology is the real world, that makes you on the side of Hamas. Right? That’s our situation and everyone chooses to fight it differently. I mean, you have all these depolarization things, right? But look what you’re up against. People who have ideologies and they’re saying it’s political science. They’re not saying this is my politics, they’re saying, “This is the truth about the world,” and more evidence and more evidence and more evidence.

Zach: Maybe that’s a good point to segue because, yeah, the more I’ve looked into the liberal academic work around the claims of high amounts of racism amongst conservatives and Trump voters, a lot of that work is just so weak to me. And I’m not the only person that says that. Musa al-Gharbi, an academic, wrote a great paper called “Race and the Race for the White House” that examined some of the really bad and amazingly bad, to me, academic work that was used to take the worst possible framing of what this data says about what conservatives and what Trump voters believe. And I was actually kind of astounded because those are the things that were used to then paint this picture. They were like the foundation of what journalists would point to, or pundits would point to, or Democrat politicians would point to to build their case of this is the horrible White supremacists and bigots that we’re up against. It was almost taken as a fact in some quarters and very influential quarters that these things were true. But then you go look at the data that the things are built on, and it’s just such bad academic work.

Zach Elwood: I’ll go ahead and cut that talk there. As I stated at the beginning, I’m going to release the second part of my talk with Yakov Hirsch later. That part of the talk focuses on American polarization and our polarized views of Trump. That will be out in a few days.

This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about it at peoplewhoreadpeople.com. Thanks for watching.

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podcast

Studying pessimistic “need for chaos” views, with Kevin Arceneaux

A talk with Kevin Arceneaux, whose research found that a surprising number of people (around 40%) either agreed with or did not disagree with statements like “When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking ‘just let them all burn’?” In their paper, they called this a “need for chaos.” We talk about what the study entailed, what they found, and what the factors might be that help explain the finding. We also talk about its relation to toxic polarization, and to social media. 

This is a reshare of a talk from 2021. For more details on this episode and a transcript, see the original episode post.

Episode links:

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podcast

Behavioral tells in football, baseball, and other sports, with Jon Hoefling

A talk with Jon Michael Hoefling, a sports analyst, about reading behavioral tells and indicators in football, baseball, tennis, and other sports. We focus on a 2021 story that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a tell: how he positioned his foot before a play was a strong indicator of whether he’d run or pass. We also talk about reading tells and predicting actions in baseball, tennis, and other sports. One story we talk about is Andre Agassi’s claim that he once had a very reliable tell on Boris Becker.

This is a reshare of a July 2021 episode. For more details about what we discuss see that page.

Episode links:

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podcast

Understanding and dealing with debilitating anxiety, with Scott Stossel

A reshare of a 2021 episode where I talked with Scott Stossel, author of “My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind.” (Scott is also national editor of The Atlantic.) Scott’s book is a history of the condition and treatment of anxiety, and also a personal history in which Scott talks honestly about his struggles with debilitating anxiety.

Episode links:

For more details, see the original episode post.

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podcast

Electrodermal activity is what lie detectors measure: what is it?

A talk with psychologist Christopher Moyer about electrodermal activity (EDA), also known as galvanic skin response (GSR), which is what lie detectors measure. This is a reshare of a 2019 episode. A transcript is below.

Topics discussed include: What are spikes in electrodermal activity actually telling us? We talk about its use in lie detectors. We talk about lowerings in skin conductance and what that indicates. We talk about the Scientology “e-meter.” We talk about the nature of stress; and how there can be good and bad stress. We talk about poker and gambling, including some gambling-related studies that measured electrodermal activity. 

Episode links:

For resources and studies related to this talk, see the original post.

TRANSCRIPT

Zach Elwood:

Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding people better: the things they do, and the things they say. You can learn more about it, and sign up for a premium subscription, at my site peoplewhoreadpeople.com.

I’m currently spending my free time working on my Defusing American Anger book, which you can learn more about at american-anger.com. Because I’m working on that, I’m sharing some early episodes of the podcast from back in the day; these are episodes I think are pretty good and interesting but haven’t got many listens because I released them when my audience was much smaller.

I’m going to share an interview I did with psychologist Christopher Moyer, about electrodermal activity, aka galvanic skin response. This is the skin response that lie detectors measure. I was thinking about this episode recently because I wanted to interview someone about lie detectors and the controversies around them, so I thought sharing this one might be a good lead in to that.

Topics we talk about include: what do spikes in electrodermal activity really tell us? What does research say about what that tells us? Clearly spikes can indicate activation of our nervous system, but what exactly is going on there? We talk about its use in lie detectors, and how lie detectors are supposed to be able to detect lies. I ask him if there can be lowerings in skin conductance and what that indicates. We talk about the nature of stress; and how there can be good and bad stress. Can it be used to measure whether someone is experiencing pain? Chris is a poker player and so we get on the topic of poker, and also talk about some gambling-related studies that involve electrodermal activity. And we get on quite a few other topics; it was an interesting talk and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Hello, and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast. I’m your host Zach Elwood. Today is December 19th, 2019. Today, I’ll be talking to Dr. Christopher Moyer Ph.D. Dr. Moyer is a counseling psychologist with expertise in treatment research and has published research on the anxiety-reducing effects of massage therapy and the neurological effects of meditation. He also happens to be an avid poker player and he began playing seriously in 1994. And it’s actually through poker that I met him online through poker-related social media. He’s taught at the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin Stout, the University of Denver, and he’s currently a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, where he teaches the course Psychology of Poker. He also is the lead author of the most highly cited article on massage therapy Research.

Welcome to the show, Dr. Moyer.

Christopher Moyer: Thank you. Pleased to be here.

Zach: Thanks for coming on. Today we’re going to talk about galvanic skin response, also known as electrodermal activity, EDA, and Dr. Moyer has used this technology in his research. Dr. Moyer, can you talk a little bit about what electrodermal activity is and what it measures? 

Christopher: Sure. Electrodermal activity, which also goes by other names, in the past it was called galvanic skin response and electrodermal resistance and there’s a bunch of ways to refer to it. But essentially, what the method is a way of measuring the activity of the sweat glands in a person’s palm. You can do it in other parts of the body too, but the palm is especially good for it because it is very densely packed with sweat glands. And the reason that is interesting, the reason we’d want to measure the sweat in a person’s palm or more accurately the activity of the sweat glands– it doesn’t even have to be visible sweat– is because those sweat glands are connected directly to the autonomic nervous system. And so if we want to know what is going on inside a person’s body as it relates to arousal, we can get a very direct and very rapid assessment of that by measuring the changing electrical resistance in the person’s hand. And that changes because sweat is a saline solution and so as the sweat rises or falls in the sweat glands, the electrical resistance of the person’s skin changes. This is a very rapid way of getting a measurement of what the person’s autonomic nervous system is doing. The autonomic nervous system is that branch of the nervous system that we do not have direct conscious control over. It is regulating our breathing and our body temperature and it is controlling the balance of our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and it’s responsible for the fight or flight response, which most people have heard of, that ability to become very excited very rapidly in response to something stressful in our environment and it mobilizes us to fight or to flee in response to something that could be threatening.

Zach: So the response can be in response to anything that basically arouses you in some way like anxiety, pain, distress, embarrassment, fear, anger. 

Christopher: Yes. 

Zach: In short, would you say… I mean, I’ve seen it referred to as autonomous arousal and that’s just a way to say it’s exciting you in some way. Is that kind of accurate to phrase it that way?

Christopher: Yes, if by exciting, we mean physiologically. Whether the person would find it subjectively exciting is a separate issue, but what it is definitely telling us is that the person’s body is mobilizing to respond to a threat.

Zach: Yeah, and I saw a referenced quote on Wikipedia. It said that by 1972, more than 1500 articles on electrodermal activity had been published in professional publications. And today, EDA is regarded as the most popular method for investigating human psycho-physiological phenomenon. So it sounds like yeah, it’s a very respected way to measure that kind of arousal excitement.

Christopher: Yeah, there isn’t really any substantive controversy about what it’s measuring. Everyone agrees that we can measure the activity of the sweat glands and that this is an accurate representation of physiological arousal. Now, once you step a level beyond that, if we try to interpret that, then we can run into some controversy. So if a person’s physiological arousal increases, does that mean they are anxious? Does that mean they’re excited? Does that mean… It could mean a lot of different things. But at a more fundamental level, there’s very little to disagree about that it’s a way of measuring a person’s autonomic arousal.

Zach: And I guess when you do scientific research, you avoid drawing conclusions about what the underlying mechanisms are. All you can say is there was heightened electrodermal activity. You can’t draw too many conclusions based on that, even if you know that it’s some sort of arousal excitement. 

Christopher: Well, I think it depends. Depending on the context, you might be able to make reasonable inferences. Or you might be able to combine the EDA assessment with other things such as asking the person, either formally or in an unstructured way depending on the kind of research you’re doing, what their subjective experience is. So, it depends. I would not attempt to interpret an EDA trace alone and try to use that to know what’s going on in a person’s mind. But in conjunction with other things, one might be able to get closer at that. 

Zach: Right. Like if you had a study about measuring pain response, you can kind of put it in context of like, “Okay, we’re doing something painful, we can map it to the electrodermal activity. 

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Christopher: Yeah. In short, if you knew what the person was being subjected to, and then especially if you could have them report about their experience, you could use those things in combination to get at what their experience probably is.

Zach: Now, this is the same technology used in the lie detector, the polygraph. Is that right?

Christopher: It’s at least one of the channels in a polygraph test. I’m not directly… I’ve never used a polygraph in that term but I’ve used all the various technologies that a polygraph might use. As I understand it, someone who is operating a polygraph, they may be recording certainly electrodermal activity, but they may also be recording heart rate, breathing rate, and other channels that are also measures of autonomic arousal.

Zach: Yeah, I kind of wonder now that I don’t know what the actual definition of polygraph is. I don’t know if it’s a set definition of it has to include all these things that they’re measuring, or maybe it’s a kind of a broader term. I’m not really sure about that. 

Christopher: Yeah, I would suspect it’s a broader term. The word itself ‘poly’ suggests that you’re measuring several channels and you’re graphing them. Now whether there is a formal set that they always use, I would venture to guess there is not because the practice itself is, in my scientific opinion, a little bit dubious. I mean, it really gets at what we were just saying. You can record what’s going on in the person’s body that doesn’t necessarily tell you what’s going on in their mind or whether they’re trying to deceive you or not. So a lot of times, many people have a naive assumption that something like a polygraph is very accurate or very useful for lie detection, but it actually is not. 

Zach: Right. Because you’re having to draw so many interpretations about what is on the surface, just a kind of mysterious activity that could be… Like, if you get a positive response on a lie detector, it could be because you’re nervous for that question or it could be because you’re lying, etcetera, etcetera. Yeah. 

Christopher: Yes. 

Zach: This was something I wondered just looking at some electrodermal activity charts. Is there such a thing as negative spikes? Because I know you have a baseline amount of conductivity on your skin. So, is it possible to go below your baseline or is the measurement only a positive measurement? 

Christopher: I think I understand what you’re asking. You’re asking, could your electrodermal activity go down in response to something in your environment? 

Zach: Yeah. 

Christopher: Sure. Things that would be relaxing or deactivating should cause an EDA trace to go down. So in my own research, one of the things I’m most interested in is how people respond to massage therapy. And under the right conditions, we would expect that as massage continues, that a person’s autonomic arousal would decrease and that we would see this as a lowering of an EDA trace. Ultimately, there would be a baseline that you could not go below if that person’s sweat gland activity was to reach zero because they’re unconscious or something like that. Otherwise, I guess there’s an absolute baseline but in practice, you might see it go below their resting baseline. But it’s only going to go so far. 

Zach: I’d seen that you could separate the measurements into two types: the tonic and the phasic. And the tonic was more like the baseline underlying slowly changing levels versus the phasic, which was more like the rapidly changing levels. Does that make sense? Is that accurate?

Christopher: Yeah, you can use it in more than one way. So if you were trying to detect someone’s immediate response to something like in a polygraph, if you wanted to see if presenting them with certain information caused them to have a sudden spike in autonomic arousal, you can look for that. Or if you’re doing something like I was describing, like you want to see how a person’s body responds to 45 minutes of massage therapy, you can look at a much longer sampling of time and see if there is a more gradual trend. Both of those are valid ways of using it. 

Zach: Let’s talk a little bit about the work you’ve done. What kinds of—not just electrodermal activity measurements—but what has been the bulk of your work? 

Christopher: Most of what I’ve focused on is whether massage therapy is an effective treatment for anxiety and also for depression. I put anxiety ahead of that because I think that treating anxiety can often also treat depression as kind of a downstream effect that anxiety might be the most important thing for us to consider in these instances. So we’ve looked at… I’ve conducted a meta-analysis, which is a way of summarizing all of the existing studies. I’ve conducted a systematic review of whether massage therapy alters the stress hormone cortisol, which is closely related to some of the things we’re talking about in terms of autonomic arousal. I’ve conducted some laboratory research with normal persons and also with people who have anxiety disorders to see how their autonomic response is in response to massage therapy turns out to show some patterns that are a little different than one might assume. And then I’ve done various other projects. The things that unite my projects is that they’re usually related to anxiety or self-regulation. One time we did a meditation study to see if small amounts of meditation would alter brain activity. And then even in my hobbies, something like poker, I haven’t conducted any research on that. But when I’m thinking about something like that, I’m often thinking about how different situations might impact a person’s autonomic arousal. Or whether in a playing situation, whether there are things I ought to be able to look for like a change in the person’s breathing. All these kinds of things tie together. I’m pretty interested in anxiety and autonomic arousal and how those things pertain to treatment of anxiety and depression. 

Zach: You had said electrodermal activity was an unconscious autonomous response. But I’ve seen there’s some biofeedback machines they have that you basically are seeing the results of your measurements of electrodermal activity and then trying to get some kind of conscious control over it. Do you know much about that? Is that real? Or is that kind of…

Christopher: I can speak to that. And I’m going to make a point that I make to my students very often, which is sometimes I’m asked to review scientific manuscripts. A couple of years ago, I was reviewing a manuscript and the first sentence of this manuscript of this study that some other scientists wanted to publish stated unambiguously, “Human beings are unable to control their autonomic nervous system.” The sentence was something very direct like that, and I immediately thought to myself, “How could people studying this write something like that?” Now I knew what they meant. What they meant or what they had in mind is that we cannot directly influence your autonomic nervous system. So there are other branches of your nervous system that you have conscious control over. If you decide to move your arm, so long as you’re not injured or have paralysis, you decide to move your arm and it moves the way you want it to move. But what you can’t do is you can’t just will your heart rate to go up 50% or you can’t just will yourself to start sweating. Those things are under their own autonomous control. However, it would be a mistake to then say human beings cannot control their level of autonomic arousal. In fact, the opposite is true. You can understand most of human behavior as a function of people trying to regulate their arousal. And we do this by pursuing activities, we do this by consuming drugs, we do this by playing games, we do this by seeking out novelty. Pretty much all the things we do all the time are influencing our autonomic arousal. In doing that, we often are rewarded by experiencing a change in our subjective mood are in our emotional state. We get thrills. We get rewarded by changing our level of arousal. So… I forget what you asked me at first. 

Zach: The biofeedback machines. 

Christopher: Oh, right. Okay, so the biofeedback. Yeah, so it stands to reason. If you’re just sitting here and thinking to yourself, “Okay, what’s my electrodermal activity? Can I change this at all?” The answer would be probably no or not very effectively. But if you had it hooked up to a monitor such that you’ve now created a channel where you can see it, that at least introduces the possibility that you would be able to exert some feedback control over that. And thus, that’s why it’s called biofeedback. And yes, you’re able to do that. Now, whether you’re doing that directly in response to the monitor you’re looking at or whether it is a more general effect that the person is learning how to relax, which we’re all able to do to a greater or lesser extent, it would take a little bit of research to sort that difference out. But the principle behind biofeedback that you would create monitors so that a person could witness the activity of what is normally not under their control and thereby give them some access to it, that makes some sense and there’s some evidence that that will help a person to yield some control over that. 

Zach: Right. And the idea for the people that make and promote these products is that it’s a way for people to try to get in control of their anxiety by having something to focus on and something to try to see the effects of their mental state on and try to exert some control over their anxiety or whatever. 

Christopher: Yeah. Now, one of the problems with that is those things are often oversold. The people who are enthusiastic about them go too far in their claims. So I would place the value of something like that… I think there is some value in that kind of technology. But if you start talking to someone and they are talking about it like a panacea or extremely powerful method for that, they’re probably overstating at that point. The fact is we can do those things in the absence of biofeedback. So when people do something like a progressive muscle relaxation exercise or when people train themselves to do brief meditation, these are really kind of very similar practices absent to the biofeedback technology. 

Zach: Right. Because I would think if you were looking at your activity on the screen, you would be mentally playing around with different things kind of just relaxing, probably just focusing on the screen and relaxing and sitting in one place. I mean, you would eventually hit upon the things that work for you to relax. I would imagine so. I can see what you mean by it’s like an indirect thing. Is it because of their looking at the response of their activity or is it just because they’re playing around with different ways of being or something and one of them works. Which I guess that’s beneficial if that’s what happens. 

Christopher: And then there’s a separate question too, which is, might that be different for different people? There might be some people who find the display kind of hypnotic and mesmerizing and relaxing. And then there might be other people who, because they have a tendency towards anxiety, find a demand in that— 

Zach: Test-taking anxiety. One thing you had said was the heart rate was also something that wasn’t under conscious control. But people can raise their heart rate by imagining exercising and things like that, right?

Christopher: Right. When I say something like that, I’m overstating a little bit to make the point. So yeah, you have a little bit of control over that. But compare that to your somatic nervous system. If you decide to move your arm right now, it just moves under your control, whereas you can’t just will your heart rate to go up 40 beats a minute. I mean, you might be able to by thinking about something exciting. You might get it to go up a bit but you can’t just start it or stop it or double it or anything like that. 

Zach: I guess there’s the legends of yogis or Buddhist monks who can do that, but I have no clue if having that extreme control over your functions is a real thing.

Christopher: Yeah, you can’t. Those amazing stories are usually too amazing to be true. I’d put an asterisk on that because there are examples of people—Buddhist monks are a good example. They’ve been studied mostly at the University of Wisconsin– not the campus I was at, but the main campus, Wisconsin Madison– and some of what those lifetime practitioners of meditation are able to do that shows up in an MRI is amazing. You can see an incredible shift in brain activity. But that’s different than being able to just willfully increase your heart rate by 20% or 30% or decrease it by 20% or 30%. There might be cases of people who can exert a surprising… There’s always outliers but there’s also…

Zach: Yeah, generally not a known phenomenon for that.

Christopher: Yeah. There’s also the underlying physiology. For your body to work, your autonomic nervous system has to be able to function autonomously. And if it was possible for you to directly interfere with that, that would be bad. Not good. 

Zach: Yeah, really. Like you could just get in some sort of state and you accidentally hurt yourself or something. [chuckles]

Christopher: Yeah, you don’t, you don’t want to exert direct conscious control over that stuff. You want that stuff to take care of itself. 

Zach: Right, that makes sense. Let’s talk more about your work. What were you doing with electrodermal activity measurements in the massage therapy work? 

Christopher: Well, when I was at Wisconsin Stout, I became friends with a psychophysiologist, Mike Donnelly. He became a good friend of mine and he opened up a bunch of interesting ways for me to take the clinical research I was doing and extend it into psychophysiology and neuroscience. So one of the things that I had been thinking about for a long time was what is going on in the body when people are receiving something like a massage. There already was considerable evidence that massage therapy reduced anxiety pretty substantially. And people who are interested in this tend to just assume that it must be deactivating. That it’s reducing arousal and that reduction of arousal will show up as a reduction of stress hormones, and that that is yielding the clinical benefit of reduced anxiety. Now, the problem with that is even though the clinical results show this market decrease in anxiety, the effect on something like stress hormones is not there. And I’ve analyzed it back to front, up down, every single possible way. Massage therapy does not reduce stress hormones very much. This creates an interesting situation where you have a lot of people, including another scientist in the area, who’s consistently claiming that massage therapy first reduces the stress response in the body, and then that leads to a clinical effect of reduced anxiety. But the evidence doesn’t support that. 

So we started measuring people’s response of their autonomic nervous system to massage therapy in the lab and we had a control condition where the exact same people would enter the exact same lab. And everything was the same. They listened to the same music, the temperature was the same, they lay on the table the same way, they heard the same music. The only difference was sometimes when they showed up, they got a massage, and sometimes when they showed up, they did not get a massage. But everything else was the same. And if you do that and you record these autonomic variables like electrodermal activity and heart rate, you now have a pretty powerful way of assessing whether massage therapy is increasing or decreasing arousal. And it’s complicated. So at first, an intervention like massage therapy in the early parts of it increases arousal more than just laying there. But then gradually, people adapt to it and a relaxation response takes over. And across a one-hour massage, you tend to see that depending how you assess it, their arousal is decreased by this intervention. Now that’s in normal people. That’s in people who were selected according to having no health problems and are normal. But then we did this again and we selected people who met the criteria for anxiety disorders and saw something very, very interesting: which was receiving massage for people with anxiety disorders increased their autonomic arousal. It still decreased their anxiety. So when you asked them at the end of sessions how they felt and you had them complete a formal instrument to measure their anxiety, they said that their anxiety went down considerably. They never said anything like, “Oh, this was stimulating or I felt like this was revving me up or something.” They never said anything like that. They perceived it as relaxing and deactivating. And yet physiologically, it was more stimulating than the control condition of just laying there. 

This is just one example, but it points at the complicated nature of physiology to psychology. It’s not simply a matter that decreasing arousal will cause a person to feel relaxed or increasing arousal will cause a person to feel energized or tense or something. There’s a cognitive interpretation that takes place such that an increase in physiological arousal could be perceived as relaxation, or vice versa, depending on many different variables. So that’s some of the research that we did with this technology. And I’ve spoken about this at conferences and actually have it as my goal this coming semester to get the studies written up and published. They’ve been delayed a bit for various reasons that are not germane to what we’re talking about. But I’m excited to formalize those results and get them out there because they’re pretty interesting.

Zach: Was that a surprising finding when you saw that?

Christopher: Yeah, it definitely was. And if there’s anyone it shouldn’t have been too surprising to, it would have been me because of the previous meta-analytic work I’ve done. I should have maybe anticipated that possibility. And yet it was still surprising when we saw it in the results. So in a word, yeah, it’s a little bit surprising. But it also is consistent with some of the things that I’d thought about massage therapy and anxiety and autonomic arousal before. So, a mix.

Zach: I know there’s lots of theories you could make about why that was, but does one lead in your mind about why that would occur? Is there something going on consciously that it makes them uncomfortable because maybe the touches is new and weird to them? Maybe they aren’t used to that but they’re getting benefits on some unconscious level that it’s good for their body. Could you talk a little bit about what theories might explain that?

Christopher: I think there are a lot of ways to interpret it. I would go a little more basic than where you’re starting off. You know, we think about things that are stressful. In day-to-day ordinary language when we use the word stress, we tend to mean things that are unpleasant or things we would like to avoid. However, in scientific circles, that word has a slightly different meaning. And if you go back to the stress researcher, Hans Selye, Selye defined stress as the body’s response to changing conditions. If you think about it that way now, which I think is a much better definition and I think it’s much more meaningful, if we think about it that way, that’s neither positive nor negative. And so anything that places a demand on our body is stress. So if somebody puts their hands on our body and starts to manipulate our soft tissues, even though we may want that and even though we may perceive that as very positive– not everyone does but many of us would perceive that as very positive– it’s still on a physiological level a stressor. It is something that is impacting our body and our body is going to have to mobilize a response to. 

So it stands to reason that even something that is welcomed and that is viewed as positive is still a stress to the body a good one. But I think that’s where we should start off. It’s thinking about the fact that any change in the environment is a stressor. By the way, Selye had a formal definition for the absence of stress. Do you know what he said the total absence of stress was?

Zach: Death. 

Christopher: Death. Exactly. Right. Once the body is not responding to anything, then there’s no stress. I think that’s where I’d want to start. It makes sense that if we’re doing something to the body or we’re inviting the body to adapt to a situation, that’s going to show up physiologically as stress. But stress is not necessarily bad. In fact, stress can be very good. I attended a talk by Robert Sapolsky a couple of years ago and one of the things that he said is he said play is stress. We pursue things for fun because they are moderately stressful. We don’t seek out things that are horribly stressful, we seek out things that are moderately stressful because that is fun and engaging.

Zach: Right. Horror movies, sports, etc. 

Christopher: Yeah. And then you’ve got individual differences too. Some people really like horror movies, some people really like to drive fast, and then there’s other people who are like, “No, I don’t want that. I want less arousal than that.” So in addition to the general observation that stress can be engaging, then different individuals desire greater or lesser amounts of it. And that can be seen physiologically and then it can also be seen psychologically in the choices that people make. One of the interesting things about measuring this autonomic arousal in this way– this isn’t the research that I do directly but I’m aware of it– is it’s broadly seen that people’s response, their physiological response can be connected to the type of personality that they have– that people who are maybe pretty immune to a stress response are people who are a little more apt to get into trouble in their lives in terms of substance abuse or risky activity or criminal behavior. Now, this is a very general underlying effect. It’s not the case that you can measure someone’s physiology and say, oh, this person is going to be a criminal. It’s not like that. But if you measure hundreds or thousands of people and collate the data, you can say some general things about what kind of decisions people might make. And by the way, this extends into gambling as well. There’s some interesting research about how people make decisions in a gambling task based on how their body responds physiologically and whether their brain has normal or impeded access to what’s going on in their body. 

Zach: Yeah, we’ll talk more about that gambling study later. Isn’t one theory about psychopathic behavior personalities is that they don’t get excited/aroused in a mental way from interacting with people because they’re not wired as well to have that kind of interested response to people. So they end up looking for excitement in ways that don’t relate to other people and that kind of accounts for that. Have you ever heard that theory?

Christopher: Yes. One of the theories about antisocial personality disorder is that such people are chronically under-aroused. That they are constantly seeking to elevate their autonomic arousal because it’s chronically under aroused and their responsivity to stressors is much lower than the normal person’s would be. And going back to the polygraph thing, this illustrates one of the problems with a polygraph. If the person that you were interviewing who committed a crime has an antisocial personality disorder, and if this chronic under-arousal hypothesis is true and there’s evidence to support that, they are not going to show as much physiological arousal to lying as a normal person would because they don’t get upset by things like that. 

Zach: You’re catching the most guilty feeling people at the very best. [chuckles] 

Christopher: Yeah, potentially. At the very least, it introduces a wrinkle. At the very least.

Zach: Sure. So when the anxiety-prone people had those higher responses to massage, would you expect to see them have higher responses to pretty much anything higher than the normal population? Is that what you would expect? Or do you think there’s something specific about the massage that would make it greater than usual?

Christopher: No, I think that first you would see greater autonomic responsivity in those persons in response to any changing conditions.

Zach: Gotcha. That makes sense. Would it be possible using EDA to verify that someone was experiencing pain? Because I know there can be insurance claim cases where, you know, is someone really experiencing pain? Would it be possible to do a study on people to show, “Oh, this person is showing responses when we do this and not when we do this, and they’re actually experiencing an abnormal amount of pain.” 

Christopher: In a word, no. Pain is really interesting. There’s a great deal of increased interest in pain for some of the reasons that you just mentioned and also for others. A lot of people in the massage therapy and manual therapy and physical therapy communities and also in medicine more broadly are coming to have a greater appreciation for the psychological nature of pain. Pain is something that one experiences perceptually. And it can be caused by damage to the body, but it doesn’t have to be caused by damage to the body. So a person’s experience of pain is something that is subjective. So trying to assess it physiologically and trying to capture it with EDA or trying to make a determination that if a person doesn’t have a visible injury then how can they have pain turns out not to be a good way at all of making a determination of whether a person has pain. In fact, it’s very much the opposite. It’s very much that if a person says they’re in pain, we almost certainly ought to believe them. And while there may be some cases where a person is malingering, those cases are probably pretty rare. And we don’t want to make the mistake of accusing someone of malingering if there’s any chance that they’re not. 

Zach: Right, kind of like the legal system. You’d rather let a hundred guilty men go free than say somebody’s faking pain when you can’t be sure. 

Christopher: Yeah, I think the only way that you can really uncover whether someone’s faking something like that is to catch them doing something that they ought not be doing if they had pain. But even that’s complicated. That’s not—

Zach: Because you can work through pain. Yeah, you can force yourself to.

Christopher: Exactly. Pain is variable and pain is private. So it’s not even the same as someone who claims to have a broken leg and then a private investigator captures them walking down the street. I can’t think of any valid and reliable method for assessing someone’s pain that does not involve them reporting on their pain.

Zach: There was something in one of your studies, and maybe this was a meta-study too, but it said, “Anxious people actually had higher arousal rates when receiving massage than if they just lay down without massage. Yet they still reported feeling less anxious after the treatment.” Can you talk a little bit about that?

Christopher: Yeah. That goes back to what I was saying about the laboratory study where people– actually two different laboratory studies– where all conditions were controlled. They were all the same except for whether the person was receiving a massage or not. 

Zach: Oh, right. That was the same. Yeah, that was the same thing you were talking about. Gotcha. I just was misinterpreting when I was reading it.
Christopher: And by the way, one little detail with that is not only was everything about the setting the same, but we even had them lay in the same position and we even had them roll over at the same point in time whether they were receiving massage or not. So it turns out that not that long ago, I don’t know, 10 years ago or 15 years ago, someone published a really nice study that showed that autonomic arousal varies according to whether a person is lying prone or supine. And that’s an interesting finding. Just as a basic scientific finding, things like that are interesting. But it turns out that that even has maybe some practical applications that if we are… For example, if all the MRI research that we do involves people lying on their backs, then laying on your back is having a direct influence on a person’s autonomic arousal. And so there might be certain kinds of studies where this needs to be factored in.

Zach: Which is prone and supine? 

Christopher: Dammit, I knew you were going to ask me that. And I always have to…

Zach: Google real quick. [chuckles]

Christopher: I’m sure I’ll get it wrong. I want to say prone is face down, but…

Zach: Yeah, prone is face down, supine is face up. Yeah. That’s kind of interesting. It makes me think of people reporting that when they’re lying on their back, you get more nightmares. 

Christopher: Oh, yeah? 

Zach: Yeah, that’s what I’ve read. I think it’s due to the discomfort of lying on your back, like the fact that you have to push your body up more for the breaths or something like that. Don’t quote me on that. I’m quoting something I learned like 20 years ago, so pretty fuzzy in my memory. But…

Christopher: Well, even if we were just speculating on it, it could… Assuming it’s true, which we don’t know if it’s true or not, it’s an interesting possibility. But then that’s really interesting. People do have trends in the way they sleep, right? I can never fall asleep on my back. It’s amazing to me that people do that. 

Zach: Yes, it’s uncomfortable to me too. Yeah.

Christopher: Yeah. And that’s probably related to other things, right? That’s probably loosely connected to personality traits and it’s probably something that’s heritable because your parents positioned you as a baby to sleep certain ways, and then those things become ingrained in your habits. So there’s probably all kinds of small but interesting effects that are nested in something like that.

Zach: Yeah. I know, for me and talking to other people, sleeping on your back makes sense because you perceive it as uncomfortable that it would find its way into your dreams. And I think that it was specifically dreams about not being able to breathe and things like that. But I have to look that up now that you’ve got me interested in looking that up again. So, yeah, there was a study a couple of years ago that looked at electrodermal activity in problem gamblers versus normal population. Can you talk a little bit about that study?

Christopher: Yeah. A couple of minutes ago, we talked about the theory that people with antisocial personality disorder are chronically under-aroused. This is a similar idea. Not the same thing, and not saying that chronic gamblers are the same as antisocial personality disorder. But there’s a theory that people who develop gambling problems develop that because they don’t experience rewards in the same way, and specifically that the way their body responds to very small versus very large rewards is not as differentiated as it would be for other people. And so that study that you tipped me to and that we looked at, they tested that and they used a laboratory procedure known as the Iowa gambling task, if I remember correctly, that’s been used in lots of other studies. And they had people who were known to have problem gambling and they also had a group of normal people. And their hypothesis was confirmed that the problem gamblers showed essentially less variable reactivity. They kind of had the same response whether a reward or win was small or very large, whereas the healthier people or the normal people had a response that was more flexible that they had a greater physiological response to greater reward. So the thinking is that the problem gamblers, one of the reasons they have a harder time having adaptive behavior is that the response of their body is not in line with what’s going on in the environment.

Zach: Yeah, it was interesting. And when I put up the blog post for this episode, I’ll include links to that study. It was really interesting, especially this graph they show of the average responses on the EDA for the problem gamblers for large wins, small wins, losses, and the same for the healthy control group. Just really interesting seeing the differences in the average responses. The problem gamblers’ responses are very muted for both the losses and the wins, versus the healthy control group, the win relay spikes big and the loss has a big effect too. So yeah, it’s just really interesting seeing how that plays out with the EDA. One interesting thing I noticed, which I didn’t really see and maybe I missed it in the write up was for the healthy control group, there was a big spike on the large win. You see an immediate spike up. But for the loss for the healthy control group, there was a more gradual uplift to the EDA. And it almost made me think it takes longer to process mentally the loss or something versus the immediate jolt of the win. Yeah, it makes me just think of my own experience. You know, gambling playing poker is like whenever I’ve gotten upset about a loss, it takes me a little while to process that and I’m probably at my peak upsetness a few seconds after it happens, versus the immediate jolt of winning, you realize you win immediately and that’s exciting. Yeah, I kind of related to seeing that effect in there. 

Christopher: It makes sense. 

Zach: Yeah. These kinds of studies are interesting because I think it shows some of the problems trying to interpret these results. Because even the people who wrote this up pointed out it’s hard to draw too many conclusions from this because for one example, maybe the problem gamblers are just so desensitized from gambling higher that it’s hard to get a response from them in general. They’re used to gambling much more money so the small stakes of the study which were like $50 total just is not enough to stimulate them. So they pointed that out at the end and I thought it was just interesting. It’s kind of a similar thing with a lot of psychological research where it’s often hard to get to the underlying interpretations.

Christopher: Right. Hypothetically, we can imagine studies that would be perfectly good at getting at that. But in an ethical sense, you can’t do them. This is another thing I talk through with my students and some of them get it and then there’s probably others who think that I’m insane when I talk about this stuff. If you could take a bunch of babies and randomly assign them to different conditions and raise some as gamblers and some not as gamblers and so on, you could control for all those variables. But of course, you can’t do that. And so a piece of research like this has to work with existing groups. But then that introduces the kind of compounds that you just mentioned. I mean, when there are existing groups, these groups have different histories. And the gamblers have an extensive gambling history and so their whole way of relating to this kind of thing has been altered. And so now if you see a difference between the two groups, you can’t be certain if it was a preexisting difference or if the difference is a result of their experience, or whether it’s a combination of those things. 

Zach: Right. Because whatever makes them particular to that group changes them in some way. 

Christopher: Yeah. And it’s also funny, as you’re saying, that the rewards weren’t that large for them. I mean, you’re a poker player and I’m a poker player and so you’ve undoubtedly had this experience where you’re maybe talking about a pretty small game you were in, but you’re talking to someone who doesn’t play poker. And the amount of money that a hand was worth comes up and they’re completely shocked. They’re like, “You’re playing a hand of poker for $850?” They can’t even imagine such a thing. 

Zach: They’re like, “Okay. Well, you’re a degenerate gambler.”

Christopher: Yeah, they think you’re a maniac. [chuckles]

Zach: Right. Different worlds for sure. Yeah, I should say also– I should have lead with this– the name of that study was called, or at least the paper title was called “An Examination of Problem Gamblers Skin Conductance Responses to Large And Small Magnitude Rewards.” That was by Lisa Lole and Craig Gonsalvez if anyone wants to look that up. Also, I want to mention too, I’m sure you’ve heard that the Scientology E-meter is basically just a galvanic skin response reader, right? 

Christopher: Yeah. And that also points, you know, I was thinking about that a couple of minutes ago in case it came up. That point’s sort of one of the themes that you and I are hitting on, which is it stands to reason that they would like something like that because it’s so ambiguous. You can interpret it however you like. Yeah, that’s all it is. 

Zach: Yeah, that’s pretty interesting. That’s pretty genius of them to take something– and I don’t know if they were the first people to do that because I’ve seen other wishy-washy, pseudo, really new age crap where they’re using electrodermal activity to tell you that we’re going to give you some sort of reading about such and such, like your energy or your aura or your sensitivity to foods or something. It’s just all this nonsense, you know? I don’t know where Scientology’s use of that fits into it. That’d be interesting to kind of see the history of other wacky groups using it for those kinds of deceitful purposes. But yeah, it’s just pretty interesting. Yeah. Like you said, it’s so subjective.

Christopher: Yeah, I don’t know what their exact protocol for that is but I can just imagine that you can take it in any direction you want.

Zach: It made me think too when we were talking about the ability to use some sort of biofeedback to alter it. That really plays into it too. Because you can imagine somebody in the Scientology world being like, “Oh, well, I’ve been able to change this over time and get less response so I’m more clear. I’ve gotten rid of whatever the aliens are attached too.” It really sets it up perfectly for this ambiguous measurement that you can have some effect on over time or have different… It’ll give you different responses in different states of being or in different situations. So it’s just a great [cult tool], you know?

Zach: And I’m not saying they do this, but it’s also something that you could very easily manipulate behind the scenes if you wanted to. 

Zach: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah, I didn’t think about that aspect of it. Yeah. I’m curious, can you easily get an E-meter? I assume it’s only the higher-up people who can administer the E-meter readings. 

Christopher: I’ve seen them doing it in the field. When I used to go to the farmers market in Urbana, Illinois, there would be a table set up there and a couple of Scientologists and they would do it right there. So it’s not something that they particularly keep hidden. And the technology involved is any amateur hobbyist could assemble such a device nowadays.

Zach: That’d be a good idea. I could think about taking my own homemade E-reader into the Scientology shops and comparing the responses. [laughs] Also one really interesting thing I read about EDA was saying that it was Carl Jung who popularized it in the first place. Do you know much about that? 

Christopher: I know a little bit about that. This is a technology that’s been around for a very long time. And I say that cautiously because the way that they did it back then was much more involved than the way we do it now. People have been measuring this parameter of the body since the 1800s, but back then involved tanks of saltwater and was a pretty complicated thing to do. Whereas nowadays, you can– using a couple of medical electrodes and a device that hooks up to a computer, it’s kind of all self-contained. You can do it much more easily. But Jung was one of the people who tried out that approach in combination with word association tasks and he found it really compelling. But frankly, I think Jung is one of the most embarrassing figures in the entire history of psychology. 

Zach: [chuckles] Yeah, I’m with you there. 

Christopher: Yeah. And I want to be cautious there. We’re all products of our own time and we’re all vulnerable to getting excited about technology. So I can just imagine Jung’s time if you connected with a physiologist and that physiologist said, “Hey, I’ve got a device here that will show you alterations in the person’s nervous system in response to whatever you tell them.” I mean, that would be pretty mind-blowing and pretty exciting. So I can see why they would be extremely excited about that. 

Zach: Yeah, this actually sounds like the… From what I know of Jung, this is the most legitimate-sounding thing he was ever involved in. It was kind of more on the scientific side, and it just sounded pretty cool. The name of the book was “Studies in Word Analysis” and it was published in 1906. That was the English-translated title. And I was actually looking for it because it sounded interesting but I couldn’t find an English translation. I guess it’s rare to be able to find it.

Christopher: It probably wouldn’t be interesting. But fast forward to today, and frankly, I think a lot of us are vulnerable to modern neuroscience in a similar way to the way Jung was vulnerable to that a hundred years ago. I think there are a lot of us who are conditioned to believe that we can look into a person’s brain and by seeing what portion lights up– to use the phrase that they love to use in research descriptions– that we now have this incredible insight into how the mind works. And yes, it’s interesting and exciting and it’s going to lead to discoveries, but are we peering into the minds of people? No. There’s so much complexity involved. That’s another thing I try to get across to my students. The balance is you have to not seem too jaded and you have to not crush their enthusiasm for discoveries, but at the same time you want to get across… There’s incredible limitations to this that discovering that on average, a portion of the brain is more active in response to a certain thing is a discovery in and of itself. But that’s a long, long, long way from being able to predict someone’s behavior or knowing what they’re thinking. 

Zach: Right. And just all these unknowns about the cause versus the effect. Like, if you can see something and pattern in someone’s brain that’s different from the normal population, is the difference in the brain causing their state or their symptoms? Or is their symptoms and state causing the effect on the brain? 

Christopher: Precisely. 

Zach: A lot of unknowns there. Yeah. 

Christopher: Yeah, and that’s a really important point that a lot of people fail to understand. That at a very basic level, all of this neuroscience research– well, there’s some exceptions– but the majority of this neuroscience research is correlational research. And that’s a major shortcoming.

Zach: Also, one thing Jung said that was interesting about EDA was he allegedly said, “Aha, a looking glass into the unconscious!” about it. So right, it’s kind of interesting.

Christopher: I mean, a little bit. In a sense, it is. That’s also why people are excited about the possibility that you could get a polygraph to detect someone’s efforts to deceive. Under the right conditions with the right people, you probably can. But that’s a lot different than expecting it’s going to work under all kinds of different conditions with all kinds of different people.

Zach: Right, exactly. Yeah, knowing it works for one person is much different than saying it applies to everyone. Yeah, that’s a good point. Though the Jung stuff, the word association stuff, really got me interested in getting my own EDA detector and playing around with it with me and my wife just seeing what words and stuff would have an effect. I think you and I talked about getting one too where when we were playing poker or something. I think that’d be pretty interesting.

Christopher: Since you and I talked about that, I was thinking about what a curious poker variant it could be if everyone you were playing with had a monitor over their head that showed their EDA. And then it got me thinking like, “Okay. Well, if you did that, how would you interpret it? Would it be useful?” And I don’t know… I think you would run into the same problems that you highlight in all your material on tells. And frankly, what makes your material on tells good is that you are constantly reminding people of the importance of context. So if you were playing against somebody and they made a big bet on the river and you saw their EDA go up, is their EDA going up because they’re bluffing or because they’re value betting? Are they an experienced player or inexperienced player? Or do they even know if they’re value betting or bluffing? [crosstalk] Right, there’s even things people can do. So it’s interesting as a possibility, I don’t know what would happen. But would it be a window into their unconscious? No. 

Zach: It would make for really good television, though. They have the heart rate, the EDA, they have everything. 

Christopher: It could be really unique. Yeah. If you had a TV show like the old PokerStars Big Game, except you had them wired up to EDA, that could be pretty interesting.

Zach: Yeah, I’m surprised they haven’t done that. I had that idea years ago. I was like, “That’d make for an awesome show.” I actually think there was some show where they did that, at least the heart rate or something. There was some short-lived program production, I kind of remember seeing that. Any other things come to mind? Any interesting EDA things spring to mind?

Christopher: Oh, I don’t know about EDA, specifically. But in the lead-up to recording this with you, I’ve just been doing more thinking about autonomic response and poker. And my semester just ended. I didn’t get to play much poker during the semester but the semester ended a few days ago and so I’ve played a few sessions since then. I’ve really been trying to pay attention to my own sort of feelings of arousal as certain things came up in the game. Again, just to reiterate what you sort of report in your information about tells, is it’s just so variable. Even paying attention to that and knowing what I know about psychophysiology, I can’t discern clear relationships. If you were to ask me which is more physiologically arousing—making a big value bet with a hand that I’m sure to win or making a big bluff—intuitively, I would think that the bluff would be more physiologically arousing. But in my recent experience, thinking about it, I don’t think that’s the case. I think I experience more physiological arousal when I’m going to win a big pot.

Zach: Yeah, it’s interesting. Also, it’s just these unknowns of your state at any given time. Because I know from my experiences, some days I’m just more anxious than others. I can be anxious, like winning a big pot or something or having a big hand and betting, and then other days, I’m just for whatever reason more calm and the stuff doesn’t really affect me. It’s just a lot of unknowns. Yeah. 

Christopher: Yeah. There’s also systematic things. I’m pretty sure that my reactivity probably decreases across a session. That those first couple hands, especially if they’re momentous hands, have a big physiological effect. But if you’ve been playing for a few hours, I think the reactivity probably goes way down just because you’re doing the same thing for a while.

Zach: And also just like blood sugar level kind of effects too. Like I know, for me, not eating for a while ramps up my anxiety and things like that.

Christopher: Could be. I mean, it would just be so complicated. So when you see a study like the one we were discussing where they’re doing that, they do that under completely artificial conditions. And sometimes students get upset with that. They’re like, “Well, okay, they found this under those conditions, but those conditions are totally artificial.” And that’s like, “Well, the artificial conditions are a strength and a weakness depending on how you look at it.” You know, it’s a weakness in that this is not how gambling works in the real world. On the other hand, it’s a strength because the only way you’re going to be able to detect certain effects is if you control for all the competing explanations. So yeah, this stuff gets more complicated than people realize. And when you’re starting to deal with the intersection between physiology and psychology, it gets really complicated really fast. 

Zach: Right. It’s usually when I read about psych studies in mainstream, they get picked up by mainstream news outlets so I’m always like, “Well, they’ve really made this sound really simple. But it’s much more complex when you actually think about it.” 

Christopher: Yeah, sometimes you get simple results or clear-cut results or unambiguous results, but sometimes the inferences that are made as a result of those. I’m thinking right now about the meditation study that I did with a team of students a few years ago. This was kind of a new direction for my research but I had a student who approached me and wanted to do research on meditation, which I had never done. But I was like, “Well, okay, what I’m doing research on now has a meditative aspect to it. So I think we could probably do something.” And just to get to the point, we ended up designing… We had very few resources so there was no way we were going to be able to study hundreds of people and there was no way we were going to be able to administer hundreds of hours of training and study. So, working with the limitations we had, we said, “Okay, is there any possibility we’ll see a neurological effect if the amount of training people get is very small?” And no one had done a study exactly like that before. So we did it. Using a very small number of people in a very small amount of training, we uncovered a huge neurological difference. It was really amazing. Where these people who meditated only about seven minutes a day, in comparison to people who were not meditating– and these groups were formed by random assignment so there was no difference in the groups to begin with– the people who meditated just seven minutes a day showed this remarkable shift in their alpha wave activity from the right to the left hemisphere, which is consistent with positive mood states. So on the one hand, the finding was completely unambiguous. Meditation caused this huge shift in brain activity that we were looking for. Now, what does that mean? Does that mean that it was good for their mental health? That it made them more resilient, that it helped their focus? I mean, we don’t know that. We didn’t assess that directly. So you can have a case where the effect is crystal clear and unambiguous, but what it means or what it extends to is maybe much less clear.

Zach: So wrapping up, this has been Dr. Christopher Moyer, Ph.D. His last name is M O Y E R, if you want to search for his work online. Do you want to mention any specific ways people can get in touch with you or any upcoming projects you have now?

Christopher: The project right now is I’m at a new school here at Augustana and I’m just getting settled in. I don’t even… You know, they’ve got a blank faculty page set up for me but I haven’t even filled it in. People who want to look for my papers can find my Google Scholar page by searching for ‘Christopher Moyer massage’, that will come up. If someone would want to email me about something, [email protected]. Other than that, I don’t have a webpage or anything like that. But that’s how people can reach me.

Zach: Can people take your psychology poker course on its own or is it just part of a curriculum?

Christopher: I’m only going to be teaching it for the first time here starting in about three weeks, so we stated that as I teach that course. But more accurately, I’m about to teach that course. And it’s going to be a special topics course here at Augustana. Presently, there’s no way to take that course if you’re not an Augustana student. However, once I have the syllabus finished, I would potentially be willing to share the syllabus. But for poker players, I don’t think there’s going to be any surprises in there. I’m going to assign some things that poker players are mostly already going to be familiar with. This is a class that endeavors to get students interested in psychology by using poker as sort of a lens for psychology to get us thinking about things like you and I’ve been talking about the relationship between arousal and decision-making. But it’s also going to introduce them to things like quantitative decision-making, risk assessment, all those types of things. 

Zach: Yeah, it makes sense. That’s pretty smart. I mean, use things that people are already interested in to get them interested in deeper topics. Yeah, that makes sense. 

Christopher: Yeah, hopefully. I’m excited about it. 

Zach: Cool. Well, thanks a lot, Dr. Moyer, for coming on. I appreciate it. 

Christopher: Hey, thank you very much. I appreciate it. 

Zach: All right, bye-bye. 

This has been the People Who Read People podcast hosted by Zach Elwood. If you enjoyed it, please consider leaving a rating or review on whatever platform you listen on. It’s much appreciated. My website is readingpokertells.com.

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podcast

Reading dog and cat behavior, with Daniel Mills

Animal behavior researcher Daniel Mills talks about various aspects of the human-pet relationship, with a focus on his research. Transcript below.

Topics include: dogs’ abilities to read human emotions and how they do that; the effects of pets on our mental health; animals’ ability to perceive images on a TV screen; the differences between the human and animal mind; pets’ abilities to sense their owners arriving home from far away; how cats communicate relaxation to each other.

Episode links:

Resources related to the talk:

TRANSCRIPT (coming soon)

Zachary Elwood: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast about, amongst other things, understanding physical and verbal behavior. You can learn more about it, and sign up for a premium subscription, at peoplewhoreadpeople.com

On this episode we’re actually going to be focused on animals: specifically how pets like cats and dogs make sense of human behaviors and how humans and pets interact.

I’m talking to Daniel Mills, a well known animal behavior researcher. He’s a Professor of Vetinerary Behavior at University of Lincoln in the UK. 

I enjoyed this talk a lot because it was a chance for me to ask Daniel a bunch of questions I’ve wondered about cats and dogs over the years. I’ll go through real quickly just a few of the topics we talk about: 

  • Pets and their effect on people’s depression and anxiety
  • The ability of dogs to read people’s emotional states from their face and body language
  • Dogs’ and cats’ abilities to perceive images on a TV screen
  • Studies that showed pets could sense their owners arriving home from a surprisingly long distance away
  • The idea that humans have maybe unconsciously bred some dogs to have more health problems because of finding that helplessness in some ways cute 
  • The different personalities of different cat breeds 
  • The polarized, contentious debate between punishment-based systems and reward-based systems in the dog training world

A little bit more about Daniel Mills: Over the last 25 years, he’s led the development of what has become known as the “Psychobiological approach” to clinical animal behaviour at Lincoln University. This synthesises contemporary behavioural biology and psychology with neuroscience to develop a systematic scientific approach to the assessment of problem behaviour in animals.

Daniel has done so many interesting studies, and we also talk about a lot of interesting studies other people have done. On the entry on my website for this episode, I’ll include some links related to the various things we talk about. Again, my website is peoplewhoreadpeople.com 

Okay, here’s the talk with Daniel Mills.

Hi, Daniel. Thanks for joining me.

Daniel Mills: It’s a pleasure. Thank you for asking me to join you.

Zach: So, maybe we can start with the question of are there certain major themes or areas of interest that have unified your research over the years.

Daniel: I think I’ve been fairly eclectic. I’ve done lots of different things but when I think back, I guess the thing I’ve really been interested in most has been the expression of emotions in animals and how we read them and that side of things, but also how that feeds into our relationships, and how, again, how we operate around them affects those emotions as well and affects their emotional development. So that’s probably the broadest way of capturing what I get up to.

Zach: Do you have pets?

Daniel: Yeah, I have several. I’ve got a cat, we have fish, and we have tortoises.

Zach: Mmh, okay. No dogs.

Daniel: No. People are usually quite surprised that I don’t have a dog but because I travel so much, I just don’t think it’d be fair on a dog. My wife’s not- it’s not that she dislikes dogs, but she doesn’t really want the responsibility of looking after a dog, so it seems a fair compromise.

Zach: Yeah, I always feel bad for the people who have dogs that are, you know, they only have the one dog, and the dog doesn’t get out of the apartment or house much. Yeah. It feels like you either have to engage with them or get them a friend or something like that.

Daniel: It’s hard, yeah. I think it’s too easy to get a dog without thinking it through. And we’re seeing that now courtesy of the pandemic and people returning to work, and it’s reported that about a quarter of people who got a dog during the pandemic are now regretting it.

Zach: Oh, wow. And you’ve researched the pet relationships, human-pet relationships, and how that can influence people’s feelings of loneliness. Right?

Daniel: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know how much people are aware of my background, but I’m a vet by first degree. And I went into practice, I really enjoyed being in practice, but I was fascinated by behavior and welfare and got interested in problem behavior. But in the last few years, I got much more interested in some of the positive benefits of pet ownership and the impact. It’s interesting because when you look at surveys, it’s quite clear that pets are part of the family. But when you look at surveys on human public health, they very rarely ask about pets in the home. And to me, it’s a little bit like, I don’t know, studying the weight of objects, you know? And you don’t ask them whether or not they’re using kilos or pounds or whatever…

Zach: That’s a key part of it.

Daniel: It’s such an integral part. Nearly everybody with a pet considers them part of the family and we know that they have an enormous impact. I remember several years ago being in the States and someone telling me that in quite a few communities across the states, a child stands a better chance of growing up with a pet than with their biological father, or in a lot of communities, actually with any father figure. And what pets are, they’re unjudging but you can confide in them, and this is sort of where some of our work looked at it. But a lot of the surveys, even if they do ask about pet ownership, they just ask, “Do you own a pet?” And given my background in dealing with problem behavior, to me, that’s a pretty rough measure because I know that owning a pet is not necessarily good for your quality of life. If you’ve got a pet with a problem behavior, which is what about half of owners do have, it can be a real drain on your mental health.

So we got interested in the idea of what is it that people do with their pet that contributes to their well-being. We sort of started to try and itemize things and then start to look. And again, when people have tried to explain the benefits of pets, they’ve tended to latch on to one particular theory. But actually, having a dog or a cat has loads of different effects. And for different people, that can be a good thing in different ways. We’ve tended to be far too simplistic or just to deny the value that pets play in our lives. And one of the bits of work we did where we looked at how pets were benefiting people, we did with a community of people who suffered from autism on the spectrum. What really struck us was how many of them said I’m only alive today because of my dog. Basically, they couldn’t face their dog being looked after by somebody else, and that’s what saw them through the low patches. Speaking to a colleague, actually, at our work here who works much more on farm animals and she’s done work with farmers, the number of them that said the farm dog was their close companion. Again, this is another community that has a high risk of suicide, they attribute a lot of that to the value to their dogs.

Zach: Yeah, the unconditional love aspect. Yeah.

Daniel: Well, as I said, I think it’s more than that. I think there’s security that comes with it as well. You can chat to a dog and you know they’re not going to betray you. I think a lot of people lack that in their lives now, but this has exercise effects… You know, there’s a myriad of things. With social media, there’s sharing pictures, and that builds a community around you. Interestingly, in somewhere like the UK or in the US, people consider walking the dog a beneficial activity. When we’ve looked at that in populations in Brazil, they don’t, because they’re worried about being mugged or their dog being stolen. So the same activity can be a stressor or a stress reliever depending on where you are.

Zach: I inherited this cat recently that- I didn’t want the cat but the previous owner of this house left it in this… It was living in this container behind the house and outside and so I felt bad for it and brought it inside. Now it’s an inside cat, a very nice cat, but… Sorry, I got some dogs barking. [Daniel laughs] It’s my sister’s house. One second, I’m going to shut this door. Yeah, one thing that strikes me there is there’s something calming just being around another living creature. It’s engaging. Just having a creature of whatever sort gives you something to focus on that’s not yourself, I think. I think there’s something to that.

We’ll now be hearing an ad. I don’t endorse these ads and I encourage you to remain skeptical of all ads.

Daniel: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s one of the other effects that we pulled out in our research. It was the importance of things like having an animal and how it put routine into people’s lives because a lot of people’s lives are chaotic. But there’s also the whole world of what we call emotional contagion and a lot of dogs are just so happy the whole time, you know? [laughs]

Zach: That’s positive. More than cats.

Daniel: Cats is an interesting one. I think with cats, it’s slightly different because cats are a little bit more refined. When they do choose to engage with you, you just feel so privileged. And so that’s, you know, it’s a different mechanism.

Zach: They’re more calming, yeah. They have a more sedative kind of quality. I was curious, when it comes to your full body of research, what are some of the most surprising and/or interesting things that stand out for you from your career?

Daniel: One of the things I find with my line of work is whenever we do an experiment, almost always somebody emails me and says, “Well, I knew that already.” And there’s always this disconnect between what we believe versus what we know, and people easily confuse that. So I don’t think there’s that much which has been groundbreaking.

Zach: It can have an intuitive quality, but knowing it is different than intuiting it.

Daniel: I mean, perhaps one of the surprising figures that came out was actually some of the work I did with people in our business school here. We estimated in the UK that pet ownership, probably so, saved our National Health Service something in the region of about two and a half billion pounds a year. Now, I think the national health budget is about 120 odd billion a year, so you can scale it up for whatever country you’re in. That’s a substantial amount. And okay, pets do cause bites and they cost health care as well, but just in the sort of mental health and some of the physical health, that’s the sort of figure we came up with. But I think the areas that I found most interesting, it has been the stuff we’ve been doing on emotion. So, our group, we were amongst the first to show that dogs must have a concept of emotion. Now, this might seem sort of facile to a lot of people but it’s one thing for an animal to express emotions, it’s another thing to have a concept of emotion. What the work we’ve done since has shown is that dogs live in this very emotional world, and reading emotion is really important to them. They’re not trying to read our minds, they’re responding to how we feel, and that seems to be more of their modus operandi, you know? That if you’re happy, I’ll probably be happy as well, and also you’re good to be with. If you’re angry, I will probably– if I’ve got a good relationship with you– try and take measures to change that. Because unless there’s something to be worried about, then you’re part of my group and I want to be… We should, again, have that emotional synchronization. And this crops up in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways. The classic is the owner who tries to get their dog to recall when the dog is chasing something, chasing a rabbit, which he shouldn’t be off the lead in any case doing. But anyway.

But let’s say it’s chasing a rabbit and the owner shouts at the dog to come, the dog sort of eventually loses interest in the rabbit when the owner turns an interesting shade of blue and comes back and says, “Oh, I haven’t seen you in that colour before.” The dog stops, typically, six feet away or something like that. And that’s out of the range of the owner to grab it and shove it on the lead. And there’s a good reason why the dog does that. Because first of all, two meters six feet is about the personal space of a dog. Once you go into that personal space, you mean something different to the animal. So, the dog stops at that distance and clearly it detects that the owner is not happy. They’re not analyzing things to any great degree. But here I am with you, I’m happy, you’re not. So what should I do? So what the dog does, especially as the owner lunges forward to shove it on the lead is the dog usually bounces around and runs off. He’s not doing it to annoy the owner, he’s doing it because he’s trying to entice play. He’s trying to change your emotion and synchronize with you because he’s been having fun. And of course, people get absolutely irate at that.

So that whole area of how we read animals, as I said, and how animals read us, I find absolutely fascinating. And as I said, dogs live in this very emotional world.

One of my researchers in Brazil did a really neat experiment, in which basically, you had two people who looked very similar. One was a giver and one was a taker, one was happy and one was angry and sometimes neutral. And we mixed up the various combinations so we could tease out whether or not the dogs were attracted to people who give or people who were happy or whatever. The dog watched the interactions and then needed the help of someone to get some treats. And basically, the dogs go for happy people, doesn’t matter whether you’re a giver or receiver.

Again, this is what I mean by them living in this very emotional world. We know across species about this idea of emotional contagion, but also emotional synchrony and behavioral synchrony. Simple little things make a big difference. So if you’re walking on your own or you hear footsteps, then the bit of your brain lights up, obviously, its associated with sound. But if you get two pairs of footsteps of people walking together, not only does the bit of the brain light up, but it triggers sound always associated with processing sound. But also, networks associated with social behavior come alive as well. A similar sort of thing we think goes on in dogs as well. So if you just walk in parallel with a dog– and we do this in the clinic, we greet clients and then we go for a little walk and we walk in parallel– it’s been shown experimentally, if you walk in parallel as opposed to walk across the dog’s field view, when the dog has to choose between the person who’s walked in parallel versus the person who’s walked in front of them, dogs almost always go for the person who’s walked in parallel. There’s that synchronization of behavior that says you know what, you’re part of my group, I can cope with you. It’s little things like that. And I love uncovering those sorts of things. The more I’ve studied this, the less I think that dogs are smart and the more I think they’re really attentive. And some people say, oh, isn’t it like unmasking a magician? But actually, I love it when I see those programs when they tell me how tricks are done. Because I think the ingenuity of that is just as fascinating as the magic show.

Zach: When it comes to dogs reading whether someone’s happy or angry or neutral or whatever, what are your thoughts on the main ways they’re doing that? Are they learning to, for example, understand human facial expressions even though those aren’t like the dogs? Or are there other factors?

Daniel: Yeah, that’s an interesting one because… You asked me about what I consider some of my best bits of work, and I guess from that perspective, it’s always good for a biologist if you can prove Darwin wrong, and that’s a good one for your CV. And that’s one of the bits of work that one of my PhD students did when we looked at emotional expressions. Because Darwin, as you are probably aware, wrote about expressions of emotions in animals and man. And he argued that they actually had a very similar expression across species. Now, we’ve known for some time that there are limits with that. For example, I think in one of the big magazines, when the space race was on there was this picture of a chimpanzee that had been in orbit and came back and he was grinning away and the headline was something like, “Pleased to be back on Earth.” Well, if you know anything about chimpanzees, you know grinning is a sign of sheer terror. But we looked at it in dogs and people and we found that, yeah, the dogs had different ways of expressing their emotion. So clearly, they do have to learn. But the other thing we found is that the way the dogs scan human faces is different to when they’re scanning dog faces. Dogs seem to adapt the way they read faces according to the species. Humans, by contrast, are pretty poor at doing that. And I think this is where people make the mistake because we tend to focus on eyes an awful lot. Eyes, they say are the windows of the soul, and that you can read a lot about a human by reading their eyes and the region around it. But when it comes to dogs, yeah, you can get some information but you really want to be reading ears as well and wrinkles on foreheads and stuff like that. And dogs seem to be actually much more flexible in that system than humans are.

Zach: So, are there other things that stand out? Have there been studies about the specific things that they’re noticing like if you blocked somebody’s face but showed them just parts of it? Have there been any kind of studies like that?

Daniel: There’s a neat study done by the group in Vienna where– and it came out around about the time we were also trying to look at the issue of whether or not dogs had a concept of emotion. What they did is they showed dogs the top half of a face versus the bottom half of the face, and they looked to see whether or not they could match. So if you had a happy face and you showed them just the eyes, would they match it with the happy mouth? And they do. So they could match that across. We’ve done some work and we’ve never published. It is one of those bits we did during COVID where we looked at dogs when people were wearing masks and things like that, and it does affect their ability to read what is going on as far as we can tell. So, yes, they can look at the eyes, but they seem to be slower in making their decisions.

Zach: Makes sense.

Daniel: Yeah, it’s harder. And I think that’s the thing. You know, we have a global way of processing faces and it is that much more difficult.

Zach: I imagine the dogs are very attuned to everything, like the posture, the tone of voice, they seem very tuned in to people’s tone of voice and whether they’re aggressive and things like that.

Daniel: Absolutely. And as I said, they’re looking at any clues to emotion. So at a distance, they’ll use things like body shape and orientation and also the way you move as cues.

Zach: Yeah, move fast towards you or something. Yeah.

Daniel: Yeah, and we always like to think that we’re really smart and we’re analyzing things. We respond to very simple cues. If you look– you can Google it– the biological motion, you’ve probably seen these things. We have a series of dots that move in a certain way and people say, “Oh, that’s a person walking towards me, or person walking to the side.” And actually, people will tell you the gender of the person as well because depending on where the dots have been put on the person’s shoulders or hips, we take that ratio and say that’s more likely to be female or male accordingly. So we did a bit of work where we looked at this in dogs and it was interesting because dogs seem to show the same sensitivity to this biological motion. So we’re not analyzing all the detail of everything, we look for configurations. That’s the way our brains work. It just get overloaded. But the interesting thing we found was that dogs who were sort of anxious, unlike the dogs that weren’t anxious who would tend to ignore a human that was walking across their visual field but would really focus on the dots if they looked like this person was approaching, the anxious dogs really focused on both of them. They just weren’t switching off. And I think this is part of the sort of stress that they’re under. If they’re anxious, things that they should ignore, they find difficult to ignore. And I’m sure that for a lot of people, you can relate to that when you’re feeling a bit anxious, you just can’t put things out of your mind. But if you’ve got that all day every day, that’s tough.

Zach: Right, you’re oversensitive to threats and throws off your radar for things.

Daniel: Absolutely.

Zach: So is part of it, do you think, when it comes to them reading or learning what different behaviors mean, maybe behaviors that they wouldn’t instinctually understand it, do you think part of that as them learning what behaviors are associated with lighter things? If they learn that a certain tone of voice is associated or correlated with the owner punishing them, then they’re going to learn that right in a Pavlov’s way.

Daniel: Absolutely. But there aren’t general biological rules. Nothing is ever nature or nurture. This is an easy thing. People say, “Oh, well, this is learned or is it genetic,” everything is both. With some of the facial recognition stuff, we looked at hunting hounds. There was a pack of hunting hounds near the university and we looked at them, and they weren’t as good as reading people’s faces because they live with other dogs and they don’t have that much context. That said, I do think dogs have been selected for being quite good at that. But there are general rules. In vocalizations, for example, we know that if you want to speed something up, then you tend to speak in a higher pitch tone. That sort of thing. Yeah? You want to slow something down, you use descending deep tones; whoa, slow things like that. It’s been looked at and it’s been found across cultures, people do that with their animals. We also know that when it comes to emotional vocalizations, the higher and the ascending pitches are much more likely to be interpreted as being more distressed. And if you think about your typical dog who gets left alone, it starts to bark and whatever. And as it gets more and more distressed, that bark gets higher and higher pitched. So those sorts of things, I think, they are general rules in biology so you can select for that. Some of the nuances, yeah, absolutely. The dogs have got to learn this. But I think dogs are primed to look at human faces. Dogs don’t have the greatest vision and part of what makes a good dog in a lot of homes is teaching them not to use their nose and to use their eyes. Because if they can predict they’re human, they can get an easy life. That’s sort of the role that their brain is working to. And the best way to predict your’re human is to use your eyes.

Zach: You had studied something about the left gaze bias. Could you talk a little bit about what that entailed?

Daniel: Yeah, the left gaze bias is a phenomenon, and this was one of the early pieces of work that got me into this area. I was chatting to a colleague [unintelligible 00:25:30] in psychology who worked on primates and humans– including humans– and he was telling me about the left gaze bias that because we have an area in the brain that processes faces as a globe, we don’t focus all the details like the biological motion, we look for simple configurations. And this is why people can see famous people in a piece of burnt toast or grain of woodwork because we’re primed to facial configurations, which typically is two eyes and a mouth and then we elaborate around it. He was telling me about this and he said you can use… We have a left gaze bias because it sits in the right side of the brain, this area for processing faces, and it results in us tending to look more towards the left. So if you’re in a rush in the morning and you’re putting your makeup on, then put it on the right side of your face because that’s where most people are going to be looking at your face. And I said, well, you can do that with dogs. And I said it’s so much easier with dogs than doing it with monkeys. So we did this. The interesting thing in humans, the configuration is two dots over a semicircle, you know, the smiley face. And you get what’s known as a facial inversion effect. So when you turn it upside down, people lose it. It’s not obvious to them. Because we’re looking for that configuration because we meet people when we’re standing up and when they’re standing up. When we did this with the dogs, we actually retained the left-gaze bias. And my colleague said, “Well, that’s really weird,” and I said, “Well, no, it’s not.” Because if you’re a dog, you’re often going to be lying on your back looking up at people and you got to process their face just as well upside down as you have the right way up.

Zach: Oh, wow.

Daniel: That was the hypothesis and we started to work with. And then we started to look at the effect of emotion. Because there’s an idea that different halves of the brain process emotions in different emotions. So, right side of the brain processes more negative emotion, and left side of the brain, more positive emotions. So you could end up with one effect of the different halves of the brain counteracting the other. What we found was that if you show dogs very positive images, they tended to develop a gaze bias. And if you showed the more negative images on the right side, then they have the left gaze bias. A lot of researchers, and it’s always one of the difficult areas– and I think in recent years, I’ve become more interested in this whole philosophy of science– people say well… In order to control things, experimenters had a neutral face throughout. And I’m thinking, “Is there such a thing as a neutral human face if you’re a dog?” So we presented them with the neutral face. And they had a left gaze bias pretty much as if it was an angry face. You think about it from a dog’s point of view, “A neutral human face? That’s weird.” You know? Of course, they’re going to process it as something negative. So this idea that the scientists are saying, “Oh, well, we’re going to have it neutral so we won’t interfere with the emotion of the situation,” no, I think you’re deluding yourself. [chuckles] It doesn’t work like that. We’ve got a look at these things from the animals’ perspective.

Zach: And that kind of reminds me of with humans judging people’s faces, some people will perceive a… What other people see as a neutral human face, they will see it as more negative or judgmental or unhappy, which kind of relates to maybe they’re just more threat-sensitive or something like a dog is.

Daniel: Absolutely, and that’s the thing. This whole idea of ambiguity and where we… It always pays to err on the side of caution because if you don’t run away when you should, you don’t get a second chance. A lot of people are worried about their animals, being anxious etc and you just have to explain to them brains are geared towards being anxious or running away, at least. Because, as I said, that’s the safe bet. That can actually, in itself, be quite a source of relief for a lot of owners to then realize that their animal… And I’m not a great fan of medicalizing behavior problems and I don’t want to belittle this distress that animals, including humans, have with mental health. But one I’ve been trying to do over the last 25 years is develop an approach to problem behavior called the psychobiological approach. It’s a fancy name, but all it means is that we make reference to internal psychological states, which I think we can infer with reason like motivation and emotion, and we can produce evidence to imply that. That’s probably my greatest scientific contribution, actually, that whole development of that field. And the biological bit is making sure it fits within an evolutionary framework. So I have lots of really good biologists that work around me and I’d come up with my ideas as to why a dog does something and they say, “That makes no sense whatsoever from an evolutionary point of view, try it again.” And that’s what I love. I love working with psychologists and biologists and loads of other people who are much smarter than me, and we come up with some great ideas as a result. Yeah. So this whole idea of… Animals, clearly, how conscious they are of things is a completely different question. But this was said earlier that they have this idea of emotion and they have a construct of it, what exactly they make of it and think of it is a completely different issue. But clearly, what I’ve tried to develop and I’m still working on is this idea that actually reading emotion is about… It’s what we call an affordance. An emotion basically serves a particular function. It indicates that you’re working in a certain way and you can use things according to the circumstance. I’m sitting on a chair at the moment and you can say the chair has the affordance of sitting. But if somebody would suddenly burst into the room and try and attack me, I might use the chair as a shield. That’s a different affordance. I think of emotions in that same sort of way. That actually, this emotion is– if you’re sexually aroused, it’s all about trying to breed. Yeah? Frustration. It’s about trying to take control of a situation Frustration arises when your autonomy or your ability to control things around you is limited or your expectations are not met. Fear is about when you perceive there’s a risk of physical threat, you take action in that in order to protect yourself. In the human field, people talk about things like phobia as if there’s suddenly a transition from fear to phobia. I just don’t get that. I think we’ve wasted lots of money in looking for something that doesn’t exist. Most of these things are extensions of normal biological processes and there’s not a sudden cutoff point at which this thing transitions. Our brains like to classify things. That’s the problem. So we like to have these labels. But actually, understanding them in that context– and that explains why we’ve even failed miserably to find reliable biological markers of things like depression in people. Because depression has its roots in a normal biological response. We know that if you live in a social group as primates often do, if you get involved with a fight, if you become behaviorally depressed, you’re much less likely to get kicked out. And if you get kicked out, you’re on your own and your chances of survival are very poor. So depression itself serves a useful function. It keeps you in the social group. Now, if we end up in an environment whereby we feel we’re completely out of control and we’ve got not really anything, then those same mechanisms that have biological value can cripple us. That’s where we need to be looking for the solutions, is understanding these things in the context of biology rather than in drugs. And I’m not belittling the value of drugs, don’t get me wrong. But I think that that’s where we need to become better biologists.

Zach: Right. What you’re saying reminds me of the work of  Richard Bentall who I interviewed for this podcast talking about the symptoms of so-called madness are fully comprehensible in terms of understandable psychological responses, and that’s what he has worked on. It kind of reminds me of that in the sense that you’re saying there’s not these distinct hard-to-understand pathologies, they’re understandable reactions that at least attempt to serve even if the person or animal doesn’t know they’re attempting to do something.

Daniel: Yeah, and I think there’s an interesting area. This area in the human field is called evolutionary medicine. Biological psychiatry Randolph Nesse is a leading proponent, a fascinating guy. If you can get him on to your show, I think you’d have a great conversation. There is an argument that says that our brains… I find it interesting when you look at human evolution, it’s only about 55,000 years ago that you find the first bits of human art, and there’s a painting of a pig that’s thought to be one of the earliest artistic representations. Well, what that suggests is that you can take something that you see and represent it in another way. We talked earlier about the idea of biological motion. You know, our brain has lots of shortcuts that we can use. The big step, I think, in human evolution was our ability to actually break some of the strong associations that naturally make sense, and become able to make associations in an abstract way. Just to illustrate the point, in the early work of learning theory, people like Thorndyke, he put cats in boxes and they had to press levers to escape. And what he found was that with experience, they learned to press the levers in an appropriate sequence, so they escaped more quickly. But if he waited till they licked themselves and then let them out, they couldn’t learn that association that licking myself leads to… Because why on earth would you lick yourself? Now, a human could probably learn that association. There’s so much we do that is effortless. And this is why– if going back to the emotions– emotions are linked to certain things and people can apply those emotions to abstract things. You know, people can be absolutely passionate about their car and stuff like that. To me, a car is very functional. I’d rather spend the money on my camera than a car. We’ve got that ability. But with that ability came the ability to plan. With the freeing up of some of the strong biological associations, we could plan things. We could hunt more effectively, we could not just go by simple cues. However, that comes at an enormous cost. That comes at the cost of mental health issues, you know? Because we can make those abstract associations. A dog worries about what it can predict, we worry about stuff that’s in the future that we have no control over. And I don’t think dogs transport themselves in time like that. So, again, whilst they have emotions, the quality of their emotions is very different to our own.

Zach: Right, the complexity of the human brain leads to all sorts of things that can go wrong.

Daniel: Your overlaying of it. We put so many… I was chatting to somebody the other day and I said I think perhaps the best analogy I can make is if you can imagine yourself where you’re so wrapped up in an emotion, you stop thinking about anything else. I think animals probably live in that much pure a state. That doesn’t mean that it’s always that intense, because I don’t think it needs to be intense. But for us, it needs to be intense for us to stop switching off our thinking part of it.

Zach: They’re really like the ‘be here now.’ They got the Buddhist mindset to an extreme or something.

Daniel: Yeah. And that’s probably why Buddhist meditation is good for us. Absolutely.

Zach: Getting in touch with our more animal pure instinct kind of thing.

Daniel: Okay, I’m going to be finicky here. We’re all animals, first of all. What it does is it switches off that cognitive element that confuses things. It gets us into a pure emotional state. You think about the relationship between thought and emotion. Our thoughts can intensify emotion and they can dampen them down. And they can do all sorts of things. We can generate emotions when there’s no real cue to it. The idea of some of the meditation, yeah, we get into that pure state and unadulterated. So that does feel good. But equally, you can create absolute pure terror as well.

Zach: Yeah, panic. Yeah. Like the cat in the transport container. Also, the aspect of watching animals can kind of put you in that state too because we sort of in a little way become what we observe and we we kind of inhabit their space a little bit, their mental space when we watch them. And I think that’s maybe one reason they’re a little calming for us.

Zach: Yeah, I think you’re right. Also, people often talk about this thing called flow. The idea that when you get into a task, if you get into a state of flow, you’re most creative and whatever and it feels good. I think that’s because we’re operating in this very automatic way of being. And that frees us a lot.

Zach: I was curious when you mentioned showing images to dogs, is that just like literally showing them a picture? Because I’ve sometimes wondered if dogs can even see what we’re… Sometimes I get the sense that dogs and cats aren’t really seeing pictures, and I’ve often wondered about that in terms of actual printed-out photographs or a screen. Do you have thoughts on that?

Daniel: Yeah, it’s a really good point. Because I remember many years ago going to a conference and a guy who’s actually a well-established scientist now, he was doing his Ph.D. and he was trying to look at chickens’ responses to video images and he was getting some really weird results. And then he said he realized that what’s known as the critical flicker fusion frequency, which is the point at which we see something as movement as opposed to a series of images, so much higher in chickens than it is in humans. So with a TV screen that might have been flickering at 60 hertz, we’d see a dynamic image, whereas a bird sees a series of static images, because their critical fusion frequencies is that much higher. And the same seems to go with dogs as well. It varies with individual dogs. I don’t think there’s an obvious breed difference, although there are all sorts of weird wonderful things about dog vision so the length of your nose predicts the way you see the world. But I can come back to that in a minute if I remember. Some dogs, I think, will respond to TVs as if they’re dynamic images and other dogs just see them as these flickering things. So we have to be careful of those sorts of things when we do our experiments. And one thing that we recently published on in a review was depending on the type of screen you’ve got, monitor– and there is a way the monitors are made– different colors show up with different intensities and with different heat. And we looked with thermography at some of the screens. What we found was that yeah, you wouldn’t have to be able to recognize the colours or the images, you could just use differences in heat pattern between the two images if you’re not careful. And we know dogs’ noses are really good at picking up temperature. So we always have to be careful of these things when we do it. We do a lot of work. A lot of people who work in this area show static images and they can be printed pictures, they can be projected images as well. But emotion is intrinsically very mobile. So we’ve done a variety of things. There’s a thing that known as… We use what’s known as eye tracking, which is where you put markers on the dog’s head and you can see where they’re looking at an image. That’s the way we do it. What we wanted to do was we wanted to use the eye tracker on the dog, and we had this series of sliding panels in it’s quite ingenious way. So the dog could be shown the real object, we could then slot in a screen so that the dog would be looking at a video feed of the same object, and another one where the dog would be seeing just a printed image. My suspicion is that things will be different. And we certainly know that when you’re showing dogs videos or emotions that they’re moving around the whole of the face the whole time depending on what else is going on and what they actually focus on. It’s not easy. No experiment is perfect but I do like this sort of more applied stuff in the field where we… A lab can tell you what can affect behavior. You can design an elegant experiment in the lab, so you can tease out one variable. When you get into the real world, just because it can affect behavior doesn’t mean that’s what’s controlling behavior. And I think this is another big fallacy that’s out there in understanding behavior. People resort to the explanations of what has been shown in a lab. Well, that’s just what’s been shown in the lab. That doesn’t mean these other processes aren’t involved.

Zach: That helps explain a lot because I’ve often wondered about the dogs or cats, some seem to respond to screens and see them and other dogs or cats just look at them blankly like that doesn’t seem like anything to me. So yeah, that’s kind of interesting that it can vary even within certain dogs and cats.

Daniel: Oh, yeah. I was going to say about dogs’ noses. This is a neat bit of work done by one of my friends in Australia, Paul McGreevy.

He showed that the length of the nose affects what’s known as the fovea area. Now, the fovea in humans is this area where you’ve got a high density of photoreceptors. It’s where we really pick up detail. And in humans, that’s a sort of circular area. And if you think about it, if you look in front of you, you realize there’s a central area where you can see high detail and the rest of your visual fields a bit blurry above and below and to the sides. That’s probably pretty good for processing faces. And interestingly, in a horse, we know they have a thing called a visual streak rather than a visual spot. They’ve got physical long noses. And that’s thought to be good for scanning horizons.

Zach: It’s a horizontal streak.

Daniel: Yeah. So rather than it being a circular area, you’ve got this narrow street particularly sensitive to movement in the case of a horse because you’re looking out for predators. You don’t need to know what the predator’s face looks like, you just need to know there’s somebody out there. And when he looked at dogs, he looked at the fovea– this visual street or visual spot, whatever you want to call it– and looked at the dog’s nose length. What he found was that the shorter the dog’s nose, the more their area of high density visual receptors was like a human. It’s more like a focal spot. And if you think about it, breeds with long noses like greyhounds, etc, they don’t need to know what faces look like. They’re there to catch prey, so they want to be able to spot the prey on the horizon and go after them. And think of most lap dogs, their short nose, and maybe… There’s a really interesting issue here, the dynamic between looking at what we’ve selected for consciously versus subconsciously. So, in the case of short-nosed dogs, did those dogs that had more of a focal spot, were they more able to read human faces and therefore better adapted for being lapdogs? Or did we find dogs with shorter noses cuter and therefore selected for them? I think the answer is probably both. And there’s this whole issue in going back to the fact that how we get dragged into on the basis of very superficial characteristics. So, this whole thing called baby schema. Babies while young tend to have much relatively larger eyes, higher foreheads, etc, shorter noses. And these are all cues that encourage us to care. And it’s obviously a system that’s developed in humans so that we care for our young, but it goes across species as well. So it’s not unique to humans. Maybe this is part of the driving force for why people have selected for some of these flat nose breeds in both cats and dogs that actually is tapping into that subconscious attraction.

Now, there’s all sorts of weird stuff that comes from this that it can potentially be taken to an extreme and so we’ve got some extreme breeds which actually are struggling to breathe. Interestingly, there’s another line of argument that says things like suffering, again, humans have evolved to care for others, and actually some signs of suffering in a slightly bizarre way might be attractive to us. Because you think about a toddler, their gait isn’t very good. So we may be attracted to animals that have this slightly stilted gait and so inadvertently be selecting for animals that are lame or struggling in certain ways. And actually, when you say to somebody that one of these animals has got a health problem, people’s reaction isn’t, “Oh, that’s… Well, maybe that’s terrible.” But then very quickly, it’s followed by, “Poor little thing, I need to look after it.”

Zach: It’s like part of what makes people like little babies is that their cuteness is associated with their helplessness.

Daniel: Yes, absolutely. And we may well have inadvertently selected for that in cats and dogs. An interesting bit of work we did a number of years ago looking at pain faces in cats, we started this is when we wanted to use some of the artificial intelligence to classify cats’ pain faces. When we started to look at different breeds, what we found was that the Persian cat’s starting face was very similar… The configuration of the face was very similar to the pain face of a normal moggy cat. So in a pain face and a cat, you see a tightening of the muzzle. Well, obviously when you’ve got a short nose and whatever, you’ve inadvertently got that and there are certain changes in the eyes. And it seemed that the starting to face for a Persian was actually what looks like a pain face. Maybe people then find that attractive. The other possibility is that actually Persians are in pain and they’re struggling to breathe, I don’t know. But I’m fascinated by this way in which human behavior gets manipulated. And it’s not a conscious thing or whatever, but equally how we deal with those things. And that’s, I guess, where my interest in human-animal interactions sits as well. You know, the impact that it has both as far as emotional load, having problem pets, etc, but also these very subtle little effects and how they nudge us in certain ways to think about things.

Zach: I was curious, with all your research when you encounter dogs or other animals, do you feel like you have a much better ability to read what they’re feeling, what their states are with your research?

Daniel: Yeah, absolutely. I do think that. And one of the other things which a couple of my poor PhD students in the past have been through, I’ve also appreciated that reading animals is not just about knowing what to look for. It’s a skill. And there’s some interesting work done by the Finnish group. And what they found, they looked at people who were doggy people and people who weren’t doggy people. And they basically put them into brain scanners and looked at the bits of the brain that lit up when they were shown different types of pictures. They could be shown pictures of people interacting, they could be shown pictures of dogs interacting, and they could be shown pixelated images which were the control. The interesting thing there was when we analyze humans interacting, we don’t just process the image, we use bits of the brain that are involved in social judgments, etc. And these people, when they saw the dog pictures, the doggy people used pretty much the same bits of the brain. The non-doggy people didn’t. This is what I mean. It’s one thing to know something, it’s another thing to be able to do it. It’s very easy to just say, “Well, look, it’s obvious. Well, it’s obvious if you’re a doggy person because your brain has actually sculpted itself in order to be able to read dogs better.” We recently did some work with cats and we asked people to record did they observe this in their cats and then send us some samples. Absolutely amazing. What we found was a lot of people were saying my cat never does this. And then they were sending us videos around about the time of feeding. In about 20% of cases, we were seeing at least one of these behaviors which they said never occurred in their animals. And that’s got to be a conservative estimate of the misreading. So as I said, it’s being that in tune. So I think it’s useful to know what to look at and where to look, but nothing replaces experience. I often tell people, you know, I’m the youngest of five children. My mum had five of us and my brothers were born first then my sisters, then she lost one and then I was born, so I was a sort of this thing that came after. And I had the dogs to play with because my brothers played together, my sisters played together, and maybe that’s where it came from.

Zach: Yeah. It reminds me of in poker tells– I don’t know if you know, I used to play poker for a living, I wrote some books on poker behavior aka poker tells, and it reminds me a lot of that because after you play enough, you have some instinctual kind of reading things where peripherally you know when somebody’s staring at you and you kind of pick up all these things without really trying, which are things that you wouldn’t have instinctually noticed. Yeah, I’m sure that applies for everything we do. It’s like in everything, there’s all this built-up complexity and experience that we just may not even consciously be aware of.

Daniel: But isn’t it fascinating, though? Because what that shows is what we’re capable of if we really focus. Yeah, you’ve learned to do that in poker. Yeah, your brain’s always been doing that, but you have tuned in and made it conscious. And people often say, you know, they might meet somebody and say I just don’t feel quite right. And there’s stuff that their brain is picking up. So little of what our brain picks up does it bother to tell us about. But we can tune into some of these things with practice. And I think that’s absolutely fascinating.

Zach: Right, making it more a little bit more conscious and able to use it as opposed to just like some semi-useful instinctual thing.

Daniel: Yeah.

Zach: I was curious. One other thing I was curious about cats, I haven’t researched this much or looked into it much, but it seems like there’s different breeds that have different personalities. Some breeds just seem much more friendly and playful and other breeds are more laid back and solitary and do their own thing. Are there studies about the personalities of different cat breeds?

Daniel: Yeah, there are. But we always have to be slightly cautious here. Because yeah, there is some work that people have looked at personality profiles or different breeds. And what you will see is that on average, and this is the key thing, on average, there are differences between breeds. But there is enormous variability within a breed. And this is a really important thing. It doesn’t just apply to cats, it applies to dogs as well. Breed itself is not a terribly good predictor of behavior. There are exceptions to it, you know, the floppiness of a rag doll you don’t get in many other breeds of cat. But when you’ve got these complex traits like sociability, then it’s actually very variable. And you stand a better chance of having a sociable cat if you go for certain breeds. Yeah?

Zach: Yeah, gotcha.

Daniel: To me, this is a really important point because this is where we’ve got problems with breed-specific legislation. And this is a big issue in this country at the moment, they now want to add the American XL bully to the list of banned breeds. I mean, I could rant on this for quite a while so I don’t know how big a rant you want. Do you want me to rant or not?

Zach: Maybe a short rant.

Daniel: Well, to me, to put it crudely, there’s all sorts of issues. First of all, from a genetics point of view, I say there’s enormous variability within different breeds. So even if they are different on average, it’s not a good predictor of the individual. A breed as a race. So if you believe in legislating against certain breeds, then you’re racist. It’s as simple as that, you know?

Zach: Okay.

Daniel: You’re saying that certain attributes, it’s fine to legislate against on the basis of race. I’m morally uncomfortable with that.

Zach: I haven’t heard that argument. Interesting. [chuckles]

Daniel: Well, what else is a breed other than a race? I could go on.

Zach: Yeah, I hear you. Yeah, I know that there’s a lot of emotion around the breed stuff.

Daniel: Again, I just want to make the point, it’s not about nature and nurture. As I said, I’ve spent most of my professional life working with animals that have bitten people and things like that. But by reducing, and I think this is the key thing with dangerous dogs, is that by reducing it to focusing just on the breed or focusing just on the owners, you oversimplify and you put people at danger.

Zach: It’s like you’re focusing on the wrong factors basically.

Daniel: You’re focusing on the wrong thing or you’re oversimplifying. When I grew up and I got bitten by the dogs, it was my fault. Now, it’s always the dog’s fault and the dog gets killed. So by focusing on breed and things like that, people shift the blame away from being responsible around dogs and they get bitten as a result. The other factor– I told you I was going to have a rant on this– the other thing is that soon as you label certain breeds as dangerous, you subconsciously label other breeds as non-dangerous. Which means that in people’s mind, they think it’s fine to rush up to that little golden retriever and throw their arms around it. No, it’s not. I’m sorry, that’s irresponsible. You know? There’s lots of ways in which this doesn’t actually help the situation of preventing people getting bitten. There’s all sorts of other cultural elements as well, you know? You ban one breed then they’re just going to go for something even bigger when it’s next time in certain cultures.

Zach: I’ve heard anecdotes about dogs, maybe other pets, knowing when their owner was home in a way that was very surprising or seemed very surprising, like knowing they were pulling up from pretty far away or walking from pretty far away. And I think there was even something I saw that was like a paranormal almost study where it was saying that dogs could detect their owners from a really abnormally far away thing. I couldn’t find much about that now that I was Googling it. But I’m curious, what is the deal with that? Are there some really surprising findings in there?

Daniel: There is a book called… I think it’s called something like Dogs Who Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. The guy is actually a… He was a Cambridge scientist PhD. He was a biochemist, though. There are certainly some remarkable abilities. One of my colleagues at work actually ran a few experiments with some of these dogs I saw, but as far as we could tell, the dogs were making predictions on other cues. So the owners would come home at a certain time, what they would do then and what you found is that the dogs tend to move then to the front of the house so they would then be more attentive for cues of the owner. Even if the owner parked away, the dog could probably hear the engine and would recognize that particular engine and things like that. It goes back to what I was saying that dogs are incredibly observant and very tuned in to certain things. Rupert Sheldrake, that’s it.

Zach: Sheldrake, okay.

Daniel: Rupert Sheldrake. I actually find, you know, people who are willing to challenge some of our ideas, I find interesting. Because it does force us to think, “Well, how can we explain these things?” I don’t have a problem, I know some people say, “Oh, that’s just heretical to even think about that.”

Zach: Right, how dare you even broach the subject? Yeah.

Daniel: Yeah. But science begins with an observation. Somebody makes an observation. And to me, it’s then fascinating to think, “Well, that observation has occurred, why are people making that association?” That’s what good science does is it starts to try and unpick it.

Zach: Do you have any quick thoughts about the debate– Aaron Jones, a listener, sent me this question– the debate around more modern and gentle and positive reinforcement for dog training versus the traditional more harsh punishment training methods. They were saying it’s quite a polarized debate. I don’t know much about that but curious if you have thoughts on that.

Daniel: It is a very polarized debate. And if you don’t know my history, then you probably won’t know this then. We did work for the British government when they were looking at banning shock collars or E collars, whatever you want to call them. And we worked with the industry to design the experiments. We undertook the experiments and we drew our conclusions. It was a real eye-opener for me, not just the polarization, but what has the… A cultural shift in science. This idea that people employ lobbyists to try and win the argument as opposed to get to the truth. Now, science is about trying your best to get to the truth. As a result of that work, I have had lots of vitriolic messages sent to me and the people that employ me saying that my work is a disgrace, etc, because I came to this conclusion. And they use the most spurious things because I have said that I had concerns about the shock collars before we did the research. And they said, “Well, in which case your work is biassed.” No, it’s not. It’s called being a scientist. And this idea—

Zach: Yeah, everyone has beliefs. Yeah.

Zach: This idea that any scientist can approach a topic and not have any interest in it is a complete fallacy. You wouldn’t bother investigating if you weren’t interested in it.

Zach: It’s that way in politics too, where people are like, “You have an opinion, you’re biased.” It’s like, well, everyone has opinions. [chuckles]

Daniel: Yeah, but the difference with a scientist is you change your opinion with the evidence. That’s the thing. I didn’t set out, and openly said to the people, “Depending on what we find…” What I find really interesting is that our work on the handheld devices suggested that when you look at the totality of evidence, and this is the key thing, that there are problems there. Stuff that we didn’t publish where we had people who very kindly allowed us to go and watch them using these colors and they thought they were using them humanely. I was quite taken aback by some of the stuff that we saw. They were just blind to what was going on. Again, this is– how long have we got to discuss this?

Zach: Few minutes. [chuckles]

Daniel: Because I’ve heard people saying oh, well, come and do a podcast and defend my work, etc. And the fact that I’m not willing to do it indicates that I’m not happy. Well, the big lobbyists have got involved in this. In the UK, there’s a lobby group that in the past have worked about lobbying on tobacco and smoking as far as I can tell. These are the people that have been employed and they are very skilled in what they want to do, and they give people a script in order to try and challenge and undermine what is going on. To me, one of the issues is people have said, “Oh, these findings aren’t as clear as that.” Anyone can criticize a piece of work. There’s a good reason why a PhD takes you three or five years to complete. Because as I’ve said, developing a skill takes time. It’s one thing to know what to do. Critiquing a piece of work is about understanding what the limitations are and whether they affect the final outcome. Yeah. So when it comes to handheld devices, I think there are a number of problems, which is that humans are not very good at their timing, the vast majority. So there is a very great risk of abuse in this situation. And even people who might be quite skilled seem to use them in ways that I think are unnecessary and causing suffering. The idea that using shock collars stops dogs from disturbing livestock, I think is a complete red herring. If you’re in anywhere near livestock, your dog should be on a lead. That’s the only way you stop the dog, you know? Our work shows that you can train dogs just as effectively to do these sorts of recalls around livestock with positive reinforcement. So to me, it’s just unnecessary. I’ve gone into that simply because this is something that is out there that I know people criticize me for. It’s interesting when they criticize me, they make no mention of the work that we did on electric fences with cats that found that there were no great welfare issues there as far as we could tell. Yes, obviously, the cat gets an electric shock, but the cat is in control of the situation. It gets a buzz and it can make the choice. It doesn’t depend on a human pressing a button. So I think they’re completely different issues. That’s the shock collar debate.

Generally, the use of aversive versus use of rewards, I see problems with both in the clinic. But I think that the problem with the use of aversives or more punishment-based methods is I think it damages the relationship. You know? If you’ve got a partner, they do things that you like. I hope they don’t do them because they’re afraid to not do them. They do them because they love you. And I think that’s a perfectly reasonable expectation to have of your dog. So, why seek to control them in that way? And I think it says more about the human psyche we’ve got to be careful of. It’s not about not setting boundaries. Absolutely. And I see this. People who use rewards or whatever and they don’t want to use any form… They never want to say no to the dog. Then the dog can be an absolute nightmare. But by the same measure, you don’t need to use physical punishment. You look for those opportunities. When your dog is doing things that you like and you say thank you. The analogy I make is– and I think, again, people confuse obedience with well-behavedness. And I often tell clients this. I’ve got– I call them boys, they’re both grown ups– my boys are obedient and they’re well-behaved. If we finish a meal, if I ask them to put the dishes in the dishwasher, they will do so. They’re well-behaved. They do it anyway. I don’t want to be asking them every time. But by setting up the environment so that when they were younger, we would say thank you, they just do it. That’s a much better way of being than thinking I’ve got to control them and tell them what to do with the threat of punishment.

Zach: Right. Like you’re saying, you don’t want a relationship, even for only being selfish, you don’t want a relationship that’s just based on the entities around you being afraid of you and constantly being frightened.

Daniel: Yeah. Unfortunately, the use of punishment does really screw up development. It does it in kids and it does it in dogs as well. If I have a dog, I don’t have a dog at the moment, but if I had a dog, I want that dog to be my best friend or one of my best friends. I want him to want to spend time with me. I don’t want him to live in fear of me and I don’t want him to live in fear of livestock. In fact, just this morning, I went for a walk this morning through the village and there was a lady standing by a field nearby with her golden retriever watching the horses in the field. And I just said to her, “Really nice to see you just standing there, you know, your dog learning to watch horses rather than chase them.” And she said, “Yeah, it’s much nicer.” You’ve got to put in the effort. If you take an animal into your life– and to me, it’s a social contract, the same as a relationship with a human, it’s a social contract. You don’t have the right to have it all your way. You wouldn’t expect that with your partner. It’d be very unhealthy. Even if you do love them and you do everything you can and you build your world around them, they still have a voice that you should listen to. You shouldn’t dictate everything. And I think the same goes with our pets. It’s just unnecessary. It’s unnecessary if you know how to use rewards well.

Zach: Yeah, I think it comes in especially because people feel in a rush and the quickest thing to do is punishment. It takes more thought and conscientious effort to do more reward or positive things, but I can see how people feeling rushed and frustrated in their lives and that that is the quickest seeming thing to them.

Daniel: Yeah, and I think it’s… I don’t like the fact that people, in effect, can see animals then as commodities. They’re not. If you want to buy an expensive watch and smash it up, that’s up to you. But when it comes to a sentient being, it’s not up to you. I think there’s a moral argument there. We have a responsibility. They’re not just a commodity. You are the owner. And I know people say, “Oh, well, we should call them pet parents.” You’re not the pet parent. You are legally the owner. You own them. But you own something that has feelings and I think we need to… It’s good for human health as well to be a bit more mindful rather than going for the quick solution.

Zach: That was animal behaviour researcher, Daniel Mills. One thing I forgot to ask Daniel about was something about cats. Years ago, I had read that one way cats bond with each other is by looking in each other’s eyes and slowly closing their eyes. This basically is showing to each other that they aren’t a threat, that they’re comfortable not having their eyes full alert and watching each other. So when I meet cats, I tend to always do that. I look at them and slowly lower my eyes. And I found that they will usually return the favor. So basically, it’s like a shortcut for forming a bond with a cat. I asked Daniel about that and he shared some studies about that specifically. I’ll include those on the entry for this episode on my website, peoplewhoreadpeople.com.

This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zachary Elwood. If you like this podcast, just a reminder that you can sign up for a premium subscription, which gets you a few perks but mainly, you’d be encouraging me to do more of this work. Thanks for your time.

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