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How to spot fake online reviews, with Olu Popoola

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

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Group psychology, polarization, and persuasion, with Matthew Hornsey

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, here’s the talk with Matthew Hornsey:

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

Matthew: Thanks for inviting me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zach: Mock them on TV.

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

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

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

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

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

Zach: They showed that they were humans like themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zach: That’s healthy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, thank you for listening.

Music by Small Skies.


Analyzing speech for hidden meanings, with Mark McClish

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

Episode links:

podcast popular

Behavioral indicators of healthy or unhealthy relationships, with Brandi Fink

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

Episode links:


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

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

Episode links:

Other resources related to or mentioned in our talk:


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

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

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

Episode links:

Other resources related to or mentioned in our talk:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leonie: Great to be here, Zach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The scientific study of poker tells, with Brandon Sheils

Brandon Sheils (twitter: @brandonsheils) is a professional poker player and poker coach who recently did a scientific study of poker behavior (aka “poker tells) as part of his seeking a Masters degree in Psychology at the University of Nottingham. Brandon also has a poker-focused YouTube channel.

Topics discussed in our talk include: the challenges of studying poker tells; how he set up his study and the reasons behind the structure; what the results were; the meaning of something being “not statistically significant”; speculations on what AI and machine learning might hold for the analysis of poker tells; some times Brandon has used opponent behavior in poker hands.

Links to this episode:

Things discussed in this episode:


Zach: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast hosted by me, Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast about better understanding why people do what they do. You can learn more about it at

On today’s episode, I talk to Brandon Sheils, that’s SHEILS, a professional poker player who recently did a scientific study of poker tells. We talk about the challenges with studying poker tells, the structure of Brandon’s study and why he set it up that way, what the study found, some talk about general scientific concepts, some speculating on what AI and machine learning approaches might hold for analyzing poker behavior, and then at the end we talk about some poker hands where Brandon used behavior in his decision process. 

If you didn’t already know, my own main claim to fame is that I’m the author of some respected books on poker tells; my first book, Reading Poker Tells, has been translated into 8 languages. I’m most proud of my second book, Verbal Poker Tells, which attempts to find the hidden meanings in the things poker players often say during a hand of poker. If you’d like to learn more about that work, you can go to If you’re interested in this subject, you might also enjoy a previous episode of this podcast where I talk to Dara O’Kearney about poker tells. 

My work on poker tells is what led Brandon Sheils to reach out to me when he was starting work on his study. I helped him a bit in brainstorming the setup of the study, the criteria of what poker hands would be included, and the behaviors he’d examine. And I helped him a bit in going through footage and finding poker hands that met the criteria that he’d later log. 

A little more about Brandon and his work: He’s a professional poker player and coach who plays both online and live. He has a poker-focused Youtube channel at brandon sheils, again that’s SHEILS. If you’re curious about his poker tournament scores, you can check out his profile on, which is a site that tracks tournament results. His Twitter handle is at @brandonsheils. 

Brandon did his poker tells research as part of his pursuing a Masters degree in Psychology at the University of Nottingham. That study is not yet published. 

One thing that might be important to emphasize before the interview is that good poker players are generally only infrequently basing decisions on poker tells. I want to emphasize this because I think the importance of poker tells is quite exaggerated in the public’s understanding, based on depictions of poker in movies like Rounders or James Bond movies and such. The ability to read poker tells well has been called the “icing on the cake” by some, in terms of it being much less important than having a strong strategy. Poker is a tremendously complicated game; it is a much tougher to solve game computationally than chess and strategy is so much more important than tells. In my poker tells book, I’ve given the estimate that being strong at reading poker tells might add anywhere between 1-15% to a live poker player’s win rate. Put another way: you can be a hugely successful professional poker player without ever thinking about poker tells. As someone who considers themselves quite good at reading tells, if I were playing a full day of poker against somewhat decent players at decent stakes, I might base a decision on a tell only a few times during that session, with some of those spots being pretty small decision points early in a hand, like whether to raise or fold pre-flop. I like to emphasize all this because I think for a lay audience there can be exaggerated ideas about poker tells and how often good players are using them, and all this is especially relevant for Brandon and I’s talk about his study. 

Ok, here’s the talk with Brandon Sheils.

Zach: Hey Brandon. Thanks for coming on.

Brandon: Hi Zach. How are you?

Zach: Good. Thanks for joining me. I guess we’ll start with maybe you can go into a little bit about how you got interested in poker and maybe go into how you’ve gotten to playing for a living and what led to your interest in doing this study. I know that’s a lot of questions I just threw out there, but maybe a brief summary of that stuff.

Brandon: Yeah, I’ll try and condense my life of  poker into a paragraph as I can, I guess. I’ve always been interested in strategy games, so growing up I played different card games and different games that were more around trying to out-strategize your opponent. And then my parents played poker for a living when I was very young. My first memory, this is when I was seven or eight, and they’re playing like home games sometimes or I’d see them playing on TV. So I knew poker as a game we would play as a family at home sometimes. And I wasn’t like super into it, but I enjoyed playing as a family. And the strategy elements obviously I was clearly very bad at it compared to two professional players and my brother, who’s four years older than me. I think that kind of started my interest. I used to watch the World Series on TV and I liked the idea that I could watch these people playing for a lot of money, it seemed like infinite money at the time. And I could spot mistakes people were making on TV at the time when I was seven or eight years old, and then I started to play home games and pub poker games, and I would win against my dad’s friends even, maybe they were actually drunk people at the pub or whatever. I didn’t understand variants at the time either, it is possible I was just super lucky, but it felt like I was making good decisions and they were making very bad decisions already at the start of playing poker. And I was getting money for this at an age where even 20 pound is infinite money or $25 is going to be infinite money at that age. I didn’t play it too much as I was growing up because there’s no opportunity obviously, but if there was a home game or a pub poker game and I could play, I’d gravitate towards that. And then my brother became a professional player when he was 18 or 19 or as he was finishing uni, and that’s when I was still underage because he’s three or four years older. But that again, continued my interest, my family have made a living at this all at different points. And then I went to the casino for my 18th birthday pretty much during that period of time, I was doing my A Levels, which is the exams that get you into uni in the UK, and it’s like the most important study phase effectively. And I would bring my A Level revision to the casino and do it between hands, because I was that interested in just playing as much poker as I possibly could. And it went pretty well, and then I’ve kind of had a fun relationship with it and having a normal career. And I enjoyed the fact that when I eventually started doing a psychology masters for probably lots of reasons, that I could combine my love for poker with creating a study of my own. And I have a lot of passion for psychology, I have a lot of passion for poker, and it seemed like the natural culmination that I’d end up doing this study.

Zach: So maybe before we get too much into the details of the study, maybe you can talk a little bit about the difficulty of setting the study up and the difficulties you ran into of trying to study poker tells in a scientific manner. What stands out as the major obstacles you encountered?

Brandon: Yeah, so the most forefront problem is creating uniformity across what we’re measuring, because if you try and measure turn decisions or anytime someone bets or times where someone has 10 big blinds or 20 big blinds, there’s so many different factors in poker where the decision making process is completely different, so it wouldn’t be kind of right to compare them. So first was picking one specific area of poker where there’d be a lot to learn from, but also a lot of data available. So the first hurdle I met because I allocate straight away that when someone bets the river, this is the point when they’re waiting for their opponent to make their decision. The voice in their head is either saying, “Please call or please fold.” I thought that’s going to be the perfect point, but it just wasn’t possible to get data on that area because the majority of the stream data footage for poker is they’ll keep the camera on whoever’s turn it is and then as soon as it swaps turn the majority of the time it will be on that player. And as soon as the camera swaps once or twice, as soon as you’ve sort of lost some data, it’s just too hard to have a uniform sample based on that. So sometimes it would go back and forth a little bit, but because it would swap at different rates and sometimes it wouldn’t swap at all, it just wasn’t going to be possible to get data for post-bet river analysis, and I think that would’ve been the most ideal. So that was the first big obstacle and that’s why I ended up doing pre-bet if that’s the right word on the river. And I tried to determine, being a poker player myself, what are the exact situations where there’s the most pressure and therefore the most– if they would be given away based on what I’ve read obviously about human psychology. If someone is betting one big blind on the flop, I think you wrote about this in your book as well, it’s just going to be a completely different subjective experience for them because the risk reward, invariantly, they don’t necessarily care that much if it doesn’t work yet because they can bluff later or they can give up and it’s a small pop. So I decided to choose parts that were at least 10 big blinds, and I just looked at tournaments just because that’s the uniformity that I went for there as well. I could just looked at cash games, I think that that would be interesting as well. And I thought once the part is at least that big and it’s a river decision, that’s a good starting point to say they’re going to care about the result of this bet and therefore they’re going to have to try and balance their emotions a lot more, people are going to take longer to make their decisions. It’s just a more important decision for both players. So I think that was nice to hone in on.

Zach: Yeah. The footage issue is a big problem, and that’s something I’ve dealt with a lot because I’ve created my Poker Tells video series. And ideally you would have those post-bet spots, those spots after someone’s made a significant bet. So I think it was a great decision you made to focus on that slightly before bet and then the actual during bet as they’re placing the bet, because those are usually things the camera stays on them for when it starts their turn the camera’s on them and then up until they place the bet the camera’s on them typically for that stretch of time. So that all made a lot of sense.

Zach: A small edit here, Brandon took a while to explain all the various elements he had logged for the experiment, there were 22 factors in all. But to speed this up a bit, I’ll just name a few of the specific verbal and nonverbal behaviors that he logged. One was the amount of time a player thought before betting, another behavior was the amount of time a player spent placing a bet once they’d either declared the bet or started putting together the bet. Another behavior was whether the bet was verbalized or not. Another behavior was whether the player looked back at their whole cards before placing their bet. Another behavior was whether the player was playing with their chips or not. Again, that was just a few of the aspects that Brandon logged.

Another aspect of Brandon’s study that made a lot of sense was in how he approached ranking, whether a better’s hand was a bluff or a value bet. And a value bet is a way of saying that it’s done for value with a hand that will usually be the best hand. In other words, a value bet is not a bluff. Brandon sent each hand in the study to several skilled poker players who then ranked the hand as either a value bet or a bluff. This was an improvement on a method of categorizing hand strength that Michael Slepian had done in his poker behavior study. In that study, they’d apparently, from what I could tell, relied on the onscreen percentage graphics which are displayed beside a player’s hand graphics. Those graphics show the likelihood of a player’s hand winning, it does this by comparing it to the opponents known hand. This makes it a pretty bad way to categorize whether a player believes that they’re betting a weak hand or a strong hand. In other words, a player could have a hand they believe will tend to be a winner, but in that specific hand their opponent happens to have an even stronger hand. In that instance, the first player’s strong hand would be presumably classified as a bluff. I confess I’m not sure if there was some way Slepian adjusted things to account for that, but my understanding was based on reading their paper. So it’s possible there was more to it. But in any case, Brandon’s decision to get skilled players to rank hands as either bluffs or value bets makes a lot of sense and may I think be the best way to easily make that categorization.

Okay, back to the interview where Brandon talks about this a little bit more.

Brandon: Yeah, I completely agree. I think it was your critique of that past study that helped me get onto that. So thank you as well.

Zach: Oh, that’s awesome. So let’s see. After naming all of those factors that you looked in, it might be anti-climatic they didn’t say what were your findings.

Brandon: Essentially, that none of these factors alone were statistically significant. And that does not mean that they aren’t potentially significant with a bigger sample, but with the sample I had, some of these factors didn’t actually occur that often, even though obviously I tried to measure all of them. But it’s not actually that often that someone double checks their cards. If I find the exact number here, we had in the 400 and–

Zach: 24.

Brandon: Yeah, only 24 times someone double checked their cards and four times it couldn’t be determined based on where the camera was or something else. So 24 out of 416 is a really small amount. If you looked at the ratio there, it would look like it is statistically significant to the human eye, just based on the maths behind figuring out statistical significance, it has to be. The confidence rate is 95%. We have to be able to say with 95% certainty that it’s the case that this makes this more likely, and we just didn’t have the sample. And I think with a bigger sample, I’m quite sure that that would’ve been significant.

Zach: That gets into a question I have, just a general scientific question, which is when I see a study that says, “This wasn’t statistically significant,” is my takeaway supposed to be just that the study cannot tell that? Because sometimes I feel like it’s framed as if there’s no correlation, but maybe that’s just a misreading on my part, and should the takeaway for me be this study can just not determine that?

Brandon: Generally, yes. It’s like saying we failed to prove it, it doesn’t mean that it’s not true. But it depends on the actual science that went into it. So if I had a sample here of a hundred thousand, it’d be pretty hard to argue with it assuming that my practice and how I recorded data is fine, which is kind of a whole other ballgame. But it is determined by there’s something called statistical power, which generally you want to get to above a rate of like 0.8, and it’s determined by basically the sample size. And so some studies are going to have really good statistical power and they’ll talk about that. And if they’ve got good power and they’ve got good science behind what they did, for example, if you don’t use the equity in our case, because that’s kind of a flaw in the science. If you’ve got good power which is due to the good sample and you’ve got good science, then it’s pretty hard to argue with. But you still can’t say for sure that it’s false, you can only say that, “With all of this, it’s not true.” And it’s almost as good as sometimes if there’s enough data though.

Zach: So it might be getting too far in the weeds, and if it is, feel free to say. But for that, say we were looking at that double checking whole cards before a bet behavior, how much more data do you think you need to be able to confidently say like, “There’s no correlation there,” if that makes sense?

Brandon: Well, I can say I, I ran the statistical power test on the sample that I would need total, but I didn’t run it on individual factors. So the initial based on the timeframe I had only had like a month or two of collecting data. It would’ve been impossible for me to get true statistical power on all of these individual factors just because they’re so infrequent. I knew that some of them would hit the benchmark, some of them wouldn’t, and it’s just kind of a starting point. It’s better I recorded it than not, but didn’t become the main focus of the study as good as it would be to have more data on them. So to answer your question about the amount, bear in mind we had 24 where it was true across 392, I’d have to plug it into a statistical computer to run all the exact equations. But in fact, to be honest, I don’t want to make any false claims by coming up with an exact number, but 24 out of that is very small. So I would imagine based on the ratio we’ve got, I’d need at least 4,000 data points maybe more.

Zach: Yeah, I think it really shows the difficulty in this because I think I was going to say too, I think some people would expect me to be disappointed or surprised by not finding anything, and actually these things are so hard to study because as you say, you collected 400 hands and only in a few of those hands is each behavior that you’re studying found, which means you’ve got to get a lot more hands to find a lot of those behaviors. And then you’ve even got more complexity too because you’ve got the fact that the situational context is important, you named a few of the factors involved, but there’s the fact that skilled players can behave quite differently from recreational players and most tells are found from more recreational players. So there’s even this thing of if you were able to zero in on the more recreational players and chop out the pro players, then that would also be an interesting way to analyze it. And this is just to say that this is massively complex to study these things, and I actually had considered setting up a local game to try to study this myself because they had poker rooms there and I thought about putting some effort into it. I started thinking about the same things that you’re thinking about here where I was like, “This would be like a life’s work almost, and I would have to invest a lot of time to really to do this right.” And then I would still be left with these things where I’m like I’m still running into these situational factors where there’s so many things to take into account. And it was kind of just really probably what you ran into yourself actually doing it, was it’s kind of daunting to set it up and to try to distinguish to get the situation down to a specific consistent situation that you’re comparing.

Brandon: Yeah, I completely agree about what you said about recreational players. And I think it’s a factor of self-awareness. So even though obviously being professional kind of comes with that, still there could be a recreational player that has read all about the leading poker tells and spoke to pros about tells that they’ve seen on them, and then they can reverse tell them all the time and be complete outliers. But when it comes to just people playing and not thinking too in-depthly, then the less experienced you are or the less that this is your profession and you’ve really fallen into this sort of stuff, you are going to just naturally give more stuff away or not realize that saying certain things is indicative of strength or weakness because you haven’t just got the sample size or you just don’t kind of care enough about that, you’re just there to have fun and you just do what you’re feeling at the time as opposed to thinking, “I need to recreate this situation all the time and not be exploitable.”

Zach: Yeah. The other one that I was, it was the double checking of whole cards, one that I was expecting a little something from, and then the other one was the length of time thinking before a bet. I kind of thought we’d see a little something there, but then I was thinking about it after you said you didn’t find anything. And I started thinking well, maybe it’d be hard to find it anyway, but I was thinking the fact that a lot of good players like to tank a long time with their good hands and their bluffs regardless and good players tend to take a long time in general, and I kind of wondered if that would throw off the timing averages. That thing, again, if we were just studying recreational players and you had this similar sample size of just recreational players, I kind of feel like there’d be a little something there. But anyway, that was all just stuff I was thinking of when you told me the results.

Brandon: I did notice in the stream games in… I forget the city now, is it Chicago? The Wind City, was it?

Zach: Oh yeah, Chicago, Windy City.

Brandon: Windy City, yeah. In those games, people acted so quickly, and it did make it really hard to gather data because I wanted to use more of a breadth of not just these big tournaments and more these were still tournaments in different environments. So I thought it’d be good to have a wider range of players, and there was so much more often that people acted in even less than two seconds. And because my whole analysis is on how long they take to make a bet, it almost became… You can’t get most of the factors when someone takes less than say 10 seconds. So I think I actually started excluding anything less than five seconds because you just couldn’t really determine anything and that didn’t feel so great to do either, because a lot of people snap at with bluffs or with value based on what they’re thinking too which you don’t want to exclude from the data. So it can change a lot based on the environment.

Zach: That gets into another thing here where the thing about using poker tells is applying a player specific filter to it. So, for example, if you’re playing with a few people who you noticed are pretty quirky and they’re always betting quickly or just betting weirdly or doing other weird things, it’s kind of like if you can’t find anything noticeable on them, you’re not going to apply the common general tells that you might apply to somebody else and other recreational player to those kind of quirky weird ones who are doing unusual things. And that kind of played into it too. And when you said that about the Windy City games, which I used in my Poker Tells series, you are right. Because some of those games they satellite into those games from lower level tournaments and there can be almost like a home game feel to those. And when you said that about those games, I was like, “Yeah, now that you mention it, those games are really quirky and people do all sorts of weird things and act really quick for spots you wouldn’t typically see that for.” Because it’s a lot of the same player pool and I think that kind of lends it to this kind of home game feel. So anyway, that was just to say, yeah, it’s tough to study these things basically.

Brandon: Yeah. I had two lines of four from what you just said. The first was the other thing with the Windy City games was there was a lot more times where there was not a unanimous opinion on whether it was bluff or value because there was a lot more times they would bet and I would say they didn’t know why they were betting. Or even sometimes the way they turned their hand over would be that like, “I don’t know if I win. You’ve called, here’s my hand, I don’t know. Maybe I win.” Well, it just meant if I know they don’t know, then it’s harder to get into their psychology because they might be almost free rolling it psychologically to think what they do is what they do. If they’re not thinking in-depthly about the strategy, you can’t really get the same data from them because they don’t know what they’re thinking. The other thing I was going to say is because my study was mainly focused on universal tells, I wanted a wide array of players, I didn’t get more than 10 samples on one player. So the whole 420 data points, the most I got on one player was 10 because I didn’t want it to be kind of too many of one player. But as you’ve wrote about and touched on already, I think if you just looked at one player and across many situations, that would be the best way to actually determine what stuff they do, what their tendencies are when they’re bluffing or value betting. And you very clearly see that the pros are much more balanced in that case and a recreational player I imagine it is not. So having like a hundred hand sample on one player in just these spots I think would’ve been very interesting. Not as useful for universal tells, but just to see that stuff is clearly different.

Zach: Yeah, it’s interesting because when I think about applying poker tells, so much of it is knowing which tells are likely to be true for someone you’ve kind of classified as a certain type of player and then there’s those kind of general tells for different player segments and then it’s also noticing the player-specific tells for things that you wouldn’t apply general tells for. So I mean there’s definitely some tells that I would use cold just because they are so common, assuming I peg someone as fairly recreational. And then there’s other tells that I would never use cold where I’m like, “I need to know more about this person.” So it’s kind of this intersection of universal, which I think is interesting too, and then the player-specific, which is almost like, “Let me study someone for a while and build up a little bit of information.”

Brandon: That’s pretty much what I’d say, I do want them at the table as well. The more information they give away in the hand, whether they’re talking or they’re doing certain things with their body language, if their hand gets to show down, I’m like, “Oh, that’s a data point in my memory about this player.” I can’t use it yet, but if they’re doing something completely different in another hand, then they get to show down and the hand is opposite, I’m like, “This is already quite a lot of data.” They’ve done two opposite things or two opposite ends of spectrum of hands, and some people are really smart and can kind of duck and dive around that, but a lot of people don’t realize how much they give away in the moment.

Zach: And the other interesting thing too is sometimes people say like, “Well you didn’t get to see their hand, they didn’t show it down,” but in practice so many players are only making big bets with value bets. So you can often just assume, even if you’ve seen them not show down, if they’ve made only a handful of big bets in a few hours time or something, you can safely assume that those were value bets if they don’t seem like a bluffy kind of player or whatever. So there’s even that kind of correlation you can draw, which is a little obviously not certain, but it’s kind of in the realm of assuming it’s probably true which can be helpful in some spots too.

Brandon: I was just going to add, another thing people forget with river bets, just based on how the pot odds and the maths works is that, for example, if someone bets the size of the pot, the price you’re laying for opponent is two to one. They’re calling the original size of the pot to win three times the size of the pot. They need to be right one in three times. So the person that bets is supposed to have it most of the time even with a perfect strategy, which obviously no one has and people are normally quite bad at bluffing or they do too much depending on the player, but they’re supposed to be making you indifferent, which means if they bet the size of the pot, they’ll lay you two to one. In theory, depending on obviously the different ranges and perceptions, they’re going to be bluffing between 60 and 70% of the time just as a factor of the pots. No, sorry, they’re going to have value that’s 67% of the time, so they’re only going to be bluffing–

Zach: Yeah, the game theory fundamentals, yeah. And yet that’s what you found in your study too, it was like 70% value bets, right? Something like that, yeah.

Brandon: I have the exact number here. Yeah, 71.2% value bets across 420 points. I don’t have the average bet size here which would be really useful as well actually to see the difference in what it should be. But clearly people always have it, that’s always been true across pretty much every focus environment.

Zach: I was going to ask too, I wasn’t exactly sure how to interpret it, but in your paper you had written that I think you did find something, it was like depending on controlling for a few variables, there were a few things that were interesting or was I misreading that?

Brandon: Yeah, so this is exploratory analysis, which again, I’m no expert on the nuances of how this works and this is using regression. So my understanding is if I find one of the statistically significant results we got, player verbalized the bet when controlling for total turn time, best size percentage, and if the player raised, if they went all in and if they were protecting their cards. So because I have 21, 22 factors, 21 independent variables, when you use the regression to see if anything’s significant, it’s using all of them in a different way to say like it uses the data such that it can isolate certain variables, whereas if you did the test just with a one on one variable, it would be different. So it’s almost accounting for the other variables. It’s hard to give a direct example, but the fact that someone raised is kind of its own area of data. And if you looked at just this when they raise or just this when they don’t raise, it’s almost like controlling for if they raised. So if you kind of play around with the data and just control for specific things, then you can get statistical significance. It’s not as useful because in theory you could kind of cherry pick it and work around with it and there’s always going to be significance you can find if you… Well, I guess not always, but if you really go into every possible permutation, you’re going to find significance. And this is one of the problems with [paper] sometimes as well, is that if you don’t pre-register your hypotheses and what you’re actually looking for, in theory afterwards you could have hypothesized the result you got was the one you wanted and then this is now a big headline, people are going to share it.

Zach: Yeah, I was reading something about that recently where they were making some point about finding something completely ridiculous, correlation between, I can’t remember what it was, it was something about DNA and something completely unrelated, but it was to make the point for what you’re saying, you can theoretically find significance if you look across so many different permutations and combinations, you’re able to find some correlation in something.

Brandon: Yeah. The more times you look for it, you’re supposed to adjust to the fact you’ve looked more times because it’s more likely you’re going to find it. So that actually affects the significance rate as well. So there’s more maths you’re supposed to apply to it. But if someone doesn’t pre-register the hypotheses and doesn’t use correct sound science, then… Like, if my story for this paper going into it I’m blindsided in the fact that I think when people, let’s take all of the random points, when people play with their chips, they’re always bluffing. And I really went into this paper thinking that and I write my whole paper such that I’m kind of looking to prove that it’s true, then if I do a test such that it doesn’t come out that way and I then want to like kind of move around the different data points and say, “Oh, what if this data was never recorded for? What if this data was controlled for in this aspect?” Until I find something significant and make out that was the first test I did, in theory I can then publish a paper and then say, “Yeah, this was statistically significant because of this.” And that’s why most papers today, I don’t know if all journals do this now, but I think most reputable ones, you have to pre-submit the paper and basically make sure that that can’t happen because there’s too many cases in the past where people have been doing this. And so that’s what we did with this paper as well for all it’s worth.

Zach: Nice. So in your case, in the one you mentioned, the verbalizing bet, so that would mean that depending on those other factors that you named, there was theoretically something there with the verbalizing bet, and maybe that points to like further study basically. Is that what that would tell you?

Brandon: Essentially, yeah. Another one here is thinking time percentage when controlling for if the player raised and if the player went all in. So already that’s a really specific area that they raised and went all in because I think generally people take longer as well then because it’s a second decision and it’s a bigger decision. So it’s like almost going too far off the path sometimes when you look into these specific areas, because I’m now honing in on one, I’m honing in on something which is kind of a small sample, and the data might be significant for this same as to give an extreme example, if I controlled for if the player had the nuts, obviously it’s going to be really significant that they’re never bluffing because I’m only looking at times where they’ve got the nuts. So you do kind of have to be careful with it. But I mean it does show that there is stuff going on in some permutations of the tree.

Zach: So are you interested in doing more in that space? Are you theoretically interested in adding more to your sample size, that set of hands that you have or any plans like that?

Brandon: I’d say that I am and I’m not at the same time. I enjoyed the process a lot and I really enjoy poker psychology, but I had deadlines and a timeframe and I was working on my own so it was a very different type of study as opposed to a full fledged study with a lot of people at it and a lot more sophisticated team and more people to collect data. I would enjoy being a part of that I’m sure, especially as, I don’t want to say poker expert, but I guess in that context that’s what I would be because I’ve played professionally for so long. But I’d be happy to be involved in and help out in these studies as they go forward or potentially have more of a role depending on the opportunity. But I think if new technology comes out where there’s new ways to analyze the data or it becomes easier or there’s new ways to think about it where there’s a lot more we can learn in a different way, that could reignite my interest as well or I think as you spoke about I really like the idea of someone creating a game which is the psychology poker game. Oh, sorry, just to go back to one we’re speaking about hurdles, the problem initially with this is if you bring people into a lab to play poker, the data’s almost worthless because they don’t have any risks. I played Play Money with people before and it’s not poker, unless you have a league or something that means something. People just don’t care, they’ve got to have their own risk. I really like the idea of if hypothetically I had infinite money to make this study, I can put on like a big tournament, whether it’s a league or whatever, have some pros, have some maybe athletes, have some famous people in different areas or purely recreational players and just analyze as much data as possible, but just give away actual prizes as well like prize money that means something to people or a title or a trophy, and it becomes kind of prestigious to be able to win this game where maybe it’s one table of six max every week and we record heart rate, we record breathing rate, we record the eye shiftiness directly–

Zach: Skin conductance.

Brandon: Yeah, yeah, as many things as you can possibly record without being too intrusive such that people can still relax enough to play the game and gather all the data as possible and then kind of have a… I can imagine if we recorded this and people watched it, you could have experts generally saying like, “This is leading to this. We can say that this is more likely because of this or here’s the science behind this,” and I think I would find something like that really fascinating to watch as a poker player. So I imagine other people would find it interesting.

Zach: No, I think it’s a great idea, and I think it’s like using the entertainment factor as almost like an excuse to do the science, because you’re creating that real environment. And that’s what I was struggling with too, because actually I spent a good few weeks brainstorming this a while back in Portland where I was because it was that same challenge of it needs to be real obviously, but then what am I doing to induce people to be willing to do this with a bunch of cameras and detectors and stuff? And it’s like I would have to pay them a good amount, so for many reasons, it had a lot of obstacles. But I think your idea’s great because it would be using the entertainment and the money involved that would come with that to do some cool science. And actually I don’t know if you ever saw that show, I can’t remember what it was called, it was very short-lived.

Zach: A small edit here, I talked a little bit about a poker TV show here that I couldn’t remember the name of. In the show, they had recorded the players’ heart rates. The show I was thinking of was from 2006, it was called Poker Dome Challenge. And it was only on air, I think a few weeks. Back to the interview.

All I remember was that it was only a few episodes I think, and they recorded I think it was heart rate, but maybe it was something else. But does that ring a bell at all with the heart rate?

Brandon: I mean, I’ve seen streamers do it now, but they have the heart rate on the screen while they’re playing it.

Zach: I haven’t seen that.

Brandon: There’s a guy called BBZ, I’ve seen him on his streams where his heart gets like 140, 150 when he is doing a huge bluffing like a 10K tournament. You can see it going up.

Zach: I haven’t seen that. Okay, I got to check that out because I always thought it would be cool to wear those monitors on yourself when you go to play or when you’re playing at home or whatever. I think that stuff is really interesting. And you can also buy the EKG skin conductance things too if you really wanted to get into that.

Brandon: Well, maybe as a starting point, hypothetically, if there’s a game that already runs then imagine if you could say to those people before they play like, “We’re doing this study, do you want to have your [data] measured? I don’t know what incentive you can necessarily give people. But if we could start to get data from that from games that already exist before creating a full-fledged game, that seems like a good kind of stepping stone. I would be happy to do that. I’d be interested in how my own physiology reacts when I’m playing if the whole cards and everything’s already streamed.

Zach: Totally, yeah. No, and if there’s anybody listening who’s into that idea, contact me and/or Brandon, we’ll look into it. It’s interesting too thinking about how AI, machine learning, video detection stuff can play into this too, because you can imagine usually heart rate can be kind of hard to see, but you can imagine hooking up something where it’s like recording a specific person’s heart rate or even indicators of like flushing at a very minute, detailed level and then correlating that in some way and noticing things that wouldn’t be obvious to people. And that’s something I think is interesting too because, for example, there was a recent Israeli study that found facial movements pretty high frequency ability to detect deception by minute facial movements detect when people were lying, which struck me as like these kinds of things that are not obvious to human eyes, but that a video recognition AI could pick up gets into a kind of a scary area where you can imagine somebody making some really awesome advancement and using that to really take advantage of that at the poker tables without anybody knowing. Because if you had something like that, that would be a way I would be using some advanced technology like that if I was trying to make the most money and willing to cheat basically. So it’s something to think about.

Brandon: Some super glasses. I was going to say that I know you’re saying if you could record or AI detected all these extra features of someone’s face, the stuff we don’t see, I actually think there’s a lot of stuff that we pick up subconsciously. Because when you’re playing, if you look at someone, it’s almost like you can’t pinpoint why, but you can just sense discomfort sometimes or sense, comfort. And you won’t be able to put it into words it’s because of X, Y, and Z, but well this is kind of an ongoing debate in the psychology world that we have an area of our brain that is either really, really good at just detecting objects or it’s really, really good at detecting faces. And we don’t know if it’s either that we see so many faces that that’s why we’re so good at determining faces or that we have a specific area for faces and it’s still kind of up for contention, but either way we are much better at reading faces than we realize. We pick up so many sort of cues as well just as humans, even if we can’t document it. It would be really cool to pinpoint that into a big AI super learning machine that you just tell it it’s bluffing. You just say like, “Watch this guy’s face for this period of time,” and it comes out, you can plug in the next day and it’s like, “Yep, they’re bluffing. Yep, they’re not bluffing…”

Zach: No, totally. And I think that is not far away. They have an app for analyzing video for various things and you could plug that into some machine learning stuff and study a bunch of footage. They have these black box machine learning things that can just spit out correlations and you don’t really know how it’s working. And I think that’s stuff that I think you could theoretically do now if you were so inclined. And I think like you were saying, it’s like the things that we often don’t notice consciously or just don’t notice at all are these kind of like when someone’s relaxed they might have little tiny micro movements that are not really that obvious to us, but that might stand out as like the things that we pick up as a feeling or a vibe or things that the machine would be able to get down to a really fine grain detail very exact.

Brandon: The only issue is just going to be similar to my study is sample size. I know how poker solvers work, they play against themselves millions of times. I don’t know how many times you’ll have to but someone doing this like river action or whatever before it can be statistically significantly correct that much percentage of the time. It might need hundreds of thousands or millions of bits of data. If we did create hypothetically in this parallel world, if we had infinite money to just make this game, then you’d have the camera exactly on everyone’s face such that they can’t move between so far or you can always see their entire face and you get a pretty big sample pretty quick just doing that. Because every time you’ve got everyone’s face in every game and they play every day for six hours, then you start building a sample pretty quick. Obviously not compared to the numbers you might need, it would take a very long time, but if there was more games and more people doing that, then that’d be a really good starting point.

Zach: So it sounds like we need multiple numbers of these games set up around the world going 24 hours a day. So, yeah, we’ll get started on that. So I wanted to ask you too, are there any tells that stand out to you that you use live when it comes to maybe a recent hand you played where a tell made a decision for you? Anything stand out in that regard?

Brandon: Definitely yes. I try not to base… I say never, it’s very rare that I’ll make a super, super export base purely on a tell. I’d have to be really confident which is very, very rare situation. It’s a dangerous place to be if you’re so confident in something like that, but it does happen. I play a lot of hands, and it’s very, very rare that will happen. But obviously I won’t go directly into this means this, because then I’m going to get leveled very easily next time I see that.

Zach: Yeah, I hear you, I hear you. I get you.

Brandon: I mean, there also isn’t a direct thing. I can give you one actually. I’ll give you two examples that come to mind for playing in the last 12 months. There’s one where I had a friend who’s a very good online player and I know he was new to the live poker game, but he’s a very good theoretical player. And there’s something which I call card apex, which I can’t remember if you also wrote about, but I’ve seen it in a few places, which is when you look at your hand for the first time, if you see that it’s like ACEs or Kings or like a really good hand, you naturally put it down quickly because your body’s like, “Oh, shit, good hand.” People just put it down quicker. Whereas if you see more of a marginal decision where you need to think about it, people look at it for longer. So if you see a Jack-Ten suited, Jack-Nine suited, Ace-Five suited, something which is you want to play, but it might be dependent on the action, whereas compared to a hand that you’re always playing no matter what, people tend to look at it a little bit longer. I played a hand where I’d raised first to act, and this guy was on the button. And he looked at his hand and he was still looking at it for like a few seconds and I was watching him and they put it down, and then he re-raised and it came back to me and I had like the worst hand I could possibly have. So I was like I really want to just go all in here, but if I’m wrong, I’m just a complete idiot. And I’m really sure that he’s bluffing based on this one tell, but I know it would still be too out of line for me to go in with this hand. If I had a hand I’m supposed to bluff here with sometimes, I’d just do it every time. But that’s how I’d calibrate. I wouldn’t then go in with a hand I should never go in with just to control my frequencies. And so I just said to him, “You’re bluffing, aren’t you? I’m so sure you’re bluffing here. Please show me and I’ll fold it.” And he showed me he was bluffing. So that’s just one nice one which can be quite reliable for people.

Zach: No, I like that one. I like that one a lot. I write about that a good amount and I talk about the kind of psychological reasons behind that, and I think I wrote a good amount that in Exploiting Poker Tells, my last one. And I will use that one a good amount to decide whether to three bet somebody preflop if they raise and they stare at their cards a little bit longer than normal, longer than average. I’ll use that as a decision point to make a looser three bet.

Brandon: Yeah, I think it can be a really nice one, but the more important part like my decision process there is that I don’t know he’s bluffing there, it’s a strong indicator. So I can use that to make smaller exploits by saying… Let’s say I fold bet all in as a bluff there with– I don’t know, 5 percent– maybe that’s not the right number, but instead I go to 5.5 and all the hands that I’m supposed to mix, I just always use. And maybe there’s one hand which I don’t use that I then use, but as soon as I start, I just go on a limb with everything. It feels like it’s too far away from a strategy, so to speak. The example you just gave I think is a great indicator, but you don’t just re-raise the seven two off suit because it’s–

Zach: No, exactly. Because they’re still going to call you some percentage of time or whatever, it’s not… And like you said, it’s far from certain anyway, it’s just making it slightly more or even significantly more likely. But yeah, you’re right, you have to keep in the factors of what’s good play too.

Brandon: The way I talk about it is you’ve got to give weightings to your assumptions. So my assumptions in some spots are not worth much because I don’t know much about the player, I don’t have much info, but in other spots they’re worth a bit more. And this is an example where based on my history of playing with people and the psychology I’ve read behind it, my assumption that that meant he was bluffing is worth something. It’s not worth everything, but it just allows me to expand my range a little bit. And the other example that came to my head was a hand I played in Vegas against someone who was a recreational player. To some extent I think he probably had a job but was just out for the World Series, and he plays poker for fun, but he’s not necessarily terrible, but he’s not professional. So there’s a hammer I raised with Ace King and he called in the big line. I’ve gone too poker technical I guess. I bet on 7, 7, 6, 2 or flush draw and I just have Ace King and he raised. So this is a point I know where I always continue with Ace King against someone that raises correctly, but my assumption tells me he’s not raising correctly because he’s not professional. He’s not going to know which bluffs to use, and it’s quite counterintuitive to find some of the bluffs. But obviously some people easily overdo it too, but I’ve not seen him do anything crazy. So my head’s playing back all these different features like, “Do I defend my Ace King versus the raise maybe he’s always got two power set and I’m just losing loads of money or maybe I’ll just keep him honest for one straight and then over fold the turn. I just started staring at him, and it was just clear that he was uncomfortable. And I can’t necessarily explain why, but something about his eyes and the way he had his movement, everything. Because I’d seen him play a few of my hands where he had good hands and just his body language was just completely different. And it was almost enough for me to say, “I’m not going to fold this hand at any point unless his body language changes. And if I’m wrong, I’m wrong, I’ll die by the sword at this point. I’m so confident in the fact this guy doesn’t look comfortable.” So I called, the turn was nicely at two, so nothing changed. And then he bet again, and it was the same story. And I went as far as to… I don’t know if this actually made a difference, but I tried to make myself look as weak as possible when I called the turn because I really wanted him to bluff the river. So I really made it look like really begrudging call like, “Ah, this is a close spot for me.” And then I got one of the best rivers in the deck, another two, so every single bluff became the same hand by the river. And he went all in, and I called him, he had a really strong bluff. He had open-ended straight flush draw, but it would’ve been really easy for me to just over fold that flop against the other players or over fold the turn without that extra I think he’s uncomfortable so I’m going to go closer to theory here.

Zach: That’s a real interesting one.

Brandon: But I couldn’t pinpoint his hand was in this place or he had this brief. Whatever it was, it’s a combination of lots of things.

Zach: Yeah, I was going to say it gets into that, like you were saying, sometimes there may be things that we feel that may be based on, for example, you subconsciously noticing something about how he was acting in previous hands that was like his eye contact was completely different that didn’t really consciously register to you because I think eye contact’s really big and an underrated behavior. But some of these things can be things that we’re kind of slightly aware of which gets into that realm of… I actually had a really good interview with Brian Rust about this kind of stuff about poker tells and he was talking about–

Brandon: I like Brian Rast.

Zach: Yeah, he’s great. I respect him a lot, poker-wise. And yeah, he was talking about playing draw games and the fact that there’s so little information in draw games. And so a lot of it comes down to these like, “Well, do I feel one way or other about this?” There’s a lot of these borderline spots where you’re put in where you’re like, “Well, this could go either way,” more than other games because you have less information. And he was saying he really does trust those feelings sometimes and that he thinks that’s a source of a big edge where you’re just like, “I just feel like even if I can’t put my finger on it, I think this guy’s bluffing or this guy’s got it this time.”

Brandon: Yeah. I think especially in the single draw games where it’s decision draw, decision hands over, then you get so much less information about how to range your opponents and that becomes a much bigger component of the strategy used.

Zach: Well, this has been great. Anything else you wanted to throw in here before we signed off?

Brandon: I guess that the only other thing we didn’t touch on that I had one note on was determining player skill, a way to do that. I was just going to mention that I was going to use Hendon Mob as a reference point to say, for example, if someone has 10 million in cashes and they’re playing a 5,000 pound buy in, it’d be good to use that as a metric to say obviously that I played a lot of big tournaments and maybe the amount of total cashes they’ve got could go into that and we could have a formula and a rating. So you could have a degree of live professional poker player based on that. And there is a lot of problems with it because if someone is a business man with millions of pounds and plays high rollers and then wants to play a small tournament, it might bias the data, but I’m sure there’s a way to do it to make it correlated to skill level. So I think that’d be really good to incorporate into future studies if we could create it, some sort of system of recreational to pro, maybe a scale of one to 10, and then we could use that to determine how useful some of the data is or to see if there is a lot more indicators when it comes to more recreational players which I think we both agree is intuitive that that makes sense that it’s true.

Zach: Yeah, that sounds great because even if it wasn’t perfect, it would still be something that you could filter through.

Brandon: Yeah. I guess other than that, I just wanted to say thanks, you helped me determine the hypothesis of this study, you helped me kind of plan it out in a really nice way and incorporate much better science in some ways, learn from past mistakes of other studies. I didn’t know so much about the other poker study that happened in the past, the sleeping one, but as we touched on today, there was some issues with it and I think my study became the next step from there in some ways. We improved on a lot of the problems of that and it’s going to make for better science in the future for the next study in this space. Reading your books and speaking to you helped me learn a lot about the space and make a lot of good decisions when it came to studying it and recording the data. So thanks.

Zach: Yeah. Thanks Brandon. I appreciate you saying that and thanks for talking to me and look forward to seeing what else you do. Yeah, thanks for coming out.

Brandon: No problem.

Zach: That was a talk with Brandon Sheils. You can find him on his youtube channel, which is titled Brandon Sheils, or on Twitter at @brandonsheils. 

If you’re interested in poker, you might like to check out my poker tells work, which you can learn about at

If you like this podcast, I’d very much appreciate you sharing it on social media and giving it a rating on iTunes or another platform. You can learn more about this podcast at You can follow me on Twitter at @apokerplayer. 

Thanks for listening.


On how being distant/remote makes it easier to kill (and do other things), with Abe Rutchick

Abe Rutchick (, twitter: @aberutchick) talks about his psychology research that showed that killing is easier at a distance, how the experiment was designed, and about antisocial behavior in general being more likely when at a distance. A transcript is below. Other topics discussed: how his killing-at-a-distance research relates to our behaviors online; research he did about how people attribute moral responsibility for harm inflicted by autonomous self-driving vehicles; some studies he worked on that involved poker and poker tells; some research of his related to how differences in election maps could affect perceptions of American polarization.

Links to this episode:

Studies and work discussed in this episode:


Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about better understanding others and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at Please, if you like it, share it with your friends and leave me a review on iTunes or another platform; I’d greatly appreciate it.

In this episode, I talk with applied social psychologist Abe Rutchick. We talk about a study he did that showed that people were more willing to kill ladybugs when they were distant from that happening. This is an interesting and topical study in how it relates to all sorts of things we humans do at a distance, from the military using drones to attack people, to us being more likely to treat each other badly when talking to each other online, to being more cold and removed when considering distant and abstract ethical problems, and to the food we eat and the products we buy and how we’re less likely to consider the animal cruelty or human cruelty or other harms involved when it’s so far removed from us. We also talk about some research Abe did regarding autonomous vehicles and how people reach moral judgements about who’s at fault for what those vehicles do. And we talk about some studies involving poker that Abe has been involved with. I’ll have links to all the studies discussed in the page for this episode at if you want to check those out.

A little more about Abe:

Abe Rutchick is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Northridge. He is, broadly, an applied social psychologist. His earlier work was on social perception, with a focus on the way people perceive political groups. He also conducted research on the nonconscious influence of everyday objects, including formal clothing, red pens, churches used as polling places, light bulbs, and ibuprofen.
This work has been featured in many media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, and The Huffington Post. Strangely, this has also led to him providing “expert commentary” on other subjects about which he knows little, such as the effect of prison uniforms on recidivism and the effect of workplace fashion on employees’ confidence and work ethic. The highlight of his media career was probably being made fun of in a story by National Public Radio’s Yuki Noguchi for dressing “like a slob”.
More recently, he and his lab have begun a program of research at the intersection of social cognition and emerging technology. This work addresses how the capability of new technology to create both remoteness and intimacy influences the way we think and act.

You can learn more about him at his site can follow him on twitter at @aberutchick. Okay, here’s the interview.

Hi, Abe, thanks for coming on. 

Abe Rutchick: Happy to be here, Zach. Thanks for having me. 

Zach Elwood: So maybe we could start with the research you did that involved the ladybug killing? Where did the idea for that originate and why did you all pick that idea?

Abe Rutchick: That idea started so long ago about before the actual paper was published. We started it in I want to say 2009, a year after I’d gotten to my academic job at CSUN Cal State University, Northridge where I teach. My colleague Rob Yeomans who now works for YouTube, who was down the hall at the time, we chatted about ideas all the time. At some point, I don’t even remember which of us had the initial idea, but one of us had read an article about drone strikes and we thought about a way to maybe study… We immediately had this thought that killing remotely might be a different psychological process than killing close up. It just struck us both. We started chatting about it and wondered whether we could find some way to look at an analog of that in an experimental lab context. 

That’s really to start with the ultimate implication as opposed to that being a down the road downstream consequence. It really was inspired by it initially. And then even though that was the inspiration, we weren’t really trying to replicate that experience. Obviously, warfare and actual killing of people in that context is not something you’re going to be able to capture in a psych lab, at least not in this country in this time, maybe back in the ’50s when they could do anything. So we started just battling ideas around. 

Rob left CSUN fairly soon after that, went to do another academic job and then on to the industry, but we stayed in touch on the idea and over the years, we built out a method for doing it. It took us, no exaggeration, I think six years to build a protocol that worked. In terms of constructing a specific apparatus to do the experiment, we had to work out a system that was believable, but also ethical. Getting the approval from the human side of committee was non trivial as you can imagine. And so it took quite a bit of time just to set up and very fortunate to be at an institution that there’s not as much publication pressure, you can take these windmill tilting approaches to research. 

Zach Elwood: One thing I often wonder about studies that involve people asking subjects to engage in some bad or suspect behavior is, wouldn’t some people in the study realize it was likely a psychology study and maybe some set up? Is that at all a factor? Maybe I’m wrong on that, and maybe the fact that you still get different results shows that these things are not so much of the factor.

Abe Rutchick: No, I think it’s a really important point. It’s definitely a factor, definitely a thing you have to consider and a lot of the art and craft of doing this work, psychologically realistic work, is in creating a setting that is psychologically real. Clearly, when you think about generalizability from an experiment to a real-life situation, you think about are these people representative of the population I care about, that kind of question? Probably not, they are students, but that’s a concern. To what extent can we go from this situation to a real situation? That notion of ecological validity or being a psychologically real experience is crucial. Certainly, them not deducing that knowing what we’re studying is really important. Understanding hypotheses, whether it’s a real killing or non-real killing in experimental design, super important. 

And I don’t actually agree that if they knew what we were studying, of course they knew it as an experiment, but if they knew what we were studying and didn’t think it was real or something like that, I don’t think that would be that. I think we’d be studying a different process or following a lot of metacognitive stuff. That is not what we’re really interested in. 

In this case, yeah, you need a cover story that works and that’s one reason why it took so long. Our cover story was we told them that we were doing a human factor study like a user experience study. Our sect department historically had a big wing of it that was focused on that so that’s a plausible cover story and we said, ”Look, there’s lots of reasons why you might want to kill insects at scale. You can extract dye from them if they’re colorful, or you can use DNA sampling. And so what we’re doing is doing that one person at a time with a mortar and pestle is too cumbersome for industrial context and so we’re looking to do it quickly and so we have this setup with the conveyor belt and the buzz and we’re looking to test the usability of this thing.” And we had them answer questions about usability and all that stuff to make that make that ruse real. 

We did have… I’m trying to think. So we’ve done actually three studies. One is published and the other two are not. So across all these studies, about 1,000 people have run through this protocol. There are people who don’t believe, it’s about a 3% rate of disbelief. And we do a careful debriefing afterwards where we say, ”Any comments on the study? Okay, cool. Anything weird about it? Okay, cool. Anything suspicious about it?” It’s called a funnel debrief where you gradually get closer and closer to like, ”Did you think it was real?” And they’re like, ”Now that you say that,” [inaudible 00:08:20]. Yeah, exactly.

So you go all the way down, you evaluate at what point you have a coding scheme for that and you’re like, ”All right, this guy didn’t believe this. This guy didn’t.” And you toss that out. We completely excluded from analysis people who we believe based on our viewing of those responses that they didn’t really believe it was really happening. Then the design itself is super realistic. The machine is this big black box. It’s like a toolbox like the middle toolbox. There’s a conveyor belt on top of it. The ladybugs which are real live ladybugs are sitting in little capsules, little plastic, two hemispheres that have paper tape them on the bottom, you can see them they’re moving, they’re real. The experimenter was demonstrating and says, ”Okay, I’m going to show you how it works. I’m going to kill one ladybug.” And they advanced the conveyor belt using this controller, they drop it into the killing machine, they run the grinder that makes a loud grinding noise. It’s like a computer fan on a nail so it’s super realistic. 

And then they reach into the back of it and they pull out a little output tray and they show them a crushed-up ladybug, which actually it’s not a real crusher, it’s not real. But we previously had a ladybug that we’re able to use and it’s convincing. They look at it and they are like, ”Okay, now if you don’t mind just show how to use it if you could just crush this rice crispy.” We give them a rice crispy and the same capsule and they crush the rice crispy and then we take out the output tray again, it’s all sleight of hand. It’s two separate pre-prepared opportunity metrics. It’s got crushed crispy, it’s got more plastic, it’s got the bug in it. It’s like okay, they believe it. It’s very convincing.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. One of my questions was how do you set that up? It sounds like a lot of work goes into making that believable. Yeah, interesting.

Abe Rutchick: It took a lot of work. I called a friend of mine, a dear friend who’s a set designer for theater and I was like, ”Hey, can you help me with this?” And he’s like, ”I’m not sure I want to get involved in this. This is scary.” I was really asking a lot of folks for advice on how to make this realistic, how to make it work. It was not an easy process. It was long and painful. It’s the kind of work that doesn’t really get done anymore just because science needs results sooner. You want to get an answer. You can’t look at a grad… We have a master’s program, not a Ph. D. program, so a graduate student that’s three careers worth of graduate students. So they’re two years fine just in the design phase. If the payoffs aren’t there for most folks at that time, they can pick and access them. So it’s the kind of work that doesn’t get done. It’s the kind of stuff you used to see in the ’50s and ’60s a lot, some of the really niche classic studies and certainly that’s an inspiration for the work. Again, like I said before, we’re lucky to be at a place where they tolerate these absurdities.

Zach Elwood: There’s one thing I was wondering about that study was if you had done a follow-up study judging people’s degrees of guilts from the two groups, I wonder if you would have seen interesting things about like how being more likely to kill things remotely and how that played into feeling bad about it. Maybe did you have something in your study that included that? 

Abe Rutchick: We did. It’s not in the published paper so you wouldn’t have seen it. You’ve predicted it, but we did it. In this paper, we did a bunch. We did this paper which is the one study, we replicated this, which unpublished manuscript that we’ve been trying to get published and sitting on the back burner as we keep trying. The journals tend to say, ”Well, we’ve done this already. What’s new here?” Like, ”Well, we’re replicating it, that’s important truly.” We have some new questions showing why we think it’s happening and it’s not quite convincing enough, this novel, which is a side issue in itself. Novelty is an interesting criterion because we want to believe that the stuff keeps working. 

But anyway, in that one, we also followed up with some of those books a month later and asked how guilty they still felt. We looked at trajectory and whether it differed, whether they did it in person or via Skype in those days so whether they did it remotely versus in person. We also looked at… And we didn’t really get a huge difference there. It’s pretty hard to pin down, nothing significant statistically. My guess is that it because they have different levels of feeling bad about it at the time. So people who are in person kill less and feel worse about it, people remote kill more and feel less bad about it. And so trying to look at those trajectories, they’re not starting at the same spot and it’s not quite clear that they should go at the same slope if they’re actually the same. It got a little complex. 

We also looked at that moral foundation’s theory before and after they did it. So the question of this killing, does participating in this act change you in some way? Does it change your morality? Do you feel like it’s less bad to kill animals after you kill anybody else? For that one, we had to delay our debriefing for a little bit. Also, they believe they did it. So the way we set it up, they had to kill at least two and there were 10 on the conveyor belt. Now they didn’t have to do it. They could of course stop at any time. But we said, ”To give it a good test, you get to kill these two.” And so our dependent variable here is, did they kill just the two? Did they kill more? Or did they kill all 10? 

By the way, interestingly, most people, two thirds of people either kill two or 10. You don’t get a whole lot of… Once you get going, you’re going to keep going. You get a few who stop it. Very few stop at three. That doesn’t happen. And then some will stop at like six or seven like, ”Yeah, I’m done with this. ” Maybe just due to boredom. Our third study we did all in person actually and we looked at, so not remotely not looking through this question, but we looked at a bunch of personality variables to see what might predict it. We also got facial coding on their face while they were doing it. We recorded their faces, and we can feed that into emotion coding software. Our first pass at that wasn’t fruitful, but at some point, we’ll have some grad student who really wants to look at this data and figure it out. So yeah, we’ve tried to extract as much of these really hard to do studies as we can.

Zach Elwood: As you say, it seems super complex because there’s even this factor of once you do something, you justify your behavior and make peace with it in various ways and it’s hard to know how that dynamic goes on and there’s probably all sorts of factors even within that. It seems super complex. 

Abe Rutchick: Yeah, it is. And we also asked people, we describe the scenario and showed people a video of it and said, ”How many of you think you would kill if you’re in this situation?” And not surprisingly, they said they killed very few. They actually say they would kill fewer in person than remote. We just described the situation to them. But there’s a giant gulf between what they actually would do with what they say they would do, which is not surprising, I suppose, but still interesting.

Zach Elwood: So when it came to getting those results out there and the mainstream press covering it a bit, did you see… Was there much… It seems like something that’s theoretically interesting to the mainstream without regards to topical issues like drone killings and such. Did you see much interest in it? If so, did you see more or less than you expected?

Abe Rutchick: Well, a little bit but certainly less than I expected. In my view as I was doing it, it’s clearly my favorite piece I’ve ever done. I am immensely proud of it being honest. I think it’s really niche. I’ve done other things that have been more cited. This is barely cited. It isn’t a textbook, however, which is something I’m super proud of. But it’s not been cited much by the papers, which is for academics, that’s our key metric. Like, is it getting cited? Who else is citing it? Very little. I’ve got some stuff that’s been cited hundreds of times, that’s fine. Interesting. I don’t do any work that I don’t like. If I don’t really believe it, I’m not going to publish it. But this is not among the ones… This is way down on the list of how much it’s cited. 

In terms of media and conversation around it, the thing that gets cited most of my work is some work on wearing formal clothing. That’s the one that gets cited the most. I take a call every like week or two or three about that. I’ve done countless interviews about people wearing suits. Well, we all wear clothes. And that’s what’s cool. It’s niche work. Again, I’m super excited to chat with anyone about this. That one was on NPR. That one was on… I’ve been here three times for some of these. It’s crazy. But it’s always been these things that are fun and frivolous like the clothing one. Yeah, the clothing one, red pens make you great harsher. That was my first NPR hit back in 2010. Not that that’s not interesting work, but it is a little more… I do less studying stuff that matters for your everyday life. But it does seem less important than killing things. So I’m a little frustrated that this hasn’t gotten a bit more.

Zach Elwood: Too much of a downer.

Abe Rutchick: Yeah, maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s a little scary. And in their head, it’s a little controversial. I remember we applied for an internal grant to do some of the work. Now I’m definitely talking out of school so to speak. How can I say this to be fair? I got some insider info. We didn’t get the grant. I got some insider info from someone who I won’t name. That someone on the internal committee was themselves a veteran and was enraged by the idea that our work in the lab could possibly capture what it’s like to be in combat. I totally take that critique. I don’t think that that means that we should do the work and I don’t mean that it… But that’s a legitimate concern. I don’t know what it’s like to face someone who wants to kill me and kill them? That’s wild. I’m not suggesting it does, but I think that it’s really hard to study this process and I would counter with like, ”Well, what else do you want me to do?” Maybe we should clearly interview people and see what that experience is like qualitatively. We should clearly look at all sorts of ways to study this super important fundamentally human process. Given the tools of my discipline of experimental social psychology, maybe I could upgrade to goldfish or something, but this is pretty much as far as I’m willing to go. I think you can learn something useful from… People thought they were killing something. And it’s not like a mosquito, it’s a ladybug, they like it.

Zach Elwood: I can’t see anything objectionable about your study because it’s hard to argue at an intuitive level. Sitting in a room in Virginia and pushing a button on a drone to kill someone would clearly seem to be easier than being actually at that place and doing it yourself. It’s hard to imagine that being objectionable or controversial to-

Abe Rutchick: Well, the controversy I guess would be around me saying that reasonably replicates what that is like knowing your ending someone’s life a human’s life. And certainly, I could have written the paper in a way that would have been unfair and presumed something that isn’t right. Look, if I had a different pre-science career and had been a Marine, I think that that person’s objection would be easy enough to dismiss. I’d say ”No, I know.” But that’s a reasonable critique. It’s a reasonable critique. I’m not going to blame someone for thinking that I don’t know what I’m talking about in the sense that I don’t know what that’s like. I’ve been punched in the face and punched people in the face who wanted to punch me in the face and so on. That’s not the same either, it’s not same as killing. So I take that critique.

Zach Elwood: I’d written a piece about social media and social media effects and about how there are inherent aspects of internet communication that lend themselves to amplifying our divides and amplifying some bad us versus them thinking. And I referenced your study in there as a way to make the point that if it’s easier to kill from a distance, then it’s understandably easier to do many bad behaviors, antisocial behaviors like threatening people, insulting people online, generally treating people badly online. In short, everything bad and anti-social presumably would be easier to do at a distance. I’m curious if you’d agree with that interpretation. Is it something that you’ve extrapolated from your study to other things in life?

Abe Rutchick: Well, first thanks for signing in. I hope you signed in twice. No, I was just kidding. I definitely have agreed with that thought. I thought about it some. I should point out that there’s work that looks at this quite directly like actually this textual analysis on more and less anonymous channels and looks at the effect of anonymity in a much metaphor direct way so that speaks to that even more, but mine does I think add another brick to that wall particularly when we’re talking about more deeply problematic behaviors like cyber bullying and suicide baiting and things along those lines, and it gets pretty grim. Sometimes there’ll be a few people who have been prosecuted, swatting, for sure with real consequences. I feel like people don’t realize that’s serious until it is. There is a disconnect between their understanding, that’s a funny prank. It’s like delivering 10 pizzas to their house and then someone’s dead. 

Zach Elwood: It’s like when things are distant, they’re less real. It’s like, well, what could happen? I don’t really know. It’s abstract. It’s far away. 

Abe Rutchick: Underscore is the point. Yeah, for sure. There have been people that believe there’s a woman in Boston, if I’m not mistaken, who was convicted of eating the suicide of her boyfriend and it was a manslaughter conviction of some kind then entirely through online experiences. Broadly, I think absolutely. It’s funny we’re definitely not the only folks to think of this. Louie CK has a bit about it even where he talks about the road rage that people will do, with a pane of glass between two people, you’ll say anything horrible about somebody, but you’d never do that at the same distance without that pane of glass. Imagine turning to someone on an elevator and screaming these horrible things. It’s definitely true. 

Every possible thing we can introduce that decreases our intimacy increases our sense of remoteness and distance, psychological distance, I think is going to lead to problems by and large. It makes me think of lots of stuff. There’s lots of good psychological reasons for this that people have looked at a bunch of, it’s reasonable, we want to get credit for our good deeds and avoid blamed for bad ones. I do an exercise in my class every year where I say, ”Look, if you’re invisible for a day for 24 hours, what would you do?” And I have them anonymously write it down and then I read them and it’s like, rob a bank, rob a bank, rob three banks, go to Disneyland for free, kick somebody in the pants, go to area 51 and they’re all like it’s pranks, it’s spying, it’s theft. And then you get a few people who are like they don’t understand that they could do most of these things visible and they are like, ”I’d go to France.”

Zach Elwood: Well, that’s just what they say. Imagine what they’re not saying too.

Abe Rutchick: That too. And then you get one out of 100 sweet souls who are just like, ”I’d leave cupcakes on my friend’s door.” And somebody like, ”I’ll cure cancer.” I’m like, ”I’m not sure your visibility is the obstacle here.” No, but it’s great and I’ve done it for my classes. I’ve done it for corporate audiences when I speak in those settings and they’re real there. But it’s striking. I don’t believe this is not like human nature is bad when left unsupervised, I don’t think that’s the lesson here. I think it’s that is this very reasonable thing. It’s like here’s a unique opportunity to not experience culpability for actions. Let’s go. I set it up as it. But you’re not going to be invisible whenever you want that you probably act differently. It’s a special chance to be naughty. 

In the setting of online though, I will be pretty invisible and say mean stuff to people and it’s titillating. In real life if I started screaming at somebody, there might be consequences reputationally or otherwise. This is a chance to do this. And so, you do get that. And pretty much every behavior is going to get worse when you crank those things up and you take away that accountability. And it’s not just I’m worried about the consequences, there’s some psychological theory to suggest this notion of self-awareness, it has an impact internally. If I’m conscious of who I am at the time, if I’m thinking I’m very self-aware, that’s going to make me better. 

There’s a famous study which it’s almost the apocryphal territory because I don’t think it’s been replicated, but kids stealing Halloween candy. If there’s a mirror behind the bowl, they’re less likely to steal the candy because they’re so like, ”I shouldn’t do this. My moral compass is restored by seeing my own face.” Whereas if you’re masked anonymously in a big group, you’re more likely to misbehave. So yeah, I broadly agree. I think it has implications for, I don’t want to be too grandiose about my particular study, but this and related work has implications for how we function in a workplace, particularly in the COVID era. I wonder whether that’s something we could observe more broadly. I mean, there’s so many things have changed. It’s hard to pinpoint a cause and effect here, but we’re doing everything through email and through Zoom and so fewer things face to face with just that do. Yeah, I think it’s good implications for all that work. The broad point has been belaboured and made though like anonymous is bad, remote is bad. It tends to make us worse.

Zach Elwood: A small edit here, I took out some talking that Abe and I did on the subject of fake and anonymous social media accounts. We talked about how social media companies don’t have an incentive to reduce anonymity. They don’t want to put up more hoops for users to jump through. They don’t want to hurt their market share and make it harder for potential customers to join. Facebook, for example, deletes about one to two billion fake accounts per quarter, which gives a sense of the problem. I talked about how I blamed Facebook for not doing more to cut down on fake accounts because even though they claim that’s against their terms and conditions to create a fake deceptive account, they have very few obstacles on signing up that would prevent people from creating these fake accounts. While I’m on the subject, I wanted to mention that I’ve done some independent research into fake Facebook accounts. That research was featured in 2017 in a New York Times article titled, Facebook Says It’s Policing Fake Accounts, But They’re Still Easy to Spot. 

Later, some other research I did was featured in 2018 in The Washington Post in an article titled, When a Stranger Takes Your Face: Facebook’s Failed Crackdown on Fake Accounts. I was even invited on the Chris Hayes show to talk about that work, but I missed an email they sent and I missed that opportunity. If you want to know more about this work, I have some articles about that fake account research on my blog at Medium which you can find by searching online for Zach Elwood research Medium. I’ll jump to where Abe starts to talk about a study he did involving autonomous vehicles.

Abe Rutchick: I did a series of studies a few years back with a wonderful master student and Ryan McManus is now a PhD student at Boston College. He led these studies. I was there as an advisor and I did my share work, but he was the boss of this. He’s a moral psychologist that he studies how people make morally relevant decisions. I had a burgeoning interest in technology and so the intersection of that is like how do we make moral decision making in a technologically advanced context? 

We’re talking here about the question of self-driving cars of AI control vehicles EVs and basically how you find judgments of guilt if there’s an accident in different scenarios. One of the scenarios we were looking at was this this scenario where sometimes these cars will have to make decisions about what they do. These are somewhat contrived arguably, but sometimes we’ll be in a situation where you’re going on the road quickly and someone runs across the road and do you hit that person or do you swerve out of the way having some risk to you? 

I’ve actually been in this… It’s artificial, yes, but I’ve been in this situation actually in my car before. I was driving once down the road and it is this misty morning and it’s about 7:30 in the morning on a weekend so it’s quiet, heading off to get some breakfast and a truck was coming towards me with a ladder dangling horizontally, unbeknownst to this fellow obviously, off the back of his truck like off the tailgate blocking both lanes. And I’m driving towards this guy and I’m like, ”Is that really happening? That’s really happening. There’s a ladder across the road.” And this street happened to be, you couldn’t write this in an experimental stimulus and have it be believable, but this truly was no sidewalk. The thing on the right was like lawns of people’s houses. Do I get hit by a ladder at 40 miles an hour for each of us or I drive blind onto someone’s lawn where there could be a child. I did the worst thing which is like the halfway in between where I basically kept going straight slowed down and shirked my shoulder, duck down a little but also move to the right slightly. It probably was the worst because it killed both sets of people. 

Zach Elwood: Did both die? 

Abe Rutchick: Yeah, exactly. The ladder shatters my side mirror thankfully because it swung up by the wind. Anyway, these things do happen. These seemingly artificial dilemmas are real. Yeah, exactly. I mean, you wouldn’t think so, but it happened to me. So what do you do? Do you preserve the most life, the classic utilitarian thing? Do I swerve to avoid two people and then you’ll potentially put one person in the car at risk? Or do you preserve the driver at all costs? There’s some work on this that came along around the same time as ours where someone basically was showing that people think that others ought to make the utilitarian choice that what we ought to do is have a car that saves the most lives possible. But I would prefer to ride in one that seems me. That’s a very famous paper. It got cited a lot of times and I’m just like, ”Wow, yeah, that is true and I don’t know if we needed the study to know that.”

Zach Elwood: Right. It ties into the to the ladybug killing because it’s like I don’t mind death when it’s a distant remote thing, but if it involves me, I’m very particular.

Abe Rutchick: Exactly what the impression I had back then. I don’t want to mock those guys. They’ve done some really cool other work extending that and looking at the demographics of who’s crossing the street. Is it three old ladies and a cat versus two young men? Who would you sacrifice to save whom? That’s really cool work there. 

That was the idea, the classic trolley dilemma. So if listeners are not familiar with it, there’s this trolley problem or trolley dilemma that goes back to a philosopher named Philippa Foot back in the ’60s. And this is the idea of there’s a train or trolley going down the tracks, there’s five people on this track, do we pull a lever to divert the trolley to not kill those five people, but instead kill one person on another track? People generally make that utilitarian choice and do pull the lever. The reason it’s tricky is that we’re now taking an action to kill someone who was not imperiled before this. If we just stay still, all these guys die. But we make the utilitarian choice more often than not. There’s some fun variations, which actually tie back to our idea of intimacy that we were talking about before on remoteness where the footbridge version of this where instead of pulling a lever to divert it, you push a guy off a footbridge onto the tracks and the train hits that guy instead. 

People don’t tend to do that. They tend to not make the utilitarian choice. Now, you can’t just push an innocent guy who was nowhere near the tracks onto the tracks, which is interesting, the same number of lives lost but I guess we’re blaming the other fellow for being near a train track. It’s really interesting. And then when you take another step further and you say, ”Okay, if I push this guy off the train tracks using a long stick, people are more likely to do that than do it by hand.” That’s exactly it right? That the distance does seem to matter, the intimacy of putting your hands on a person and pushing them to the death really seems to be a driving factor here. The lava log poking device on the other hand is it adds just enough remoteness. I think that’s fascinating work. 

Anyway, that was the framework from which we approached this. We said, ”Okay, this is the scenario. Either the person is driving and makes the selfish choice or the selfless choice. We have an AI controlled system that was programmed by the manufacturer of the car, they make the selfish choice, the selfless choice. We have an AI system that was programmed by the driver when they bought the car so that’s the same set of things. And then we had some override condition, so the person had a preprogrammed thing that they chose to be selfish, but then in the moment of truth, they hit the override switch and behaved selflessly. Or the reverse, they decided that they were going to be selfless but then when it came down to it, they were actually selfish. They hit the override switch.” 

So all those conditions in place, the different outcomes. And you find what you expect, which is that in the manual condition of course, the driver gets a lot of blame or praise for their actions and that is diminished when it’s programmed by them and it’s an AI and that’s still further diminished when it’s programmed, not by them, by the manufacturer and it’s an AI. We saw some interesting stuff around the override switch. If you go back on your previous selfless actions, so I decided to behave selflessly but, in the moment, I just couldn’t do it and I decided to be selfish. That’s actually even worse than being selfish the whole time, which is cool, this last seat condition and the reverse too for being selfish and then deciding you know what, I can’t do it, I can’t kill this person who’s in front of me, and they act selflessly. That’s actually better than being selfless the entire time. So it’s niche. I think there’s something in the idea that what you do at the moment of truth is more diagnostic of what you’re really like your true character. I think that’s probably behind that. 

Anyway, we did that and we’ve done some interesting follow ups on like casting blame to different agents like do you blame the manufacturer or the driver? And how much you blame each of these entities? 

Zach Elwood: I think that area is so much more complicated than I think a lot of people realize. It was about 10 years ago, I made a bet with a friend $500 bet with a friend and I bet that we would not see fully autonomous vehicles with no driver at all on public roads for more than 15 years. The reason I thought that was because I thought the technology would be good enough to do it, but I was skeptical of these more complicated human factors. For one thing, I thought it was underestimated how fully autonomous vehicles are perceived as more freaky and creepy than I think many people… I think for many people, especially older people, that was one factor. And then the other reason for me was that some of these things you’re talking about were the moral and legal complications of how these things would actually work are so much more complicated than they seem on the surface. Who makes those decisions? Is it legislated? If it’s a black box AI system that you don’t really know the workings of is that ever really workable if you can’t say exactly what it’s doing? And a lot of these AI systems are black box situations where it’s machine learning. It’s all these factors that make it a lot more ethically and legally complicated than I think is perceived. I haven’t really been following the actual state of things recently and so I wonder how much that is held up, the stuff versus the technology itself. I don’t really know. But it’s super complicated. 

Abe Rutchick: Well, I think at this point, I would have made that same bet with you and I think you’re going to win your bet. If I think about how my views have changed as well, I think a lot of driverless smiles have been driven even on public roads actually, but there’s this guy in the car, it’s theoretical ability to take control of that thing. So they’re not a means of transport that anyone can just have access to. The full self-driving features on Tesla are always being disabled and reenabled and things along those lines. We don’t do well… I’m sure Ryan McMahon is talking about moral judgment, not me. But we don’t do well when there are multiple targets. We like simplicity. I think of an insurance situation, they really like to know who’s at fault in the accident.

 Sometimes some states have multiple faults. I got into an accident in New York one time, they’re like, ”Well, it’s 20% your fault? I’m like, ”Was it? I don’t think so.” But I guess it was raining and I could have been going slower. But we don’t do that very well. We assign fault to someone for a lot of these things. Think about when you’re wronged interpersonally or something happens to you that’s bad, you look around to see whose fault it was. We want someone to blame. And usually, it’s one entity. It’s not like we don’t want to look for blame. We don’t like, ”Darn this complex system of interacting variables.” In a nuanced way, it made my day worse. It’s just not how this works. And so, when we have what is clearly a complicated system of interacting numerous variables, it’s not quite clear how people are going to just be able to get their heads around that legislatively, morally in the court of public opinion, financially when it comes down to an insurance claim. So yeah, I do think those social obstacles are very real, independent of the technological challenges.

With that said, the worst of these systems is better than the best human driver now. I think it’s actually I think one reason why I think there’s a mistake here, which is that change is hard. We tend to get blamed for action more than inaction. If I’m sitting there and I just hold on to my money and inflation happens and I gradually lose some or I hold on to my money, I don’t invest in crypto and it goes up a lot. I’m not going to get like ”I’m so stupid. I wish I’d done this thing.” You’ll be like, ”Okay, I miss an opportunity. That’s not great.” 

On the other hand, if I put money in and it goes down, now I feel terrible and everyone looks at me like dummy. We tend to get blamed more for actions and praised more for actions without considering what the inaction is or what the baseline is. We are in a situation now where a tremendous amount of people die in their cars. It’s a lot. It’s really bad. It’s I believe the sixth leading cause of death. Maybe that’s within certain age bracket or something along those lines. I looked at it several years ago. But it’s a problem.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, 35 to 40,000 people a year in the US-

Abe Rutchick: That’s a fair amount. I mean, as we’ve seen just because a lot of people are dying from something that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll take the appropriate actions to stop it, but it’s clearly a thing that is an issue. It’s also tremendous costs infrastructurally environmentally and so on. A very bad AI driver is going to reduce those deaths, and I think we’re quite far. The first time the AI does something stupid that a human wouldn’t have done, we’re going to be like, ”There we go, this is not good.” Never mind the fact that it wouldn’t have done the 20 stupid things that humans do. So it’s a tricky thing. And a lot of it has to do with our embracing of the status quo and our bias towards that.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, it gets into existentialists thought to where we’re always making decisions. Even when we think we’re not making decisions, we are making decisions. So you and I initially started talking to each other because of a poker related paper, it was a pretty well-known study by Michael Slepian. Is that how you pronounce his last name? Slepian, okay. That study got a lot of mainstream press speaking of things, getting a lot of mainstream press. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that one? One thing I was interested in was as we were talking about with your study getting press, that got a lot of press and it struck me as it was because of the sexiness of Poker Tells and how Poker Tells hold a mystique and excitement in the public’s eye and maybe especially in America with the prevalence of poker and culture. Do you think I’m right about why that got so much attention? Maybe you’d like to talk about that.

Abe Rutchick: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny, it did get some attention. It’s been cited a decent amount. It didn’t get nearly as much attention as some but yeah, it did get a decent amount of attention.

Zach Elwood: I guess maybe not citing but in the mainstream because it was on NPR and several other things. 

Abe Rutchick: It was. It did get some good amount. You’re right. Not as much as not as formal clothing, but it did get some.

Zach Elwood: It was more than was more than ladybugs though.

Abe Rutchick: Yes, exactly. It was more than ladybugs.

Zach Elwood: Less than the formal clothing, but more than-

Abe Rutchick: Way less than that. [crosstalk 00:40:27] Yeah, exactly. It continues to resonate in popular culture actually, that study. I don’t know if anyone’s read Maria Konnikova’s wonderful recent book on her poker journey, but she has this scene in the book where she goes up to Erik Seidel. Again, I’m not sure how poker savvy our audience is, but it was Erik Seidel and wants to recruit him as her coach and she has her trump card, she pulls out of her bag this paper that apparently no one has read and I’m fairly certain, I haven’t had a chance to ask her yet, but I am more than 50% confident that was that piece, the Slepian piece.

Zach Elwood: I think she mentions that in her book because she talks about-

Abe Rutchick: She mentions that that was the one she pulled out-

Zach Elwood: Well, she talks about Slepian’s piece later in the book I think so presumably, it’s probably the same.

Abe Rutchick: Yeah, that’s my hunch by my detective work. Anyway, Michael was my undergraduate back when I was teaching at Syracuse as a visiting professor early in my career. He was a film major and, and took my social psych class and decided to shift gears and do social psych and now he’s done 10 times as much as I have. He’s a superstar. He’s actually a plug. He’s got a book that’s coming out just now yesterday available for preorder is called The Secret Life of Secrets. He’s a secrecy researcher and his book is coming out. I’m delighted to get that preorder in soon. 

Anyway, that study just a little the origins of it, I’ll describe it. And yes, I agree with your broad sentiment that the mystique of poker and the sexiness of poker is a big factor here. He had done the work with another student and his advisor and brought me aboard largely to make sure that there weren’t any horrible gaffes in his description of the rules of hold’em, it was as a poker consultant. I did have some writing edits and so on too, but I didn’t have much to do with the actual running of the studies. The work is really niche though and it’s in a very prominent journal. That’s the other thing that I think helped a lot is that it’s arguably the best journal that social psychologists publish outside of science. It’s in a journal called Psychological Science, which is a great journal, very high profile. It basically had lay people watch videos cut from World Series of Poker footage and essentially evaluated and there’s a few quirks and stuff but basically, they’re evaluating hand quality on just a Likert type scale like strong hand [crosstalk 00:42:55] hand strength.

And again, it’s done in the context freeway. There’s a lot of… We can talk about the flaws of the study if you’d like, there’s plenty. We’re not looking at the whole… Anyone who studies poker knows that the strength of a hand in the abstract is not a meaningful thing here. We look at a hamstring by looking at the percent chance to win from that point on. But of course, you don’t know what your percent chance to win is because you don’t know the other person’s cards. Maybe you do if you have the nuts. But often that’s a question that is unknown to you. 

And so we looked at how people rated how strong the hands were as they watched a clip of a person placing the bet like moving the chips in and we altered the videos in one of three ways. One, we didn’t in one case in the control. Another condition, we showed just the face like the shoulders up. And in the other we showed just arms, shoulders down. What we find is that people are basically at chance if they look at the whole body. They can’t tell what’s strong and what’s weak from watching them, but they are statistically worse than chance if they look at just the face and they are better than chance if they look at everything but the face so if they look at the hands, arms moving.

The idea being that when we’re making a bet in poker or doing anything in poker, we’re concealing and maybe even deceiving actively how strong our hand is. Everyone talks about a poker face, not too many people talk about poker shoulders. And we try to stay stoic or even again, misleading and then the evidence suggests deep misleading, but we exert less conscious control, whether we don’t do it or we’re unable to do it, on our hands, on our motions. I mean, people try of course, but we’re apparently worse at that. It’s the smoothness with which we put our chips in seems to predict strength and people are probably not aware of whether they’re doing this well or poorly, and lay people can pick up on this and get useful information.

Zach Elwood: A small note here regarding Michael Slepian’s poker study, soon after that came out, I had written a critique of that study. You can find it on my site or by searching for Zach Elwood criticism Slepian poker study. If you’re interested in poker or in poker related scientific studies, you might enjoy it. Back to the interview. You did another poker related study too, right? Is that right? 

Abe Rutchick: Yeah, we back with my colleague Dustin Calvillo on hindsight bias in poker so looking at hindsight biases, this phenomenon, this I knew it all along effect where you recall your previous predictions as being closer to what actually happened than they really were. It’s a well-known very easy to demonstrate cognitive bias and that cognitive psych literature and what we found is the expertise attenuates aspects of that bias, that aspects of bias are attenuated to other ethics or not. So the role of expertise in biases is really interesting. Sometimes expertise can solve certain biases, sometimes it doesn’t and knowing that is really useful. Again, poker is somewhat a narrow domain of endeavor, but at least in that domain, we have an interesting effect where expertise sometimes helps and sometimes doesn’t, which is niche. 

We have another study actually that’s unpublished. I was looking at it before we chatted because I wanted to remind myself of it that another student did with me, Johnny Cassie, and did his thesis on this work. We haven’t published it. Johnny moved on to industry and is working in market research, so the incentive to get the work done, to get that into a publishable manuscript is not as there as it would have been. But we looked there at embodiment in poker so another round of the of the study I did with Michael Slepian looking at what people’s hands and arms are doing as they act and how that affects strength. And we found that how far people moved their hands like the literal distance they moved their hands predicted the strength of their cards. And basically, nothing else in this particular study did. So there’s clearly something-

Zach Elwood: Was it farther… Were you saying it was how far they put the bet into the pot?

Abe Rutchick: The physical distance they move the chips, yeah.

Zach Elwood: The farther it was related to more relaxation strength? 

Abe Rutchick: Yeah, that’s right. Sorry, I cut off for one second as you say. Yeah, that’s right. The farther they put it, the stronger it was. That’s what we found there.

Zach Elwood: Now that’s really interesting. I want to talk to you more about that later. Let’s see. Is there anything else you want to talk about that we haven’t mentioned? 

Abe Rutchick: I guess the only other study we ever really discussed, this is going to be a little out of order I suppose, but we talk a lot about social media and polarization in the context of my anonymity work, my anonymous work. I have done some work directly examining polarization that might be germane. The one that was prominent to those actually had this really interesting trajectory around where I did it back in 2009 and it laid dormant, a few people cited it. I don’t think I did an immediate on it. And then this past election cycle 2020, Adam Grant tweeted it. It read as a well-known industrial organizational psychologist a famous fellow in our field and it immediately went completely bananas and hundreds of thousands of people were talking about. It was one of the most cited papers in social psychology that year was discussed on Twitter. I think called the Altmetric and those things and I started seeing this thing go bananas. Getting out, people were talking to me, ”Hey, your study is going bananas.” And I started looking and it was really interesting to see. 

So that one has got some prominence. That’s the one where we look at maps and how looking at different color of maps affect people’s perceptions of polarization. If you look at a classic red and blue election map, the Democrats winning the states are colored blue, and the Republicans win and the states are colored red, you could do that. That’s one depiction you could use. But you could also go with a red blue blend and use the color purple appropriate to their share of votes. You could do that at a county level too and show the rich spectrum of differences in the states or something along those lines. There’s a million different ways to represent this, but we choose this. The most prominent that we tend to see is this red blue color. Yeah, exactly.

Well, what it does is tell you the election app, which is we want to know that. I had people look at one map or the other map and then make judgments about polarization, about stereotyping, or the political views of people in different states, about the ability of people to affect outcomes and the efficacy voting. I had a version of it where I didn’t get what you’d expect. But then I had a version where I printed the vote share on the map. The numbers are there. These guys are 54, 39 with some not voting for the candidate right on the map. And it made no difference whatsoever. The colors dominate the vote numbers. They’re literally asking the question of like, if you randomly chose a person from Texas, how conservative are they? The numbers right in front of them doesn’t matter? The color rules. And so that was interesting study, and it’s gotten some gotten some play. I think we have a lot to say about polarization as a field, and I think it’s something we’re not going to stop looking at any time soon. It’s a tough nut to crack.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, you have quite a few polarization studies. I’ll put some links to those in the page about this episode, too. That’s really interesting because I mean, so much of the polarization stuff is about these simplistic perceptions. I was reading Peter Coleman’s book recently about polarization, I think it was called The Way Out. He talks about one of the main strategies for mediation and conflict resolution between two conflicting groups is to highlight the complexity of the situation because it destroys these simplistic narratives that we have. So much of the polarization stuff is related all of this group or all of this place is like this and related to liberals saying bad stuff about Georgia or whatever, Texas, and I’m like, ”Close to half of those people are liberals.” It gets lucky. It’s just the simplistic. So I think that map thing is super interesting. Showing the complexity, going into granularity on the maps and how everything is so much more nuanced and complex on a map even can give you that sense of things are just not simple, people are not simple, things are all these shades of things. 

Abe Rutchick: And the challenge, of course, there and I think if that’s the way out, if the way out is to understand complexity and emphasize complexity, I think that’s interesting. People hate doing that. That’s the problem. We have a very strong drive for understanding and clarity and closure and that sort of thing and I think that’s a tough way out. It’s better than the crude we’re all Americans, damn it. Let’s unite that. That doesn’t work.

Zach Elwood: That’s simplistic too. It’s like that doesn’t work for the same reasons. It’s like nobody wants to hear that and they view that as simplistic too so it’s like highlighting the nuance and the complexities is one route. 

Abe Rutchick: The speaker also matters too. If someone in your group or someone else is the one talking that’s a big deal. But even still, it’s pretty easy for these things to actually not merely fail, but actually backfire. If done by the wrong person incorrectly is the challenge. It is grim and it’s not going away anytime soon. I wonder what those paths are. People are testing interesting interventions where they get people together to agree on something, something small that they can agree on that everyone would agree on or whatever it is like these even mundane things.

Zach Elwood: Red taste good. 

Abe Rutchick: Yeah, exactly. Well, ideally, something that is apolitical issue of some. It could be something somewhat substantive like Americans should be able to file income taxes with accurate information provided by the government for free. Most people actually agree with that, that there’s very few… It’s funny. Actually, in the old days, meaning 10 years ago given, there are all sorts of issues that are considered apolitical. You could use them as stimuli. Trust in science was one, voter participation was another. Now I can’t think of two things that are more polarizing. It’s really striking.

Zach Elwood: As things ramp up, everything starts getting sucked into the vortex of animosity and polarization in anonymity.

Abe Rutchick: Yeah, it does seem to be the case. So pretty soon the TurboTax will get stuck too, I’m sure.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, I really don’t think there’s anything you couldn’t theoretically suck into that us versus them vortex. You can imagine seatbelts or speed limits was one I was playing around with it, imagining how speed limits would become polarized and you can imagine it becoming polarized on two different ways depending on how things went. It’s like none of these things are off limits and in theory. 

Abe Rutchick: Well, that’s the other thing. It’s like the hypothetical world, the counterfactual world where what if this had been reversed, what if the right was to enforce driving for more vaccinations? Very easy to imagine. I do think that’s absolutely viable. In fact, I am a little surprised that’s not how it went given that Trump was in power when this stuff was going on. But of course, things happen. It did try to construct those narratives but, in this case, I think it’s entirely plausible one. And yeah, you can suck it all in. We’re built for that kind of conflict as you pointed out itself. The us versus them lens is something that we are designed evolutionarily to see things through.

Zach Elwood: Well, thanks, Abe. This has been really interesting and I think you do some really interesting work in your lab so thanks for coming on and talking about it.

Abe Rutchick: Thanks so much for having me, Zach. It’s been a pleasure. 

Zach Elwood: That was an interview with psychology researcher Abe Rutchick. His site is at and his Twitter handle is aberutchick. Again, if you want to see some of the studies discussed in this talk, go to and look for the page for this episode. If you’re interested in learning more about my poker tells work, that’s at

This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. If you enjoyed it, please leave me a review on iTunes or another platform, and please share it with your friends. I may not be able to work on the podcast that often in future, just due to me not making any money on it and it taking a bit of time, so any encouragement you can give me is greatly appreciated.

Thanks for listening.


On U.S. polarization and being a black conservative, with John Wood Jr. (of Braver Angels)

A talk with John Wood Jr. (twitter: @johnrwoodjr), who’s an ambassador with the depolarization group Braver Angels ( and who ran for Congress as a Republican in 2014 against Maxine Waters. Topics discussed include: American polarization and how it’s increased since the 1950s; what drew John to conservative politics; what the labels “liberal” and “conservative” mean and how they can change over time; how traditional American conservative thought is different from Trump’s populism; what it’s like to be a black conservative in America; black conservative political beliefs and how those are more complex and varied than is widely perceived. A transcript is below.

Links to this episode:

Resources discussed in the episode:


Hello and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding others and understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it and my work at If you like this podcast, I’d greatly appreciate it if you were willing to leave a review on iTunes or to share this podcast with your friends and family.

In this episode, I talk to John Wood, Jr., who ran for Congress in 2014 as a Republican against Democrat Maxine Waters. His campaign messaging at that time was focused on depolarization and reducing political animosity; he criticized both parties for unreasonable levels of us vs them behaviors. John is the former Vice-Chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County. John serves now as a leader and ambassador for Braver Angels, which is an organization aimed at bridge-building and depolarization. I respect the work of John and of Braver Angels a lot, and I think they’re doing some of the most important work around in trying to tackle what is, in my opinion, the root cause of our dysfunction: unreasonable us-vs-them animosity that’s largely based on emotions and not nearly as much about ideology and issues as many people believe. You can follow John on Twitter at @johnrwoodjr.

I thought it would be interesting to get a conservative’s views on polarization, because I think most views about polarization in mainstream media tend to come from liberals. John and I also talk about what it is that drew him to a conservative political philosophy, and about the difference between traditional conservative philosophy and the iteration of conservatism that Trump represents. We talk about the history of polarization in the U.S., and how it has grown over time since the 1950s. I ask John about what it’s like to be black and be conservative, about black conservatives in general, and ask him for his thoughts on the GOP’s “election integrity” efforts, which have been criticized as election obstruction by many liberals.

Before getting to the interview, I wanted to share a story about John that will give you a sense of his philosophy about how we build bridges, how we work on depolarization.

For the Braver Angels podcast, a few months ago, John interviewed James Lindsay. If you don’t know, Lindsay is someone who spends much of his time these days criticizing what he perceived as unreasonable aspects of woke culture and anti-racism activism and such. Which, to be clear, I think is fine, as I think there are a lot of bad ideas and behaviors in that area to criticize So even though I actually agree w/ some of Lindsay’s critiques in this area, I also think he’s entirely immersed and consumed by extreme us-vs-them narratives and emotions. Essentially, he’s the poster child for what unreasonable polarization looks like; entirely focused on and extremely angry about the perceived bad behaviors of one group, seemingly entirely uninterested in the bad behaviors of other groups.
And when John did that interview with Lindsay, I tweeted to John and Braver Angels and said quote “I lost some respect for you all w/ your talking to James Lindsay. There are many reasonable people to talk to about unreasonable aspects of anti-racism stuff. Lindsay fans flames of division/hatred every day. We should be trying to find bridge-builders.” end quote.
I then named some people who I thought were capable of criticizing such things while remaining respectful, and that included John McWhorter (who, if you haven’t read him, I highly recommend for understanding what there is to criticize about anti-racism and CRT-related things). And in a following tweet to John and Braver Angels I said “My point is that Lindsay is hateful, divisive. IMO he’s been deranged by social media. Personally I attempt to critique extreme stuff while remaining respectful. I do believe most people are trying their best & think they’re doing good things.” end quote

And John Wood responded with quote “Those people you’re thinking of probably don’t reach James’ audience, which I thought might benefit from a more empathetic analysis of anti-racism. Don’t I influence them more speaking to James than not? Doesn’t James have to reckon with points he wouldn’t otherwise?” end quote

And I do think this is wise. I think John is right. And I think it shows the philosophy behind John’s approach and behind the Braver Angels approach. That by having such conversations, even with people you strongly disagree with, or maybe even agree with in some ways but may find very polarized and unhelpful, that maybe you promote more balanced views, if not with the person you’re speaking with, then perhaps amongst their fans and listeners. Because clearly the bubbles of thought so many of us live in are part of the problem, on both sides, and by mixing some of those bubbles more, I do believe that we help tamp down extreme and simplistic and one-sided ideas.

Peter Coleman is a respected person in the field of conflict resolution and mediation; in his recent book about polarization, called The Way Out: How To Overcome Toxic Polarization, he talks about how a major strategy for achieving peace between two conflicting groups is to highlight the complexity of the situation, to show the groups that their angry us-vs-them narratives are distorted and simplistic views of the world, that there is so much complexity; complexity in terms of each group’s diversity of ideas and viewpoints, and complexity in how the groups interact. By highlighting the complexity, you disperse simplistic narratives, and that’s what the tough conversations that John and Braver Angels are helping do, in my opinion.

And unfortunately these days I think too many people take the stance of “we just need to banish the people we think are the worst behaved, or ignore those people, or shut them down somehow.” But clearly our divides are not going away that easily. You could make the argument that the casting out, the ignoring, is part of the problem, in how such things lead to more bubbles, more places where unquestioned and one-sided views blossom. Maybe we need more people who decide to take that road of engaging in tough conversations, of attempting to understand and discuss ideas they don’t agree with; maybe that’s what would help us blend and melt those pockets of simplistic us vs them narratives that are all around us. If we’re going to avoid worst-case scenarios, maybe we need to convince some critical mass of people to attempt such things more, and maybe that way we lower the temperature enough to where our political polarization reaches normal, healthier levels. That’s my hope, and I think that’s the hope of John and Braver Angels.

Okay, here’s the talk with John Wood Jr.

Hey John, thanks for coming on.

John Wood Jr: Hey Zachary, how are you doing, man?

Zach Elwood: All right. And I appreciate your time. And actually with your work, with the work you’ve done with Braver Angels and depolarization, I just have so many questions. So it was actually difficult for me to narrow down to a few, but we’ll see how it goes. So when you ran for Congress in California in 2014 against Maxine Waters, it seemed like polarization was on your mind even back then. And you had said in your messaging when running that, “Due to egotism and intransigence of Democrats and Republicans alike, American politics have remained mired in division and dysfunction. So is it fair to say that polarization has been a focus of yours for quite a while and have you recognized it as a major problem for quite a while?

John Wood Jr: Man, you pulled a quote from the campaign; this is already a special conversation. I really appreciate that. No, you’re absolutely right, man. I’m not a Johnny come lately to this conversation over polarization. I mean, my concern with it definitely predates the Trump era and Black Lives Matter and so on and so forth. I think that it is a longstanding issue that sort of connects to a long-term kind of decline in our ability to relate to each other reinforced by the fact that the sort of structure of the political system is such that identity has become kind of deeply sort of woven into sort of party affiliation. That’s not necessarily all or even most of the picture here, but since you got me thinking about that campaign, it’s a worthwhile place to begin. I mean, at that time, you had… I mean, that was towards the end of the Obama administration. I ran in 2014, started campaigning in earnest in early 2013. The Obama presidency was sort of defined to a great degree by his running standoffs with the Tea Party backed Republican leadership in Congress. And that was a time where, I mean, you had intense controversies, you had intense issues, but it was like a government shutdown was like, “Oh man, where have we come to as as a country that the government could shut down for a couple weeks because the two parties can’t get it together to pass an annual budget.” Oh man, how nice it would be to have those be our worries now in the midst of what some people sort of look at as the pending collapse of democracy, legitimacy of the voting system and global pandemics and all that. So forgive me, I may have lost actually the starting [unintelligible 9.24]

Zach Elwood: Oh no, it wasn’t even a well-formed question. I think you were just verifying that it has been on your mind for a while.

John Wood Jr: Yeah. Well, when I was a little kid, well before obviously running for Congress or even being an activist, but I can remember in elementary school and I’ve always been interested in politics and governments and just sort of, I mean, those conversations stuck out to me before I even was consciously paying attention to them. And I can remember in the nineties people talking about how our politics just seemed to be breaking down over the sort of the pettiest things sometimes. And that back then was evidenced to many people by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton’s dalliances, but then his being dishonest with the American people about it. Newt Gingrich, congressional Republican, sort of seizing the moment and bringing the president into an impeachment saga that really just ate up a tremendous part of the nation’s attention then. And it’s funny just how quaint that feels in retrospect, because Donald Trump got elected and it’s like how many affairs? How many different gender-related controversies did he get into? And even being a Republican, it didn’t matter much at all. But it’s just to say that this pattern has been accelerating, it’s tied to our identification with the parties and ways that go beyond the pragmatic, but it’s greatly amplified by I would say demographic changes in American life and by technological changes in American life. And so there’s some different trend lines which sort of converge in quasi apocalyptic fashion with respect to our ability to retain relationship with each other and to reason together in the current moment. But yeah, I’ve been sensitive to this as a building problem about as long as I can remember. It’s fair to say that it’s kind of the big thing that made me want to get into politics in first place, was to push against that trend.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. And so my audience is liberal leaning mostly, and I’m curious when you wrote that line for your campaign back in 2014, I think most people listening, most on the liberal side will have examples on the Republican side of the intransigence and egotism, but I’m curious, do certain things stick out for you of what you were thinking about on the Democrat side for those kinds of things?

John Wood Jr: Yeah. I mean, specifically I was running against Maxine Waters, who has always been a flame thrower and fire brand. And back in those days, I mean, it’s not hard to remember her saying things like, “The Tea Party can go to hell,” and kind of as she’s pretty much always done, kind of wading into the political slug fest ways that pushed the envelope away from empathy and civility and towards a more kind of total warfare-style of politics. But I somebody who worked for Obama’s campaign in 2008 and I became a Republican afterwards, but I always was inspired by the brand of politics he represented. And I do recall feeling that the brand of politics that Obama represented in terms of the cultural reconciliation that he at least very early on and as a candidate, I think saw himself as wanting to be an agent for in Congress, and Republicans of course didn’t make it easy for him, but on the Democratic side of things, I think that when Barack Obama came into the White House, there was the poetry with which he governed, poetry with which he ran, I should say, this idea that we’re not red states or blue states, but the United States of America. And then the cold hard reality of special interest-driven, partisan politics in which it seemed to me at the time, and it would be interesting for me to revisit these issues now, but it seemed for me at the time that the Democratic Party broadly speaking, did not have the same commitment to the sort of cross partisan consensus building and basic sort of demonstrating of good faith and so forth that Obama sought to exemplify. I don’t think that that was at the top of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid’s agenda. It seemed like the desire to get congressional majorities that would allow them to not have to reckon with the input of Republicans too much. I mean, I think Obama pushed for bipartisanship, but I don’t think that that was something that the Democratic house cared about. And then you flip over to the cable news channels and so forth, I mean, obviously, you could talk all day back then about Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly’s sort of bloviating and prevaricating. But then you turn on Ed Schultz and Keith Olbermann, just thinking about the folks who were big, the cable circuit back at that time. And you realize it’s a bipartisan food fight, especially in the media, because I used to listen to Randi Rhodes on Air America, the liberal side, talk radio and so forth. That was just the business model. Everybody was doing it, talking shit to build an audience and not thinking about how that ultimately impacts our ability to not just govern society but to get along with each other, as neighbors, commodifying conflict in a context where we should be centering and prioritizing reasoning and consensus and trust building. So that’s the way I felt back then. And things have really gotten a lot worse since

Zach Elwood: Yeah. That really helpful, I think, because I think I talk about these things too, and I try to point out like there’s… Even if you think one side’s worse, there is blame to go around on both sides in the sense of people that talk in us versus them ways of speaking and non-bridge building ways of speaking, I think. And Maxine Waters’ one, plenty of other people on the Democrat side and obviously on the Republican side too. But yeah, I think that’s helpful to go over. So let’s see. Do you find that in these increasingly polarized times with the volatility and chaos of the political situation, have you found that it can be kind of hard to use words, simple words like liberal or conservative in the same way that we used to? For example, I’ve talked to some liberals who were upset by some liberal side things who will say things like, “I used to be a liberal, but I don’t really know what I am anymore,” and things like that from both sides. Have you found that these kind of terms have become even harder to use in practical ways than they used to be?

John Wood Jr: Yeah. It’s definitely the case that they are blunt instruments in terms of communicating what people actually stand for and believe. And they are only less and less effective as time goes by. And yeah, it’s still hard to see how we utterly dispense with them. The truth is that the terms liberal and conservative have always been pretty flexible. I mean, I go back historically and what a liberal was a hundred years ago or so would’ve had very little to do with the expansive kind of presuppositions of the need for a welfare state, the need to kind of use the powers of government to place walls against discrimination of people in predicted categories and so forth. And then on the conservative side, I mean, you think of conservatives today, you tend to… Although even this has shifted within the last few years, but when I was running for Congress though, just in 2014, again, it feels like so long ago, it was only eight years ago I was on the campaign trail, so conservative was somebody who generally had a belief in sort of free market economics, limiting the role of government in a serious way, strong kind of libertarian sort of influences in terms of the role of the state and government. And while that’s still sort of a generally predominant kind of perspective in the GOP, for one, you go back to the 1950s, the 1960s, Republicans were largely in favor with the expansion of the welfare state and so forth. Barry Goldwater’s conservative kind of insurgency opposing the expansion of government was not the majority position like the Republican Party, and probably didn’t even… You go 10 or 20 years before that, you probably had a whole lot of people who called themselves conservatives or thought of themselves as being conservative, who would not have had a philosophy, anything that close to where Goldwater’s perspectives were. Fast forward a couple of decades, Reagan comes to the forefront, that sort of conservatism just defines what conservatism is. But now the era of Trump, it’s like is conservatism what Reagan stood for or is it a populism that allows for tariffs and protectionism on trade and things that tend to be much more situational in terms of like, “Okay, where do we limit the role of government and where do we just use it to protect American interests and so forth?” So the terms liberal and conservative can be defined in ways that identify formal philosophical traditions, and you can split the definitions of those terms in ways that identify substrands, that start to have less and less to do with each other at certain points. But I think that the most useful application of the terms as generalizing tools is to just say that liberals tend to be folks who are pushing for some sort of progress towards an ideal that has up and realized, whereas conservatives are trying to sort of hold on to the preconditions for the preservation of an ideal that they feel is slipping away. And in so far as those are just sort of elemental polls and aggregate human social psychology, you’re always going to have liberals and conservatives. But it’s totally possible to have liberals and conservatives in that fashion who aren’t traditional liberals or conservatives in more specific kind of political terms. So just bear in mind the limitations of language.

Zach Elwood: A small note here, “America’s political parties several decades ago before the 1960s used to be very well mixed and non-polarized. In some sense, they were more like clubs where neither side was very ideologically monolithic. They were mainly focused on just winning elections.” This is something I was reading about most recently in Ezra Klein’s book, Why We’re Polarized. The start of that book gives a very good synopsis of what things were like at that time. And it was a much different time than we’re used to. I think we tend to extrapolate backwards from the way we know things are now, and we imagine things were the same a few decades ago, but they just weren’t. There were passions, there was anger, but the political parties were much more diverse ideologically. The anger on specific issues wasn’t accumulated on one side in other words. Regarding the fractured mental landscape we now inhabit, it’s possible that the internet age represents a return to our normal state of high conflict, that the era of big radio and TV only temporarily calmed. Tom Standage in his book Writing on the Wall had the following thoughts, “Look back before 1833 to the centuries before the era of old media began, however, to what could be termed the era of really old media and the media environment based on distribution of information from person to person, social networks has many similarities with today’s world. In many respects, 21st century internet media has more in common with 17th century pamphlets or 18th century coffee houses than with 19th century newspapers or 20th century radio and television.” From that point of view, perhaps the age of monolithic radio and TV and film, that period from roughly 1930 to 1990, that time before the digitally-powered explosion of cable news channels and the internet represented the abnormally calm times, a time when having only a few big media outlets resulted in media being a relatively calming opiate of the masses. Perhaps the internet age has just returned us to a state humans have been at since the invention of the printing press, an abundance of conflicting views and abundance of sources for those views. I don’t necessarily believe this, but it’s an interesting framing to consider. Back to the interview. I’m not sure exactly if you identify as a Republican now, but I’m wondering if you can talk about what being a conservative means to you and what the draw was there. And maybe if you had like a book that summarized best your feelings or thoughts about that, maybe you could talk about that too.

John Wood Jr: Yeah, well, that’s a great question. so I am still a registered Republican. To be perfectly honest with you, I have not voted Republican beyond the local level. I think I voted Republican for Congress maybe the last time around. I’ve actually only ever voted Republican for president once, that was in 2012, voted for Mitt Romney in the primary and the general election. And as time has gone by, I’ve actually felt better and better about that vote as I feel like for me, Romney has kind distinguished himself more and more as a person of principle in the context of our politics, GOP. But what does conservatism mean for me? My relationship to conservatism has evolved over time. I would say that what drew me to conservatism earlier on was the sense that the essential sorts of cultural claims of American conservatism and the essential economic claims of American conservatism resonated with what grew to be my sort of understanding of where sort of the base level kind of value structures of society need to be. So let me ground that a little bit. I was a person who grew up secular, who grew up sort of opposed organized religion, and somebody who didn’t really think too much about the nuclear family and the smaller units of society. But I’m somebody who eventually sort of found religion, found a faith-based community, derived great value from that, sort of saw how church and synagogue became sort of anchors for communities across the cultural ethnic spectrum, been a part of black churches, been a part of Messianic Jewish synagogues, long story there, from Los Angeles to Colorado. And really sort of became struck by the idea that faith in the abstract and religion and the concrete sort of provides kind of a moral and cultural centering sort of structure that society for all of the corruptions and excesses of religion that society might be throwing the baby out with the bath water with respect to if we didn’t hold onto. And then on the economic side, I was struck by arguments back at that time, which basically said that the conventional right, left economic arguments of the nineties and the early 2000s and so forth, which basically made the case that look, as you lower regulations, as you lower taxes, you increase growth, you increase opportunity, you increase prosperity. And while there’s a role for a social safety net to make sure that people don’t fall through the bottom, you’re tamping down on people’s ability to ascend the ranks of society as you tighten the controls too much through taxation and regulation. Now, I was impressed by those arguments on a statistical sort of level, and we can go through the nooks and crannies of that, in retrospect, I think my analysis might have been a little bit simplistic, although maybe I still fear that direction. But part of what grounded me to appreciating certain mainstream conservatism back then was also just my experience in the black community really. I mean, I was a person who after having grown up largely in the suburbs, but with family and relatives in the inner city, I actually came to live in the inner city and in the projects. And the sort of claims about welfare estate sort of precipitating in many cases sort of like norms of dependency and so forth in the absence of greater economic mobility, in the absence of school choice, where you’re stuck in underperforming schools determined by your ZIP code and so forth. I sort of lived in communities where that was just evidenced up close. I in stood welfare lines, I hung out with people who weren’t necessarily looking for work. One, because it wasn’t really… They weren’t really pushing that direction. Two, because there wasn’t a whole lot of good jobs to be found anyway. And so suddenly, folks are able to innovate ways of living that more or less make a career out how you deal with the public benefits sort of system. Everything’s a lot more complicated than that, but that is a reality, and it is something that made me think at the time. You know what, there’s something to this empowerment, the need for an empowerment mindset like say a guy like Larry Oliver might talk about. It made me think, “Okay, there needs to be a whole lot more conservatism in this conversation in America, but definitely in the black community.” And let be an intelligent, but also an empathetic voice for that. Because people don’t have it easy, but I grew up being told that capitalism was more bad than good, but over time I came to feel like you look at history, you look at the way in which resources and technology have been used by innovating minds to generate wealth and drive down starvation rates and negative outcomes in healthcare, not just in America, but globally through entrepreneurialism and through production, it just seemed to me like capitalism’s got a bad rep and that’s something that we want to preserve a basic commitment to. So back in those days, all of those conventional arguments sort of appealed to me and made me lean towards mainstream conservatism. Since then, I would say that my conservatism has shifted in a way to where I’ve become far more interested in the roots of, you hear a lot of people talk about classical liberalism, but I’ve become a lot more interested in the roots of classical conservatism if you will, which is the conservatism that was written about by folks like, well, most significantly Russell Kirk in the mid-20th century, but sort of recounting the conservatism of Edmund Burke and of John Adams and various other figures in British and American history. And that sort of conservatism, interestingly enough, even though it provided sort of the intellectual foundation in general for the conservative movement that would go mainstream with Reagan in America, you look at what Russell Kirk was writing about and you look at the figures he was writing about, the conservatism that Russell Kirk represented really has very little today to do relatively speaking with the conservatism that has evolved in America since then. His conservatism was more about recognizing the foundational structures of our institutions and the virtues of character that allow us to be able to preserve what is good and functioning in our institutions while being able to also look at the world around us through prudence, through temperance, through wisdom, and to concede the points at which things need to change, to concede the places in which reforms need to need to happen, but to just do it in a way that allows us to, again, not throw the baby out with the bath water. So whether you’re a free market capitalist or somebody who believes in a strongly mixed economy, let’s say, the thing that would make you conservative in this philosophical context would not be being one or the other, but it would be being somebody who would be very slow to, let’s say, take a mixed economy and just a eradicate every government program maybe in the way that perhaps that’s what Ron Paul would’ve liked to do. Because that very sort of destruction of the governing norms of society would itself bring in chaos and unexpected or unintended consequences that would betray the wisdom of a conservative temperament and same thing going the other way. If you wanted to take a free market state and radically sort of change it to sort of a socialist utopia overnight, even if you had the best practical arguments for doing so, the pace at which you did so, the arguments that you made for doing so, have to take into account the structures and the traditions that already exist in a society. And so what you see with a person like Donald Trump, I think is a radical departure, about as radical as you can imagine from that sort of a conservative, philosophical orientation, because it immediately sort of, this particular movement, which some people think of as conservative, but this populous movement on the right has sort of set out to undermine the institutions of society rather than seeking to merely sort of identify their flaws and intelligently reform them, even in Trump’s conduct and the conduct of many of his allies in terms of how they talk to their political opponents, our very loose relationship on the right oftentimes with empirical reality, the fact that we can all just sort of laugh at the fact that you would have a map indicating where a storm is going to hit in coastal Florida, and for political reasons somebody takes a Sharpie marker and just redraws it right before the press, God, so everybody can see what happened yet nobody looks at that as just like a radically disconcerting sort of thing for the leaders of our country to do. These are all elementally sort of anti-conservative tendencies. And so I’ve kind of gone back to that old sort of conservative literature because I think it has wisdom in it for not just the Republican Party but for all of American society. And so that’s the kind of conservative, a Burkian conservative more or less you might say, that I sort of see myself as more akin to today.

Zach Elwood: That’s very helpful, yeah. And I had interviewed a sociology researcher, Michael Macy, on a previous podcast, and he had talked about the chaotic nature of political stances, and especially how they group together in different parties. And he talked a little bit about kind of seeing it as a chaotic system, and especially as things get more polarized in the society and there’s more animosity and emotion. That leads to even more chaos, which I think gets to some of that weird strange bedfellows kind of unusual stances that parties can suddenly shift to just because one party takes a stance on something, and so the other party feels compelled to take the opposite stance on the extreme end. So there’s this, I think, viewing it as a really chaotic system that’s really subject to initial conditions as kind of a helpful way to see these things as a turbulent system and that kind of stood out for me as a way to understand these things.

John Wood Jr: Yeah, I agree with that.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. One of the great books I’ve read for reaching a better understanding of conservative philosophy and conservative thought and respect for conservative thought was Jonathan Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, which I would recommend anybody listening if you’re on the liberal side and you just really can’t understand a lot of conservative philosophy and think it’s all maybe just bad or unreasonable. I’d highly recommend reading that book because it just so well explains so many things that before I read that book, I honestly felt looking back very clueless and even embarrassed by a lot of things I’d said and thought before reading that book. So I just highly recommend that one. I don’t know if you’ve read that one.

John Wood Jr: Yeah, agreed. Well, not only have I read that book, but Jonathan Haidt is on our board of directors at Braver Angels, the organization I represent. And in fact it was… By the way, I would highly recommend people do read… Although it’s a lengthy philosophical tune, but it travels a great deal of history, and I would highly recommend anybody interested in this sort of conservatism, classical conservatism I’m referring to, to read The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk published mid-fifties, I believe. But it was reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt that gave me something of a psychological vocabulary for a lot of those sort of patterns and trends of human psychology as it varies across the left right spectrum and sort of the way humans reason generally that I had already more or less kind of identified and acted upon in the course of my campaign for Congress and my other work in and around politics. But yeah, The Righteous Mind has been incredibly impactful, not just to I think people’s the country’s understanding of the psychological mechanics of polarization, but to the larger sort of bridge building field and depolarization movement that’s begun to germinate over the last several years. I don’t think you can think of anybody who intellectually has provided more of an intellectual foundation for that small, but real and deepening space in American social and civic life than Jonathan Haidt. So he’s a very consequential figure in our understanding here.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, for sure. He’s done great work, a great service, I think. Yeah. So do you think the nature of the US election system and how it works, for example, seeming to pre-select for a two-party system by the way it operates, do you think that system inherently sets us up for increasing polarization over time?

John Wood Jr: Well, I don’t know if that’s inherent because we can look back at other episodes of American history where you had two parties and yet we did not have the sort of polarization we have today, which isn’t to say that a system that is multipolar might not be better anyway. And actually for the first time ever on the Braver Angels podcast, I interviewed Andrew Yang relatively recently, who has his own third party now called the Forward Party, which basically is about advocating for electoral reforms, rank choice voting, among them, that would essentially give us a multipolar system. And for the first time ever, I’m sort of thinking that Andrew and the sorts of reformed advocates who want to push in that direction may be onto something. But it is worth remembering that in the 1950s, 1960s, when we passed the voting rights act, the civil rights act, the great society legislation, medicare, etc, these were bipartisan majorities that passed these bills. And significant bipartisan, not just one or two, not just like Manchin and Sinema or Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski maybe crossing over, but significant numbers of members from both parties in Congress voting alongside each other. And that was against the backdrop of a society in which polling data would reveal people did not have any problems with the idea of their son or daughter marrying Republican if the parents happen to be Democrats or vice versa. Now that’s totally flipped in a serious way, back then it used to be say religion, something. “I don’t mind if my son marries a Republican, but if he marries a Catholic, that’s a problem.” Well, now religion hardly matters at all, it’s party affiliation, which is driving so much of social prejudice. But I will say that the problem, one problem with the analysis I just gave you a moment ago is that a big part of what allowed for the lack of polarization on the governing level in particular to persist, and there are multiple things. I mean, one thing that allowed members of Congress to interact with each other in a genuinely fraternal way was the fact that many of those folks had served together in World War Two and in uniform. They all had the memory of greater enemies like the Nazis and so forth, truly representing the enemies of the country. They didn’t really have time to think of each other in that way. Although, you had McCarthy and the communist scares and all that. But the thing that many people would say, and I think it’s true, that allowed the parties to not be so polarized back then, a significant factor, was the fact that there was something of a bipartisan agreement over racial issues, which allowed for the continuing subjugation of African Americans in particular in American life in ways that sort of allowed Southern Democrats to vote with others in the Democratic Party or the Republican party so long as somebody was willing to protect, let’s say, for instance, the right of Jim Crow states to ensure that school segregation remained in place. Or maybe a better example would be something like… It used to be when federal housing developments were built up at scale, federal housing projects in the 1930s, so forth, you had lawmakers who wanted them to be integrated. But you had Republicans on the one hand who didn’t want to see the proliferation of public housing, because it would compete with private real estate and commercial interest. But then you had Southern Democrats who might be willing to throw their votes towards public housing, except for the fact that they wanted them to remain segregated. And so you’d have Southern Democrats who represent sort of a swing vote between free market oriented or at least private business kind of focused Republicans and Democrats who wanted to expand liberals, more liberal Democrats who wanted to expand housing, public housing nationwide. Now, in that case, Southern Democrats ultimately threw their weight behind the progressive Democrats or the more liberal Democrats, your Adlai Stevenson types behind public housing, because they dropped the demand for integration. The NAACP wound up siding with the Republicans who had strategically placed sort of a poison pill on the legislation saying, “Okay, we’ll vote for this if you make it integrated.” They didn’t want the public housing projects at all, but they knew that if they demanded that it’d be integrated, that Southern Democrats would vote against it. But the NAACP joined the Republican position politically because they wanted to see it integrated in its own right. But the point being that the hot potato here is what you do about black people. And depending on what coalition was there to be forged, the way to do that oftentimes was to sort of make sure that African Americans were cut out of the legislative pie if you will. And so you had bipartisan governance kind of persist in American society for a good long while in that way until racial issues emerge as a central part of what ultimately polarized the electorate, especially after the bipartisan legislation of the sixties was passed, and then you got into a new era of American life. And so it’s just to say that there’s never necessarily been a golden age that didn’t have something of an underbelly to it, but even so I do think that in all sorts of ways, we would like to see the partisan culture of American political life return to something more fraternal in the way it was in the 1950s or sixties or what have you, where at least along the axis of political identification we don’t find reasons to hate each other otherwise, abuse each other on the basis of our merely being Republicans or Democrats. That’s an artifact that I’d like to see go.

Zach Elwood: So hopefully these are okay questions to ask. I was curious to ask you about what it’s like at an emotional level to be a black conservative, because I’ve often thought when I looked at black conservatives in the US, I think that must be a pretty tough and lonely road just because of how little respect in the liberal leaning mainstream media that black conservatives seem to get. They’re either ignored or mocked by the media or mocked by liberal citizens. I’m curious if maybe you can talk a little bit about that, and is it tough? And maybe are there more black conservatives maybe than people would think there are based on polls and such?

John Wood Jr: Well, last time if you just go by a figure like how many African Americans voted Republican, let’s say in… I think that through most of, let’s say, the Bush years or whatnot, I think Bush probably would’ve been around 7%, something like that. And that might represent a cool million people or so out of the larger black voting population. I’m sort of guesstimating here. But I think that’s probably about right. Of course, with Obama, even a lot of black Republicans voted for Obama because his election was so historic and so forth for obvious reasons. But it’s fair to say that to be a black Republican or a black conservative, politically conservative African-American is oftentimes a lonely and isolating road, socially isolating if you’re too loud about it. The Republican party has become like each party has since become sort of identifiable with the ideology of their base. And so as we said, a moment ago, you said liberal Democrats and conservative Democrats, liberal Republicans, conservative Republicans, that’s no more the case. So Republicans are identified with conservatism. Conservatism these days is identified with sort of racial, cultural, social intolerance. And so for black people, it’s like if you’re with… And is identified with the south too, because that’s where the base of the Republican party is. So for black people, if you’re voting Republican, you’re voting with the party of the south, you’re voting the party that is the descendants of folks who brought us slavery, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, and who now don’t want to give money for social services for poor people and who want to make it harder to vote. How the hell are you going to be black and a Republican? The Republican identity in this point of view is sort forged in anti-blackness. And yet there are very obvious reasons why some black people are drawn to conservatism, including the vast majority of black people who are never going to get the opportunity to be a well paid, contributing to The Daily Wire or funded on Fox News, something. And it’s because on an elemental level, there’s a of couple things. But again on elemental sort of cultural level, it’s worth remembering that African Americans come out of the south in American history, cultural history. And that even as they migrated to Chicago, to Detroit, to Los Angeles, New York, elsewhere, they brought religion with them, they brought a traditional way of viewing the family unit with them. They brought all sorts of longer standing traditional values that come out of basically the same sort of cultural kind of wellspring as does much of Southern culture, which itself kind of bubbles up into Southern conservative political orientations. And so for black Americans who tend to be far more religious than their Democratic counterparts and in inner city communities that institutionally speaking are basically anchored by the black church traditionally, even more than the schools in most cases, there’s a cultural worldview with which many African Americans will find sympathy with conservative Americans. And then again, you look at the impact of sort of the welfare state, if you will, on the larger sort of culture of empowerment and autonomy and independence in black communities, I’m recognizing the fact that this is a far more complicated conversation than I’m going to make it sound, but in the lived experience of many black folks who are constantly working with young men in particular, to keep them out of gangs, to keep them out of violence, to get them into the workforce to work for themselves, to not be content to sort of live a life in which you are given things but one in which you are earning your way forward because that’s the only way you’re going to progress in society, that’s the only way you’re going to move up and out through hard work and through education, but who would like the option, like the opportunity to send their kids to better schools than they’re allowed to send them to given the way the public educational system determines educational outcomes by ZIP codes which correspond to race. For black people who put those dots together in that way, it produces sympathy for a larger sort of conservative political worldview, which emphasize entrepreneurialism over government assistance and which would emphasize choice in education and the grounding of religious and cultural tradition over the increasingly shifting and fluid social and sexual and familial norms of the American left. Many black people are naturally drawn to that for deeply felt reasons, including many who vote Democrat, but then in church will kind of complain about a lot of the same patterns that people who would identify themselves as black Republicans would. So it’s a nuanced landscape, but to your question, black Republicans do get signaled out for the obvious reasons. However, I, myself have never… I’ve tasted a bit of that, and I have deep sympathy for what black Republicans, conservatives go through, because they will stand up and say, “Hey, I’m voting for George W. Bush. I’m voting for Mitt Romney. I’m with the Tea Party. I’m with Donald Trump.” Although there’s a new conversation we had about Trump and black America, because Trump scrambles all the categories as always. But yes, those who are willing to just sort of stand up and say that, get pilloried. And many times they get resentful. Because the only way most… Many black Republicans want to be vocal about their politics just like many people in politics in general, the only way many folks can think of to communicate their convictions is just by challenging and debating the people around them or being loud about it, signaling what they believe politically and then saying, “Okay, now it’s time to take the heat.” And I admire anybody who’s willing to stand in the kitchen even as it gets hot, but for myself, I’m a good debater, I think. And I’m happy to debate folks and defend my positions so on and so forth, but I’ve always kind of evaded a lot of the negative stigma that has come to many black Republicans, particularly folks who have public reputations. In part just because as a communicator, I’ve always valued listening to what the other side has to say and understanding and recognizing the validity of the experiences that produced the other person’s worldview. And I always try to honor that before I start digging into my opinions or why I think they might be wrong or incorrect about something. And that’s how I campaigned when I was running for Congress. And I think as a consequence of that, it’s been remarkably few and far between the number of times that I’ve ever been called an Uncle Tom or a race traitor or anything like that. Because I think people could sort tell that where I was coming from, at the end of the day, one, I recognize the fact that I could be wrong about any given thing and two, I’m doing what I’m doing because I want things to be better for everybody. And in the context of the black community, I have a commitment to the flourishing of black Americans, of all Americans, but there’s a particular historic struggle in the context of African American life that I find myself wanting to be a part of addressing and redressing. So I think that, again, it’s not to say that I, I haven’t felt the awkwardness at least or stepped in circles, “Okay, here’s John, he’s a Republican. What does he think about this? What does he think about that? What’d your boy Trump do? Yada, yada, yada.” And I didn’t vote for Trump, but doesn’t even always matter. Nevertheless, it’s something that hasn’t made me lose too much sleep in my life.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. I think it’s mainly to me seemed how ignored minority conservatives seem to be in the mainstream media. And when I have these kind of conversations, depolarizing kind of conversations, and I bring up the fact that 12% of black voters or so voted for Trump or a third of Muslim Americans voted for Trump in the last election or a third of Hispanic voters. I think it shows that those things are powerful because it shows the complexity and the nuance of the situation. And it hurts those many simplistic narratives that many liberals have about all or most Trump supporters are bigoted or xenophobic or something. It kind of showed that complexity is valuable, I think, in showing if you can see how these people can vote for Trump, then maybe it’s more easy to understand how not all white Trump supporters are like you think they are, things like that. So, yeah, I think those things are valuable to talk about them.

John Wood Jr: That’s absolutely the case. I’ve never met anybody who was more exorcised about immigration, unchecked immigration, illegal immigration across our Southern border than regular black folks in south central Los Angeles who may or may not even have been been Republicans. I mean, many of them are Republicans, but some of them are not. And yet they’ve seen competition for already scarce jobs and opportunity and housing in inner city neighborhoods that used to be predominantly black and culturally black and so forth, where in suddenly sort of larger the economic interests of let’s say conservative businessmen and the political interests of progressive Republicans have sort of allowed in their view, the sacrificing of the black community economically, politically and culturally to shifting demographic trends. And it’s not that they hate Latinos or anything like that, but they didn’t ask for, they didn’t ask for their communities to be sort of swamped and changed in that way. And I just mentioned that because certainly if you hear conservative white folks talking that way, who live out in Michigan or whatnot, pretty far from the border, but even if they live in Texas is like the response from many of us is going to be like how you are bigoted and intolerant. And I wish I had a few more open-minded brown people in this country to balance out crazy rednecks, but you got black people who feel the exact same way, and they don’t fit easily into the narrative. And there’s a hell of a lot more of them than you would think if all you’re doing is watching the black folks who show up on CNN or NBC. But I mean, you kind of… If have something of a partisan interest in representing the black view, the black perspective and so forth, you’re kind of going to want to downplay that, the fact that there’s such a significant constituency around those types of sentiments. And you’re right. I mean, Trump did not actually do badly compared to other Republicans. He did very well with people of color in general, including black Americans. I mean, the bar is very low there for Republican presidential candidates, but he definitely cleared it, and got higher profile support from black celebrities and so forth than any Republican in recent memory. Those people are real, their black experiences are real. I sympathize and identify with various points of it. And yet there’s something of a larger monopolization of black identity within the institutional spaces of academia and entertainment in politics that because of where it’s situated can kind of amplify its own voice across the country in a way that allows to kind of pretend to be more or less universally representative of where black Americans are. But really what you see coming through this sort of progressive vanguard of the Democratic Party, of the campuses and what comes to the entertainment industry, is more of a representation. It’s not to say that it’s not a real perspective, real worldview, it is, sort of the I mean, let’s just say the generally progressive sort of anti-racist worldview of American political and cultural life that would invest its political identity in support for one wing or the other of the Democratic Party. But as you go down to the base of it, the worldview that comes out of that place is something that’s largely, it’s much more a product of the black educated classes, the black middle classes, the sort of multicultural black community that’s integrated into American suburban communities. It is less representative of rural black Americans, is less representative of religious black Americans, and it’s less representative of older black Americans. Now, those folks will tend to vote Democrat as well largely because there’s, again, this perception fair, unfair of the Republican party as having inherited the mantle of particularly Southern racism and so forth. But the worldview of, let’s say, Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is not illegitimate, and he speaks for many, many, many black people, but there’s many millions of black people for whom he doesn’t really speak. And I think that gets lost for a lot of particularly progressive white folks because of where they live, because of the institutions they go to, because of what they’re watching on TV, aren’t really in a position to even meet a lot of the black people I know who would see the world socially and culturally and in some cases politically in strikingly different terms. That’s why all of this stuff is more complicated than it seems

Zach Elwood: For sure. Are you okay for one more questioner or do you have a-

John Wood Jr: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Zach Elwood: Okay. So I’d say the thing that’s generating the most anger on the left right now besides the election is rigged, well, I guess kind of related to it, but one of the things that’s driving a lot of anger is the perception that voting rights are being unfairly and maliciously restricted by the GOP in order to win more elections. And I’ll say I think some of this is overheated and exaggerated. For example, I read a very good Atlantic piece by Derek Thompson about the Georgia voting law, for example, that went into detail about how the law wasn’t as extreme or malicious was widely perceived. And then there’s the fact that even a majority of Democrats in one recent poll supported the idea of requiring voting ID, but then a lot of what the GOP is doing does seem to me pretty clearly intentionally restrictive and bad, especially how it relates to Trump’s attempts to overturn the last election. So I’m curious if you’d be up for saying something about that. Because when I said I was going to be interviewing you and asked for question ideas, the most common question was ask him what he thinks. How can he or a black Republican, somebody who says they’re a black Republican, not be very angry about these kind of voting restrictions? So I’m curious if you’d have anything to say about that.

John Wood Jr: Yeah, it’s a great question. I don’t consider myself to be an expert on the legislation, federal or state level, that’s most relevant to this question. But I can tell you with some confidence sort of what my impressions and feelings are here. I think that there are a couple of things that are true at the same time. On the one hand, I think that to some degree, and I don’t know whether it’s most of it or less than most of it, but to some degree Republicans I think have consciously sought to innovate voting restrictions that have been targeted at depressing Democratic turnout which inevitably is going to overlap with broader, with suppressing the votes of black and brown communities, because those are the voting bases of the Democratic Party, certainly in key urban centers across the country that tend to swing the most electoral votes. And we know this because you actually had Republican politicians say it out loud. I forget who it was exactly, but I think it might have been like… Well, he was a member, I think, of the Pennsylvania state legislature or what have you. And he said out loud, he said something along the lines of like, “So and such voting reform act is that is,” which everybody knew… You look at it, was going to require just greater requirements for being able to cast a ballot. But he put the bill in terms of the act that was going to allow Mitt Romney to be elected president of the United States was done. And the whole reputation of this legislation for people on the left was this is going to suppress turnout people of color. And yes, because whether you’re racist or not, you could say that has nothing to do with it. And probably it very well may not have anything to do with it, but in terms of raw political calculations, if you’re a Republican and most black people are voting Democrat, well, you want fewer black people to vote. And if you can innovate electoral reforms to affect that outcome, that’s what a cynical political operative is going to do. Our system is filled with cynical political operatives. I mean, I think that there are Democrats who want to increase sort of immigration intake for the exact sort of parallel reason. Because it’s an investment in the ongoing sort of building out of the Democratic coalition. Here’s the baseline reality for me. I think that the truth of it is that for all of the bills that have been passed requiring whatever it is they require for people to be able to cast votes, that has not kept African American voter turnout from being at all time highs in recent cycles. Now, if you have legislation in the state of Georgia or a circumstance in the state of Georgia or somewhere else, wherein you can sort of quantify the fact that black voters are having to stand in line three or four hours longer than white voters to be able to cast ballot, I say do something about that. Because I do think that there’s an equity conversation to be had here. And if there are patterns that you can identify like that, and people have said that there are, I’m perfectly willing to believe it. I haven’t dug deep into the reporting on this, but things like that are what made people say, “Maybe we shouldn’t have gotten rid of the provision of the voting rights act which required, particularly Southern states, to submit to certain authorizations before putting in place new voting reforms.” Because there’s this history of voter disenfranchisement which defined the black civic experience across America and most acutely in the south. That history isn’t that far behind us. But having said that, a hell of a lot of difference between now and then. you know, The policies the voting rights act was aimed to address in the social context at the time kept black people from voting at all across much of America. Nothing the Republican party is doing is preventing black people from basically determining the outcome of so much of our national politics. So that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned, it is to say that our focus on this issue has less to do with where the practical problems in American political life lie right now and more to do, if I’m being a little bit… Well, from the vantage point again of the cynical political operator, let’s say, the utility of this issue is usefulness in being able to leverage the accusation that the right is acting in continuation of the legacy of Jim Crow in American life as a means of delegitimizing the larger sort of political program and standing of the Republican Party writ large in American life. And politics is nasty. I mean, of course it’s going to be that way, but for me the bummer just comes in the fact that there really is this huge untold story of black American underclass, wherein we’re still dealing with a bloated incarcerated population, we’re still dealing with incredibly disproportionate poverty, we’re still dealing with seriously segregated housing across America, we’re still dealing with deep inequalities in education so on and so forth, that we could be working towards establishing bipartisan political and also commercial and philanthropic coalitions to address in materially meaningful ways. But a lot of important issues just don’t get as much of the spotlight as the things that can allow us to sort of relive the culture wars in language that is reminiscent of the 1960s in context where we should probably be approaching these things a little bit differently. And so that’s the opportunity loss for me in this kind of politics. And it’s more polarizing than it needs to be. So yeah, that’s kind where I come out on it.

Zach Elwood: I have many more questions I’d love to ask you, but I know you got to go. So thanks a lot for joining me, John. It’s been great and educational.

John Wood Jr: Yeah, man. Well, thanks a lot. I enjoyed the conversation. You keep doing the good work that you do, man. Thanks a lot.

Zach Elwood: That was an interview with John Wood Jr., ambassador for the depolarization group Braver Angels. You can follow John on Twitter @JohnRWoodJr. And you can follow Braver Angels on Twitter @BraverAngels. Honestly, I just had so many more questions I wanted to ask John, we didn’t even get to the questions I had about his experiences doing depolarization work and the techniques he found useful and what he found didn’t work. Maybe one day I’ll talk to him again. 

If you’re interested to learn more about Republican endeavors to make voting harder, I recommend the Wikipedia entry called “Republican efforts to restrict voting following the 2020 presidential election,” which gives a good overview of what’s going on in that area.  

With regards to how conservatives view some liberal pro-immigration stances as, in John’s words, “cynical political operations,” one thing we didn’t touch on but that seems especially relevant to that discussion was the recent New York City law, which allowed non-citizens to vote in local elections. This was a controversial law even amongst liberals. A good recent Atlantic article about it was titled “The Voting-Rights Debate Democrats Don’t Want to Have,” with the subtitle “A progressive law in the nation’s largest city seems to be a step too far for national Democrats.” That law has angered many conservatives, who see it as an indicator of the cynical strategy of Democrats. 

Regardless of whether you agree with those kinds of views or not, I think it’s important to recognize how many conservatives view the pro-immigration stances of Democrats. They view such stances largely, as John said in our talk, as cynical attempts to gain political power. I think it’s important to consider how, even if you don’t believe that, how it could seem that way to conservatives. Because I think putting yourself in those shoes can help make some conservative behaviors more comprehensible.

For example, let’s imagine an alternate reality where the majority of immigrants to the U.S. voted Republican, for whatever reason. That doesn’t seem that far-fetched to me, considering in our world, the real world, there’s pretty significant minority support for the GOP already. For example, one third of Muslim Americans voted for Trump in the last election. Amongst Asian-American voters 17% voted for Trump in 2016, and that rose significantly to 31% in 2020. 

If we lived in a world where immigrants were generally more likely to vote Republican, do you think it’s possible that Democrats might be less enthusiastic about immigration than they are now? Do you think it’s possible Democrats might even seek to curtail immigration? Do you think in such a world that Republicans might turn quite pro-immigration? It’s easy for me in that imagined world to imagine Democrats being the ones objecting to Republican’s pro-immigration stances as cynical political maneuvering. 

Is it possible that, in our world, the real world, the mere fact that immigrants are more likely to vote Democrat is, in itself, what drives a lot of Republican anti-immigration stances, especially amongst the Republican political leadership?

In a recent Tucker Carlson episode, he argued that his segments being critical of Democrats’ stances on immigration, which often get described as promoting racist “white replacement” ideas, weren’t about race at all. To quote a City Journal article about that, Tucker Carlson said that quote “the U.S. would be better off if Brown University’s upper-middle-class student population were replaced with industrious Nigerian immigrants.” 

This isn’t to defend Republican leaders, or to defend Tucker Carlson. My goal is just to attempt to dig into the reason why Republicans are engaging in these election obstruction attempts. I want to understand them. Do they do this because they’re simply unethical people who don’t care about democracy and want to win at any cost? Or is because they really truly believe that Democrat leaders are doing similar underhanded things when it comes to seeking political power? Or is it because they really do believe stories about widespread election fraud? Or is it different combinations of those things for different Republicans? 

To be clear, I think no matter what, making it harder for our fellow citizens to vote, when there’s been no evidence of widespread election fraud, just seems clearly wrong and bad to me. The reason I want to delve into these topics and ask these questions, is because I’m interested in understanding some of these behaviors. Because honestly I just don’t understand a lot of people’s behaviors these days. 

One thing I do believe is that if Trump had won the 2020 election, we would have seen a significant number of Biden voters who believed the election was illegitimate, just as we saw happen with Trump supporters. I definitely do not believe we would have seen a major Democrat leader behave in the horribly irresponsible and dangerous way Trump did in denigrating the election, but based on the research I’ve looked at, it seems probable that we would have seen a lot of people, including probably some influential Democrats, who viewed the election as illegitimate and promoted it as such. In a recent episode from a few weeks before, i talked to political scientist Tom Pepinsky about that topic, as he had previously done some research about beliefs in election illegitimacy. We also talk about the question of how many Trump supporters really truly believe that the election was stolen. 

This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about it at If you enjoy this podcast, please leave me a review on iTunes or another platform. I make no money on this podcast, and I spend a good deal of time on it. If you want to give me some money to show your appreciate, my Patreon is at And you can follow me on Twitter at @apokerplayer. 

Okay thanks for listening. 


The awe and the horror of existence, with existential-humanistic psychologist Kirk Schneider

An interview of psychologist Kirk Schneider ( We talk about existential psychology and the power of being able to better understand and recognize the core anxieties we all have about existence, such as our fear of death, meaninglessness, isolation, and freedom. A transcript is below.

Other things we talk about: the awe and mystery of existence and, relatedly, its terrifying nature; what “existential psychology” and “humanistic psychology” are and how those forms of psychology/therapy differ from more well known and traditional forms of therapy (e.g., psychotherapy); the psychology behind political polarization and narcissism.

Links to this episode:

Related resources:

Books I recommend about understanding political polarization psychology:


Zach Elwood: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding others and understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at, and send me messages there. If you enjoy the podcast, please consider leaving me a rating on iTunes or another platform, or share it with your friends; that’d be hugely appreciated. 

Today’s talk was recorded January 26, 2022. It’s a talk with psychologist Kirk Schneider, who’s written or co-written several psychology books, one of which I read recently called Existential-Humanistic Therapy. We talk about what existential psychology is and what humanistic psychology is, and what makes those schools of thought different from more well known and traditional forms of therapy. Kirk is also interested in polarization; one of his books is called The Polarized Mind, which deals not just with political polarization but more generally with how people can become very fixated on a single point of view, to the exclusion of all other points of view. Another book of his is The Depolarizing of America, which is about an approach to heal political polarization. 

I myself am very interested in existential psychology, and I’m also interested in political polarization and the psychology that drives that, so I thought Kirk and I would have a lot to talk about. 

Regarding existential psychology, the most meaningful and wise book I’ve ever read is a book called Existential Psychotherapy; by Irvin Yalom. It was published in 1980 and is considered a classic text in psychology. I read it several years ago, and I thought reading it was like getting several months or years of therapy. My wife, Molly, read it and she also found it meaningful and life-changing. I’ve since bought it for many of my friends and family. It’s an awesome book and I highly recommend it. And if you’re curious what it is that makes those ideas so meaningful to me, we discuss that in our talk. We also talk about why our culture shies away from thinking about and talking about such existential fears. We talk about narcissism and the possible drivers of that from an existential psychology point of view. We talk about how modern life, in letting us see so many different points of view and different philosophies, can be stressful to us due to our desire for certainty and groundedness. We talk about the stress and the wisdom one might gain from social media. 

Kirk’s website is at I’ll read some information about him from his site:

Kirk Schneider, Ph.D., is a leading spokesperson for contemporary existential-humanistic and existential-integrative psychology. He’s a cofounder and current president of the Existential-Humanistic Institute, a two-term Council Member of the American Psychological Association (APA), and a two-time Candidate for President of the APA. He is also past president of the Society for Humanistic Psychology (Division 32) of the APA, recent past editor of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, a trained moderator for the conflict mediation group Braver Angels, and an adjunct faculty member at Saybrook University and Teachers College, Columbia University. He’s published over 200 articles, interviews and chapters and has authored or edited 13 books including The Spirituality of Awe, The Polarized Mind, Awakening to Awe, The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology, and Existential-Humanistic therapy.

Okay, here’s the interview with Kirk. 

Zach Elwood: Hi Kirk, welcome to the show.

Kirk: Hi Zach. Thanks so much for inviting me.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, thanks for coming on with me. So I’ve seen the type of therapy that you practice described as existential humanistic, and maybe you could briefly break down how you see those two aspects. What makes it existential and what makes it humanistic?

Kirk: Well, in a nutshell, which is not easy to do with these terms, obviously, by existential I’m talking about basically our relationship to existence and what that implies for living our lives. By humanistic, I’m talking about specifically, the human experience of existence. So I’m talking about more of our embodied experience of relating to these various themes that are often described in existential literature like death and isolation, meaning meaninglessness, freedom, constriction, expansion. So the existential literature can be a little bit abstract at times in identifying various aspects of what it means to exist, but the humanistic part really comes more directly out of humanistic psychology, which is very much grounded in our whole body experience of what it means to be free, to deal with our finitude, to wrestle with meaning, wrestle with our smallness, our capacity to transcend. I don’t know if that’s clear for you, but when we talk about the humanistic side, we’re bringing in more of our feelings about those states relating to those states, our body sensations, as well as our thoughts and our imaginings.

Zach Elwood: How do you see that compared to traditional say, Freudian-influenced psychotherapy? Is it that it’s less system and ideologically oriented and more focused on what is going on in this person’s life? Is that one way to look at it?

Kirk: Yeah, it’s really more about, again, one’s whole body experience of living as distinct from certain categories that the Freudians have tended to focus on. For example, in classical drive theory, the main issues that human beings are purported to confront are sexual aggressive drives versus our moral conscience, if you will, societal standards, that’s the basic conflict. In more recent psychoanalytic thinking, it has to do with the human beings relationship to often their caretakers, to early childhood and how that relates to their current state of functioning, if you will. But in existential humanistic psychology, again, we’re really talking about our whole bodied experience of life, our relationship to, again, to all there is, if you will. So certainly the sexual aggressive dispositions that we deal with is part of that, our relationship to our parents, our cultural systems are a part of that, but even more fundamentally, we see our relationship to existence, to being, as underlying those other dispositions. I guess, one example might be the whole drama, I mean, Otto Rank calls it the trauma around birth. So there’s clearly separation anxiety from the mother. And this relates to attachment theory, which is very prominent in psychoanalytic circles these days, but it also relates, and this is something I believe not talked about enough in psychoanalytic circles and hopefully through bridge building with existential perspectives, we can open to this broader and I believe deeper view, which is that there’s a separation from our relative unity with the cosmos with the mysterious origin of our being, which goes beyond the mother, if you will. Not to discount that powerful connection, intrauterine connection, but there’s also an intracosmic connection, if you will. So one is moving from a state of relative non-existence, could say quiescence unity with the all, again, analysts would say with the mother, to then sudden abrupt existence, the chaos and confusion of separating from this state of melding and some might call it paradise-like. I’m not sure… I wouldn’t necessarily give it that description, but some like Erich Fromm have equated it with the Garden of Eden’s story, Adam and Eve, or a break from paradise. It’s certainly a break from something radically different. So this is where we come into the whole psychology of difference as Otto Rank puts it. This is where we begin to understand or not understand, I should say we confront a sense of radical otherness that what we thought was or what we felt was unified and harmonious and familiar is suddenly now disunified in many ways, unfamiliar, and radically foreign. And that seems to be an underlying factor in, I would say, much if not all of our subsequent anxiety and even traumas, this sense of helplessness and groundlessness as I would put it. And I know you have written eloquently about the weirdness of being, and I see that as a sort of a synonym or a parallel to the problem that I’m describing, that the basic conflict of severing from existence to this radical life that we’ve been granted, which is I don’t want to discount the wondrous aspects of it too, but I think it’s a blend of the terrifying and the wonderous, which I would call a sense of all.

Note: A little note here: Kirk is referring to a piece I recently wrote about the strangeness of life. You can find that on my blog on Medium.

Zach Elwood: Right, exactly. And you’ve written about awe a good amount. I think you even have a specific book on that. But yeah, the concept that there’s a fine line or it’s two signs of the same coin, that something is both awe inspiring and wondrous and also terrifying. I mean, you could view those things as being almost synonymous in some way.

Kirk: Well, a flip side of a coin, in a sense. And I think that the more we’re able to develop a capacity to be present to and work with that which is radically other and foreign, that primal fear we experience at birth, some would say it even begins to happen when we’re jarred in the womb. The more we are supported by our parents, by culture to work with that, to live with that, stay present to it, the more capable we are of beginning to become intrigued by the radically other, the groundless, if you will, rather than just terrified and paralysed. And eventually, hopefully, not only intrigued, but fascinated, creative, become a creative participant in that maelstrom that we’re born into.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. And you said something about how existential philosophy can be a bit dry or abstract for people who haven’t really delved into it. And I think that is true. When I was young and I was reading about existential philosophy, or maybe just philosophy in general, I guess when you’re younger or haven’t delved into it, there can be this sense of like, “Oh, this doesn’t seem related to my life.” But I think the thing I’ve realized is that the existentialism or existential psychology is about these things, these real stresses that we’re dealing with, and these real… It’s about what life is like. We often avoid these things or we view these fundamental questions or stresses about life as very threatening or even mysterious or even just something that distracts us from our everyday practical life. But I think the more I’ve thought about them, the more these are the things that really matter. And I think that’s what… And far from being something that’s abstract or distant, these things once you wrap your head around what they’re really about and how they relate to your life, I think most people will see the real practical value and application to these things and see the benefit. I don’t know if you agree with all those things.

Kirk: No, absolutely. I mean, and that’s where I believe the humanistic element comes in, to really ground this stuff in, as you say, the real, what many of us experience in our early childhoods growing up, but I think every day in various ways, especially when we are jarred out of the routine and familiar. We begin to see and feel how real these things are. So, again, I don’t want to discount the philosophical aspects either. I think it’s very useful to be able to talk about these themes, but it’s more than talking about from my standpoint as a existential integrative humanistic therapist, it’s also about experiencing. And I’ve experienced it very directly in my own life. And that’s where I think we have some parallels as well. I’ve gone through my own sort of dark night of the soul, which is a lot of where my own foundations in this field come from.

Zach Elwood: Maybe that’s a good segue into one idea that I’ve seen discussed by Yalom and yourself, is the idea that the relationship between the therapist and the client, those in the moment interactions are potentially much more important than any specific psychological strategy or specific school of thought. In other words, that a therapist might have all the best theory in the world, but if they’re fundamentally not attempting a real human connection with their client, they may not succeed in helping that person. And in your book with Orah Krug, there was a observation by someone that said something like being too much aligned with or adhering to a specific ideology might prevent a therapist from being flexible and spontaneous enough and having those authentic connections. And maybe you can talk a little bit about how you see the role of that connection in therapy.

Kirk: Yeah, well, it’s like co-creating a field or a soup, if you will, whereby people feel more free to roam within if you will, more free to be in touch with areas that they formerly blocked off. I call it a reoccupation project, where you’re both literally and figuratively reoccupying the parts of yourself that you’ve blocked off for a whole variety of reasons, often having to do with how one’s traumas in the past were handled either by parental systems or the culture or by one’s self. But I think the more or less optimal relationship between client and therapist is one where the, the therapist has some familiarity with that freedom within him or herself, because he or she has been through something of what they’re holding, they’re working with in the client. Certainly doesn’t have to be the same thing by any means, but to have a profound sense of what anxiety is about, I think is very, very critical in helping co-create that disarming soup or context, where the client is enabled to, well, to live with and make the best of the depth and mystery of life. And that’s actually my definition of life enhancing anxiety, which I’ve been looking into more and more. I feel like this is a really fundamental concept to existential humanistic therapy and for our lives. So often we block off anxiety, we have so many ways of doing that today, and that’s where we get into these rigidities and we become polarized. What I call the polarized mind is the fixation on single points of view to the utter exclusion of competing points of view. And how do we become polarized? Out of terror, fear, it’s fear-driven. But what we’re hoping to co-create in these existentially oriented depth therapies is a place where one can in some sense revisit or restore the terrifying places that one has experienced, right from that primal fear, birth fear, such that one feels more capable of participating in or even experimenting with exploring, playing with, being intrigued by, or even fascinated by the rumblings within, if you will. The sadnesses, the fears, the angers, so much of this work is about helping people to begin to come more from a place of curiosity about these places, rather than abject terror and reactivity. I’d also call that a shift from a reactive place to a more responsive place through the therapy. Just to give you a quick concrete example. I feel I moved very gradually from a place of abject terror when I was a kid, this was partly based on the loss of my brother when I was very young and how that not only impacted me, but my family system, my family. But I then thanks to the great wisdom of my parents, went into psychotherapy as a young child. And I believe gradually through that therapy and then a later one when I was in graduate school, I was able to move from terrifying places incrementally to intrigue, and eventually wonder and fascination with these bigger themes about life that came up through that break in my being, in the routine and familiar way of being. Is that making sense?

Zach Elwood: Yeah, it made me… I was going to say, it seems like, I mean, for me, and I think for many people, the value of the existential philosophy and existential psychology, the value of some of that can be even in just being able to put names to recognizing and realizing that these are existential, that these are problems and stresses that come with existence, that you’ll never fully escape that these stresses that these are always with us. And I think the value is in recognizing that being able to put words to it, and also there’s sort of like you were saying, there’s that value in accepting that. And by accepting it, you immunize yourself in some sense to those fears and stresses. They become less daunting because you have wrapped your mind more around how they are always with us and how they are just a fundamental fact of human life.

Kirk: Well, yes, I would say accepting it, but also for those who can take the fuller trip, re-experiencing those places. So going beyond having a kind of intellectual understanding of them, but actually being able to stay with the impacts of those experiences with one’s whole bodily being so that those parts of one’s body that are activated by the anxieties tend to be less and less frightening, less and less foreign. They become more of the water you swim in, if you will. It is something like being in a dark basement. At first, it’s shocking, it’s jarring, you bump into this pointy object or something crashes, you’re on tenterhooks. But if you can stay with your experience and especially if you have a mentor, a loving guide, support with you, you begin to see things in a different light. And actually, more light often is accessible to you. And what you thought was some horrifying monster was actually maybe a rocking chair that you might want to sit in.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, I think we do have that. I think about that a good amount, how you have to be willing to face those fears and anxieties, which is easier said than done in a lot of cases.

Kirk: Absolutely, and it’s not for everyone.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. But there is that, we have that desire to… Some of these existential stresses of various sorts, these things that bother so much, I think we all have that desire to shy away from them and not examine them and say, “I’m going to avoid going with the flow with this anxiety to see where it leads me.” We have these mental blockers up, and you can kind of build up fears that are greater than, that’s how you can build up some pretty extreme fears around like, “Oh, I can’t let myself experience this anxiety. I must find a way to avoid experiencing.” You build those things up in your mind so much. But yeah, I think… This comes up in conversations with my wife when we’re talking about her anxiety, and sort of like you were saying, it’s like, “Well, see where those thoughts take you and don’t be afraid to really delve into them if you can.” Of course, it’s always hard to make blanket statements like that, but there is something to that for sure.

Kirk: Yeah, I would call it finding ground within groundlessness. I mean, there’s a whole spectrum, there’s a range within which we’re able to do that. Some people are able to acclimate fairly well to very broad and deep ranges of human experience, others less broad and deep. But I think the point is for each person to kind of soul search that and go as far as they feel they can go. I just think it’s wonderful if we have mediators or healers who can help us to take those journeys. Because too often, especially in today’s world, there’s an emphasis on the quick fix and the instant results, either through our devices or through very short-term formulaic kinds of medicines or therapies, which, again, I think they can all be useful depending on circumstance and a person’s situation, but to make them be all and end all is one of the great tragedies of our time.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, and I’ve already said this once, but I think for anybody listening, that the value of these ideas, this kind of therapy, again, I would say is being able to put words to these concepts and by doing that, they become less daunting. So some of these things can seem so daunting, the fear of death and how that can manifest through the fear of isolation, which, for me, I think the isolation part was my main thing that I struggled with when I was young. And so being able to put words in conceptual, to view these things more conceptually is in itself healing and allows you to delve into them more than… When you’re young, these things can seem so daunting and so powerful. And I think there’s something about being able to tame the ideas that that helps.

Kirk: That’s a great point, Zach. Just having somebody who can relate to you, who can have a conversation with you about these things and who’s not scared out of their mind to talk about them, just that can help. Gives you some understanding, some sense that others have been down through this road before.

Zach Elwood: And that actually, I just thought of it, but one of the benefits of therapy when I talk to people about therapy, sometimes there’s that sense that people have of, what does this person really know about me or how much do they really know? And I think even taking away those kinds of thoughts completely, even if the person you’re going to see isn’t very not even that good, I think there’s value just to getting different points of view. And that’s what I tell people about therapy when I’m trying to describe the benefits. It’s like just getting a different point of view alone and seeing your problem from a different point of view. And you’re always the one who can pick and choose from those ideas at the end of the day and see what appeals to you. But just that value of getting new ideas and new perspectives alone is sometimes just so valuable in itself.

Kirk: Totally agree.

Zach Elwood: Oh, one interesting thing that I’ve read in Yalom’s book, which I have seen in my life is that he talks about, and I’m talking about his book, Existential Psychotherapy. He talks about how many therapists who are more traditional psychotherapy and other therapies, more traditional therapists, they seem to want to avoid these more existential topics for various reasons. And I’ve had that experience talking to therapists. It’s almost as if they don’t want to open up such existential kinds of questions due to those questions being so unanswerable and deep and theoretically troublesome to resolve. And I even had therapist basically tell me directly once when I was seeing him for anxiety and I had asked him about existential psychology, because I was reading about it at the time. And he basically said in so many words, “Yeah, we don’t really like to get into those deep questions,” and didn’t give me much detail about why that was, but I’m curious if Yalom’s observation rings true for you, and do you think that these kinds of topics are avoided by many therapists? And if so, do you think that should change?

Kirk: Yes, yes, and yes. I think it’s a major problem, but I don’t think it’s just therapists. I think it’s our culture, our whole culture, maybe Western culture, industrialized culture, is oriented around efficiency, again, speed, instant results, appearance and packaging of things, that’s our socioeconomic system. It drives so many, many levels of our functioning and society. So it’s not surprising that it’s impacted psychology and psychiatry as well. No, that said, I don’t want to say that the only reasons that therapists be they behavioral, cognitive, what have you, stay away from some of those questions is because they’re not able to go there themselves very well or they’re scared of going there. I think they may have some good clinical reasons for doing it too. I do think that for certain people and under certain circumstances delving into very sort of ungrounded inquiries could be destabilizing, could be too much if somebody is particularly fragile or at an early stage of therapy, let’s say. There could be other reasons for not delving into that. I think this is where being in good communication with your client and really trying to sense what is the client’s desire and capacity for deeper change in their lives is so important. That’s why I call myself an existential integrative therapist, because I do believe that there are many tools in the toolbox of healing, if you will. And that there are times where more programmatic approaches or medical approaches, somatic, meditative approaches can be helpful, like simple breathing exercises, relaxation, etc, supportive work, and deeper exploration is not for everyone again. But I believe strongly our profession should make much more available the chance for clients to go more deeply into these questions. And that therapists as a whole should be more prepared both within themselves personally and professionally to deal with the wider and deeper ranges of human experience, because otherwise it short changes what could happen there, and it also could be mystifying to the client in the sense of how seductive more structured or simplistic formulations can be, they can be very seductive. They give people answers in a sense. I think we all, especially when we’re in pain, we want something quick and simple that we can work on and…

Zach Elwood: Then you’ve got the whole issue of medical costs and how many therapists there are and that whole realm of things too.

Kirk: Well, yeah, but it could cut that person off from even knowing what it might be like to stay more present to that particular quandary that they have, let’s say, about feeling like there’s a bottomless pit under them or they’re in a black hole or they’re in a free fall. I mean, we hear these kinds of themes, these are existential themes that are behind so much anxiety, but they’re so often not really explored.

Zach Elwood: That’s an interesting angle of inquiry, is talking about the words and phrases that people use to describe how they feel and how those phrases tie to these core existential fears. That’s interesting. I don’t know if you’ve written about that or…

Kirk: Well, I have. I have some, and what I find is that the deeper people go into their anxieties, often the more these metaphors come up around free fall or fearing that they’re drowning or disappearing. And I believe that that’s because we have a harder and harder time wrapping our words around the experience. Experience is much more powerful than any word can contain. So that’s where I think it’s… If you’re just coming at that person from a standpoint of talking about it or trying to give an explanation, you’re not really reaching that person where they need to be reached, which is again, in terms of more of their whole body experience of the problem and giving space to that, which is sometimes wordless, it’s more attending to what they’re feeling, sensing, imaging.

Zach Elwood: Being willing to really feel that feeling in the moment as opposed to pushing it away.

Kirk: That’s right. That’s right.

Zach Elwood: So to your points, it’s talking about some therapists not wanting to deal with these kinds of topics. It has surprised me since I’ve learned more about these ideas and how powerful I consider them. It’s really surprising to me how rarely people seem to talk about these issues. And I think it gets to that, like you said, the cultural thing of like, “We don’t like to talk about death.” We put that aside and nobody talks about it, even though it’s such a fundamental existential part of our existence. And I think it’s the same thing for the other these core stressors, we’d rather just set them aside and only deal with them in these moments at three in the morning when we wake up and for a few moments…

Kirk: When we’re forced to.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, when we’re forced to or when they culminate in some thing quite bad or whatever. But yeah, these ideas just seem so powerful to me. And I agree with you. The more we can get these ideas out there, I think the better it is for humanity. And maybe this is a good segue actually too, because I see this related to political polarization. And so maybe this is a good segue to talk about… You’ve worked on polarization, political polarization topics. You wrote a book on polarization, and I’m curious if you could give your view on how you see existential humanistic therapy and psychology relating to polarization topics.

Kirk: Yes. Well, in The Polarized Mind, I go into detail about an area that drives polarization that I don’t think is nearly addressed enough in our mainstream way of thinking about how people become extremists or polarized. And that is the existential humanistic fear of insignificance, of not mattering, which again, I believe goes back to this primal fear that we all experience in some way at birth. That sense of overwhelming helplessness, the sense of not having any direction or, excuse me, identity, structure to hold the floundering, the confusion of that abrupt shift from relative non-existence to existence. So I think what happens in trauma, both personal and collective, is that that primal terror begins to break through, because what happens in trauma, again, personal and collective, it’s like a rip in the fabric of the routine and familiar. And if you think about that on a collective scale, let’s say, just looking at the 20th century, I point to I think some glaring examples of Mao’s China, Stalinist Russia, Hitler’s Germany, each of those countries went through some horrifying experiences of insignificance and a feeling like they didn’t count, whether you take the treaty at Versailles with the Germans after World War II and how screwed over they felt as a people, as a culture by the rest of the world, the depression that they went into, and already having insecurities about their nationality, if you will, because they were very late in becoming a nation relative to other European nations. So deep, what we would call ontological insecurities about one’s identity, and also falling from such a great height, that crash because in Germany there was such a marvelous tradition of art and literature and science, philosophy, so many areas. And to come crashing down after the war, profoundly brings these existential themes. Then you have Russia coming from the tsarist rule and the experience of many of the people, the proletariat, if you will, of being so put down and such distinctions between classes, the royalty versus the regular folks. And of course, you had this in the French revolution as well. And you had this in China too, as far as I understand. The extreme oppression the Chinese people felt, especially from nations like England and the United States, the colonial powers, colonial west, exploiting them and making them feel basically like serfs and slaves. And some cases being treated that way. It was ripe for a strong arm to arise and for a people to arise with the feeling that I will do everything I can, including becoming tyrannical myself to avoid any hint of that former feeling of insignificance and smallness and helplessness. So I believe that this is what drives a lot of our tendencies toward authoritarianism, toward tyranny, fascism, but not just in the political realm, we see it within family systems, whether that’s narcissistic, patriarchal, abusive, domestic abuse can certainly be driven by that. We see it in business, monopolistic, hegemonic, businesses, corporations, professions, we’ve seen it as well. I think of the Nazi doctors, but that’s an extreme example. I mean, God knows my own profession has had its arrogance and its ideological rigidity, so many areas of life, the classes.

Zach Elwood: It really seems like when it comes to arrogance and narcissistic traits, I mean, that to me is a very existential related phenomenon too, because there’s something, as humans, we do crave certainty and we do crave a feeling of groundedness and one way to achieve that is with narcissistic behavior to not let in any other philosophies or thoughts and to say this is the way it is. And that can be a solution of some sort to feelings of existential terror, even if that terror has like been pushed aside long ago and buried deep beneath. I think that accounts for a lot of narcissistic behavior, I’m not sure if you…

Kirk: Absolutely, absolutely, and it’s a craving for certainty, especially when one feels so terribly uncertain and ungrounded. And that often happens again because one has experienced some kind of break, some kind of trauma, some kind of devaluation in their lives, humiliation is often related that they can’t deal with. And so that’s the other side of the polarized mind is how to depolarize you, how do we address this problem? And that’s the sort of the lead to my follow up book, which is The Depolarizing of America: A Guidebook for Social Healing. So I think we got to get to those deeper fears, to those more primal fears if we’re going to substantively address polarization politically, culturally, racially, personally, otherwise you’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, I totally agree. And I mean, for me, that is what connects these two things too, how I see the existential psychology ideas and polarization. And for me, it’s recognizing that we’re all human and we’re all just a bunch of individuals. And that’s why I kind of aim for avoiding these… I think one of the fundamental mechanisms behind political polarization in the US, but any place this is happening, it’s happened obviously many places, the fundamental mechanism is in thinking in these group terms, where like this group is all this way and this other group is, they’re all as bad as the worst person in that group. And when you start to think that way and when you start to act that way, when you start to see this group as a monolith and not as a bunch of just individuals who may change or some of them come over to your side if you speak persuasively or whatever, if you start viewing them as this monolithic group that can’t change, that changes how you behave, that changes how you speak to them, and the insults that people make about that group then in turn amplify the other group, who’s doing similar things. And so I see this as connected too, because to me, it’s about seeing people as people, as humans like ourselves, they have understandable reasons for what they do. And it may be that we find it hard to find common ground or build bridges with them, but I feel like the first step in the solution is seeing other people as people like yourselves and seeing their humanity.

Kirk: Well, that yes. I mean, we scapegoat others because they remind us of the primal terror. Somehow those others trip off, trigger the feelings of helplessness and groundlessness that we can’t handle because of whatever context, whatever particular context we went through. I also just want to emphasize that I don’t intend to pick out just certain groups or parties as the perpetrators of the polarized mind. I think we’re all susceptible to it, and we all need to be vigilant. And I believe, and I point out in my book, that America has committed some horrible crimes in the context of these fears of insecurity, insignificance, and not having really dealt with profound insecurities. I mean, some of those may have to do with being immigrants for a number of us, escaping profound oppression in other countries. But even though we found “freedom” in some ways, we also carried with us these insecurity mentalities that led to horrible scapegoating of others. Be they Africans or Indian, Native Americans, etc. So anyway, we’re all susceptible. And I think the larger point here is finding ways of addressing these fears so that we’re not coming so much from a place of such deficits toward each other, but coming more from a place like you say, of being able to see the humanity, the wholeness of the person, rather than just a part. And that’s what a lot of The Depolarizing of America’s about, and my recent work with Braver Angels and these dialogue groups, experiential democracy dialogue. I see that in particular as a notable way to change the atmosphere of our relating to others. They’re really about helping people to humanize the encounter with the other, rather than coming from place of kneejerk, stereotyping, and labeling, but it presents a series of ways to help people be more centered and more okay with the other within themselves, which is really fundamental, so that they can be more okay with the otherness and in the other, if you will, and have a dialogue.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I think the sad thing about these polarization dynamics is that how you view other people is how you view yourself and vice versa. These are all just views about humanity, and as polarization dynamics progress, it leads to this really people start having a really negative view of humanity, of the other including themselves in the same way you’re saying. It’s like these are two sides of the same coin. We are a form of humanity in the same way others are a form of humanity. So the more pessimistic things get, it leads to worse and worse situations unfortunately and a lot of cases where people just start having a really negative view of humanity in general, which leads to the worst things.

Kirk: Yeah. It’s a road toward becoming more whole human beings.

Zach Elwood: So are you good for a few more minutes? Can I ask maybe one more question?

Kirk: Sure, sure. Yeah.

Zach Elwood: Okay. So one thing I think about sometimes with the polarization dynamics is that there can be something about the modern age that’s a bit destabilizing in a sense that we’re more easily able to learn about other philosophies and other points of view than ever before, and I include like the last couple hundred years or so when people can more easily learn about what’s going on in other places. And I think in the sense that related to what we’ve been talking about, there can be something kind of destabilizing in the sense that we crave certainty, we crave these philosophies of this is the way life should be or the way the world is. And the more we learn that, “Hey, there’s all these other philosophies out there and all these other perspectives of seeing the world,” that alone, even apart from like directly impacting one’s life but just at a philosophical or intellectual level, I feel like that alone can be a bit destabilizing, because we do like we’ve been saying, we do crave certainty, and I’m wondering if that’s something you’ve seen talked about or you yourself have talked about.

Kirk: Very much so, but I guess I see it as double-edged because on the one hand, I strongly agree that the ready access to various cultures and ways of thinking can be overwhelming and destabilizing, vertigo inducing, it puts us into our silos, our dogmas, our ideological orthodoxies because it’s too much. And I think the sixties also in America had something to do with that. It pushed a lot of people to become more narrow and more linear in their behaving and thinking simply because it felt safer. It’s too scary to entertain all these different ideas and lifestyles etc. But on the other hand, I also think an interesting phenomenon of, let’s say, the Zoom calls that we have now, reliance on our devices, it opens us up to many more cultures, ways of thinking, that we never had access to before. And that’s potentially a silver lining depending on how we handle that. I certainly have felt very enriched by a number of the Zoom conferences and presentations I’ve been a part of from people all over the world, you just never have that or very rarely in a more live, I mean, person to person kind of settings. So if you can use those opportunities to, again, be more present, to stay with each other and explore each other’s ideas and work with your own reactivity around that, it could really enrich and advance, I think, our capacity to innovate, our capacities to discover more about ourselves and each other, and could lead to just more vital ways of living.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, it reminds me of saying something about social media recently, where in a similar way, there’s all these stresses that come with social media and the internet age, where you’re more on display, you’re having to say things publicly and have to interact with people in different frames of reference, which leads to all sorts of stresses and distortion and misunderstandings. But within that, even with those stresses related to existential psychology, I would say by confronting those stresses, all the stresses that we experience in life have the capacity to lead us to a greater wisdom about what life is. So in the case of social media, with all those stresses, there’s also the path to recognizing, for example, that we are not defined by the presentation we make to other people, even though it can seem that way at times that we feel judged or we feel angry, it’s like reaching this realization that we are more than the perceptions that other people have of us as one step to one sort of wisdom in that area. And that just reminded me of all these stresses that we experience are potential paths to greater wisdom. And I think that’s what getting back to the existential psychology is being willing to examine those stresses and what they tell you about life and making peace with them, and saying, “Well, this is just how the world is. People are going to think things of me, but that is not who I am.” It’s not the full definition of meetings like that.

Kirk: That’s why we talk about the paradoxical self, being able to live with and even be enriched by the various contrasts and contradictions that we experience in life, within ourselves and with others, that can yes, be a wonderful ground for discovery, for growth, or it could be overwhelming. But again, the key is presence or at least a key is cultivating presence. And I think that really is our biggest challenge today, because there are so many forces that go against being able to cultivate presence. Our attention spans are being, I think, severely compromised.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, destroyed.

Kirk: Yeah, because it would be wonderful to do what you were saying, to be able to explore and play within the sea of social media. The problem is that’s not how a lot of people experience, I think they experience it more as fleeting back and forth and getting excited and getting mad and then getting stuck and getting depressed because this image or that image

Zach Elwood: A lot of anger going on, yeah.

Kirk: A lot of anger, reactivity. So I believe we need more people to help us slow down to process a lot of this. This is where I believe psychology can play a great role. It has challenged itself in doing that, but there are certainly many areas where people can step up in these ways, in the ways of mentoring and just reminding us, certainly our artists often and some of the great literary works can remind us of our fuller humanity and of the value of being in great conversations with people and with ourselves, the value of pausing, of taking time to find one’s way through all this. And meditation therapy can help, yeah.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, this has been great. I appreciate your time. Is there anything you want to say about how people can keep in touch with your work?

Kirk: Well, I would refer people to my website if they’re interested in my work. They could also contact me through the website, it’s, and I’ll do my best to respond. And I just wish that people would take a closer look at the offerings of literature, the arts, and of existential psychology and philosophy, very timely. And your work is good too. Okay.

Zach Elwood: Thank you.

That was an interview with Kirk Schneider. You can learn more about him at his site He’s on twitter at @kschneider56. You can find his books on Amazon or wherever you buy your books at. Just to give you a few titles of his books to pique your interest: Awakening To Awe, The Spirituality of Awe, The Polarized Mind, Horror and the Holy, The Paradoxical Self. Just a few of his books there. 

If you enjoy learning about psychology and therapy-related topics, I have some earlier episodes on the subject of anxiety and on schizophrenia and psychosis. In a couple of those I talk about my own mental struggles as a young man, which led to me having to drop out of college suddenly mid-year. You might also enjoy checking out the piece I wrote about existential psychology and the strangeness of life, which you can find by searching for ‘zach elwood medium’. 

If the subject of the psychology behind people’s political polarization interests you, I’ve got quite a few books I’d recommend on that topic. I’ll put that on the page for this episode at my site 

This is the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, would you be willing to do me a huge favor and leave me a review on iTunes or another podcast platform? Might you be willing to share this podcast with your acquaintances? It would mean a lot to me. 

Thanks for listening. Music by Small Skies.