Understanding and dealing with debilitating anxiety, with Scott Stossel

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

Episode links:

For more details, see the original episode post.


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

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

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

Episode links:

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


Zach Elwood:

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the show, Dr. Moyer.

Christopher Moyer: Thank you. Pleased to be here.

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

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

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

Christopher: Yes. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher: Yes. 

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

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

Zach: Yeah. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zach: The biofeedback machines. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zach: Death. 

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

Zach: Right. Horror movies, sports, etc. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zach: Which is prone and supine? 

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

Zach: Google real quick. [chuckles]

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

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

Christopher: Oh, yeah? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher: It makes sense. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher: Precisely. 

Zach: A lot of unknowns there. Yeah. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zach: All right, bye-bye. 

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


Reading dog and cat behavior, with Daniel Mills

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

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

Episode links:

Resources related to the talk:

TRANSCRIPT (coming soon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, here’s the talk with Daniel Mills.

Hi, Daniel. Thanks for joining me.

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

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

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

Zach: Do you have pets?

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

Zach: Mmh, okay. No dogs.

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

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

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

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

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

Zach: That’s a key part of it.

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

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

Zach: Yeah, the unconditional love aspect. Yeah.

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

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

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

Zach: That’s positive. More than cats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zach: Makes sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

Zach: Oh, wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zach: It’s a horizontal streak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel: Yeah.

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

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

Zach: Yeah, gotcha.

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

Zach: Maybe a short rant.

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

Zach: Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zach: Sheldrake, okay.

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

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

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

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

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

Zach: Yeah, everyone has beliefs. Yeah.

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

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

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

Zach: Few minutes. [chuckles]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On the art of listening and the challenges of being an introvert, with Joel Berman

Joel Berman is a practitioner of Compassionate Listening ( Joel has travelled to the Middle East and talked with Israelis and Palestinians about their experiences and grievances. Topics discussed: Joel’s experiences in the Middle East; what the Compassionate Listening methodology entails; the bravery required for conflict resolution work; and both of our experiences being introverts with a lot of social anxiety.

Episode links:

Resources related to this talk:


Door-to-door sales tricks and strategies

A talk with two people with door-to-door sales experience: Conrad Smith and Dave Mock. We talk about the tricks and strategies they used to close sales, and the psychological factors in why those strategies work. Topics discussed: verbal and physical sales scripts some companies use, and why they work; the use of ambiguous language in deception; the power of personal anecdotes in gaining rapport; the importance of getting a customer to commit in writing to the deal; how simply spending time together can build rapport and make a sale more likely.

This is a reshare of a 2019 episode

Episode links:


Can recognizing and reducing bias in news help with polarization?, with Vanessa Otero

Vanessa Otero is the creator of a popular and well respected media bias chart that ranks the bias of many news outlets, and she’s the founder of Ad Fontes Media. Topics discussed include: the process her team uses to determine media bias; recognizing that everyone is biased and that the best we can do is try to reduce our bias; the ambiguity in what is “left” and “right” in a polarized, fast-changing political landscape; how recognizing and reducing media bias can help reduce us-vs-them polarization; perceptions of the word ‘misinformation’ being liberal-leaning; liberal-leaning journalists’ pushback to Trump being elected; and more.  

Transcript is below.

Episode links:

Resources related to or mentioned in our talk:


Zach: 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. On this podcast I also sometimes focus on the topic of political polarization, because I think that’s the biggest danger humanity faces, and because it is directly related to our difficulties in understanding each other.  

You can learn more about this podcast at If you like the work I do and want to encourage me to spend more time on these things, you can sign up for a premium subscription to this podcast, which gets you a few benefits. If you’re interested in reducing us-vs-them polarization, you might also like to check out my book Defusing American Anger, which is at 

On this episode, I talk to Vanessa Otero, who is the founder of Ad Fontes Media. Vanessa is most well known for creating a chart ranking the bias of various news outlets. This chart has gotten a lot of attention; there’s a good chance you’ve seen it if you’ve spent much time looking at political content online. In 2016, when she created her chart and the methodology behind it, she was working as a patent attorney. Due to the respect she got for that work, she was able to turn that into a full time career; she founded Ad Fontes Media in 2018. As you’ll hear us talk about later in this interview, one of the reasons she started working on analyzing media bias was to combat polarization and our divergent narratives; she sees reducing bias in media, and encouraging people to read less biased news sources, as one of the ways we can combat toxic polarization. 

You can learn more about Vanessa and her work at; that’s AD FONTES. 

A big part of our talk is focused on the question: how can we try to reduce bias when all of us are biased? If all of us is biased, as we all clearly are, how can we try to analyze and mitigate bias? 

Other topics discussed include: 

  • What’s the process look like for their analysis of bias? 
  • How do they categorize something as “left” or “right”, especially considering how turbulent and quickly changing some of the group stances can be? 
  • How media bias relates to polarization
  • The word ‘misinformation’ and why the use of it can be seen as liberal-leaning
  • The pushback of liberal-leaning news outlets to Trump, and how that can result in more bias, and more perceptions of bias
  • AI approaches to algorithmically detecting bias

If you’d like to hear more background about how Vanessa got into this work, I’d recommend listening to an interview with her on David French’s podcast Advisory Opinions. It was a talk in early September 2023. I’ll include a link to that, and to other resources mentioned in this talk, on the entry for this episode on my site 

Okay here’s the talk with Vanessa Otero.

Zach Elwood: Hi, Vanessa, thanks for joining me.

Vanessa Otero: Thanks so much for having me, Zach.

Zach: Oh, my pleasure. I realized this would be a big question, and you also go into detail about this on your site, is it possible to give an overview of your approach for determining a news outlet’s bias? What does the general start-to-finish process look like?

Vanessa: Great question. It’s always top of folks’ minds how we actually come up with news ratings for reliability and bias. So, we have a content analysis approach. It’s really all about looking at the content, the rhetoric that’s in there on the page or in the episode when it’s audio or video. We have a big team of analysts. We have almost 60 analysts right now on staff at Ad Fontes Media who are politically balanced, left, right, and center. It’s a really important part of mitigating our own biases. And they go through pretty extensive training on this methodology we’ve developed, where we look at sub-factors that determine overall reliability and sub-factors that determine overall bias. And to come up with an overall news source rating for a big national publication, we will rate a representative sample of those articles.

To date, we usually have several hundred articles from big publications, and each one of them will be looked at by a panel of our analysts; one left, one right, one centre. And they’ll score it on a rubric. We have this grading rubric that goes from top to bottom and from left to right, and it’s a point scale, and they’re looking for various things throughout that. And because they’re looking at a very granular piece of content, they can usually come to a pretty close consensus within a score range right off the bat. They can look at a left-leaning opinion article and say this is a left-leaning opinion article, even if one person’s left and one person’s right. So we’ve done that over the years, over the last four years with over 70,000 individual pieces of content, and that’s how we come up with our overall ratings.

Zach: And what was it that you’d say you brought to the table that was different? Because there have been other attempts to read bias, right? I was just looking at all sides and their attempts to rate bias, and maybe you could talk a little bit about the value you want to bring to that space.

Vanessa: Yeah. The complaints that folks commonly bring when you’re trying to measure something that seems just so subjective is as much objectivity as possible, right? I mean, these are things written by humans and assessed by humans. So to me, we have a unique taxonomy. Rating something from top to bottom on a media bias chart, you’ve got to make decisions on what makes something good. Like, what puts something at the very top? What puts something a little under that? What puts something in the middle? What makes something okay, and what makes it problematic or misleading or inaccurate? What makes something not just centrist or a little left or a little right, but what makes it really far left or right bias? And having really specific definitions for each one of those, that’s one unique thing we brought to the table, and scoring on a very granular article-by-article basis. The primary complaint I would get when I first put out the media bias chart when it was just me was like, “Hey, you’re biased.” And I was like, “Well, how do I mitigate that? How do I… I know we can’t eliminate it.” So, mitigating had to be the most important question and it seemed reasonable to recruit people with different political perspectives and include them as a part of the process. But to be as objective as possible, that’s a different question. It’s not just about the taxonomy, it’s about the methodology for how do you select what’s a representative sample of content? How do you do it fairly across tens of thousands of information sources? Our approach is the only one where we’re trying to replicate it as consistently as possible across all the different formats.

Zach: Did I understand correctly that part of what you were doing differently was the different axes? Like, you rate the accuracy separately from the bias, because theoretically, you can have an outlet be very accurate but be biassed and what they focused on. Am I understanding that correctly?

Vanessa: Right. I mean, left-right perspectives, left-right ideology, left-right moral foundations, there’s nothing inherently wrong with those. There’s nothing inherently wrong with advocating or focusing on things that are of more interest to folks who are more left-leaning or right-leaning, and things can be highly accurate and highly reliable and you still be left or right. When you get really, really biased, there are typically other factors that will bring down reliability. So if you look at the shape of how things are plotted on our chart, there’s a high but imperfect correlation between things that are in the middle and things that are really far left and right, and how reliable those are. One way that you can tell they’re somewhat independent variables is if you look at them just straight down the middle of the chart, you’ll see stuff that’s way at the top. But then there’s some stuff that’s kind of in the middle or at the bottom. So just being middle doesn’t— We’re not saying middle is good. And if you look at especially the skews left and the skews right categories, those columns, you can see stuff that’s way closer to the top and stuff that’s way closer to the bottom. Those can vary even if they have the same actual bias score.

Zach: Yeah. The thing that strikes me there is very much related to polarization and conflict because I think the focus on wrong information or distorted information gets a lot of attention. But people have also written and researched how polarization us-versus-them feelings make us basically filter for true things like real things, but it’s just in the way we filter for them. So you can imagine a far-right outlet that’s just writing only about true things, but they’re all things that are supporting the conservative point of view. It’s just a matter of filtering for those things and leaving out the other things, right?

Vanessa: Exactly.

Zach: I’m understanding that you would factor in that kind of filtering for only one that unilateral filter would be a reason to call something biased if I’m understanding correctly.

Vanessa: Definitely. We liken it to how lawyers argue in court. Lawyers can be very opinionated and very persuasive, and content that we read in our political landscape can be very opinionated. But lawyers can use just the facts that are helpful to their side, right? They’re not required to also include all the other facts that aren’t helpful. But there’s a line, right? A lawyer will get in trouble if they’re leaving out things that are so critical to the story that it totally changes the meaning of things. Right? So folks have a hard time with what that line is. And sometimes folks have a hard time reading a highly reliable piece that it is factual reporting, and yes, it’s just focusing on the stuff that’s more favorable to one side or the other, but they have a hard time seeing it.

Zach: Getting back to what you said about bias is always present, how do I mitigate bias? I really liked the part on your website where you had an FAQ section with the question, “Aren’t you biased? Isn’t Ad Fontes biased?” Maybe you could talk a little bit about what you wrote for that and why you saw that as important to point out.

Vanessa: Yeah, and the short answer to the FAQ Are you biased is, yes. [chuckles] We’re all biassed. We all have our life experiences, and the sample of content that we’ve read in our lifetimes is all different. All the things that you’ve read are very different from all the things that I’ve read. And they’re even more different from folks who you disagree with politically, right? So, we don’t think that being a centrist or being of a particular political lean is the most important requirement to do this work. Because in society, there are certain positions that we ask people to set aside their preconceived notions and just be as fair as possible. Judges and referees, they have their political views, they have their personal views and feelings, but we’re asking them to be fair. We’re not asking them to be neutral, though. And I like to make this distinction because if you’re a judge, if we’re asking a judge to be neutral, you know, there’s two sides in every case. If we asked them to be neutral, at the end of the case, they’d be like, “Okay. Well, you know, you both have a point.” We’re asking them to be fair, we’re asking them to make a call. In view of all the facts presented, make a call. That’s what we’re endeavoring to do here. And mitigation of bias, just trying to have as little bias as possible, is so critical in not just the work that we do, but the work that journalists do. I mean, we give people credit. We give journalists credit for trying because there are outlets out there that don’t try. I mean, they specifically say it like, “This is from a socialist perspective, or we are fighting the leftist narrative or whatever.” Distinguishing between those things is important, I think.

Zach: Yeah, you get bonus points for trying. [chuckles]

Vanessa: Yes, and we definitely try.

Zach: I don’t mean you. I mean, the journalists. Yeah.

Vanessa: The journalists do. And we think we do, right? [crosstalk] I want to emphasize that we try. [chuckles]

Zach: Yeah. I think when point making that point to people that everyone is biased and we can only try to mitigate bias, I think some people mistakenly perceive that as saying truth is relative and that there is no truth. And I’ve seen that confusion before and I try to emphasize that no, it’s not saying truth doesn’t exist. It’s just saying it’s very hard for us to know that we have the truth as individual humans, you know? There’s always these layers and it’s very hard to define the truth or know what the truth is. The truth may exist for XYZ, but whether we know the truth, you know? There’s also even just the element of different values that can result in different truths. Like the trolley problem, right? There’s no answer to the trolley problem because it depends on different biases or values you bring to the table to try to answer these questions about morality or what the best outcomes are. So just to say yeah, the landscape can be very confusing and we all have our biases that we bring to the table, but all we can do is try to reach something that resembles removing ourselves from it.

Vanessa: What I say that we aim for is an objective-as-possible evaluation. I always say as possible. Because when we get comments on a particular news source, it’s always funny to me when people accuse us of being biased. Especially if you see our Facebook comments, they’ll say, “Well, as a longtime listener of NPR, I can assure you that they’re much further left than that.” And then somebody else right underneath that says, “Well, as a longtime listener of NPR, I assure you they are a lot further right than that.” Just looking at that, who has the truth there? If they talk to each other, they’re obviously seeing this very same thing quite differently. So having a little bit of self-awareness that everyone who’s accusing us of being biased is also biassed, let’s recognize that too. We refrain from saying, “Well, so are you.” We just admit that we are. And I tell folks that no one agrees with every individual rating on our chart, including myself because it’s impossible. Because my sample of all the things that I’ve read and listened to and watched is much smaller than the sample and the composite view of our analysts. Nearly a hundred people have participated in our ratings as analysts over the years. A hundred people who are trained, having read 70,000 articles together, came up with this composite view of the truth, objective as possible truth. So from any one person’s vantage point, it’s going to be off from their own.

Zach: That’s like the wisdom of the group kind of thing. If you combine the group’s take as a whole can be better than any one person’s.

Vanessa: Yeah. And I like to distinguish that, though, from opinion polling. Because opinion polling can be not very granular. And that’s been the very common way of measuring media bias and trust. Like, do you trust Fox News? Or do you trust MSNBC? And that typically just tells you… You get a 50/50 answer because of your audience.

Zach: Speaking of the difficulty of removing bias, I’m somebody who for years now has been working on removing bias from my language because I wrote a book aimed at conservatives and liberals, and that just naturally progressed to where I was like I need to really speak in persuasive ways. So I’ve been thinking about this for a while and then I noticed something fairly recently, where I noticed I was more likely to use the word expert for people that I agreed with when I described them. And if I didn’t agree with them, I might choose another word, like a professional or something else. But that was just a case where I was like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that I was doing that, but now it’s completely obvious.” But that’s just getting at even when we try, there can be various ways that our biases creep in.

Vanessa: I noticed the same thing because I speak to audiences that are left, right, and center all the time. So I’m very cognizant of how my words will land. Because if I am perceived as biased, I’d lose credibility.

Zach: Yeah, part of the process is trying to speak in ways that do not seem biased, to show that you’re trying to remove the bias. You’ve talked in your process about your process involving someone from the left, the right, and the center. And one thing that strikes me there is it can be hard to define those labels, especially as the landscape becomes more and more kind of turbulent and chaotic as polarization becomes worse. For example, what is viewed as conservative views could be seen to shift abruptly under Trump as he kind of changed things about more protectionism and more policies that previously had been seen as more liberal and these kinds of things. I’m wondering how you arrive on who represents the conservative view and who represents the middle and who represents the liberal view.

Vanessa: That’s something that we’ve thought a lot about. Because when people first look at the chart and when I was first putting it together– you know, left and right, like in the United States we just have these broad concepts– I actually had the words liberal and conservative on the first version of the chart and realized that left and right are broader. Because liberal and conservative don’t quite capture the whole range. You know, we have so many subdivisions of what people will call themselves and what people call each other on leftist categories, like progressives versus moderates, center-rights, and there’s more pejorative terms like MAGA or socialist or communist or fascist or whatever. But they’re reasonable gradations. So, left and right is meant to capture the broadest. But the more you look at it, the more politically savvy you are, the more you realize that these things do shift over time. So many folks look at the chart and they say, “Oh, well, that’s just the Overton window.” This concept that what’s acceptable in political discourse at especially the fringes changes over time. People talk about folks moving the goalposts. And that certainly does happen.

So what we’re trying to capture is how media publications present things in relation to what the current US left-right spectrum is at that time. It’s US, so country-based, its contemporary now, but what we anchor it on is the policy positions and actions of elected officials. Because how do you measure what’s left and right in the United States right now, like what people think but the citizens think? That’s something you can measure with polling, but there’s a lot of different issues is and there’s a lot of squishiness there. We couldn’t anchor it on what the media is calling is left and right because we’re trying to measure the media. But a thing that you can consistently point to is the policy positions and actions and statements of elected officials. They have power to legislate and influence and they say things on cable television and on social media and on their platforms and their websites, so you can gauge what a particular elected official is saying and you can kind of put them on a spectrum. You and I could identify who are the furthest right and furthest left elected members of Congress who are moderate members of Congress or governors or what have you. And we have an idea of who those people are, and those anchor spots on the chart. So, however the media is talking about political positions relative to those is how we anchor it. And issue by issue, it varies. Some issues are very… They stay similar over time. Like abortion, you know, what’s left and constitutes left and right about that stay similar over time. But on things like immigration, I’d say it moves a little bit quicker when you have fast-moving situations. For example, what’s a centrist right, a moderate right, and a far-right position on whether Trump should have been impeached for January 6th? That’s something that wasn’t a question before but you could figure out what the moderate versus strong versus extreme positions were on that just by looking at the elected officials.

Zach: Yeah, or COVID for example. It’s possible to imagine COVID going a different way if Trump had initially taken really hard stances against COVID and such, sort of like Republicans did with Ebola a few years before. They were the ones more hardcore about fighting Ebola a few years before that and these kinds of things. I interviewed Michael Macy, I don’t know if you know him, but he’s researched opinion cascades and how there’s a chaotic element to some of the things that are new emerging sources of polarization and how they could theoretically go different ways depending on who the early trendsetters are. So I think that’s a really important point to getting to the difficulty of using labels like conservative and Republican or conservative and liberal to describe some of the stance formations basically.

Vanessa: We polarize everything. It’s funny you mentioned COVID. I’m sure you’ve read Ezra Klein’s “Why We’re Polarized” that was pre-COVID. I think an example of things he said that we tend to not polarize was epidemics because they’re so science-based. And it was right when COVID was starting and I was like, “Oh, no.” You could see how that was getting polarized in news coverage. And when it wasn’t on our shores, when it was still just in China or just in Italy before it had really gotten to the United States, the news coverage wasn’t polarized about it. But as soon as it was like it’s going to come here, we decided to take polarized positions about like, “Is it going to come here? Yes or no. Based on my guy. And how bad is it going to be? What should we do about it?” Every single question, because that’s what we do I think better than anyone else right now in the world.

Zach: Well, yeah, Americans are always leading the world. We’re leaders at polarization and we are great at it.

Vanessa: We can polarize literally anything.

Zach: I do sometimes think that it seems relatively unexamined but the idea that America, because in the same way that we’ve spread media and entertainment and our culture to the rest of the world, we’re spreading our polarization to the rest of the world. I think there’s something. But anyway, that’s a topic for another time. Yeah. And to your point, I think of it much in the same way because I’ve seen the idea that the conservative and liberal labels aren’t very good and it’s much more about the Republican-Democrat kind of tribe. And so whatever those political groups do kind of creates the stances associated with those tribes. And I almost went back to in my book because in my book I use liberal and conservative a lot, and I’m thinking about going back and changing it more to Republican and Democrat just to emphasize that point, you know? And I had some caveats at the beginning of how rough the language was anyway but that seems like a better… Or left and right, which is kind of what you were getting at. I think that’s the same concept you were getting at, it’s just a rough approximation of this Republican slash Democrat divide.

Vanessa: Yes. Well, when we look at it in other countries, we can still use left and right. Because we’ve done some work with NGOs in other countries that want to replicate the media bias chart in their countries. And so, you know, in English-speaking Western democracies, the left-right spectrum maps are set fairly closely. There’s obviously intricacies in the local politics. But so many of these other countries don’t have this fixed two-party system that our Constitution has entrenched in the United States. So it’s especially strong here, but when you have parliamentary systems where there’s multiple parties that are along a spectrum, you can still see media follow left and right. So, there are some things about left and rightness that are somewhat universal just like fascism or communism. Folks associate communism with left and fascism with the right, even though they’re both types of authoritarianism. Authoritarianism and populism, but you can’t see lots of populism on the far left and the far right. There’s so many different factors that universally being able to… Most issues, you can map on the left to right spectrum. Which is why we use it.

Zach: Yeah, totally. As a grouping of stances, it can make a lot of sense because a lot of things do slot in there. Yeah, I think it becomes more confusing for the individual stances. It’s when you get into like, “Oh, this is a liberal stance, or this is a conservative stance.” Because some of those things can vary across the world. There’s countries where, as I understand, that the more conservative stances in a lot of countries is more pro-choice, because they’re more for individual liberty so that can actually vary. So there’s these variations like that. It’s tougher for the individual stances, basically.

A quick note here: One book that examines the ambiguity in terms like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ is the book The Myth of Left and Right, written by Verlan and Hyrum Lewis. If you’re curious what people are talking about when they talk about the ambiguity in these terms, that might be a book you’d enjoy. Back to the talk.

Vanessa: Getting back to your question about how we determine who’s left, right, and center, we do a bunch of different evaluations. They’re all self-evaluations, but one of the principal ones we do is have people list about 20 issues. And issue by issue, how strongly left or right are you on LGBT civil rights, K–12 education, taxes, foreign policy which is itself a big one, gun rights or gun control? The reason we do that is because most articles are about one or two political issues at a time. Usually, one article isn’t about everything that you can be conservative or liberal about. It’s like one, two, or maybe three issues. Like, it’s about immigration and maybe it will touch on national security and budget issues, but it’s not usually also going to talk about gun rights and abortion in the same article.

Zach: Let’s see, one second I look at my notes here.

Vanessa: I did very much like your article about Polarization is not the Problem, the critique of that argument. You had some interesting thoughts on the use of the term misinformation.

Zach: Oh, yeah, I was going to ask you about that for sure. What are your thoughts on that word? Because I think other people have written about this, but the perception is that it’s a very liberal-leaning word.

Vanessa: I purposely avoid using the term misinformation when we talk about our work, and disinformation. There are academic circles in which those terms have been formally defined, and that has to do with intent, the difference between mis and disinformation. And there’s other different definitions like malinformation. There’s a taxonomy, there’s like a glossary that some academics will use. But that is not how it’s used by the general public. And you can’t really force your definitions of something onto other people, people are going to use terms how they use the terms. And now people use the term really loosely and flippantly. They use it for information that they disagree with, for information that they just think is biased. It’s just not a precise use in most cases. And if you accuse somebody of misinformation and then that thing turns out to be true, then the word loses power. Folks often talk about how we need a common terminology or a common lexicon of how we talk about these issues of information quality and I sort of disagree. I think our language should evolve. Because talking points, like words that people come up with to define an issue, they tend to lose power over time, especially as they get co-opted by another side. So when a word gets co-opted, when a word loses its power, when the definition of the word is so broad in usage, I try to stop using that word and just say the idea in more precise language.

Zach: Yeah, like something’s wrong. A piece of information is wrong or distorted or whatever. That’s easier to understand.

Vanessa: Yeah, something specific. Like, this sentence is misleading because, or this fact is inaccurate because… So on our chart, even at the bottom, it doesn’t say misinformation or disinformation. It says, contains misleading information, or contains inaccurate or fabricated information.

Zach: Yeah, I avoid that word for that reason, too. There’s just too much misuse of it. And yeah, I think it’s very important to speak in ways that speak to a broad range of people. If our goal is to persuade people of our ideas, it’s up to us to use persuasive language. We can’t just say like, “Oh, well, it’s their fault for not understanding what we’re saying.” I think that’s a lot of people’s default is like, “Well, if they don’t get it, that’s on them.” But to me, it’s very important. For example, if I care about polarization and trying to depolarize and reduce contempt, it’s up to me to make the case for that in persuasive terms, right?

Vanessa: Yeah, exactly. Persuasion is the primary reason I got into this work. I was upset that people would use very biased content from their side to try to persuade people on the other side.

Zach: [chuckles] Exercise in futility there. Yeah.

Vanessa: Exercise in futility. If somebody on the right tries to convince somebody on the left that this is correct because look at this article from Breitbart,  the person on the left just totally discounts it. And the person on the right is like, “What? This is a perfectly valid compelling explanation to me.” And then the person on the left will do the same thing with Alternate or HuffPost or something like that, you know?

Zach: Right, speaking different languages.

Vanessa: Yes. And it sounds like you have experienced this a lot. If it’s just not persuasive, I’m not interested in that line or in that talk track. And around the issue of the word misinformation, sometimes people use it to refer to news content that’s in a grey area. So there’s opinion, there’s a section on our chart, and then there’s misleading, but there’s a section in the middle that’s where we score things in the score range of 16 to 24. Our blanket term for that is a problematic area. But there’s all sorts of things that are worse than opinion, but they’re not misleading. They are vilification and dehumanization, or there’s a mismatch between the headline and the article, or there’s some material facts that are not corroborated, or there’s extreme speculation. All of those things, we view them as, “Hey, that’s not ideal in this news content. There’s a bit of a problem with this so-called reporting. It’s not just something you can chalk up to opinion.” But if you call that stuff misinformation, it’s not compelling. It’s not convincing to folks who find it compelling.

Zach: And you’re driving people away and making them more likely to view you as misinformation because they view you as taking a bias stance or a too aggressive stance on that.

Vanessa: Exactly.

Zach: I’ll throw in a note here because I think this is so important. Some people will speak as if political passion is at odds with the work of reducing us-vs-them political animosity. There can be an instinct people have that goes something like, “By telling us to reduce our us-vs-them anger and contempt you are preventing us from working effectively towards our political goals. You are attempting to neuter us and take our power away.” This is a common objection to depolarization-aimed work and it is such a huge misunderstanding of this work. I would say that, in a bit counter-intuitive a way, the work of effective political activism is completely aligned with depolarization-aimed work: by attempting to actually persuade people on the “other side,” to really try to form persuasive, non-insulting arguments to convince the other side, you are also taking a depolarizing, de-escalating approach. The act of trying to persuade people who don’t agree with you requires really trying to understand those people’s beliefs and values, and what their motivations are; it requires removing the biases you have about what they believe; it requires a lot of self-examination and a lot of thinking about how to best make connections. And doing that work naturally aligns with reducing us-vs-them contempt, because you’ll usually find, once you try to understand the quote “other side”, you’ll find the people in that group are not as alien or reprehensible as you previously imagined. You may still strongly disagree with them; you may still find the things they support dangerous and believe they’re doing a lot of harm; but you will have a better view of their humanity and have lowered your contempt. This is what I mean when I say the work of political activism is completely aligned with depolarization endeavors. Okay back to the talk.

I want to ask you about speaking of dehumanization. I actually was just looking at your LinkedIn post you put up about dehumanizing language. Could you talk a little bit about how the more ad hominem and contemptuous language factors in to your attempt to analyze bias?

Vanessa: Yes, it definitely is one of the main reasons that we’ll score something lower than our opinion section. We have this binary framing of news versus opinion, but there are opinions that are better supported and then there are opinions that use things like ad hominem arguments. But what we find so problematic is dehumanization and vilification. And what we mean specifically by dehumanization is using words like somebody’s indicating that somebody’s not a human. You know, they’re subhuman. They’re an animal, they’re a monster, they’re a creature. To me, that makes it harder to break out of cycles of violence. And the reason you see this so much, especially in the current like Israeli and Hamas conflict, folks are calling folks on the other side not humans. When you do that, it creates this layer of abstraction and creates this mental barrier to seeing other people’s humanity. And anytime you have a barrier to seeing people’s humanity, it just makes it easier to convince people to be indifferent to their suffering or be violent towards them. And people don’t often mean it that way. Sometimes people say they’re monsters, they’re animals, because they want to express extreme condemnation. They’re so disgusted with the thing that they did. When people do truly disgusting things, we reach for these words that try to express how outraged we are. But it has this side effect of making other people okay with justifying whatever retaliation or whatever violence in return. I encourage people to avoid doing that. And we score content lower for doing that, just because it’s definitely not convincing to the other side, and it worsens opinions that are supported by actual facts.

Zach: Yeah, and I see that. I talk about that a good amount in my book of trying to get people to see basically their own role in these things, like in the American divide. Millions of people are issuing insults to the other group on social media, and all this condescension and insults and threats and all these things play a role in our divides. We can be very much a part without realizing it of creating the atmosphere that drives our divides because all that animosity and contempt and dehumanization bubbles up. That’s what creates the support for more dehumanizing approaches from leaders and media and such. So I was trying to make the case that it starts with us in a way, that we have to see the power that we have. And often, that’s all that we can really change, right? Like, how much can we really change? But we do have control over how we act and how we speak on social media and see how those things contribute to the environment around us and how that all bubbles up. Anyway, yeah, I think it’s important to see it.

Vanessa: Well, social media dehumanizes us a bit because we don’t see the humanity of the person behind the keyboard. There’s this layer in between us and them and we will say things to them on social media that we wouldn’t say in person. One of the real gifts of the work that we do that I get to experience is we have these unusual environments where every day somebody left, right, and center, it’s like they’re all talking to each other about politics and coming to agreements and they’re face to face on Zoom. Right? That’s rare. And it’s really a privilege to see people working through this and working through disagreements in good faith. Like, assuming the good faith of the other side, really listening, having people show you their perspective and having it convince you, this happens all the time. It’s not perfect. If people do have real disagreements– I tell my analysts the least we can do, like if we want to have peace in the world, I’ve heard this saying, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” The least we can do is give our other analysts some grace and that peace and to try to create it between us. Because if we ever expect it to be out in the world, we have to model it, we have to do it, we have to practice it.

Zach: Are you investigating or have you seen any algorithmic approaches that are good for determining bias? For example, one thing I’ve thought about was when I was reading some academic papers that I thought were pretty bad and they were using language like never and always, and I was like, well, maybe you could create an algorithm that scans for all these different words that don’t really have objective and that aren’t very objective, and then you could also throw in words that are associated with bias and see how frequently they occur. Are those things you have explored?

Vanessa: Yeah. Actually, we’ve done quite a bit of work in that space and around using machine learning modeling to score articles. And we’ve actually just recently released a model that works quite well for scoring articles at scale.

Zach: Oh, cool.

Vanessa: Yeah, we’ve been doing this work for quite a long time. So for the last four years, we’ve scored over 70,000 articles by hand with like three people each. So, it’s 200,000 pieces of human labeled data for reliability and bias with a score attached. And we capture the content. So we’ve taken traditional machine learning approaches, plus added our own features of things that we’ve noticed that characterizes these types of content. So actually our machine scoring model scores our articles on average within the standard deviation that our analysts do.

Zach: Wow.

Vanessa: This is a new capability for us, we were really excited about it. For us, it’s so important to blend human ratings with AI. Because humans obviously aren’t scalable enough for the millions of pieces of content out there, but AI is not accurate enough by itself. And these things change, right? And the machine is still a machine, right? If you’re looking at breaking news articles from the last couple of days, we want to make sure that we’re doing the lateral reading and whatnot that goes into determining the reliability on these very very important stories, and keeping tabs like continually training our model. Because the words that are biased, like what constitutes biased words changes over time. Critical race theory wasn’t a word indicating bias in articles 18 months ago. Hard to believe.

Zach: Things can change quickly. Yeah. Which shows the importance of the human element. Yeah. I want to get your take on something that I think is pretty bad. Matt Taibbi talked about it in his book, “Hate Inc.”. He talked about the reaction that many journalists and news outlets had when Trump was elected. They took it as a sign that they basically interpreted it as, “Oh, we weren’t doing our jobs well enough, we were being too soft.” And so they saw it as important to call out Trump and be more aggressive on these kinds of things. That resulted in a lot of bad journalism, for example, around the Trump-Russia stuff. There was a whole host of articles that were just clearly bad and irresponsible and rushed. Another example, I was watching MSNBC the other day– which I seldom watch cable news– but a show’s anchor was slinging insults at Trump calling him the disgraced former president and these kinds of things, and they just seemed like giving up at even attempting, even for the more opinion approaches. You would think that people would attempt more persuasive language that would be more likely to speak to people on the other side, but it seems like the reaction of a lot of journalists was that, “No, we have to get really tough and make our stances more well known, basically, and more obvious.” Which I think, to me, was a pretty bad misstep because I think they didn’t really see that so many conservatives already thought that there was an extreme liberal bias in the media. Which sometimes was more subtle and not as obvious to people, but it manifested as condescension about conservative points of view and often just an ignoring of the more rational aspects of conservative side views. So to me, this reaction by journalists was really a big part of the problem in exacerbating the polarization problem. Which ties back into my thoughts on polarization that our instincts on how to fix the problem that we perceive are often just driving us deeper into the problem. So I’m curious what your take on all of that is.

Vanessa: I totally agree. I don’t know if you recall during the run-up to the 2016 election that HuffPost made the editorial decision that at the end of every article on Donald Trump, they’d put an editor’s note like Donald Trump is a racist, xenophobic flop blah, blah, blah, who cheats on his taxes and whatever. Like, it was a note.

Zach: Wow, I didn’t know that. [chuckles]

Vanessa: Yeah, they’re like, “This is an editorial decision we’re making to do this hard calling out of Donald Trump, like this pushing back and this fighting back.” And you hear that a lot in really polarized camps. The problem is you got to call the other side out. But in how many cases does calling the other side out, specifically calling people wrong to their face as the beginning of your argument, how often does that result in them being like, “Oh, yeah, you’re totally right. I am stupid and wrong. And you have shown me the error of your ways.” That’s just not how persuasion works. And people are doubling down. It feels good, it feeds the confirmation bias. And I think you can see within cable news shows and very left-leaning or very right-leaning publications, people just sort of buy their own BS. They’re talking to each other, they’re saying the same talking points, they’re in violent agreement with each other. And the folks that they would want to convince in order to advance a policy, which are people they disagree with, are not even watching. There’s no way they would watch. If they did, they’d just dismiss it completely. So I think it was a big mistake. Especially when you’ve got outlets that do have wider audiences, like folks from the left and right read them. Well-known publications with large readership bases, you know, CNN, Washington Post, New York Times, to the extent that sections of their content in each of those outlets, they’ve got opinion sections. For CNN, like the TV and evening divisions, that really double down on this pushback kind of content, this opinion stuff. And that just erodes trust of anybody that they’re trying to convince. The presence of opinion generally in reputable publications erodes trust. The format of it. The primary reason local news is so trusted is because it doesn’t have an opinion section. Like the evening show, it’s like 13 stories, took them all day to gather it, and they deliver it to you in half an hour. Some of them are about sports and weather. They don’t have time to have four pundits on telling you what they think about the horse race stuff in Washington.

Zach: Regarding the opinion versus the straight news, I think a lot of people just don’t really make the distinction between those. I’ve heard people complain about Fox News shows and they’re like, “That news is just completely false,” and I’m like, “Well, a lot of that stuff is just their opinions.” Which as much as we can disagree with it, it’s like they aren’t even attempting. They do a better job on the shows that are trying an actual… It still might be biased, but they’re doing a better job at reporting actual news when they’re attempting to do it. But just the perception on both sides across the board is that most people just turn on these stations and they just see these opinions being lobbed and they’re like, “That’s their version of the news.” When it’s not, it’s just the fact that there’s so many opinions shows.

Vanessa: We tend to see the other side’s news through a very small aperture or very small filter. We usually just see an example of the other side’s news, it’s a really terrible filter through somebody that’s on our side that we like. And we’re like, “Ah, I know exactly what people are watching over on Fox or over on MSNBC.” But if you actually watch all the content every day, we go on our interactive media bias chart and just look up Fox shows. We have dozens of Fox shows. And some of them are top middle, and some of them are bottom right on the chart, and a bunch of them are in between that. So there’s this huge variation and people don’t make those distinctions. If somebody on the left says, “I can’t believe people watch Fox News,” people who watch Fox News and are familiar with it’s reputable content are like, “What are you talking about?” Same thing with MSNBC, right? It’s the same thing.

Zach: Right. There’s all these systemic and emotional reasons why we focus on the most extreme or weird stuff on the other side. Yeah.

Vanessa: Of course.

Zach: Do you see part of your work or part of your motivations as helping with the polarization issue?

Vanessa: Oh, a hundred percent. I mean, that’s sort of our reason for being. The reason we exist is to bring people together. The reason I started this company is because if we are this divided on the facts that we share and we can’t talk to each other about politics, we can’t solve our major problems. How can we hope to address some things that are as difficult as immigration when there aren’t really a lot of good answers when we’re just so far apart on what the facts are on the ground? The fact that people would lose friends and family members over discussions about politics was disturbing to me. The fact that people can’t talk about politics in their workplaces, these all damaged interpersonal relationships and our ability to function as families, as companies, and as a country. So I think that it’s fundamental to what we do is to reduce polarization.

Zach: Is there anything else you’d like to mention about what you’re working on before we sign off?

Vanessa: People often are aware that we put out this media bias chart because they see the infographics that circulate frequently on social media, but it really encourages folks to come to our website and explore and see what we do for the various stakeholders in the media ecosystem. Because how we’re trying to affect society and positively transform it and reduce polarization is bringing in all the stakeholders to the media ecosystem. The stakeholders are individual citizens, they’re educators that are teaching media literacy, they’re the brands that fund journalism, they’re the publishers themselves, the social media companies that distribute them. Everyone has a role to play. And so we designed our company and what we do is we rate the news, we do all these ratings. But we provide tools for each of those kinds of stakeholders like media literacy education for high school and college and your data sets and APIs for researchers and your commercial enterprises. So I just encourage people to learn more about what we do.

Zach: Awesome. Thanks a lot, Vanessa. Thanks for joining me and thanks for your work.

Vanessa: Thank you, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Zach: That was a talk with Vanessa Otero, founder of Ad Fontes Media, which you can learn more about at

That was a talk with Vanessa Otero, founder of Ad Fontes Media, which you can learn more about at 

If you want to learn more about political polarization and why it’s such a big problem, and what we can all do about it, consider signing up for my depolarization-aimed substack, or getting my book Defusing American Anger. You can learn more about that work at my site 

This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. 

Thanks for listening. 

Music by Small Skies.


Why is criticism of Israel sometimes called antisemitic?, with Yakov Hirsch

A talk with Yakov Hirsch, who thinks that some Jewish people have exaggerated ideas about the amount of antisemitism in the world, and overly pessimistic ideas about the nature of antisemitism. This can make some Jewish people see disagreement, criticism, and conflict too often through the lens of antisemitism. Hirsch ties this into the Israel/Palestine conflict, and also relates this to a long-running debate about the “banality of evil” (which relates to, amongst other things, the motivations of Nazis during the Holocaust). We talk about Hirsch’s ideas in the context of conflict dynamics and conflict resolution: for example, the tendency in conflict for people to have distorted views of people on the “other side.”

We later had a second talk on this topic.

Transcript below.

Episode links:

Resources related to or mentioned in this talk:

I wanted to include some pieces on the Israel/Palestine situation from writers whose work on American polarization I respect:


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

If you like the work I do with this podcast and wnat to encourage me to do more, please consider signing up for a premium subscription, and consider subscribing to my conflict resolution-aimed Substack. To learn more about these options, go to 

On this episode I talk with Yakov Hirsch about the Israel/Palestine conflict, about antisemitism, about empathy, about us-versus-them mindsets, about the “banality of evil,” and much more. 

One of Yakov’s goals is to get Jewish people to have more cognitive empathy for Palestinians. He think that there’s an us-versus-them Jewish discourse that attempts to make it taboo for Jewish people to have empathy for Palestinians. He has termed this discourse “hasbara culture”, and he has written a series of pieces on this topic that can be found on the site Mondoweiss. 

My decision to talk to Yakov was not related to the recent attack on Israel; we’ve had this talk planned for several weeks. Actually, my own instinct would have been to probably avoid the topic of the Israel/Palestine conflict on this podcast. But I am glad that we had this talk scheduled, because I think a lot of people will find Yakov’s thoughts interesting. 

I’ll also say that this talk is a sort of follow-up to a talk I had about antisemitism with James Kirchick. I thought Kirchick made a lot of good points: for example, he talked about how criticism of George Soros isn’t always antisemitic, any more than it is prejudiced to criticize major far right donors, like the Koch Brothers. We also talked about how the use of the word ‘globalist’ isn’t necessarily antisemitic, as that has had a long use by people who are using it in academic, logical ways. Just to say I enjoyed my talk with Kirchick. But I also saw that Kirchick would call many things antisemitic that I wouldn’t, especially in the realm of criticisms of Israel. My talk with Kirchick is what prompted Yakov to send me his thoughts and writing, and I figured to balance out the talk I had with Kirchick I’d invite Yakov on. 

I want to preface this talk just as I did with the talk with Kirchick: the goal of this podcast is understanding other people’s views. And, even if you end up disagreeing with some of Yakov’s points, hopefully you can see the value in trying to understand why he thinks what he does. Hopefully you can see that Yakov is trying to understand people’s motivations: that even when he strongly disagrees with people and even when he thinks they’ve done something horrible, he is trying to understand why they did those things, and to not jump to conclusions about their beliefs and motivations. 

Yakov’s work focuses on the Israel/Palestine conflict, but what we’ll talk about in this episode applies to conflicts in general. For example, he and I have talked about the overly paranoid and pessimistic perceptions many liberals have had of Trump voters, and of Trump himself; and one can see that aspect even as one also may be strongly critical and judgmental of Trump, and scared of worst-case Trump-related scenarios. In fact, if you’re someone who thinks Trump is dangerous, I would argue that it’s especially important to try to understand how overly pessimistic and antagonistic views of Trump voters and Trump can be factors in the behavior of Trump and his voters. That’s something Yakov and I may talk about in a future episode, because I think Yakov has some interesting thoughts on that. 

A little bit about Yakov:

Yakov was born into a utra- orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn. He had no real conversations with non-Jewish people until he was in his late teens. He described an environment that instilled with him some paranoia about the non-Jewish outside world. When he was around 20 years old, he left the Jewish environment, and got a job for a non-profit called Chess-in-the Schools, which taught chess to young people. He was a strong chess player and eventually was training the chess teachers who worked for that organization. Later, he got into poker, this was around 2003 or so, during the so-called poker boom, and he was soon playing poker for a living, something he’s still doing. 

He has written many pieces on the Israel/Palestine conflict for outlets including Mondoweiss, Tablet magazine, and on his own blog on Medium. And he’s been on a number of podcasts. You can find on Twitter at YakovHirsch, that’s YAKOV HIRSCH. 

Some of my own thoughts: I look around right now and see so many people seeing the worst in each other; I see so many people seeing motives and beliefs in other people that just aren’t there. Despite the seeming online fights and heated arguments that have been happening around this, I think almost everyone agrees on some basic things in these areas, with the exception of some extreme and morally flawed outliers: I think almost everyone agrees that what Hamas did was horrible and inexcusable; that what happened to Israeli citizens was horrible and continues to be heartbreaking; that it’s understandable and rational to question if Israel’s decisions in the past or currently have been good or smart. As is the nature of conflict, what is happening is that so many of us are filtering for the worst-case interpretations of what people are doing or saying. Some people will filter a show support for Israel, or a show of support for Palestine, as indicating a bunch of traits and beliefs that are rarely there; for example, some people will see a show of support for Palestine as an indication of support for Hamas, or of a lack of empathy for the Israelis attacked – and some people will see a show of support for Israel as an expression of unilateral support of everything Israel does, or a lack of empathy for Palestinians. And then you add in the fact that a lot of this debate is happening on social media, where people often speak badly, especially young people; the internet encourages people with no real knowledge of what’s going on to sound off on all sorts of topics, and personally I think the internet is deranging us, something I’ve talked about in my writings and on this podcast.   What is happening around this event is exactly what Yakov and I discuss in this episode: an overly pessimistic filtering for offense and insult and threat; a polarization into us-vs-them camps where more and more people have a mindset that “you must pick a side”. This is the nature of what conflict does to us: nuance becomes a casualty.

On the blog post for this episode, I’ll include some links to some pieces I thought were very good regarding the Israel/Palestine situation by writers whose work on American polarization I highly respect. 

I’m going to start the interview a few minutes into our talk, when Yakov is talking about how his politics changed over time. Okay here’s the talk…

Zachary Elwood: Okay, here’s the talk.

Yakov Hirsch: Let me describe my politics. When I left Orthodox, I got interested in neoconservatism. I was reading commentary magazines all the time. I remember someone asked me who my favorite politician was, probably about 1990, and I’d say, “Oh, it’s Netanyahu.” He made American Jews proud. You know, so handsome, speaks English so well. There’s a word, גאווה. You just feel pride in this guy, Netanyahu, that all the non-Jews looking at him. This is not the way everyone looks at it, but this is the way I did and a lot of people do. That’s what Netanyahu was. Which is a big part of our story. Then two books came out and historians started to fight about these books, about anti-semitism and the Holocaust, and I really got interested in this fight. From this fight, my argument is– I wrote in an article for Tablet, Hasbara Culture and the Curse of Bibi-ism– and in that article I said, “Our world today is a product of that fight between these two historians.” So I saw that fight and over the years I’m seeing the result of the who won and lost that fight play out in the real world. So in 2016, I was playing poker at the time. I was in a casino, the Commerce Casino, and I see on the screen at five in the morning or something there’s a video from BBC and it shows an Israeli soldier shooting a Palestinian who was lying on the ground; executing a Palestinian.

So there was a video that came out that shows what had happened was this was in Hebron in the West Bank, a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli soldier who was hardly even injured. The guy was shot, he’s on the ground, and 10 minutes later, a Jeep comes up with another soldier. The soldier comes out, it turns out that this guy who was stabbed was his friend. He walks over towards where the Palestinian attacker was laying, he takes his rifle out, and he shoots him in the head. Okay? And we have this on video. When I saw this, this was a very big deal. I just left the game and went home. This is such an important story. Because now we will see the difference between Hasbara, which means explaining or maybe public relations, and Hasbara culture which is what I’m talking about.

Zach: And you coined that term before that, right?

Yakov: Yeah. So now what’s very interesting is how the public and politicians react to this event, right? Because it’s clear the army they arrested him on the spot. Whether you’re right wing or left wing, you can’t have a soldier who got into a fight with his girlfriend and in the morning goes to work. He sees the Palestinian, he just shoots the Palestinian, right? No matter what you think the Israeli army, the IDF, they cannot have their soldiers executing a Palestinian when they feel like it. Any army. So they arrested him on the spot, and now what happened next is where the story starts. Because what would Hasbara be? Hasbara would be some Israeli official coming on TV, or representative of the ADL, you know, these Jewish organizations– they would say, “Oh, you know this guy Elor Azaria who executed this guy, he just came out of the mental institution two days ago. He’s crazy!” They would explain that what you saw is not representative of the Israeli army. This is an exception. That’s what hasbara would be. They would tell the audience, “Don’t make too much of what you saw, this guy’s a rotten apple.” That’s what hasbara would be. And you see that all the time in the discourse, all this explaining. When Israel does something bad, you’ll just see everyone explaining why it’s not so bad. That’s hasbara. This is hasbara culture, what happened next? Netanyahu supported the soldier. He basically said, “We are good. We are Jews, they are the anti-Semites. And we can’t put a Jew in jail for killing a Palestinian.” So while this guy is in jail, the politicians are saying this guy’s a hero, what do you have him in jail for? So the right wing in Israel, they speak about the Elor Azaria affair, a very big deal this event! Because think about what it means that half the country says, “Yeah, of course, he should go in jail. You can’t execute someone like that.” And the other half is going, “He’s protecting the Jews! You’re going to put him in jail? Don’t you understand why we should kill this guy?” Think about what’s happening now. Elor Azaria is telling his friends, “Oh, look, you see? Aren’t you happy I killed that guy? If I wouldn’t have killed him, he’d be back invading us.” That’s that perspective. The bottom line is all the politicians instead of saying that Elor Azaria is a rotten apple, basically became a hero for this execution.

So now look what happens next in the story. When I write my heroes, it’s not Israel against Palestinians. In my hasbara culture writing, I’m making a hero out of an Israeli Deputy Chief of Staff, a soldier, who’s killed a lot of Palestinians probably. But I’m just telling the world a story and I’m telling you, “Look, look what you’re seeing here.” On the Holocaust day, they have something called a Holocaust day, and this guy gave a speech. In the speech in 2016 in March or April, he said, “I’m noticing processes that are taking place in this country that are similar to what took place in Europe 80 or 90 years ago.” So this is what he said. He’s basically saying what I’m seeing in this country, all this defense for Azaria, don’t you understand all you people that he’s a murderer? He’s saying I’m noticing that our political culture is like it was in Germany in the 1930s. Okay? Think about that. Think about someone in the Holocaust days saying that. Yeah, Yair Golan is his name. Actually, in the events of last week, the Israeli soldiers were not organized and the army wasn’t around. He went– he’s now a big hero– he just took his car and he drove down south and just risked his life to help people and to try to save people. In the real world he’s a hero, right? Forget about what’s happening. We see he’s the hero from just last week. So now the reaction to him saying that was terrible. The right-wing said he should be fired. And he was a favorite to be actually the next Chief of Staff. But when he gave that speech, it was over. And he knew it was over when he gave the speech. To him, this was more important than the speech. But the country, everyone was attacking him because you’re comparing us to… How can you say such a thing?

Zach: I’m going to try to summarize my understanding of hasbara culture. Basically, you think that there are some pro-Israel people who are basically overly paranoid about the subject of anti-semitism that they too often filter for the worst case most pessimistic interpretations of the people and the criticisms that they face, and they too often call those things anti-semitism and things like this? Is that a pretty fair summation of the statement?

Yakov: Yes, but the key point to what you’re saying, what does it mean when somebody is an anti-Semite? You just said, “Yeah, we call people anti-Semites too frequently.” The question is; when someone calls someone else, when the “the Jews” believe somebody’s an anti-Semite, what does that mean? What do we believe about the person? This is the biggest question. Because in Israel right now, they see what Hamas did, and now they’re looking and they’re saying, “What’s the meaning of what happened? So when we throw around anti-semitic allegations, it’s not just a word to hasbara culture. It’s not just a word. It means this person is something, is thinking something, is something! It’s very important these anti-semitic fights. Because when a Jew believes someone’s an anti-Semite, as I’m going to show you, it means that this person really wants to kill the Jews. That’s the important thing. So these things are very important these anti-semitic allegations today.

Zach: And that’s a good segue into talking about the books that you were going to talk about.

Yakov: Yes. In, I think it was 1990, a historian called Christopher Browning wrote a book called Ordinary Men. In this book, he “discovered” that there were Germans– this German battalion, the police battalion– who when they won, killed Jews. And they didn’t do it because they hated Jews so much. They didn’t kill the Jews because you know what? They saw the Jew, I need to kill this guy. They did it because they didn’t want to look bad in front of their friends, they were… All the reasons, of course, anti-semitism was part of it, right? But the killing, it wasn’t because of Jew hatred. This killing had other reasons. That’s what the book— That’s the discovery he said. And these people, they weren’t ideological Nazis. They were middle-aged policemen who were already adults when the Nazis came to power.

Zach: So it was more about peer pressure and these kinds of things.

Yakov: Right, it was all these things. So, the reaction to this historian’s book was a different book by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. I don’t know if he even had a PhD yet, but maybe at a PhD, or maybe this was his PhD thesis. He said in this book– “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”, that’s the title– he said, “No, Christopher Browning, you are wrong. The reason why these people killed the Jews, even this police brutality, is because there’s something about the Germans that for centuries they’ve been building this anti-semitism. And this culminated in the Holocaust. So, this holocaust and these people killing caused this eliminationist to anti-semitism. It’s sort of like a disease. That’s how you have to think about it.

Zach: Like a true, kind of evil abiding hatred, deeply embedded.

Yakov: Hatred! Right. Hatred! Real hatred! “I need to kill this person, I hate them so much.” So, this book caused an uproar. He went around the whole world, you know, in Germany, he was a celebrity and best seller. While this was going on and while his books were selling out among Jews and everybody else, right, [imitates] “Hitler’s imagined a popular book and by the Germans! That’s why they fucking kill the Jews, right? Because there’s a special eliminationist of anti-semitism. But historians had to deal with this book. And to them, this book was the biggest joke in the world. This wasn’t a serious book. When you read about the reaction of historians, which quote them in my article, they didn’t know what to do. They said the public is getting this false information that we know is not true. They destroyed Goldhagen, all his arguments, all these proofs. I quote this holocaust historian saying he doesn’t know how we’re going to recover from these ideas getting out into the world. It takes forever to establish the truth of an event before it gets down to the people, right? But now this false idea about this ‘eliminationist anti-semitism’ which is not true, now everyone believes it. Everyone loves this book.

Zach: This is related to the Hannah Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil, where they put it in that context then talking about these books in the context of that—

Yakov: Exactly. Let me use that to really explain what this fight is about. Okay? So Israel kidnapped, if you want to use that word, Adolf Eichmann in 1960-61 from Argentina. They discovered him. They were searching for him, they discovered him, they brought him back to Israel, and they put him on trial. And this Hannah Arendt was a German intellectual who escaped Nazi Germany. She went to the trial for The New Yorker magazine, and she wrote a series on the Eichmann trial. She would send back every couple of weeks, “This is the latest from the Eichmann trial.” That became the book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, a very very important book really as we’ll see in the story. She said a lot of things but I’m going to tell you the most important thing that she said. And I’m quoting Corey Robin, and this is a piece called The Trials of Hannah Arendt in The Nation magazine. She says, “For Arendt, the question was not whether Eichmann was an anti-Semite. Nor did she doubt the anti-Semitic character of the Holocaust. The question Arendt posed in Eichmann was whether Eichmann’s contribution to the genocide of the Jews was motivated, could be accounted for, by “his fanaticism, his boundless hatred of Jews.” That’s the question! Were 6 million Jews killed because of the hatred? Every person who killed every Jew– and we’re using Eichmann as an example. She said, “No! He might have been an anti-Semite, but him doing his job to kill millions of Jews was not motivated by Jew hatred. That was her insight, which was an earthquake, right? Think about it from people who are still alive, you know, survivors. Think about the Jewish community after the Holocaust, and think about the Jewish intellectuals being told, “You know what? The Holocaust, it wasn’t even about the Jews.” I’m not exaggerating the point, right?

Zach: It’s a very upsetting idea. It was really controversial, right? People were arguing a lot about that at the time.

Yakov: Right Our story is that cognitive empathy, to try to see the world from different perspectives. When people react, you have to understand that’s how natural it is to react, when Hannah Arendt says this. So, that was the fight. Now, it turns out—

Zach: And real quickly. The point is that when something really horrible like this happens and people do horrible things, the idea that there was something banal about their horrible actions is in effect humanizing them, which is threatening to people that… There can be a desire to see them as something inhuman or something separate, right?

Yakov: Yes, just as an aside. Think about the fights, the America’s wars. The language and the politics is mannequin, right? That means either you’re with us or against us. Saddam represents evil, Putin or whoever represents evil, we represent good. And therefore, we have to do this foreign policy. That’s the mannequin. This is neoconservativeism. This idea, this mannequin idea that we’re fighting a fight between good versus bad is similar to this idea about Eichmann. Therefore, you can’t show any nuance. Whatever the politics are, whatever the questions, whatever the foreign, the argument being made that we’re good versus evil is extremely difficult to deal in a debate. Because as soon as you start, it sounds like you’re defending Saddam. Yes. So, Hannah Arendt. I was going to say in 2010, this new book came out that actually there were these transcripts of Eichmann in Argentina where he was ideological. When he started saying stuff about the Jews. He’s without comrades, right? So they have these things and the argument is, “Listen, he is the ideal.” Now it doesn’t mean that he killed all those Jews for this, but that’s the argument. Hannah Arendt might say, maybe she’d say, “Well, he was with his friends, this is the way he talks. Or even if he talks, yeah, whatever. He doesn’t mean it enough that he’s about to kill every Jew he sees.” That’s how Arendt might respond to this new “evidence”.

Zach: Or even theoretically, if she was wrong about Eichmann, her point could still stand. It could still be a valid point, even if somebody might disagree about Eichmann specifically, right?

Yakov: Okay, just to summarize, I’m going to quote Peter Novick in “The Holocaust in American Life”. He said, “In the long run, almost all scholars have come to accept Arendt’s thesis that typical Holocaust perpetrator was ‘terrifyingly normal’, and by no means a driven anti-Semite. Yehuda Bauer, an Israeli Holocaust historian, writes, “The Germans did not have to hate the Jews in order to kill them. One suspects that had they received instructions to murder all the Poles or all the Frenchmen, they would have performed equally well. For this reason, among others, scholars of the Holocaust have rejected the argument of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen that generations of systematic socialization and the murderous hatred of Jews was a necessary condition for the Holocaust.” Okay? So we come to the end of the fight between Browning and Goldhagen. How did this fight affect reality and affect our world? So, Goldhagen wrote another few books. Basically, he used this idea of eliminationist anti-Semitism. He wrote a book about the Catholics, he said they’re eliminationist anti-Semitism, basically. And the last book he wrote, we’re going to jump to, which was in 2013.

So this guy Goldhagen, who defeated historians about the meaning of the Holocaust and of the meaning of these people killing the Jews, what’s he up to? Everyone knows, oh, for the world, he’s a famous historian, the world’s biggest expert on anti-semitism, the world’s biggest expert on the Holocaust. That’s how he’s viewed by a lot of the public.The latest book he wrote was “The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism”. This book reviewed everywhere. And of course, Jews were concerned about anti-semitism. When they’re at Barnes & Noble, this book jumps out at them and they read this. This creates culture, right? The arguments he makes in this book are what people talk about at the Shabbat table. When you have an argument, you use what Goldhagen said in this book. I’m going to quote to you from a review of this book by The Wall Street Journal, which is pretty conservative. And the person who reviewed this book, Anthony Julius, is a very respected lawyer and very knowledgeable about the Holocaust. So they got him to make this review. Wow, Anthony Julius reviewing this book! And let me read you the beginning of this review. “I have written this review with reluctance, that there should be strife within the party to which Mr. Goldhagen and I both belong. The party of anti-anti-Semites will only give satisfaction to the haters. But we must be smart truth-telling participants in this terrible struggle. We must be intelligent in our judgments and reliable in the claims we make. And for sure, while we must not minimize dangers, we shouldn’t overstate them, either. The devil that never dies doesn’t contribute to our existing understanding of anti-Semitism. It doesn’t give anti-anti-Semites fresh, good arguments. Indeed, it is so easily and justly dismissible. It weakens the very cause its author seeks to promote.” Could you imagine getting requested to review this book at the Wall Street Journal? And your review? Okay, you really don’t like the book, but somehow, you’ll get by without doing this. Think about how bad this book was that he said, “I don’t care about my reputation. I don’t care a lot of people will think I’m stabbing or whatever. I have to say this. This is terrible, this influence that this book will have.”

And like he says, he’s not against… In other words, he’s also “hasbara culture” Also, he’s sympathetic to Goldhagen’s view of anti-semitism. When he says I’m an anti anti-Semite, that’s what it means in the real world. You know, Your idea about there’s a lot of anti-semitism, etc, etc, I agree with you. But this book…” I’m going to quote something that Goldhagen wrote in this book about Israel. So, this whole book, which now there have been 50 books written similar to this book since this book, it is very popular now that Jewish writers are writing books about anti-semitism. Every different way of looking how today is exactly like 1939 and we’re about to be gassed, this is what hasbara culture is. This eliminationist anti-semitism is everywhere. That’s what this guy Goldhagen who wrote that book, everyone believes suddenly this is what he’s telling the Jews, basically. Right? This is what he’s telling. So just to give you a sense when this anti-semitism thing is thrown around, this is what we’re saying. This is who they are. Because anti-semitism, according to hasbara culture, is one thing. All anti-semitism that’s part of a thousand years ago, it’s all the same thing. And when you take a position that’s against “the Jews”, that’s whose side you’re on. Right?

Zach: It’s like saying if you can’t call out this clear evil, this obvious dark force, then you are clearly morally bankrupt, basically.

Yakov: Yes, and you believe things about the Jews. This is very important. Anti-semitism is believing certain things about the Jews. You believe that they control the world, you believe whatever it is; the Jews, this or that. When Ilhan Omar is called an anti-Semite, the accusation is she’s thinking about the Jews all the time. That’s what it means. So that woman, you know what she doesn’t like? She thinks about how to get the Jews. This is what it means when someone becomes an anti-Semite. It’s an obsession. It’s an obsession. It’s a medieval Incubus. That’s the way to understand what Goldhagen said about the Germans. It’s a medieval Incubus. That’s what anti-Semites are, a medieval Incubus. They got a disease that they caught. When you look at the Jews, this is what you think about that. Of course, a lot of this book is about everyone being anti-Israel, and that means they want to kill the Jews. Basically, that’s what he’s saying.

Look how far he goes. Look at this argument. “Anyone who claims that the antipathy of the region or of the world at large is only for Israel because of its policies, and not towards Jews in general because of their Jewness, or reclaims that such people’s intent is anything but eliminationist towards Israel, the country, and towards Jews in general because of their Jewness, is being duped or is seeking to dupe others.” And there you have it. All these people are now out screaming on Twitter, taking the side of the Palestinians. It’s not because of what Israel is doing. It’s not because it’s your policies. It’s not because of what they do. It’s because these people either have this hatred of the Jews, or they have been duped to believe what they believe about Israel. Just to give you a quote by Yair Rosenberg who just wrote this article about Hamas, he represents what I write. I’m just talking about ideas. When I mention people, I’m not judging them or anything. I’m talking about the ideas that they espouse. They could be the most wonderful people in the world. I don’t know. I don’t know them, I’m just talking to how their ideals operate in the world. So, this is a quote. He wrote an article in The Atlantic, very influential! Atlantic, when they talk about anti-semitism and the Jews and Hamas. He just wrote this big article. Of course, this article is important for what it does to the culture. But anyway, this is a tweet. “There’s been a lot of deserved criticism of college students celebrating Jewish death in the guise of supporting the Palestinian cause. But as this piece rightly notes, while it’s easy to blame the students, what does their conduct say about their teachers?”

So, when hasbara culture sees these people demonstrating, you know, pro-Palestinian people around the world, what they see is these people, like you said, hating the Jews. All this is not because of anything Israel did or any objective analysis, they want to destroy Israel. Like Goldhagen said, eliminationist. All these people demonstrating, it’s not about the Palestinians, it’s about Israel. And its eliminationist. They want to kill the Jews, all these people.

There was this professor, there’s this tweet going around by Cornell talking about how happy he was by what Hamas did. I forget the word he used, but, “I’m energised! I’m energized!”

Zach: Exhilarated or something.

Yakov: Exhilarated! So, what’s he saying? Let’s imagine being him. What is he saying? He’s giving you the Palestinian perspective, the Hamas perspective. Okay? “These people have been locked up, open that prison, Israel does whatever it wants. This is going to go on for the next thousand years and there’s nothing the Palestinians can do about it. The whole world is against them. They shoot these…” It’s totally the Palestinian perspective, they lock them in this jail. And it’s also these people believe in decolonization. Israel is this European export into the Middle East, that’s what the design of this project is. And of course, we’re going to be happy when they fight back. It’s like rooting for the Indians when in the 18th century, America is moving across the country and settling across the country, and when Indians came across or found Whites– men, women, whatever– it was brutal, right? It was like what Hamas did to the “Americans”. Right? We’re not judging, we’re trying to act. When we talk about these things, we’re trying to be political scientists. Of course, I cried and cried. I have a sister who lives in Jerusalem, I told you—

Zach: I think that’s an important point. Because I think what you’re arguing for is trying to understand what people are thinking. For example, that Cornell professor, I found what he said really gross and I judged him for that. But I can also, like you’re saying, try to understand what he’s thinking and the best versions of it. I can criticize him while also trying to understand what he’s thinking and what’s driving some of these—

Yakov: What we want is if we were to ask him, “Hey, what do you mean?” What he tells us, that’s what we’re reporting to the world. “You see, what is the speech? This is what he means by this speech.” Then we can make judgments on that. But we need to know reality. Now if you look at Bari Weiss, who I’ve written a few articles about—

Zach: And real quick, I’ll throw in there too. I think a lot of people are taking the most extreme things people say, like that Cornell professor, for example, and extrapolating it to everyone who’s doing much more subtle things of just saying let’s support Palestine or, you know, criticizing Israel. And so they’re taking the most easy to criticize and judge behaviors and saying this guy’s language represents what other people are saying, basically, which I think is part of the very nature of conflict too. We see these kinds of extreme things and say that language represents what other people are thinking too.

Yakov: We are in an incredibly dangerous time. What we saw happening last Saturday, you have to understand that every Jew is brought up with what happened in the Holocaust, you know, the [unintelligible 00:35:22], SS units hunting Jews everywhere. This is what when we think about it, that’s what happened. And people think, “Well, now at least we have Israel.” What’s Israel? A refuge— “If this happens anywhere around the world, we can always go to Israel if things get bad.” And Israel prides itself on the most sophisticated army in the world, selling all their ideas and weapons everywhere. And then what happens? Hamas gets in and the scenes are… Israel couldn’t protect… Netanyahu, protector of the Jews, can’t protect his own citizens! He’s talking always about the whole world. His own citizens! So these things, the motion that it brings out in people and Jews in Israel and everywhere else for a whole bunch of reasons is overwhelming. It’s so overwhelming with every Jew with any connection, no matter what his politics is. Which is why there’s a problem in the left. We’re interpreting things differently. Think about what’s happening. Every event is interpreted by hasbara culture. As they’re doing this, they’re thinking about the images of the Jews that were killed. That’s what these people are thinking when they’re demonstrating. Whereas in the real world, they saw it. They don’t want to look at it. Why would they rather look? They try to look at all the dead bodies? I mean, they don’t rather look. But that’s compelling to them. So this is what almost everyone, or most of these people, that’s what they’re demonstrating against; the killing of innocent people. But when hasbara culture looks at it, when Bari Weiss… She said this guy… What did she say? What did she describe was happening here? “This guy is exhilarated by the killing of Jews.” That’s what she said. “This professor is exhilarated by the killing of Jews.” Now, that’s not true. I mean, it could be, it might very well. But that’s not most likely. If we asked him, he wouldn’t talk about the Jews. Right?

Zach: It reminds me of a similar thing to what somebody said. Somebody had some quote about 9/11 that was also similarly criticized, where they basically said something like ‘the brave terrorists or something had a lot of bravery’ or some similar words that got a lot of criticism. But the person was just trying to communicate something like they clearly were brave, no matter what you thought of them. Some kind of debate around that where it was a similar thing where it was like, “I would not have used that word, but I kind of understand what you were trying to communicate.”

Zach: A small note here: I realized what I was thinking about was something Bill Mahar said on his show Politically Incorrect not long after 9-11. He was responding to people like George W Bush calling the 911 terrorists “cowards”. Bill Mahar said, “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.” And the writer Susan Sontag said something similar. These things, as you’d expect, kicked off some outrage. Okay back to the talk. 

Zach: Okay, back to the talk. Yeah. I do think, to your point, it’s something I think is such a basic aspect of all human conflict, where the conflict can be so complex, especially for something that goes back many years and has all these twists and turns and you can examine in all different ways, and there’s so many ways to filter all that information in many ways. Which, to me, gets to the basic point of it’s just so easy for humans to disagree on complex topics, which plays into how we disagree on all sorts of issues. And conflict is a complex issue, so it makes sense that people can filter for all sorts of interpretations. Also to your point, too, the complexity of even what’s happening right this second, it’s like some people will be focused on one thing and then other people will be focused on what’s happening right now. Like, you know, Israel’s response is happening right now as opposed to something that was in the past, no matter how horrific it is. So I think there’s all these different ways that… You know, there’s this complex prism of how people can parse and then you add in the complexity of how people speak about these things is not nuanced sometimes and they speak badly, they speak in just plain stupid or even ways we think are very wrong. So you add in all this complexity, and then everyone’s reacting to how people are speaking and they’re filtering it through their lens. It’s just such a complex thing.

Yakov: Right, that’s why it’s so important to get this right. It’s so important that people… The people, they need to… There’s so much noise. This is all noise. We have to really get to some truth.

Zach: It is important. It’s theoretically a humanity-ending problem if we can’t, especially with all the noise that social media and the Internet help create. To me, it’s just like an amplifier of the things we’ve been dealing with in humanity for all of history. It’s basically creating this nuclear reaction reaching critical mass kind of thing of amplifying all the reactions that people have against each other. So to me, this is a very fundamental thing that if humanity can’t solve our fundamental ways that we always fight with each other, I don’t think we’re going to be around much longer. That’s my own take.

Yakov: And this is a danger… Hezbollah, a very powerful force in Lebanon, there are things that Israel… I believe that if Israel keeps on doing the things it’s been doing, there’s a point in which Hezbollah will have to, like go to war with Israel. I don’t know what that point is. But Hezbollah does resistance, you know, the organization. At some point, the Arab world will look at them, “What’s your reason for being? If you don’t hit Israel now, what’s the point of Hezbollah?” I don’t know where that is, but this is where we’re heading very fast. Okay, I’m going to continue in our story. Last we heard was Goldhagen saying, “All this hatred towards Israel has nothing to do with Israel’s policies, it’s because of these people’s Jewness, because Israel is a Jewish country. And anyone who claims what I’m saying is not true is being duped or is seeking to dupe others. This is all about the Jews. It’s the same thing. It’s the same as the Holocaust, it’s the same as a thousand years ago. It’s the same thing that we’re up against.” That’s what he’s telling the reader. And what I’m telling you and your audience is that this became true. This is the culture right now. So we have to think when people read something, what happens if they believe what they’re reading? And I’m telling you, the people believe what they’re reading. Just think about this. There’s been 50 books in the last couple of years about Jewish victims or about everyone wants to kill the Jews. Okay?

Let me give you the non-hasbara culture perspective. This is JJ Goldberg who reviewed this Goldhagen book in Democracy magazine. I’m quoting from this review. He says, “There have been dozens of assaults on Jews and Jewish targets around the world by Muslim attackers, usually an explicit retaliation for Israeli actions. Some have been lone wolf attacks, including deadly shootings on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994, atop the Empire State Building in 1997, at Los Angeles International Airport in 2002, and at a Seattle Jewish charity in 2006. Others have been planned by attacks by terrorist organizations, like the murderous assault on a Mumbai synagogue in 2008, or the deadly bombings of a Tunisian synagogue in 2002, two Istanbul synagogues in 2003, and a Jewish restaurant, community center, and cemetery in Casablanca in 2003. And this doesn’t include dozens of attacks that were nonfatal or were foiled by authorities. In one sense, this constitutes a new wave of violent anti-Semitism, as Goldhagen and others claim. It is a series of attacks on Jews who have not done anything to invite it, because they are Jews. In another sense, though, it is an ugly expansion of a century-old territorial war that hasn’t hesitated to target civilians, on both sides, and now includes their supporters, allies, and kin around the world. Israel’s intelligence professionals believe the war can be ended through compromise but will only get uglier until that happens. Zealots believe they have a God-given mandate to stand firm, and they’re holding Jews around the world hostage to their beliefs—and recruiting unsophisticated polemicists like Daniel Goldhagen to make their case.”

He’s saying Israel’s a country. Let’s make believe it’s not a Jewish country, let’s make believe it’s the Irish country. It’s a different country. If they would do what Israel did, if they would go… [inaudible] take the whole story and [inaudible] not the Jews, right? It’s the Irish. I’m quoting the sociologist who made this point. If let’s say, Israel was the home of the Irish people and there was some terrorist attack, and the Irish Prime Minister would say, “They killed us only because we were Irish. It’s the only reason they killed us.” That’s the discourse in Israel. “They killed us only because we were Jews.” So he’s saying, no, you’re having a fight with another… Two nationalisms are fighting. In the real world, it’s ‘understandable.’ This is not the same Jew hatred about Jews going into the last thousand years.

Zach: Can I dig in there a little bit? Because when I interviewed James Kirchick, one thing he said when I asked him about how he separated or defined anti-semitism in terms of criticism of Israel, he talked about his view that are people being imbalanced in how they criticize Israel. His view was that people aimed far too much criticism at Israel that they wouldn’t aim at other countries who had done the same. I’m curious, how do you see that? Because I can see reasons why we talk about Israel more than other countries in the West, basically. But I’m curious to get your take on that.

Yakov: Okay. In my writing on hasbara culture, you know, I look at these arguments that certain Jewish journalists make. I should call them hasbara culture journalists because this is not a Jewish thing. This is a victim thing. I’ll call them the hasbara culture journalists, of which Kirchick is one. The arguments they make, and I unpack it and think about it, I have cognitive empathy for Kirchick. And then I’m saying, “Look what Kirchick believes.” That’s what my writing does. It says, “Read what he wrote. This is what he means. This is what he believes.” That’s what my articles basically are. How would a social scientist answer this question: “What’s going on with these people?” If they could, they would interview every person demonstrating in some pro-Palestinian March somewhere. And they pull them in and they’d have three experts, three guys with 12 PhDs, and they’d start asking this person this question, “Hey, when’s the first time you heard about Palestine?” And the person would answer. When they hear the story of what led this person to this march and what she believes about the world, if they were to do it with every person at that march, they could then give an analysis and say what is the meaning of this march.

What Kirchick does is he’s taking one of these people who are ‘pro-Palestinian’ and saying, “Oh, let’s analyze what they’re saying. They made this argument, hold on, but do they make the same argument with China?” Think about how human beings actually operate. If you take a person, he’ll be like– some people love the story– “Yeah, my brother’s girlfriend was a Palestinian so I never thought about the Palestinians before.” But suddenly, it’s like she’s seeing stories, etc. That’s one way. Another person is an Arab, whatever. That’s the real world. And these people, there’s always reasons why you’re interested. It’s like going over to someone worried about climate change and saying, “Hey, why aren’t you worried about what’s going on in Israel? Don’t you think this is more important than climate change which is in a thousand years?” Shouldn’t you be more concerned?” So, any person you could question them and see they’re not consistent. That’s not the way the world works. So the person, for whatever it is, he feels this bothers him more than other things. Which, to Kirchick, that means, “Ah, it’s about the Jews.” You come up with all these arguments to see if these people are anti-Semites, right? All these IHRA definitions of anti-semitism. When all you need to do is go talk to them, right?

Zach: I don’t if you’re going to get to this, but the thing that struck me in there is that the fact that there’s a lot of violence over there itself means that Israel is more in the news and people talk about it more. And the fact that it gets support from America means it gets more attention. So I just think there’s various reasons that it’s more in the news, right?

Yakov: Sure. And everyone is so certain of their position that if in any group you’re part of, someone says, “Hey, what’s your position on Israel-Palestine?” Well, you better get a position. Whose side are you on? That’s the way… It’s almost like you have to have a position on this issue.

Zach: Right. It’s just discussed so much more. It’s kind of a cascade of things, too. The violence itself gets to the tension. And then the fact that it is a very important topic to many people, that just becomes more important to more and more people. So yeah, that’s just to say I didn’t find that argument very persuasive.

Yakov: This is where we are. We have an argument by JJ Goldberg saying that Israel is a country like any other country. They’re doing bad things in the world to other people. People react the way they do in a lot of different ways. And that’s what this is about. It’s about if anyone else would be there instead of the Palestinians, you’d see some version of the events taking place. Maybe slightly different, whatever. Basically, this has to happen. In fact, Israeli security people have been telling the politicians… There’s a documentary called The Gatekeepers of 2011 where former Israeli heads of the Mossad, the last five heads of the Mossad, basically are warning about what’s happening now. “This is going to happen unless you deal with the Palestinian situation.” Netanyahu is a big genius. He managed to get around the Palestinians. That, he’s so proud of. “I can make deals and the whole world doesn’t care about the Palestinians.” That is his accomplishment. Anyway, the point that I want to make— So the argument either whether this is about all these anti-Israel people, it’s about the Jews, or it’s about a country doing what the country is doing. Now, the next thing I’m going to read to you is this. What we’re seeing now all over the world, these demonstrations against Israel, these took place every time Israel has attacked Gaza in the last 15 years. It’s been like five times. After one of those times, Operation Protective Edge in September 2014, this is Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic. This is the article. “Does Human Rights Watch understand the nature of prejudice? A powerful advocate appears to believe that anti-semitism is sparked and turned by Jewish behavior.” September 21st, 2014. A few days ago, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, tweeted the following statement. “Germans rally against anti-Semitism that flared in Europe in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza war. Merkel joins.”

What happened was there was anti-semitism after the last Israeli attack on Gaza, so the Germans had to rally to defend the Jews. So, Germans rallied against anti-semitism that flared in Europe in response to Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war. Right? He wrote this op-ed about this rally. Because if people were saying don’t blame the Jews on Israel, he’d say, “Whatever did I say.” So this is Goldberg’s analysis. Okay? Roth’s framing of this issue is very odd and obtuse. Anti-semitism in Europe did not ‘flare’ in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza or anywhere else. Anti-semitic violence and invective are not responses to events in the Middle East, just as anti-semitism does not ‘erupt’ in response to policies of banks owned by Jews, or in response to editorial positions taken by the New York Times. This is for the simple reason that Jews do not cause anti-semitism. What is Goldberg saying here? This is basically what he’s saying. According to Goldberg, Israel is the Jewish state. And the fact that it’s the Jewish state attracts response from people. That’s the Jewish state. They don’t look at Israel, it’s the Jewish state. So when this Jewish state behaves in the world and people demonstrate against it, it’s not because it’s Israel’s doing something. It’s because it’s the Jewish state. Right? So we’re saying you, head of Human Rights Watch, you’re saying that anti-semitism was about Israeli behavior. No, anti-semitism is not about Israeli behavior. Just to give you that Yair Rosenberg tweet that I told you earlier, there has been a lot of criticism of college students celebrating Jewish death in the guise of supporting the Palestinian cause. Right?

Zach: I think what you’re getting at is this mind-reading aspect of conflict, which I think is a fundamental dynamic in conflict where we we overly mind-read. We think that we know what’s in the hearts and minds of the people on the other side, the people who are aligned against us. We see this a lot in the American conflict that divides here where you’ll see people on the left and people on the right write these elaborate pieces about the way they know what’s in the hearts and minds of their political opponents. It’s just a lot of mind-reading and making suppositions that are not based on any logic. You usually can’t figure out exactly why people are doing what they’re doing, especially in a conflict situation. So I think you’re getting at this mind-reading thing, and also getting at the aspect that I think is the fundamental nature of extreme conflict too, where people do not want to be blamed for their role. They don’t want to be criticised and seen as contributing to a conflict. The thing that comes to mind for me is in the left in America, there’s a lot of pushback to the idea that some liberals contribute to our divides, even though you’ve got entire books written by politically liberal people about the contributions to our divides on the liberal side. But there’s this allergy to self-examination and this instinct to say, “No, you cannot examine our role on this. You’re casting blame at the wrong side.” Yeah, I think there’s this real allergy there too. And it sets up a logical impossibility of basically saying you can’t examine anything that we’ve done or criticize anything that we’ve done. And to do so is to make any false moral equivalence, right? That’s what a lot of people in any conflict will do. They’ll say you are making a false moral equivalence even by trying to examine our role in this conflict or this role in whatever violence.

Yakov: Yes, I agree. What I’m saying is, what genocide experts do, when they look at the behavior of these soldiers who killed the Jews, the Police Battalion 101, what they want is to know what the person was thinking as they shot the Jews. That’s what they’re after. We want to get into his head to understand what was he thinking so that we should know and we should prepare for the next time when we see people thinking like that. That’s the goal.

Zach: You really want to understand it so you can prevent it. You want to understand it.

Yakov: And it’s important we’re not judging. Once you look in his head and you start judging, “I can’t believe this guy believes these things,” you lose the thread. We can’t be judging. We can judge afterwards if we want, but it’s very important to be accurate in exactly what he is saying, right? What this guy is thinking? That’s political science. Politics is to say what he’s thinking. Political science is to really try to get at the truth, what is true to what he was thinking, while politics will say, “You know what he was thinking? He wants to kill all the Jews.” What I am claiming, which sounds crazy, is that Goldhagen won the argument about what the 101 shooters were thinking. Those people, and I use Jeffrey Goldberg as my big example, he is the most influential person about what ‘the evil people’ are thinking. That is this new type of journalism. And if you look at very influential journalists, that is what they’re doing. They’re telling us what these people are thinking. We want to know what the Hamas people were thinking. If we want to know what happened, to really understand, we’d interview every one of these people who came over the fence, every one of these people who shot them, and we’d start talking to them. And we’d say, “Hey, why do you hate the Jews? You hate the Jews because? What do you think the Quran says about the Jews? Oh, yeah, the [unintelligible 00:57:48] was killed last week,” or whatever it is. You’d interview everyone. And then we would come up with a report and we’d say, “Okay, we’ve interviewed 1200 people and this is our analysis. Overall, they did it for this reason.” So now this fight over what these people were thinking is the fight that’s going on in the world. Because a lot of people are saying, “Yeah, they might have had…” The event is understandable. Whatever they did, it’s not out of this world. Of course, we can’t imagine that. It’s the most horrible thing any human would see in their what they’re saying. But to understand the truth, we have to go beyond that. We’d have to interview every one of these people. So now what I call never-again journalists, that’s their job in the culture. This is what Jeffrey Goldberg did, right? Today, Yair Rosenberg came up with an article about Hamas. What does the behavior mean? He doesn’t know anything about Hamas, he’s writing the articles at The Atlantic. He is making the culture of what we saw; what Hamas is about, and why they killed all those Israelis in the way they did. But my argument is that these people doing what they’re doing is what led to where we are today.

Zach: Can I interject a couple of questions here? When you talk about your idea of hasbara culture, how much does the level of religiosity play into that? Is a person’s level of religiousness in Judaism related to it? How does that factor in as you see it?

Yakov: Yeah, excellent question. So, take where I come from. I grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Now, Netanyahu had great influence on what I’m about to tell you. But when I grew up, the Orthodox Jews– not the religious Zionist Jews who lived in the settlements. These people are hardly Zionist. Yeah, they like Israel, they in favor of Israel. They don’t think about Israel. They’re basically against the idea of Zionism because according to the Orthodox religion, you’re not allowed to create your own state. You have to wait for the Messiah to come. So all the Zionists were the enemies of these people. They blamed World War Two. These religious Jews, their leaders, they blamed World War Two on the Zionists because of trying to go against God and create a state. But then this idea became religious Zionism by Rabbi Kook and the son. It infused nationalism into this whole question and religion. So they are very, very different from just orthodox normal people who study or grew up studying the Talmud and things like that. But what Netanyahu has done, and even these parties– religious parties, not religious Zionism party, but just the ultra-orthodox parts– they even were supportive of Rabin. They supported Rabin in the peace process from the outside. But still, when Rabin tried to make peace at the Oslo Accords, these people were on his side.

Zach: A small note: if you’d like to learn more about Rabin and the almost successful attempt to create a peace compromise in the 90s, a great documentary on that is The Oslo Diaries. It’s a very touching and sad documentary that is also great if you’re interested in conflict resolution in general. Back to the talk.

Yakov: But what Netanyahu has done is turned all these people into thinking like the religious now. All these things I’m telling you, he’s told these people that you know what? This is the Holocaust all over again, the whole world wants to kill the Jews. And he whispered once to a rabbi, he was whispering and said, “The left forgot what it means to be Jewish. All my opponents forgot what it means to be Jewish. They believe you can trust the Arabs to make peace with them.” Basically, it’s what he said. So these people, the non-Jews, what makes these Jews bad Jews or not bad Jews? They don’t realize that everyone wants to kill us. They’re making excuses. That’s what Netanyahu did. He’s drunk. Every time there’s a terrorist incident, he would just really poison. Netanyahu has poisoned the Jewish people with his ideas. So now, all the people that used to be either apolitical, now they view the world in this… They hate the Arabs. They didn’t hate the Arabs, really. But the Orthodox now, they hate the Arabs as much as the religious Zionist world. Like killing Palestinians, some of them are killing Palestinians in the West Bank as we speak for revenge about what happened.

Zach: We could see that is tied into the fundamental nature of conflict because polarization slash conflict involves more and more boundary policing of saying who’s really part of our group and who’s not. That leads to language like you’re not really a conservative, you’re not really a progressive, you’re not really Jewish… These kinds of language. Basically, the boundary policing there.

Yakov: Understand that when Bari Weiss says that this person is thinking about the Jews, you have to understand when people read it and what she’s saying. She’s saying what this person is thinking. Now, imagine that everyone believes that this is what this person is thinking. So, Bari Weiss is the one. She’s the expert on what these’ anti-Israel’ people are really thinking. Look what Israel is doing. The whole world is watching Al Jazeera all day of all these innocent people being killed and announcing. Israel saying they’re not human, basically. They said that in every which way. And now that’s what the world is seeing. But according to Bari Weiss and Jeffrey Goldberg, no, they see the Jewish state. This is what we’re dealing with in the real world. Just to give you another example of my point, Ayelet Waldman, who is an Israeli-American author, in 2006 wrote this tweet; “Yesterday’s bus bombing is a tragedy, but not a surprise. This kind of terrible violence is an inevitable result of a brutal occupation.” Goldberg responded to this tweet this way: “The Jews had it coming, apparently.” What she’s saying is, yeah, if you do this to… No people have ever been oppressed the way we’re oppressing the Palestinians, that didn’t strike back. We should expect to get terrorism, is what she’s saying. And Goldberg tweeted, “No. What do are you saying? You’re saying Jews are causing terrorism.”

Zach: Yeah, I was going to say it reminds me of sometimes the debate around when people try to give advice to women to not be attacked and not be sexually assaulted or physically assaulted. Some of that will sometimes be interpreted as victim blaming because you’re saying, “How dare you try to say that something we did contributed to us being attacked?” Whereas what people are trying to do there usually is trying to give people advice on how to avoid dangerous situations. But there can be a way to filter that where it’s victim blaming, especially if it’s not done in a persuasive or respectful manner. That just reminded me of that, where the act of trying to examine the role in a conflict and examine the dynamics of a conflict is interpreted as victim blaming.

Yakov: Right. So, what is the argument there? I’m going to say this, but you’ll see where the problem is. The argument there is if the social scientists interviewed the guy who attacked the woman and raped the woman, and imagine you interview a thousand of them, and 740 said, “You know what? The way she dressed turned them on.” Imagine if this happened in the real world. People will say, “You know what? You want to be careful? Don’t dress like that, that turns men on.” We can’t face a question like that.

Zach: It’s easily an offensive question to ask, “What can we do better?” Especially when we’re very angry and scared. I think that what all these conflicts get down to is when people’s emotions are high, it’s the most offensive thing in the world to ask, “What can we do better?” Because we’re at the peak of our heartbreak and suffering and all these emotions. And to be asked what can we do is the height of, you know, it feels horrible. It feels a persecution, which is understandable. And I can see how so many people for so many conflicts don’t want to self-examine, don’t want to ask what can we do better?

Yakov: Let me give you what the experts say about ‘anti-semitism’. I’m quoting you… I forgot his first name. His name is Angel. He does not use the word anti-semitism anymore. He wrote this: “Is there really a connection between things like Christian hostility towards Jews in ancient times, the expulsion of Jews and denial of their rights, blood libels against Jews in medieval times, boycotts of Jewish businesses in the modern age, propagation of the belief that Jews have undue influence on the world economy, restricting Jewish immigration, the murder of Jews by the Nazis and the collaborators during the Holocaust, vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and calls for boycott of Israel and denying Israel’s right to exist.” He’s giving you 12 examples of what we tell that’s anti-semitic and he’s saying, Do any of these things have anything in common?” Because this is the scientific approach. We have to know what each one of these ‘anti-Semites’ are thinking. For us to really know what this is about, we’d interview every one of these anti-Semites going back in time and we’d come back with a conclusion. So he’s saying if we were to do that with all these different people, we would find different things going on. So this is the scholars, that’s how they look at anti-semitism.

Of course, there are things about Jews that people say over different periods of time. You understand the points I’m making. And if I disagree with something, fine, I’m wrong in some nuance. But this is the basic idea of what’s happening. It’s all different. Whereas hasbara culture, it says this one ahistorical anti-semitism, not which is just the eliminationist one. And they see it now after this event. Elor Azaria is really proud, though. Hamas showed… They’re saying hasbara culture is right, that’s what’s so interesting. Hasbara culture won. Because look what Hamas did! It really is the Jews. No one behaves like this. That’s why they’re cutting off the heads of the babies.

Zach: A small note here: there’s been a lot of talk about beheading babies but apparently that was not true, or at least hasn’t been confirmed. I’d recommend a piece by Musa Al Gharbi where he examines the uncertainties around many of the claims being made about what happened, including reports of babies being beheaded and women being raped. That piece is titled If Truth Matters in the Conflict Between Israel and Gaza, Now’s the Time to Tell It. I have a link to that on the blog post for this episode on my site. Back to the talk. 

Yakov: It’s very important the idea that these people are not the same people who fight oppression anywhere or fight colonization. No, we’re dealing with evil. The genocidal language is because of this idea that we’re dealing not only with these fellows, with the Palestinians, you know? This is who we are dealing… With the Nazis, right? We’re dealing with the Nazis. So this is a victory with Hamas doing this. Of course, there’s an answer. If we were to interview everyone, then we’d find out the truth. They quote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Platform. They then changed it. They just said no. What does that mean? If you were to ask the people who wrote the Platform, they’ll say, “Yeah, we’re fighting the Jews and this is what they say about the Jews.” Yeah, maybe it’s true in the real world. Or they might say, “Yeah, the Quran says we should kill the Jews,” some of them say. So the goal of the ‘pro-Israel’– not the real pro-Israel, but hasbara culture– is to say we are not dealing with events that are part of this world. This is not a normal story that you think you’re seeing. Netanyahu gave a speech to Congress against the Iran deal. And during that speech in 2015, Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted this: “BP is right. Jews should not be passive in the face of threats to annihilate us.” This idea, Jews should not be passive in the face of threats to annihilate us– which I write about the Jeffrey Golberg and Netanyahu, it’s the same idea– is what’s happening. It’s why all these countries are just loving Israel to death. Because they know, and they’re talking about the Holocaust, they understand what they’re dealing with there. I’m talking about not everybody. I’m talking about this idea. I’m talking about ideas. The people who accept this idea, they can’t be stopped. If they could use a nuclear weapon, they’re going to use a nuclear weapon. They were embarrassed. Think about how volatile it is what they experience.

So what I want the listeners to understand, I’ve written how these ideas that I’m talking about influence the world. For instance, Jeffrey Goldberg… In 2015, Obama did this Iran deal which was very controversial. So Jeffrey Goldberg had an article, and he said, “Why Iran’s anti-semitism matters.” So he said, “You’re making a deal with Iran, whatever, they’re not going to set whatever the deal is.” So Goldberg confronted Obama, he actually confronted in person and he said, “I want you to answer me something.” He started the article and said, “I gave them what I thought was a gotcha question.” And he said, “Do you think that Iran wants to eliminate Israel?” This is what he asked him. And he said, “That’s a touchy question. Of course, Iran wants to eliminate Israel. How did Obama and Kerry react?” And they said, “Well, they could be anti-semitic but all our experts say no. They’re very pragmatic. They want the billions for their economy, they want to give up any ideas of nuclear weapons. This is what the experts are saying.” And Jeffrey Goldberg said, “No, you’re wrong about that.” And he browbeat Obama and Kerry. This is what he said. He said, “Just look at Hitler.” He said, “Hitler could have used the Jews for hard labor, you know, they’re fighting in this war. Why did they kill the Jews? He could’ve use them for hard labour. Instead, he said I’m going to sacrifice whatever help I can get from the Jews because ideologically, he had to kill them. That’s what anti-semitism is.” So he accused Obama and Kerry. He said, “Don’t you realize that Iran would commit suicide? If they could nuke Israel, they’d welcome suicide.”

So these ideas, and I give a hundred examples of things like that where it’s not pretentious for Obama and Kerry to say these are what all the experts say. Because Jeffrey Goldberg, just like Goldhagen was the expert on what’s going on in the head of the shooter, Jeffrey Goldberg is the expert at what’s going on that Khamenei said. That’s what these people are. The experts aren’t enough to go and confront Obama and Kerry and say, “Don’t you know? Don’t you understand who you’re dealing with?” And other Jewish organizations try to take different positions. Try to think of the Palestinian narrative. What happened was Jeffrey Goldberg and people like them turned them into self-hating Jews. If I could just read you, we talked about Kirchick, so in 2016 in one of the debates between Sanders and Clinton, he said Netanyahu is not always right. So he took a public position on the side of the Palestinians, which was a very big deal because once that’s accepted, the floodgates will open. Once it’s not “Who’s side are you on? The Jews or their enemies,” and once it becomes more complicated, then every progressive politician will say, “Of course, I want peace.” Yeah, the Palestinians have claims, I see their perspective, and I wrote an article hasbara culture and what they did to Sanders. They turned him into a self-hating Jew. Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted: “I don’t know why Bernie Sanders won’t say he’s the first American Jewish President.” Right?

Zach: I think Yakov meant to say the first American Jewish presidential candidate. Back to the talk.

Yakov: He constantly, that’s what Goldberg did to all these people who made some criticism, he said, “This guy doesn’t realize they all want to kill us.” And the reason is because they have some pathology. They have a Jewish pathology that’s self-hatred. When Jeffrey Goldberg, you know, there were these skirmishes in the last 25 years about all of these questions. So, Greenwald made these arguments in favor— He took the Palestinian perspective, basically. So Jeffrey Goldberg attacked him. When Jeffrey Goldberg attacked him, he had to explain why this guy Greenwald is taking the side of the Palestinians. He said probably something horrible happened to him in Hebrew school. The reason why this Jew is thinking of the perspective of the Palestinians, it’s because he was molested when he was a kid. That’s the pathology. And now he hates all the Jews. So anyone who tried to end this conflict in Israel, anyone, any attempt of a two-state solution became impossible. Every politician asked, the question was always, “Are you with the Jews or are you with the people who want to kill the Jews?” Every question! That’s why no one has the courage to call for a ceasefire. Because when you call for a ceasefire, they’ll say, “No, you’re stopping the Jews from doing what needs to be done.” After the Holocaust, that whole story when you say “ceasefire,” the State Department came out with a memo: Nobody calls for a ceasefire, no one says those words. Because that’s what it means when you say those words. That’s the power of these ideas. And the events unfolding, if they keep on being interpreted by Bari Weiss and Jeffrey Goldberg and Yair Rosenberg and hasbara culture and Republican politicians, that’s why a Republican politician is so powerful to say this charge that Biden is on the side of Hamas. You find one thing Biden did, you say we would have done something differently, Biden’s on the side of Hamas. That’s the political culture we’re living in.

Zach: Can I ask you? I want to get to some questions that I’ve accumulated. I interviewed James Kirchick, which was kind of what led up to us talking, and I think one thing you both would probably agree on is that anti-semitism is hugely overstated. I think he might find more of it. He would call more things anti-semitic in terms of criticisms of Israel than you would, but I think you both would agree that the problem is often overstated on both sides. Is that accurate? On both political sides of the US, I mean. Is that accurate to say?

Yakov: Yes, that’s what happens. So you have Republicans, let’s say they put up pictures of billionaires, or they use– let’s go back a little time– when they use the word globalist, I believe that people who study, they didn’t think about Jews when they’re using the word globalist. Whatever. Suddenly, the certain influentials will say, “Hey, globalist? You mean the Jews.” And suddenly the result in the culture is anytime someone uses the word globalist, he’s thinking about the Jews. If the word globalist would be allowed to live, nothing would happen to the Jews. Yeah, a few people would say Jews. No problem. That’s no problem, a few people will say it. But when you make every person who wants to use the word globalist think, “Uh-oh, the Jews say this is anti-semitic. Should I do it or shouldn’t I do it?” Suddenly, you have terrible strife and this leads to anti-semitism. These interventions cultivate anti-semitism. So, I am blaming hasbara culture for the world we live in. As simple as that. One last thing, I know I’ve been going on and on. Really important, one last thing. When you listen to me, you’re like what’s my politics? I want to quote three quotes; Jeffrey Goldberg, Bari Weiss, and Kirchick since this is responding to Kirchick, about Jews. This is what they wrote about Jews who were taking the perspective of the Palestinians. In other words, they believe it’s…

You know, they have a case, right? When you look at the world from the Palestinian perspective, very different. So how do they explain all these writers and thinkers that they defended over the years for trying to get a two-state solution versus seeing the Palestinian perspective? I’m going to quote first Jeffrey Goldberg. He’s talking about this group of people. The others, though, are part of a tiny minority of Jews who believe that the destruction of Israel will bring them the approval of non-Jews which they crave. This is an ideology. He’s not just saying. This is an ideology. Listen to Bari Weiss, she’s talking about the same people. “As many well-intentioned people look to understand why a very small but very vocal group of Jews seem as deeply opposed to Jewish interests as many of our community’s enemies, these Jews ought to be understood in context as part of a long history of left-wing anti-semitic movements that successfully conscript Jews as agents in their own destruction.” And then Kirchick will decide to talk about Bernie Sanders in 2016. He says, “Bernie Sanders and his Jewish devotees can distance themselves from Israel and Zionism all they want. But as has always been the case, it will make no difference to the people they’re trying to please, who continue to reduce them to a single factor of their identity, which in their minds has attained the totalizing force of an epithet Jew.” Okay? Kirchick says you know what? All the people you’re dealing with and you just move into your leftist friends, when they look at you, they see Jew! And you don’t want to accept that because you want them to like you. Right? This is the level of argument by hasbara culture.

Zach: Okay, let me pivot there. Do you see some of these elements in the American left-right divide around, for example, anti-racism racism conflicts there? Do you see some of this?

Yakov: Yes, of course. Because I’m not the first one that’s saying it. When you’re looking at the world, and if you’re ideological, what does ideological mean? You’re constantly looking for proof from the real world for what you believe, right? You can’t be objective because if you believe White people are racist or you have a strong belief, you’re constantly… I’m talking about the Jewish people. If you’re constantly looking for evidence of, let’s say, White people being racist, you have nonstop ammunition which convinces you of your belief. And anyone who’s following you, who’s following your thinking, and who’s reading you, they’re doing the same thing. There’s not someone in there saying, “Hold on, think about the other side. Think about what the argument is against.” For instance, when Trump ran in 2016, I knew we were in big trouble because at MSNBC some opinion person said, “These people voted for Trump because they’re racist.” And it turned out that a big percentage of these people had voted for Obama. Right?

Zach: Yeah. Actually, one of the most important articles that I only recently learned about– I think it’s one of the most important articles– is this great article paper called Race and the Race for the White House by Musa al-Gharbi. It really delves into some of the really bad research that purported to find large amounts of racism amongst Trump voters, and it really highlighted… And it’s something I talk about in my “Defusing American Anger” book just how much people were filtering for what they wanted to find, basically. I think it gets to the fundamental nature of extreme conflict where so many people are filtering for these extremely pessimistic and sky-is-falling narratives. To take one example, we could we could take many examples but on the American right, I see these really elaborate narratives they built up about the evil Marxist plots around them and how everything is tied to Marxism and there’s this undercurrent of Marxism. I think the thing that’s missing from this is like, yes, some of these ideas do have a history of related to very far-left ideas and such and you can build that narrative. But it’s also just true that we’re living in a world. Any complex human world involves a cascade of ideas and you can build all these complex narratives of all sorts to bolster your most pessimistic views of what’s happening. Whereas in reality, it’s much more banal than that. People are responding to… There are humans responding to the things around them, which includes— [crosstalk]

Yakov: Yeah, they’re not ideas. They’re human beings. They’re not some idea.

Zach: Exactly. And part of what they’re responding to is the things that they see as threats on the other side. So it gets back to this idea that in a conflict, we can be helping create the very things that we are most afraid of by how we react to them. Because for example, when Republicans say really horrible things about far-left people or transgender people or whoever it is, they’re helping create the animosity that makes people on the left feel that they’re under attack, which strengthens their passion, etc, etc. So I think the thing that people try to do in a conflict is build these narratives that leave themselves out of it. They build these narratives of “Look at these horrible things that these people have done.” And they build this narrative that suits their us-versus-them emotions, but they’re leaving themselves out of the equation. This isn’t to say that both sides are equal, both sides are the same in any conflict. Because that’s often the objection people get. The point is that if we’re interested in resolving conflicts, we have to be willing to examine our role in the conflict and whether we think the other side is even much worse. The first step is thinking about our role in the conflict and being willing to self-examine and not see criticism of us as a mortal threat or something as a horrible insult.

Yakov: Yeah, if we could have cognitive empathy for both the Jewish dead, think about the hostages, think about what it must be like.

Zach: It’s terrifying. I mean, it’s unthinkable.

Yakov: And at the same time, think about these people in Gaza. When you think about human beings, the deaths that have nothing to do with anything. But the thought of it as an idea, not human beings. Israel, not all Israel, they’re saying, “This is an idea. These are the Nazis, they supported the Nazis, and were allowed to kill the Nazis.” That’s the idea. They’re not thinking of these people as actual human beings like we think of the people that Hamas killed. We know we could relate to them, we could have cognitive empathy and see the world what they experience while this is happening. You can’t even think about what that’s like. Right? So, we have to be able to do that. Each side has to be able to do that for the other side, or God knows where this is going.

Zach: One thing something you have been saying made me think of was the Jonestown Massacre. I recently watched this documentary. It just made me think that the horrible things that these people did when Jim Jones had them drink the poisoned Kool Aid– and some of the parents even got their kids to drink the Kool Aid, their own children, and their own spouses, etc–  there’s a narrative you could build about how evil these people were. You could build a very pessimistic narrative that these people must have been horrible. Their ideology must have been so out of whack, like, inhuman. Because how could you do these things? It’s unthinkable. But the more banal explanation, getting back to the banality of evils, it is just that people are very weak and they’re very led by the people around them, and they very easily succumb to peer pressure in surprising ways that are really hard to fathom. It’s almost easier to imagine people are evil in some of these situations than to imagine how could you do that just because the people around you are doing it and you’re afraid to push back. But I think it really does get to this human frailty, this human weakness of how weak we really are in many cases. That’s hard to understand, too, because I think most of us had this idea of the strength of ourselves, you know? We were self-sufficient—

Yakov: We would never do that.

Zach: We would never do these kinds of things. But I think it does get to this fundamental human question, this human element that we are all products of the people and ideas around us. And in the right circumstances, we are capable of all sorts of things that we wouldn’t think we’d be capable of. So yeah, I think that’s the fundamental human dilemma there that is hard to solve that we just find these things so hard to understand.

That was a talk with Yakov Hirsch. You can find his writings on Mondoweiss, and you can follow him on Twitter @YakovHirsch.

This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about it, and sign up for a premium subscription, at If you appreciate the work I’m doing, you might also want to sign up for my depolarization-aimed substack newsletter, which is called Defusing American Anger. 


Is our craving for certainty our biggest weakness?, with Maria Konnikova

Maria Konnikova is the best-selling author of the books The Biggest Bluff, The Confidence Game, and Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Topics we talk about include: the human desire for certainty and story/narrative, and our discomfort with ambiguity and uncertainty; how she decided to get into poker and write The Biggest Bluff; why she finds poker such an interesting game; how one can pursue a career one finds interesting and rewarding.  

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Resources related to or mentioned in this talk:


Understanding an orchestra conductor’s gestures, with Ming Luke

A talk with orchestra conductor Ming Luke ( Topics discussed include: what a conductor’s body language and gestures can communicate to the orchestra; how small differences in gestures can sometimes result in significant musical differences; the difference in conducting styles that can exist between conductors; the role conductors play and the benefits they bring; the leadership and managerial skills required to be a strong conductor. 

Transcript below.

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Resources related to this talk:


Zach Elwood: Hello and 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 If you appreciate this podcast, you can show your support by signing up on my site for a paid premium subscription.

On this episode, I talk to orchestra conductor Ming Luke. Most of our talk is about how he uses body language and hand gestures and facial expressions to communicate to the orchestra. I also ask him about how he views the role and responsibility of a conductor. I ask him about the anxiety he had early on in his career, when he still was unsure what kinds of mistakes he might make in conducting. I ask him about the leadership and managerial skills that good conducting requires. I ask him if he’d ever done something accidental with his gestures when conducting that changed the course of a performance.

You can learn more about Ming’s experience on his website, which is at, that’s MING As I do this episode, in early October, he’s getting ready to conduct the Las Cruces Symphony in New Mexico in late October, and then after that he’s on to California for a music festival there.

I’ll read a little bit from his website: “Ming Luke is a versatile conductor that has excited audiences around the world in performances of both symphonic and theatrical works. Highlights include conducting the Bolshoi Orchestra in Moscow, performances of Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella at the Kennedy Center, his English debut at Sadler’s Wells with Birmingham Royal, conducting Dvorak’s Requiem in Dvorak Hall in Prague, recording scores for a Coppola film, multiple Asian cultural programs with the San Francisco Symphony, and over a hundred and fifty performances at the San Francisco War Memorial with San Francisco Ballet. Long time critic Allan Ulrich of the San Francisco Chronicle said, “Ming Luke delivered the best live theater performance I’ve ever heard of [Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet]” and in 2016 Luke’s War Requiem was named best choral performance of 2016 in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

I want to thank Molly Chakery, who’s been helping me with the podcast and who helped brainstorm some questions for this episode. I also want to thank behavior specialist Alan Crawley, who recommended I interview an orchestra conductor.

Okay, here’s the talk with Ming Luke.

Hi, Ming. Thanks for coming on the show.

Ming Luke: Happy to be here.

Zach: Yeah. Maybe we can start with one common question I’ve seen asked about conducting is people who are curious just what exactly a conductor does. For example, one form of this question can be, what happens if there isn’t a conductor? What happens with the band? Are they able to play? How do they perform? And maybe you could talk a little bit about how you view the role of a conductor and the value and benefit that they bring to the table.

Ming: Sure. Yeah, a few 100 years ago, there actually weren’t conductors for ensembles. Oftentimes, the concertmaster that is the lead violinist would actually be gesturing with his or her body to keep the ensemble together. But as ensembles got larger and larger, the necessity to have somebody coalesce and unify the artistic vision of the ensemble was needed. There are certainly many groups now that a conductor lists, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is a very famous one, but the amount of time that it takes to rehearse and really get everybody on the same page artistically can make it prohibitive, especially since time can be very expensive. So conductors, you know, it’s true, the musicians have the music in front of them. They don’t necessarily need the conductor to know when to play, it’s really how to play. And so let’s say the music is getting louder, we have a crescendo, it is difficult for everybody to really lock in to know how to do that at the same time because you can increase your volume in a lot of different ways, quickly at the beginning or very slow and steady or very quickly at the end. And the conductor’s job is really to unify that artistic vision. For me, conductor’s goal is to allow the musicians to play at their best no matter what the circumstances are. And so sometimes that’s very practical. If it’s a very large orchestra, you might need to keep everybody together so that 50 feet apart on stage, how can they play together if it’s very hard to hear from one side of the stage to the next? Sometimes it’s very musical like we were just mentioning, if it’s the idea of how a musical phrase is shaped, what a slow down or ritardando might look like so that everybody stays together. So my role as a conductor is really to try to unify the artistic vision, no matter the size of the ensemble and of course help the musicians play their best depending on the circumstances.

Zach: As I understand it, at least some conductors, their role is also to interpret the music. Is that correct, and is that always the case? Maybe you can talk a little bit about how the pre-performance and rehearsal part of it works.

Ming: Sure. Yeah, there are many musicians and conductors that are actually very famous for the amount of knowledge that they bring. Their physical gestures might not actually be as precise or as clear as some others, but their musical vision is really important. And so that’s part of the idea of trying to get everybody on one unified artistic vision. Because if you have an ensemble like the Orpheus Chamber Ensemble, everybody in that group– let’s say it’s 40 people– might have an opinion on how the music is approached. And so for conductors, it’s very easy to say, “Hey, let’s do this version of this.” For instance, this week I’m working on Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, which is a very famous piece, but the [unintelligible 00:06:16] can wildly vary from conductor to conductor. And it’s just much more efficient to have one musical vision to approach the work rather than having an entire discussion throughout the work. And as mentioned before, there are certainly ensembles that actually spend the time to do that and it can be very gratifying as a musician or as an instrumentalist to play in a group where everybody’s artistic ideas are sort of incorporated. But it is very impractical, especially because most professional orchestras will put together the music only in one week. And so they really have just four or five rehearsals, two and a half hour rehearsals, to try to get a piece presentable for the public.

Zach: It kind of reminds me of some jobs I’ve worked that were less hierarchical than others, where it wasn’t clear who called the shots or who made the calls. And there’s something that can be nice about that but it also means there can be a lot of confusion about how do things exactly get decided. Is that an accurate analogy for what the conductor does?

Ming: Yes, decision by committee is always very, very messy. Now in the past, the generations beforehand, the conductor was a bit of a tyrant. And that has changed quite a bit in the last few decades, where the conductor and the musicians are more collaborative. And it’s a better circumstance now because again, we do want to unify the artistic idea of an approach to the work, but we’re not doing it in a way that that nullifies the musician’s input and participation.

Zach: How would you describe, when it comes to the movements that you make during conducting, how would you describe the various pieces of information that are being communicated when you conduct?

Ming: Sure, there is the practical and there’s artistic. And so traditionally, and many people deviate from this, but traditionally, the right hand with a baton is more of a timekeeper. And music is, as many people know, organized into various measures and have time signatures. So the right hand will mimic those time signatures, and if a measure has 3/4 notes in a bar, then the conductor will oftentimes have three gestures that represent each of those beats. The left hand oftentimes is considered to be the artistic side and it shows dynamic, shows entrances, and is much more fluid and is not tied down to the rhythmic integrity of the work. Again, this is very flexible. There are many conductors, for instance, that conduct actually with the baton on the left hand and the left hand is the timekeeper, and there are many conductors where the ensemble might not need the time dictation as much and actually just need more of the phrasing and you might actually stop beating the actual beats in the bar. But traditionally, that is the case where the right hand generally keeps time along with the structure of the music, and left hand can be a little bit more free.

Zach: When you say he’s doing with the right hand the three beats, let’s say it’s three four. So, he’s making three strokes in the air next to each other to give a sense of the spatial thing? Is that accurate?

Ming: Yes. Yes, and so it would very much traditionally look like a triangle. You would go as your downbeat, your first beat would go down, then you go to the right and then you go up. And so you create a little bit of a triangle. Again, the shape of a triangle can vastly differ. So if it’s something music that’s very loud and you want to show a very large gesture to encourage the orchestra to play loud, you can make the triangle quite large. Or very much the opposite. If you want to make it very soft, that triangle could be very soft. If it could be more lyrical, then maybe it’s a triangle that’s very flat and side to side versus music that is a little bit much like or a little bit more accented, then your gestures and triangles might be a little bit more vertical. There’s a lot of variation to the shape and to the gestures but the right hand, or at least the hand that is keeping time, will try to maintain that structure of a triangle of some sort in something that’s three. Again, that changes quite a bit because you can emphasize certain beats more or less, but in the very beginning of conducting, we’re always taught about the conducting patterns for the various time signatures so that the orchestra knows exactly where they’re supposed to be.

Zach: When you talk about the right hand keeping time and the left hand doing more artistic or dynamic or ups and downs and entrances, is it difficult to keep those together? I mean, I play some piano and I’ve always struggled with doing rhythm with the left hand and doing melody with the right and trying to keep a steady rhythm while you do more melody-type things. Is there a similar difficulty there of having to get good at basically keeping time and doing the more artistic stuff? Does that make sense?

Ming: Yes. Yeah, it very much requires a lot of coordination. It’s like tapping your head and rubbing your belly at the same time trying to divorce mirroring. We actually, with conducting students, they may start off with mirroring just to get an idea of patterns but then we have to break. It’s very much a goal to be able to be very independent between the two hands so that the amount of information can be… more information can be portrayed.

Zach: It seems like the piano is a really good practice for that instrument-wise. Is that accurate to say or are there other instruments that are good for that?

Ming: Oh, yeah, definitely. Piano, definitely. I would say organ too because you have to use your feet, but conductors are not supposed to move their feet as much. But anything that requires really divorcing the gestures from hemisphere to hemisphere is helpful.

Zach: Yeah, that’s really what I struggled with a lot and it’s a difficult task. And you play piano, right?

Ming: I play piano, I play violin very poorly. A stereotype with conductors is that you need to play all instruments, but that’s actually not true. It’s more important to know how the instruments work and obviously have an idea of what is important information. So, there are certain gestures that you give to string players that you should not give to brass players, and there are certain gestures that you give to wind players that you don’t give to, for instance, singers. And so again, it’s about knowing the instruments as much as possible and how they work, but having to directly play them is just a stereotype. We don’t necessarily need to know how to play all the instruments.

Zach: You talked a little bit about the right hand and the left hand. Do you use much in the way of facial expressions when you conduct?

Ming: Yeah, that’s definitely an aspect. There’s actually a very famous video on YouTube people can find where Leonard Bernstein is conducting the Vienna Philharmonic only using his face. It’s a work of Haydn, and Haydn doesn’t necessarily… That was back in the era where ensembles were smaller that you really didn’t necessarily need a conductor, but he is really portraying the character of the music. And so that’s part of our job is really to sort of portray how the music is going to be performed. Part of that characterization is also using your face and your arms, your hands, and your entire upper body as well to try to portray the characteristics of the music. For instance, if the music is loud, is it warm and burnished or is it angry? Is it sort of brilliant or is it sort of understated but just full? Those are all very, very different characteristics, and your arms, your face, everything goes together to try to portray how that music is different from one another.

Zach: And how would you describe how you do that with your face? Is it just your interpretation of the mood of the music and kind of matching your facial expression to it a bit?

Ming: Yeah, to some extent. It can be a little bit distracting if it’s a death portrayed in the music and you’re crying. I mean, that would be a little bit distracting to the musicians. But there’s certainly a way of encouraging players. Because they are people that are playing those instruments, and so giving them a very strong entrance and encouragement with your face as well is going to help them play louder. There’s this one section in Prokofiev Romeo Juliet, which is what I’m doing with an orchestra this week, where the music is chopping, it’s almost like the string sound from Psycho. You know? And they’re playing very pleasantly and sort of light, and I made a gesture where I actually turned the baton almost like I was holding a knife in my hand and I was showing them quite aggressive motions. And without saying a word, they instantly changed the way they were playing. But I wouldn’t do that during concert, but during a rehearsal, it’s a very easy way to instantly change the approach to the music.

Zach: And I imagine too you’re probably also using your body, like how far up and down you move your body, your back and your neck and stuff to communicate an extra dramatic part and things like that.

Ming: Yeah, definitely. I mean, there is a [unintelligible 00:15:47] I think, maybe that was conducting in France. I think it’s her. I forget actually who was conducting but there’s this famous part where the music got really soft and she almost ducked behind the podium. And it was famous. Beethoven was one of the first conductors, too. Technically, the first conductor was Lully– Jean Baptiste Lully, the French composer– but Beethoven when he was conducting, would jump up and down on the podium if he wanted the music to be loud, and again, would hide behind the podium if he wanted it to be soft. Now, we don’t take things to that extreme nowadays because it’s a little bit, again, visually distracting and you don’t want to distract from the music. There are plenty of ways to get the orchestra to play loud. But it really depends on the person because there are plenty of conductors that can get the orchestra to play incredibly loud and they don’t need to gesticulate in a way that looks ridiculous. I think it just depends on their connection to the orchestra and the orchestra themselves.

Zach: You said that there were some different signals you’d give to brass that you wouldn’t give to wind, and signals to singers and such. Can you talk a little bit about, say we’re talking between brass and wind, what are some different signals in that area?

Ming: Sure. Strings have this ability to really sneak in. And because there are so many– let’s say there can be 30 violins in an orchestra– they can really sneak in so their entrance isn’t as rhythmically precise, and it can create some really beautiful sounds. Winds and brass, however, it’s very hard to sneak in. So you can play with very little what we call attack, like the initial start of the note, but they’re either playing or they’re not. And so wind and brass players often really value conductors that can be very clear so that when they enter, they know that– let’s say the 10 of them if it’s all winds and brass, like 10 to 15 people– they’re all coming in exactly at the same time and they don’t have to worry about trying to really lock into each other. String players oftentimes really want to know how to play in terms of how loud to get, how soft to get, and they want to see much more of the artistic side. Because again, they can kind of sneak in, they can stay together as an ensemble very easily because they’re all playing the same music. You know, the first violins are all playing– let’s say there are 16 first violins– they’re all literally playing the same music most of the time. And so their goal is they can stay together, they just really need to know how to play and how to make 16 people that are playing the same thing shape the music in the same way. So, some of the gestures can be very different because you serve practical or artistic value.

One typical thing for brass players is you can show a closed fist or a claw or hand that shows a lot of intensity. But for singers, if you did that with a tension, it would actually… They would mimic that in their throat and make their throat all tense. And so it’s very different sound that you can do with brass players but you shouldn’t do with singers, and that’s a very clear example that we tell conductors at the beginning.

Zach: When it comes to eye contact, like who you look at in the orchestra, is that largely about cueing who’s going to play or are there other uses of it? For example, maybe looking at someone when they did something wrong, can you talk a little bit about how eye contact and eye direction play into it?

Ming: Sure. Yeah, eye contact and position of your body. So if you glance over to somebody, obviously that is an opportunity to show and communicate with them. And then if you turn your entire body and look at them, obviously it’s a much stronger direct sense of communication. And so it’s actually very sensitive too when musicians make mistakes because it happens all the time, sometimes you flub an entrance, sometimes conductors make mistakes. But regardless, you have a split-second decision whether that’s something that needs to be addressed or not. If it’s something that seems like it is a wrong note, then looking over would be a way of connecting and saying, “Hey, you know what? I don’t know if this is… That’s not correct, let’s let’s try to fix that.” Or if it’s that they just missed a note and they’ll fix it the next time, then bringing a lot of attention to that might actually be counterproductive and make it more difficult for them in the future. They might nervously think, “Oh, my goodness, I hope I don’t make this mistake again or else the orchestra and the conductor will be mad at me.” But in general, looking and the way you use your body to show and communicate is pretty important. So, oftentimes for cues, or if more importantly, let’s say that the entire orchestra is playing but the oboes have the melody, giving all your attention in your body and in your eyes to the oboes allows the rest of the orchestra to say, “Hey, okay, the oboes must be the most important.” And immediately, it helps balance to say, “Okay, I’m going to pull back a little bit, listen to the oboe, and accompany the oboe as a player.” Likewise, there’s this… When I was young, I saw Wolfgang Sawallisch who was the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and I was in the chorus where he was conducting Elijah, which is a fantastic oratorio by Mendelssohn. And there’s this one little gesture that the trumpets go to [ta-ta-tah-tah]. And the very first time they played it– they repeated several times– he gave them a very clear clue, showed them exactly how to play with a little bit of separation and rhythmic integrity, and then the next time it came through, he just glanced over very quickly and gave them a smaller cue. And the third time, he didn’t even cue them. He just kind of looked at them for a second then turned away and they just knew immediately, “Oh, okay, this is going to be very similar.” It was something that stuck with me a lot because it was rehearsing without having to stop or say a single word. And that sort of pragmatic efficiency is something that orchestras really appreciate.

Zach: Is it the case that I understand that some works are much more dictated the composer and other works are more open to interpretation? And is it fair to say that for the works that are more open to interpretation, the conductors have more room to do different things with the work and maybe bring out a sound over here that a different conductor would do something different on? Is that all accurate to say?

Ming: Yeah, there’s a lot of play between what is considered appropriate for the conductors’ artistic interpretation to really dictate. For instance, Bernstein was really famous for his Stravinsky and Mahler. Mahler really expected that the conductor would have a viewpoint, and it’s very famous that worldwide when you hear Mahler’s symphonies, the most important next question is, “Who is conducting?” And so Michael Tilson Thomas’s Mahler, who’s also famous for Mahler, is going to be very different than Bernstein. And people will have large debates on which they think really brings out the best in Mahler or is a great interpretation. Stravinsky can be very… He had a very clear neoclassical phase, which is very highly structured and very austere. And some people tend to approach Stravinsky’s works and say, “Hey, I really want to maintain the integrity of what Stravinsky wrote.” But one of my favorite things about Bernstein is that he did the exact opposite. He said, “I’m going to insert my artistic voice on top of this. And yes, it is a very clean structure that is very much built on ratios and classical ideas, but I’m still going to have my viewpoint.” As a result, a lot of his interpretations of Stravinsky are really thrilling and engaging in a way that others sort of shy away from.

Zach: For those composers that, like Mahler where there’s more left to interpretation, is it that those composers just philosophically believe that conductors or orchestra should interpret it in different ways? Or sometimes, is it just a lack of them being explicit for whatever reason?

Ming: Yeah, I think it depends on the era. I mean, when you get to what we call the Romantic era, which is about expression and individual ideas– a lot of that repertoire where Mahler comes from is late Romantic– it was expected that the conductor would have an equal voice part as well. And so oftentimes, for instance, the music of Liszt– the great pianist Liszt– when you have pianists play it and they play every single note perfectly and everything is clean and very technical, it can actually be very unengaging. I mean, it’s brilliant and exciting to have such technical prowess, but if you don’t have an artistic viewpoint then the music falls a little flat. So for the music of Liszt, you really need to bring an idea of what the music is supposed to be about. And then there are certain composers in the classical era, we’re talking about early Beethoven or Haydn and Mozart, where there is sort of a narrower window of interpretations. It can still be quite large but the differences can be a little bit more reduced compared to the Romantic era where you will have wide swings of interpretations. And then before that in the Baroque era with Bach, there was actually very little written into the music, and so the interpretation can actually be quite severe again There’s this very famous chaconne that is done in ballet but it was done in the ’70s. It was set in the ’70s by Balanchine in New York City Ballet using this Baroque music, the chaconne. And the interpretations that people took towards Baroque music in the ’70s is nothing like we do nowadays. And so when that ballet is performed, the music sounds a little bit archaic because it is a very clearly ’70s approach to Baroque music; very heavy and slow and ponderous. And nowadays, Baroque music, there’s a movement to try to match the performing styles of the Baroque era. And that can be oftentimes much quicker and lighter. So, yeah, interpretation is dependent on many different factors but conductors oftentimes have very different viewpoints and advocate for different things, even in their own lifetime. You know, Glenn Gould playing Bach, there’s famous recordings of those– I forget what work it is. Is it the… Goldberg Variations– from the 50s in the 80s. And he has two completely different versions of it, and so they couldn’t be more different. And it’s just because his viewpoints changed or maybe he was just feeling different on the day that he recorded it.

Zach: So with the amount that different conductors can vary in how they conduct their different body languages and approaches, does that mean there’s an adjustment period required when conductors start working with an orchestra? Is that right?

Ming: Yeah, it can be. Nowadays, conductors that can connect with the players instantly is very much prized because professional orchestras really need to put together music very quickly. And there are oftentimes performances and shows that you put together with little or no rehearsal. There are several different Nutcracker performances where there is no rehearsal, the orchestra just shows up and actually plays and it’s like almost a performance on the first time. And so if you don’t have the technical skill to be as clear as possible for the orchestra, then you probably won’t get hired back. Right now, a big trend is accompanying film with a live orchestra, and the musicians are all given headsets that have a click track that tells them exactly when to play but you still need to connect to sort of unify everything. That can be a very difficult experience because you need a conductor that is very, very clear and precise. Likewise, it doesn’t allow time for the players to really have to learn how to interpret a conductor. But there are many conductors. Kurt Masur, former music director of the New York Philharmonic and he was also conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, he was partially crippled and yet he was one of the most brilliant conductors of all time of history. Despite his physical limitations, he was still able to portray the music and lead the orchestra in really engaging and insightful ways.

Zach: How have your body language and movements when conducting changed over the years? If they have.

Ming: Yeah. I think one of the hardest things for conductors when they’re starting out to know is how much is needed from the conductor and how much the orchestra will do by themselves. A typical trick that we’ll do in conducting workshops with young conductors is to have the orchestra play completely by themselves and say, “You know, they’re playing all of this, what are you going to add to it?” And knowing that an orchestra can actually be worse off with a bad conductor in front of them. Let’s say they can play 85% as well of a piece, a conductor can add to that or can take away from that. And so if you have a bad conductor that’s actually hindering the musicality of the orchestra, then obviously that’s not a very good conductor. But if you have a conductor that can take what the orchestra is naturally going to do and bring it to a higher level, then that’s obviously ideal.

Zach: Maybe that’s a good segue into the question of, does it happen that a conductor and the players can have a bad relationship? And if that happens, what are some of the ways that that can play out in a musical sense?

Ming: Yeah, it’s all about trust, and you can lose the trust of an orchestra instantly. It’s a big responsibility to be on the podium and have the audacity to tell musicians like, “This is my viewpoint and I believe in this viewpoint.” Let’s say if I was going to conduct New York Philharmonic and I am going to be doing a Brahms symphony. Well, they’ve done Brahms with Kurt Masur, they’ve done Brahms with Alan Gilbert, they’ve done Brahms with Bernstein and many, many great conductors. Who am I to insert my particular viewpoint? And so building that trust and trying to maintain that trust is actually very important. There’s actually this one great article that I was reading in the New York Times and there’s this young conductor, 27-year-old really great phenom, and this flutist or flute player asked them, “Hey, do you want me to play like this? Or like this?” And the conductor said, “Oh, you know what? That’s a good question. Do it the second way you said.” And the flutist shot back and said, “Well, I didn’t play it that way the first time. Were you not listening to me?” [Zach chuckles] Right? In a very, very provocative way. But the thing that in that situation, some conductors might get offended or they might shrink away, he just kind of laughed it away and said, “Yeah, I wasn’t listening to that point. But you know, playing it the second way is great.” It immediately diffused all tension in the room and they just got back to work, which is what everybody wants to do. I think there’s plenty of times, actually. If you go online, you can actually see Bernstein speaking with orchestra members and they talk back to him. They have these discussions and it can get a little tense. But I think that the motivation for everybody is that they want to play their best and they want to be proud of the work that they’re doing all together. And so the conductor has a pretty big responsibility there and the trust needed is pretty important.

There are many situations where there are colleagues that don’t like working together and they need to. There’s a very famous one, I probably shouldn’t name the orchestra but it is pretty famous if you look it up, where the wind players were very very upset with one of their colleagues, and yet they had to play together for years. And there were lawsuits about it. There are conductors that are very much not respected in the industry but still conduct quite a bit. Again, it’s part of a point of pride of musicians. They still want to sound good, so they’re going to try to do as much as they can to put on a good show and might have to work in other ways to make sure that the performances don’t get derailed. There’s actually a really wonderful example recently of a colleague of mine, Noah Lindquist, who is a phenomenal musician and pianist. He was an assistant conductor for an opera and had to be thrown into the conductor seat very last minute. He is a fantastic musician but didn’t have as much experience with an orchestra, but the orchestra really loved his musicianship and they said, “Look, we’re going to stay together, we’re going to work hard, we’re going to do this all together. And you show us what the music is supposed to be and the timing to connect with the singers. We’ll keep ourselves together, we’ll get through this together.” And it was a fantastic experience where everybody was really excited and happy. It was a brilliant performance, the orchestra musicians played well, Noah conducted and portrayed the music beautifully, and it was a circumstance where they really actually all trusted each other to try to get together this performance. And it was a wonderful situation.

Zach: I think it was in your Reddit thread. I can’t remember exactly but somebody described a conductor who didn’t get along with the orchestra and some players, basically, they were queued mistakenly by the conductor. They basically could have corrected themselves and not made a mistake, but they basically allowed the conductor to cue them to make a mistake as kind of a passive-aggressive thing.

Ming: Yeah. [laughs]

Zach: That’s probably an extreme example but it just made me think there’s probably some kind of things that can happen like that that just are related to a bad relationship.

Ming: Yeah. Yeah, very definitively. And there’s obviously respect, too. I mean, there’s a certain amount of… There are orchestra conductors that are greatly respected by the musicians but they might not be as technically gifted and might make mistakes or do things that are, quote, technically not very good for conducting technique. But the musicians really love them and so they will do their best to play as much as they can. For instance, Blomstedt, who used to be the music director for San Francisco Symphony, I believe he’s in his 90s now. He doesn’t have the technical facility that he did when he was in his 30s or 40s, you know? And yet the amount of respect the musicians have for the Blomstedt is just absolutely amazing. So when they do do performances, it’s a very moving experience because they are really connecting and trying to work hard to make the performance as engaging as possible.

Zach: It seems like with the amount of managerial and leadership skills that’s required to do the job well, is that something that you go out of your way to train on? Or is that usually something that conductors naturally have and develop on their own? If that makes sense.

Ming: I think it’s both. I think there are people that are naturally gifted at leadership, and there are ones that need to learn the techniques. There’s a reason why sometimes… I think there is one orchestra conductor that actually leads business classes because the idea of leadership from the podium is directly related to management, and he’ll actually lead sessions where he’ll get in the orchestra members’ faces like a manager that’s very micromanaging. Or a conductor who basically doesn’t show any leadership whatsoever and is sort of like a lackadaisical manager that doesn’t really actually check in with the players or their workers, and as a result, it’s a direct symbol of what good leadership is. For me, personally, I think it was very difficult at the beginning to really understand what the orchestra does by themselves and what I need to bring to it. And I think it’s very common for young conductors. But later on, I think the next big hurdle for me was situational; what do the orchestra members need at this point, what is going to be helpful, and really understanding the nuances of those situations. I remember my first time conducting one of the big, big orchestras. I was so excited. I was going to make my imprint and really excite people and get them enthusiastic! And a friend of mine was in the orchestra and beforehand, he’s just like, “Hey, you’re coming to this concert, we just had a huge concert, everybody’s super tired, and we have another big recording project that’s in a couple of weeks. So just know, going into it, that people are going to be pretty tired and—

Zach: Lower your expectations.

Ming: Yeah. It’s more that if I came in super gung ho and I was getting to work them to the bone, that that was going to be the worst possible thing that I could possibly do. You know? And so, understanding those circumstances. There are times where the orchestra, especially if you’re doing theatre like opera or ballet and you’re in a pit, the acoustics are very difficult and it’s not a very easy experience for the musicians. So sometimes clarity and precision is really price to make sure that they feel comfortable. And sometimes in the orchestra, they just want to just feel like we have a good cohesive idea. So I mean, that idea that every situation is different and you need to approach it in a different manner is something that I’m always continuing to refine.

Zach: So when you first started out, was it pretty nerve-racking to conduct? Did you have some maybe exaggerated or overstated ideas of the kinds of harms that you could do if you mess something up? Can you talk a little bit about how that played out?

Ming: Yeah. I remember the first time conducting Nutcracker and it was with San Francisco Ballet. San Francisco Ballet is the orchestra that did the American premiere of The Nutcracker and actually created the holiday tradition of the Nutcracker in the US. It’s actually a very historic ensemble. But I had never conducted the Nutcracker before and I was a nervous wreck before that. Before the performance, I had– and I actually still have this routine if I get very nervous– I try to calm my mental activity as well as I calm my physical activity too. So, that’s calming my heartbeat, slowing down my breath, taking very deep breaths. And at the time, I wasn’t meditating as much. But nowadays, we know that slowing your breath will help slow down your heart rate and try to slow down my racing mind. But it was a nerve-wracking experience because I remember all the practice that I did and getting into the pit, and the orchestra actually responded differently than I had anticipated. And so in those moments, you’re trying to figure out, “Okay, how do I adjust to this? How do I make it comfortable for them?” Looking back, it’s thrilling, but during the moment, it was terrifying.

Zach: Well, I was reading some– I don’t think it was in your thread, I think it was another Reddit thread from a different conductor. And maybe you’ve seen this post, but it described the terror and the anxiety that a new conductor had. He described a joke that the band played on him where they basically set him up to think that they were playing something different or doing something wrong based on something he did. And he said it filled him with, even though they were joking and he quickly realized it, he had this tremendous anxiety thinking that he had screwed something up. It was in rehearsal, it wasn’t an actual performance. But it kind of got at that amount of responsibility you feel for the music, which I can imagine especially when you start out must be pretty nerve-racking.

Ming: Yeah, it is a lot of responsibility and it’s like I actually say about the presidency. They say the person that you want to run for president is not the person that would run for president, right? I mean, it takes a lot of strength to have the audacity to stand in front of the orchestra and to lead 70-plus musicians, some of whom have more experience than you’ve been living, and tell them your interpretation of the music.

Zach: Have you ever noticed something accidental that you did body language-wise that actually changed a performance?

Ming: Oh, yeah, of course. And you’re like, “Oh!” You get surprised and say, “Oh, wow, that actually worked. This was great.” Or you do something… I remember, actually, it was another big orchestra. This was a Houston Symphony and I was conducting something. I changed the shape of my hand very, very slightly and they instantly changed the color of how they played. That’s when I realized how subtle and how musical these performances can be and do. It’s really a thrilling experience. I remember so many little instances like that. I was conducting the San Francisco Symphony for an online performance during pandemic and it was the first time this small group of only eight musicians had gotten together since they had stopped playing because of the pandemic. And just feeling them lock into each other and then adjust to each other and all of us sort of collaborating, I’ll never forget… I mean, this is one of those influential musical moments that just stays with you. It’s very, very meaningful.

Zach: Could you give a little bit more detail about how you changed the shape of your hand? What was the detail there?

Ming: Oh, yeah. It was with my left hand. If you hold your left hand in a fist or if you hold your left hand flat, even if you hold your left hand flat and its palm down versus palm facing up, all those actually will have very subtle or in some cases very large differences to the orchestra. And so whether you are showing something that has intensity or something that is relaxed and much more flowing, those will change how the orchestra musicians will play. And with the orchestra members that have incredible technical facility, which oftentimes leads to the ability to be much more expressive because you have the technical ability to have a really wide range of colors, little things like that can really change your performance.

Zach: It’s like hand up is like swelling upwards and hand down has the sense of suppressing and things like that.

Ming: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Zach: For people that don’t know much or are not into classical music at all, is there a specific recommendation you would give for a classical piece that you think is a good mainstream crossover recommendation?

Ming: Yeah. I think the funny thing about music is that when we’re born, there is no preference. Kids will listen to Mozart and they’ll listen to Metallica, they’ll listen to Billy Joel, they’ll listen to Taylor Swift. There really is very little preference. And the thing is that with classical music, I think sometimes there’s a perceived idea that you need to appreciate it to understand it. Stravinsky had this great quote, actually. He said music appreciation is too much about appreciation and it should be more about music. And so the pieces that I tend to gravitate towards are ones that have definitive programs or an idea behind it. And there are two types of music, absolute music and programmatic music. Absolute music is music for its own sake, it exists just for the sheer beauty or structure. But programmatic music has some idea behind it. It accompanies a story, it’s telling a story, or it portrays an emotion. For instance, the piece that I’m working on this week, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, that’s a fantastic work for people to listen to. Because when you hear young Juliet, the music for Juliet when she is youthful and right on the cusp of between being an adult and a kid, and hear that music and how lively it is and energetic, and yet it changes moods instantly like a teenager would even though I think she’s actually only supposed to be 12, that really can speak to people directly. Or when you hear the music when Romeo, after Juliet has taken the potion to make her look like she has died but Romeo doesn’t know that, and you hear the dirge and this tragic music that represents Romeo, I think we can all connect to that, especially knowing the story and the story is as familiar as Romeo Juliet. That’s the sort of music that I listen to.

One thing that I absolutely love is the quick movement of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet. When I was a teenager, this was like the heavy metal of classical music. In fact, people that play rock guitar or metal guitar will actually play this piece on guitar because it has so much grunge in it. But it is an amazing idea to sort of blow away the notion that classical music is calming or peaceful. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s actually really driven and angry and intense and quick. So, those are pieces that I would suggest. But I think the clear thing is that classical music has lasted for hundreds and hundreds of years because it actually encompasses all human emotion and experience. And so if there’s music that you don’t connect to, there are plenty of other composers that you might connect to. That’s just like saying somebody’s like, “Well, I don’t like lima beans, so I don’t like food.” Because you maybe don’t like Mozart’s or Kleinknecht’s music, it doesn’t mean you don’t like classical music. It just means that there are many, many other composers that you might connect to a little bit more. Or they say, “It takes 4 years before you understand Brahms!” That’s what they used to tell us conductors. But that’s just not true. I mean, you can appreciate Brahms on so many different levels. And the reason why it’s been around for so long is that it really is something that you can dig deep into and find more, or you can just listen to without having any background to and really connect to him.

Zach: That was a talk with orchestra conductor, Ming Luke. You can learn more about Ming at his website This has been the People Who Read People Podcast with me, Zach Elwood. If you enjoyed this talk, I have many more talks about how people use psychology and behavior in their careers and pastimes. My website for the podcast is at Okay, thanks for listening.


Bullshit behavior experts, with Dr. Jack Brown

This episode is about what I refer to as “behavior bullshit.” There are many self-proclaimed behavior experts spreading bad, misleading, and irresponsible concepts about human behavior, and some of these people are quite popular. This episode focuses on Jack Brown (Twitter: @drgjackbrown), one of the more egregious offenders amongst behavior bullshitters. Other topics discussed include: eye-quadrant behavior analysis (for example, someone looking to upper right); NLP (neuro-linguistic programming); some common inaccuracies contained in behavior bullshit; the use of ambiguous language to make one’s background seem impressive; and more. 

Episode links:

Resources mentioned in or related to this episode:

TRANSCRIPT (coming soon)


Understanding MAGA anger, with ex-Trump voter Rich Logis

For the purposes of depolarization, it’s important to understand the us-vs-them narratives that surround us. This is a talk with Rich Logis (, who describes his journey as going “from ultra-MAGA to Never-Trump.” Rich was a vocal pro-Trump activist, who’d written many political op-eds and had his own political podcast, and who switched to being very critical of Trump and MAGA in 2021. I ask Rich about the reasons he was enthusiastic about Trump: what the sources of his anger were, and why he viewed Hillary Clinton winning in 2016 as an “existential threat.” We talk about the more rational reasons driving Trump support, and why he believes most Trump voters are good people. We talk about the nature of us-vs-them conflict and how it distorts our thinking and emotions. We talk about what led to his abrupt change of mind when it came to Trump and MAGA. 

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Resources mentioned in or related to this talk:

TRANSCRIPT (coming soon)


Examining strategies of some common scams, with Martina Dove

A talk with Martina Dove (, author of the book The Psychology of Fraud, Persuasion and Scam Techniques, about some common scams you and people you know might encounter (phishing scams, “pig butchering” scams, romance scams, wrong-number-text scams, and more). We discuss how these scams work, and some strategies for avoiding them. 

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Some things we mention in this talk: