Why studying nonverbal behavior is hard but worthwhile, with Alan Crawley

A talk with nonverbal behavior expert Alan Crawley, also known by his online handle Sin Verba ( Topics discussed include: why he initially became interested in behavior; the challenges of studying behavior; the practical benefits of studying behavior (including connecting better with others); and irresponsible “behavior experts” who share bad information and pseudo-science.

A transcript is included below.

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Resources discussed in this episode or related to the topic:


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

On today’s episode, I talk to Alan Crawley, who goes by the handle ‘sin verba’ online. ‘Sin verba’ is spanish for ‘without words’. He’s got the website, and has the sinverba handle on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. 

Alan is an expert in nonverbal behavior. I’ll give his experience in a little bit, but the reason I wanted to talk to him for the podcast is that I’ve had some great conversations with him recently about behavioral analysis and research. Alan is very well read when it comes to behavior, and he’s educated me about quite a few theories on behavior that I wasn’t familiar with and books I wasn’t familiar with. We also had some talks about my work on poker tells, and he got me thinking about some new ideas in that area. So I’ve learned a lot from Alan just in the few talks we’ve had, and I appreciate his expertise and his passion, and I think you will, too. 

Here’s some information about Alan Crawley: he graduated with honors in psychology from the University of Salvador in Argentina. He has a diploma in nonverbal communication from the Universidad Austral in Argentina. He’s the academic coordinator of the postgraduate course ‘Analysis of nonverbal communication’ at Heritage University in the U.S. He was academic director of the 2021 online conference on nonverbal communication, organized by the Behavior and Law Foundation of Spain.  He’s certified in Paul Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System. I could keep going but you get the idea; he’s done a lot of work in the behavior space. For more information about Alan, check out the entry for this episode on my site One video I’ll have linked from there is a great presentation from Alan on facial expressions. 

In our talk, Alan and I talk about why he initially became interested in studying behavior; we talk about the complexity of behavior and why it’s perhaps similar in some ways to complex systems like weather; we talk about whether reading behavior is a science or an art; we talk about the validity of micro-expressions; we talk about the practical benefits of improving our understanding of behavior, which can include connecting better with people and helping other people; and we talk about indicators that someone is a behavior bullshitter who’s spreading bad and irresponsible ideas. Along the way we talk about quite a few behavioral theories, and specific behaviors. So it should be a fun talk for anyone interested in reading people better, or just connecting better with people. 

Okay, here’s Alan Crawley aka Sin Verba.

Hey, Alan, thanks for coming on.

Alan: Thanks for the invitation.

Zach: Maybe we could start with what has made you so interested in behavior. 

Alan: When I was a child, and in my younger years at school, I felt that I was not good with communication. I especially had some rough time connecting with others. I found that psychology and behavior gave me an insight on what people were thinking or suggesting me information on how to connect with others. And once I started to study the subject, I started to see there are some good information and of course there is also bad information. But once you try to apply it, you can see enormous, fruitful ways in which you can use it based on your needs on how specifically to connect with others. That was the thing that motivated me. Well, surely the idea is that you can use behavior as a way to study animals like bird watching– this is something that Desmond Morris explained in his marvelous book, Manwatching 1977– that I’ve been watching and studying birds because it’s nice to see them, you want to understand them, but you don’t use that knowledge to shoot them down. 

The same thing, it needs to be applied to nonverbal communication and trying to read others. But reading others is not reading them like a book, or the mind is not a book that can be read. That’s too simple. We know that that’s not the case. But you can use that behaviors, cues, and signals to try to understand better other people, to connect with them. In a certain way, you’re going to become more humble with our species and evolutionary humility in the sense that we are animals. And we have a lot of things in common with the animal kingdom, but also with other people from different cultures. So to answer the question, the idea that basically I felt that I needed more tools to connect with people and nonverbal communication gave me that.

Zach: It’s interesting you say that because actually I can relate a lot to that because I’ve always felt like I was a bit on the autistic spectrum. I was never very good at connecting with others, eye contact actually made me quite nervous as a child. Then also combined with that, my parents had a lot of psychology books laying around the house, just random psychology books. Those two things I felt like, similar to your saying, they were ways to try to understand other people better to help myself and to make sense of things that I felt were confusing about people.

Then with poker tells, when it came to the poker behavior and poker tells work I did, part of that was also just feeling like I didn’t understand people well in that aspect either. I was like: I really want to dig into this and understand it better and maybe understand some things other people are understanding on a more intuitive aspect and understand it more consciously and more intellectually. That’s interesting you say that. I think we have that in common. Yeah.

Alan: The recent common thread that I have seen, I usually give classes to advanced students and people that already have written books on nonverbal communication, that give classes on the matter – over 60 people with university degrees, like masters on nonverbal communication. One of the common threads is that they have some vulnerability or deficiency on how to communicate. 

I’ve also seen that there are a lot of people with dyslexia studying this field, which seems to be that for many people, this is a tool that can be used to improve in a certain way for their social and professional life and get some rewards with it. Which I think this is very important for people that don’t know that they can improve their public speaking skills, or the ways in how to connect with their partner, or how to talk more gently or tactful with your friends. This is a skill that allows you to connect on another level with people. 

But you need to be of course, careful to the things you read and how you apply it. Because it’s not so simple as a one-to-one correspondence or a simple way of using it. Because that way, and there are some research on the matter, for instance, training police officers with some non-validated methods or contents, that it can worsen your skills to detect lies or worsen your skills to detect emotions. So you need to be careful on the content you consume on the matter.

Zach: Yeah, I want to go back to what you said about the Desmond Morris book, Peoplewatching aka Manwatching was the original title. You shared that book with me. You told me about it and I started reading it. Yeah, it is a great introduction because like you were saying, people tend to focus on the exploitative aspect of understanding behavior. It’s like, what can I use other people’s behavior for in my job like sales or the pickup artists line of stuff, how can I really use it? 

But he was talking about, and you were talking about too, the fact that this is a very human thing and it actually helps us be more empathetic with other people and see how we’re similar to other people, understand them better, helps our human connections with other people. I think that’s a very important point because I think some people can perceive it as being like, how are people going to use this? 

It does often take that form too where people do try to use it, like you were saying, police training and such. But there is that other side of the same reason, like you were saying, people like to watch animals and understand animals. It’s a similar thing like feeling more connected with nature, with humans. I think it’s a great point. 

I was watching your video about facial expressions, which was a great video, for people that want to watch that. I think that’s one of your few English language presentations. I could be wrong about that. Yeah, it was great. You talked about the nuance in that area and reviewed a lot of different ideas. One of the things that stood out to me in that video were your points about why behavior, specifically facial expressions, but I think it applied to all behavior, your points about why it could be so tough to study. Maybe you’d like to talk a little bit about those different aspects, those different factors that make it challenging to study.

Alan: Well, first of all, listeners are already noting that English is not my first language, so I’m doing my best. I speak in Spanish. I give my classes in Spanish. 

Zach: You’re doing great.

Alan: Thank you. Thank you for that. The point of that talk, I was invited by a famous semiotician, Paul Bouissac. He is a marvelous researcher, a very insightful theoretician of behavior, especially in the evolutionary sense of behavior. What I’m trying to show with that video is the idea that we have been understanding wrongly the facial displays. I use the term facial expression which is the most common, but the most certain or more precise way of describing them is display. Because expression has the assumption that the person is showing outside something that he’s feeling in the inside. But display, it’s something you could act or pose, which is a more correct way of framing this complexity. 

There are a lot of reasons why it’s impossible to simplify, hey, he’s moving two or three muscles in the face. That’s the facial expression, the universal facial expression of contempt or anger. The person is feeling angry at this moment. That’s a simplification that’s wonderful for selling some softwares or books or simple ideas of courses. But we know for a fact that animal communication is much more complex than that since the ’70s or the ’80s. Why are we still using an outdated formula that it is not even useful for animals but we think it’s going to be useful for complex animals, which we are, we’re the humans Homo sapiens? Well, it is not. 

One of those reasons is that the face moves for many, many reasons. The face moves as a consequence of speech, but also when you’re eating, when you’re breathing, when you’re talking, when you’re feeling an emotion, of course, but also when you’re feeling a cognition like confusion or doubt, which you’re surprised it’s also a cognition. But you also move your face based on the social messages you want to send on the intentions you have like being affiliative or not, or initiating a competition. 

You move your face based on your personality. Not every person moves the face in the same way. Some traits of your personality are going to, for instance, make some facial actions more probable. Like if you are not amicable, maybe you have your eyebrows frowning all the time. This is usually the case for people working for the law. If you are very amicable, maybe you smile a lot. That has a relationship, not with the emotion you’re feeling at that moment, but with your personality traits or as a result of your profession. So simplifying the idea that if you see some facial muscles moving, you can know the emotion of that person at a given moment is a way of understanding very wrongly and simplifying such a complex thing that behavior is for humans.

Zach: Yeah, it was such a great point because it gets into some juicy behavior bullshit kind of people, the people that take these simplistic views and try to get clicked for them. They focus on these simplistic ideas of you can see in their face this emotion they’re presenting or trying to hide from us, but it’s leaving out the tremendous complexity. Like you say, it’s like we don’t just leak emotions from our face that we’re feeling. We use it to consciously communicate to other people in various ways. 

One thing that comes to mind that often gets a lot of press or a lot of attention is that face that they’ll show, it’s like the sad and ashamed face that you’ll see politicians make when they’re announcing something like the lip pressed together face that the politicians often make or leaders make, anybody makes when they’re ashamed and they’re doing a press conference and people will say like, “Look at all these ways that they’re-” This common expression of shame or whatever. 

I think what that leaves out is it’s a conscious expression that they’re choosing because that’s something that we all know what it means so they’re consciously choosing to put it on. In the same way, that a lot of the things that people interpret in various videos about people’s behavior, it’s like, well, it could be some leak of emotion, sure. But it could also be that there’s reasons sometimes that you want to communicate frustration with someone else or anger or shame or whatever that communication is. So it becomes really muddy to try to determine these things. 

A note here, if you’re curious what facial expression I’m talking about here, there’s a New York Times article from 2011 called “That Look, That Weiner, Spitzer, Clinton Look. To quote from that piece, “The names may change, but the face remains essentially the same. Politician after politician and scandal after scandal faces the camera with his lips pursed and pulled tight, narrowing them. The chin boss, the fleshy bump above the chin bone is pushed upward, pulling the lips into an upside-down smile at a downward cast gaze, perhaps a shake of the head and instant disgraced pull.” 

In that article and another pieces, you’ll find people with various interpretations about how revealing that look is that it, for example, reveals disgust, sadness, even anger, that it tells us something about how they’re really feeling. But the point I was trying to make here probably not very well is that it’s also just an understandable face one might make to try to communicate to the public that one feels bad, one wants to communicate some sadness, some shame, and that one is upset with the situation. Maybe in trying to communicate these concepts, there’s some aspects of phoniness about the expression that make it a common one from politicians and leaders in these situations. 

I was just trying to draw attention to how sometimes people act like a behavior is revealing something deep and secret about someone, when in fact there can be a lot of elements of understandable conscious communication involved or other complexity. Okay, back to the talk.

Very much in the poker tells realm too, the reason it’s so hard to figure out poker tells is because somebody could be consciously doing something and trying to trick you or they could be actually leaking some tell of where their attention is or how they’re actually feeling. Yeah, it’s just tremendously complex. I think you’ve made great points in that video.

Alan: Your example is very revealing because I know the literature on the self-conscious emotions like pride, shame, embarrassment, humiliation. I know for a fact that there is no universal sign of shame, that there has been only just one study that has found some relationship between feeling shameful under certain movements, which one of those was rubbing your neck.

Zach: A small note here. Alan wanted me to point out he meant to refer to the research on guilt here, not on shame. He was referencing a 2020 paper titled, Are There Nonverbal Signals of Guilt, in which they found some actions that were more frequent when someone was categorized as guilty, like frowning and self-soothing behaviors. Okay, back to the interview.

Alan: But the relationship between its appearance and really feeling shame was low. It was not like, “Okay, everyone’s feeling shameful. This experiment is doing this.” No, I think it was two out of 10 or four out of 10, which is the case usually with behavior, the sense that you cannot expect that a certain state is going to produce in all people the same behaviors at a given situation, at a given moment for different personalities. That’s nonsense. We need to understand this complexity and find a way to change the way we frame behaviors. 

I was thinking about this like I think that it’s usually useful for readers to accumulate knowledge in the sense of vocabulary. When you have more vocabulary, you can read more books and you can understand more complex things. So in nonverbal communication, you need to improve your mental dictionary, which is not a dictionary, it’s an encyclopedia of gestures. You need to collect them, not necessarily with specific meanings, but you need to know about a lot of different behaviors and see them in different scenarios. 

But, and this is a huge but, knowing a lot about words doesn’t mean that you can understand how they interact in different syntaxes, grammatics and pragmatics. The same is true with behaviors. You can know a lot about them, but maybe you don’t know how they unravel or interact in interactions. 

One of the problems with this is that it is not the only way to improve your observational skills and interpretation skills of behavior to have a lot of tells or a lot of gestures on your mental recollection or your mental encyclopedia. I have a right to the conclusion that maybe, and this is my idea, I haven’t seen it in any place, that maybe we need to change the way we think about gestures.

Usually when someone hears someone out like when I hear you speaking, Zach, I’m asking myself, “What does Zach means with those words?” That way of framing it means that you have one meaning, that you are expressing one thing to me and I’m trying to understand what are you telling me. But using this formula that’s useful for language it’s not the same when you use it for what is usually called body language. But we know it’s not a language because it has no syntax and other properties that language should have. 

So applying the same mental formula or mental equation is not going to give you the best benefits. I argue that we need to change that framing and ask a different question. Before I tell you the question, I’m going to explain how I got into that or at least what is the correct way to think about gestures. I think the best model comes from meteorology, the prediction of weather. Meteorology as behavior has a lot of factors of influence in the case of behavior, culture, biology, personality, sex, biological sex, gender, sexual orientation, situation, context, profession, and a lot of things more. 

Meteorology involves a lot of complex factors of influence that are constantly changing. So we need to have a specific set of mind in which we approach such nonlinear complex problems. I think that the way to frame it is to think when you see a gesture instead of framing it like, what does it mean, you need to frame it in a way which is very subtle, but it’s different which is, what’s the probable meaning of that gesture? When you do this, you are changing it in a way that you’re asking yourself, “Okay, there are probably more than one meaning. Probably I’m going to miss some of it or maybe I can’t know the meaning, but I’m doing my best to probabilistically infer what could it mean.” That’s the approach I think it’s most useful to understand this, which is very, very complex. 

Let me say one more thing on this. Probability and possibility are not the same. I have been reading the book of Michael Shermer, the creator of the Skeptic’s magazine, and he explains this much better than me, but I will do my best. He says, for instance, that someone could believe, for instance, and this is also mentioned in the Massimo Pigliucci book, Nonsense on Stilts. You could believe that the 911 was an inside job. There’s a possibility that that was the case. But based on all the evidence that exists, the most probable explanation is that it was a terrorist attack. There’s always a possibility of the existence of intelligence in the universe that given all the information we have and the probabilities, maybe it’s useful to think otherwise. 

I’m not trying to frame it in such a way as to give an answer for conspiracies or intelligence. I’m trying to explain that when you see a behavior, there is a probability that it can mean anything. For instance, if you see someone feeling pain, there’s a huge probability based on the literature review article from Koons that there are certain facial actions that are more frequent, like frowning, like raising the upper lip, wrinkling the nose or opening your mouth. Those facial actions are much more frequent than others. When you’re seeing someone in pain, those are going to be more probable expressions. There is a possibility of someone making a yawn when in pain, or someone scratching their nose when in pain. Yes, there is a possibility, yes. What’s more probable? The first, the former. 

I think that once we try to frame gestures or behaviors in a different way as to understand they are probabilistic or related to their meaning, you understand the three complexities of this model. I know there are three, but there could be more. These are the three. Gestures are polysemic. A given gesture may have multiple meanings, except from the famous emblems like saying okay or saying that someone is crazy, moving your index finger in your forehead, both of the gestures are polysemic. They can mean one thing, two things at a given moment. Sometimes they have no meaning. They’re just noise. 

Secondly, behaviors are polycultural, multicultural. They can be caused by several things at a given moment, not just one. For instance, you smile because you want to show your friend you are happy at his birthday, or you want to show that the friends of his work are kind, or you want to show him that I enjoy being around them. 

Also, behaviors are multipurpose. You could smile to show, hey, that joke is funny or I enjoy spending time with you. Sometimes a gesture has no foreseeable purpose. So when you understand that behaviors are polysemic, multicultural and multipurpose, you need to change the way you approach to them with the simplistic idea that a certain behavior has a specific meaning. That’s nonsense. That’s nonsense on stilts.

Zach: Would you agree that a big part of the problem is that I think that people are just generally bad at thinking in probabilistic terms or thinking about statistics. It’s like people really want there to be certain meanings for things. I see that in the poker tells realm where a lot of people will be like, well- Because I’ll go into a lot of nuances in my book so well, this could mean that, but then often it could mean two different things depending on the situation. What I’ve seen is a lot of people just really want simple answers. I think that maps over to the people who like to follow this kind of simplistic behavior analysis, people who really want these kinds of simplistic interpretations.

One that comes to mind is this simplistic idea that if somebody is slightly tilting their body away from you, it means they’re not interested in the conversation. Or if they’re crossing their arms, they’re not interested in the conversation or being a little bit aloof. Of course, there could be many reasons why people do those things, but you’ll see people take these simplistic ideas and just run with them. I think those things really get in the way of, they’re actually hurting their ability to connect with other people or understand their behavior because they’re trying to take these simplistic ideas, as opposed to thinking of them in terms of like you’re saying, like, “Sure, there’s a chance that this could mean that, but there’s going to be many other factors that you have to take into account. I think that’s probably a big part of it. 

Also, the reason why simplistic people who teach simplistic ideas about behavior or anything really find an audience because people really do crave the simplistic like this means that- Because there’s definitely an audience and a market for it basically. People don’t like the subtlety and the nuance. They just want, “Hey, give me an answer.”

Alan: I think you nailed it in at least two points. The first one I have heard Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about this that we are bad at statistics. One reason is that algebra or geometry were created with the Greeks. Statistics is a much more new creation of our way of approaching knowledge. I don’t know if it was the 19th or 18th century, but it is really, really new in comparison with other approaches to meaning. We are not good to understand statistics and we have not evolved to see the world through probabilities in such a way. 

Secondly, I agree that people are thirsty of this knowledge and trying to read the mind of others and consume this idea of body language, which is fine. It’s very interesting. It’s curious. There is two problems. One, which is people that do abuse knowledge and use it in such a way to commercially it’s fluctuating like using it in their advantage to sell courses and be popular. 

I am a young researcher and I’m starting. I am at the Universidad del Salvador here in Argentina. I think that researchers, we have also some responsibility because it is not often to see one of the researchers going to the TV or to documentals explaining why this scientific approach to behavior is not the way to do it. 

In that sense, I think that as Carl Sagan’s approach to the science and science, we have the responsibility, the ethical responsibility of defending the science. If you see someone doing things considered wrong or saying things that contradict the literature, you should call them out because that’s your responsibility. It’s often the case that maybe because of status or trying to avoid such interactions or because researchers are not so much prepared to appear in the media as these pseudo experts, they prefer not to do it. I think that we have some sense of responsibility over that. It’s not only the case that this science is proliferating, which is really as a result of malpractice, doing it wrongly, but also this responsibility of the people that are doing the research and should speak out more often.

Zach: Yeah, I think there is that sense. I have talked to people who have told me that, they said they just didn’t want to get involved in these online drama fights of calling out people. It’s tough. There’s a reason people don’t do it. I think you’re right. It’s like the more we let that kind of thing slide, the more people do it. Calling people out it may be tough and it may be emotionally draining because you get attention and you get the potentially the hordes of the other people’s fans insulting you or whatever it is. I think you’re right. There is a responsibility there because the reason those people are able to do that so easily is simply because people don’t call them out. 

I think it’s the same. I focus on political polarization on this podcast a lot. I think it maps over to a lot of people just don’t like to call out bad behavior of people on their side. It’s different factors at work. But I think there’s benefit in seeing the value in why it’s helpful to call out bad and divisive behavior and untrue, inaccurate framings on your side because those things, it’s not just the benefit of calling out and making your side better. It’s the fact that the bad, divisive framings on your side affect the other side, and so on, and so on. It’s all connected. 

In the same way, I think it’s all connected in the sense that when people who are knowledgeable don’t call out the bullshitters, they’re just more involved. That’s what leads to the bullshit having such prominence. It’s all connected. Yeah.

Alan: I don’t know if I’ve enjoyed, but I tried to do it through my social media and trying to help people to avoid experiencing what I experienced. I had good and very awful teachers because I had no one to guide me into, hey, you should read these books because they have bases, this is an author that has to study this, that is a researcher doing that. Several cases I read books which were not good and they didn’t help me. They even created in me some nonsense ideas on how behavior worked. It took me a while to discover that, hey, that’s not good. That’s not helping. I’m even understanding worse people because of this, because of that supposedly expert that was teaching me this. 

What I’m trying to do with my students, also with my colleagues because we train our colleagues, is to help them follow a path that doesn’t need to learn with those mistakes, learning from my mistakes so that they could follow a better path than mine.

Zach: There’s such real cost to this bullshit of all sorts like the pseudoscience and the bullshit of all sorts, but specifically in the behavior space, the fact that you can have people that will watch something like Jack Brown stuff who I’ve often talked about and written a piece about. He’s popular on Twitter. His takes are just so clearly bad and exaggerated and just not based on anything any respectable behavior researcher would agree with, but he’s filling people’s heads with the idea that they can confidently tell when people are lying or not. 

What really happens in practice is just that people are just applying their own biases. They’re taking Jack Brown’s ideas and just if they see somebody they don’t like in the media, they’ll be just filtering it through that thing where they’re like, “Oh, they did this behavior. I know they’re lying. I saw that on Jack Brown’s videos.” It’s really amplifying the kind of misinformation problem in our society or the polarization problem where people are just using these bad ideas to reinforce whatever, the 911 conspiracy theories or whatever, what have you. It’s these ideas that we can know things certainly about the world and we really can in so many ways, in so many domains we can’t. There’s so much complexity.

It’s just these confident takes that are really just amplifying our problems because the idea that we can have quick certainty about things is to me one of the biggest human problems. We really have a problem embracing uncertainty and humility and taking it slow. We like to jump to conclusions, etc.

Alan: The case of Jack Brown is interesting because I followed his blog six or seven years ago, and I was thinking that he had some, “Oh, that’s an interesting comment. Where that information came? What’s the foundation for that interesting observation?” I’ve tried to reach him and ask him for the evidence, which is something I tell people to do. If you are not sure, if you don’t understand, ask for the evidence. Because usually, it’s the case that the people that has the evidence will share it with you and the ones that don’t have the evidence or if they have, it is used in such a way that it’s not the way it was presented originally, you’re going to be able to better discriminate who is using this in a professional, certified or validated way and who is not. That’s one case. 

I think that if these pseudo experts present themselves as commentators, that will be better. Instead of using a costume of science when they are not being scientific, if they present themselves as, “Okay, I’m a commentator and mentions some comments on behavior based on my opinion and my subjective perspective. This is why I think this is the kind of art I can do,” that would be more respectable because they are saying what they think. But when they say they are certain that there is physical evidence that if that [unintelligible 00:32:23] means something and that raising of one eyebrow that’s a certain message of doubt, that is a wrong way to proceed. You are disguising it as science or as a certainty and that’s not real. 

It could be because of ignorance or it is most usually the case that they don’t know really how it works and what are the areas and the literature, that’s what I think. But some of them could be doing it with other intentions, deliberately using it to have more power and influence. I don’t know. I don’t want to judge. 

What I do want to say is that, please people be skeptics, not only from every supposedly or allegedly expert that’s on TV, on social media, even by my words, be a skeptic of what I’m saying. If you want more information, ask me or look it on the internet. Because that’s the way to think scientifically. Science is less a body of knowledge or more a way of thinking, an attitude of approaching to empirical evidence to being able to reframe your theories to change your mind based on the evidence. Most of these pseudo scientifics don’t change their mind when they are presented with hugely contradictory areas. When you do that, you’re using ideology, not science.

Zach: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. If we were going to make like a list of signs that someone is a bullshitter, one of the top things would be the fact that they can’t really engage with critics, that they are unwilling to- That comes up with what happened with Jack Brown if anyone even like respectfully tries to get him to engage in or criticizes or take offense, he’ll just block them. I think that’s a good example of when someone’s just not even willing to talk through like, hey, maybe you have some valid points about your criticism, or here’s a defensive of why I said this in the experience I had that supports this. I think that’s one of the top signs is just not being able to engage with criticism and that maps over to cult mentality where cult leaders just can’t engage in well-meaning and criticism and challenges. Then the other thing I would say is if they were making a list of that kind of thing is they just have way too many takes on things. It’s like you watch some of these behavior people and they’re just saying something like almost every second about behavior. It’s like there’s not that much there. Sure, you might have- I think it comes back to what you were saying about being very humble and being like, well there’s a chance this could mean that. But what do you often see is this means that and here’s another thing. A few seconds later that reinforces this idea. It’s like it’s just way too much certainty and just way too much to say. I was curious, would you agree with that, too?

Alan: Yeah, definitely, definitely. I have some indications, some cues I use to help people to discriminate fast who is not doing this properly. One of those things is that when they defend themselves, they say the words like, “Oh, this is science. I know for a fact that that smile is authentic. It’s science.” No, it’s not. There’s a very nice quote from Jeff Thompson, a police officer from New York. I read his thesis, his PhD thesis on mediation and nonverbal communication, very interesting one. 

He says that nonverbal communication is a science. For many, many reasons, I don’t want to expand myself too much. But there are at least 30,000 articles published in at least 297 different journals, academic journals. He says that nonverbal communication is a science. But when it is applied, it will always remain an art. That’s a specific point we need to address. If people say they’re doing science when they are in fact making interpretations of behavior, they’re not recognizing a biological pattern that has a specific one to one correspondence with meaning. That’s nonsense. Behaviors are related with meaning in a probabilistic fashion, realistic way.

You cannot do this one-to-one correspondence, except maybe with reflexes, the knee jerk, something like that, or the physiology or the pupil dilatation. But even the pupil dilatation may be a response based on interest, sexual attraction, cognitive load, being deceptive. There are a lot of reasons considering difficult choices. So that’s not the case. If someone defends his interpretation as this is science, okay, turn the bullshit alarm and try to look for more information. 

The second one is when they present themselves or their courses or information, where the 93% of all communication is nonverbal. That’s a huge red flag mostly used for rookies in the field. Because that’s a formula that comes from the ’60s by Albert Mehrabian, as I call an engineer turns psychologist, which is very, very interesting. But the formula has nothing to do with how communication really works out of the laboratory. That’s the wrong way to proceed. 

I have just one more, which is the presentation of microexpressions as a religion, as a faith that, oh, this will save your career, the tech microexpressions and improve your life. No, that’s, not- Microexpressions were discovered in the ’60s, not by Ekman, by two psychologists, psychiatrists Haggard and Isaacs and they named them micro momentary facial expressions, I think it was. At the onset of when they were discovered, they were not thought as expressing specific emotions as it is today. The first scientific review studies on the matter were published this century. Most of the studies shows that they are not frequent. They tend to appear in honest and liars, which was not thought before that study. They don’t help you to discriminate better lies. There’s a couple of studies on that. I think one is from Judee Burgoon or Jordan and colleagues. 

Usually, microaggressions are presented as something you need to discover because it’s going to show you certainly that a person is feeling an emotion and is trying to conceal it. Well, I don’t think that’s the case. I think that the evidence is more nuanced to that and it shows that usually they don’t last. So brief as they thought they were like in a paper from Matsumoto a couple of years ago, he changed the duration because it was conceived 1/24 part of the second, and the facial muscles don’t even move so fast. They move fast, not so fast.

What I’m trying to say is that when someone presents microexpressions as a direct relationship with meaning or emotions, be a skeptic. Because usually, and you can see this in animals, animals can also perform micro-gestures, micro-movements, very, very brief, but are not directly correlated with a specific emotion. Why do animals do this? This is an observation from Alan Fridlund, which I think is one of possibly the biggest or the best expert on facial displays. Here is that micro-expressions of these movements show conflict for that person or for the animal. It’s a moment of conflict between I need to attack or I need to flee. Maybe I should tell these people what I think about the subject, or maybe I should keep it to myself.

But if there is no conflict, for instance, and this is something I have read from Alan, which I think it’s not as polished yet, if you think about a serial killer, maybe that person speaking about the assassinations, there is no conflict at all. Why? It’s going to show a micro-expression if there is a conflict. So instead of thinking that micro-expressions are emotions, maybe we should reframe it and think about maybe it’s more general and they express us what it was introduced by Haggard and Isaacs and it’s more developed by Fridlund moments of conflict.

They could also mean one more thing. They could be somehow like balloon trials in which a person shows you something briefly to test if you are going to be able or fond or open to discuss something about what is going on. If that trial balloon doesn’t work, a person doesn’t proceed with a path of revealing certain information. If it works, maybe that person opens. But the simplistic idea that microexpression reveal emotions, it’s true simple. We know for a fact behavior is much more complex than that. Even the evidence of microexpression attenuates and discard this simplistic approach. 

But we are still using it for several reasons, and I will tell you at least one, which is explained in a book. It’s called the Atlas of AI. In chapter six, the author explains that at the moment, the market for facial softwares is worth, I think it’s $17 billion, which is an amount too big for it. It’s enormous to think about it. Most, if not all, 90 something percent of the softwares are based on the basic emotional theory, the theory that explains that there are five, six or seven universal facial expressions with a specific archetype, a prototype of the face, which I argue and a lot of authors argue, I think Augusta Gaspar from Portugal says this, that those are not prototypes. They are in fact stereotypes on how the face should show an emotion. A stereotype is not a prototype. It’s not the same.

The huge problem is that if you remove this theory, it’s not like cutting a part of a web and trying to solve the problem. You are stealing or you’re taking a break from the lower or the lowest part of the building and it’s going to collapse. There is some economical or financial need to think that this theory is working. There are a lot of courses around it also on certifications that if this was or could be put into doubt, it could be difficult. There is not much motivation to say that this is not working properly as it did not work properly in this port program. 

For instance, in the United States, it was applied as specific program into detecting queues on the airports. At least I think there were 100 airports in America. What a beautiful country. I love it. It didn’t work. The idea of recognizing microexpressions first to detect terrorists because that was not the case, but even smugglers, even criminals, it didn’t work. So the evidence is staggering against the simplistic idea of using the face as a window to the emotions or the soul or the thoughts of a person, it’s much more complex and nuanced.

Zach: People often ask me about micro expressions in the poker realm and I always say- I think it’s a good example actually because I’ve never found any real value in microexpressions, specifically, in the idea that microexpressions are leaking genuine emotion. If anything, it’s that people sometimes often reverse it. The small expressions are the opposite of what they actually feel because they’re trying to do some something deceptive or even unconsciously deceptive because poker is just your natural instinct is to reverse what you have, and that’s just an instinct. 

The thing that strikes me there is I think people in general when they want to be, they’re actually very good at not showing you things, they’re very good at being unreadable when they want to be unreadable. I think what happens, and maybe it’s a factor in some of the studies that show leakages of emotions in various ways. I think sometimes people just are willing to give away something in a way that communicates information to other people. There’s someone who’s just willing to give away things. That could be the situation isn’t that stressful, so they don’t mind leaking a little bit of genuine emotion. I think when it comes to the idea that people are going to be leaking genuine emotion, I think it just underestimates how good people can be at restraining their facial expressions.

A small note here. Just to clarify that I was talking about micro expressions specifically, not the idea that we can have other more macro leaks of genuine emotion. I think there are all sorts of ways we can accidentally leak emotion when we don’t want to. Okay, back to the talk.

I think there can be an exaggerated idea that I’m going to catch this person doing something and it’s going to tell me what their state is.

Alan: There are two other things. I agree with that. The first one is that when someone’s trying to teach you no one’s going to lie to you again, you’re not going to be able to do that. Some people name themselves as the human lie detector or the human polygraph, which is impressive.

Zach: It gets back to the idea that believing such things actually set you up for more failure. Because if you believe that you’ve got the tools to prevent being lied to or catching people lies and you believe in these simplistic ideas, that actually makes you more susceptible to being fooled because you think of yourself as a strong light detector or something like that.

Alan: Credulity is a prerequisite to follow these people. I was credible. I was gullible in a sense when I started. I want and people want to learn this. You want to believe that the other person is teaching the best of knowledge and you don’t know how to judge an expert. It was a question that was explained by Massimo Pigliucci in his book that Aristotle asked himself, well, one can know for a fact if that clinician is in fact a good doctor or is a quack? How can you know? 

The final answer seems to be that it’s very, very difficult. You can only judge if someone is an expert if you’re also an expert in that field. It’s impossible to be an expert in many, many fields in life. So you need to trust a lot of people to their credentials, to their assertiveness, to the way they express themselves, but you also have to follow some guidelines. We have been trying to give your listeners some tools to be able to better discriminate there’s something here I should take more into consideration. Or maybe I should be more skeptical of these kinds of affirmations and arguments. 

But for a fact, I will argue that it’s very, very difficult if you want to start to study this field to grasp quickly who is doing the things correctly and who is using content in such a way that it is disguising it as science, but he’s clearly doing pseudoscience. That’s dangerous. Pseudoscience has a lot of consequences. Sometimes when it is related usually to medicine, it can bring you to death. It’s an extreme. In our field, it can bring injustice, it could bring suspects being not believed or being treated in the wrong way, being stopped in the street, or doubting witness based on a gesture or microexpression. That’s huge in the future. If we allow this kind of pseudo experts to say this thing’s helping the law or in trials, it could have huge impact for the people’s life. 

I think we need to be really careful in how we apply nonverbal communication. But it is a very, very useful tool and skill that you can’t develop in two senses. I understand that my friend and colleague, mentor in a certain kind of way, someone which I have read over the years and I respect a lot, Ronald Riggio. He’s an expert on nonverbal communication and leadership. He explains that there are three skills in nonverbal communication. Expressing, perceiving, I’m using other words to saying it more easily, and control. 

I would argue that it could be summed up into skills for us for [unintelligible] and how to apply it in being able to express yourself better with behaviors like understanding how to change your tone of voice, your fluency, your speed, your rate of speech, and also your postures, your way of pressing yourself. I’m doing gestures to nothing at the moment to a couple of screens, but no one is seeing me. But I know for a fact that if I keep moving my hands in such a way, I’m helping me remember some words, I am emphasizing better with my voice. 

The other skill is called, it has many ways of naming it, interpersonal position is the most agreed in the field, which is the skill of inferring correctly if there is a correct interpretation for meanings. You could interpret that a gesture is related to an emotion given fear, for instance. It could be an interpretation of what someone is thinking at the moment like he’s thinking about leaving this situation, he’s thinking that his couple is wrong in this debate or argument. There are a lot of things you could infer. 

It’s a skill that we need to develop, I will argue, but in a probabilistic fashion, not with this kind of mental dictionary with specific behavior and specific one or two or three meanings. It is helpful to have an encyclopedia of behaviors. That’s useful. But then you need to understand the complexity of the polysemy, the multicultural and multipurpose. Think about this every time you see a gesture, instead of making the question that what does it mean, change it for what could be the probable meaning?

Zach: That’s something I think about a lot, the practical applications of understanding behavior. Because for example, we all know the polygraph is far from accurate, whatever the accepted range of accuracy is like 60 to 70 something percent, whatever the range is of being accurate. It also gets a good amount of false positives too. But it’s interesting thinking about how would something be useful? Even if something was say it was 95%? accurate, what do we still want to use the head for like illegal purpose knowing that? Because we say in our legal system, we’d rather have 100 guilty people go free than convict one innocent person wrongly.   What exactly is the range of accuracy where we would base big important decisions and life changing decisions on something like this? It’s something I often think about is, how can we use some of these things knowing that they’re reliable in a practical sense in real life. 

One thing that strikes me, I’m curious what you think is that when something is highly variable and you have to make quick decisions, and that would include things like conversation interviews, it would include things like poker, these decision points that are that come very quickly and can vary a lot and that you’re forced to make quick decisions about where to focus your time or what decision to make, those are places where you can use behavioral information to direct your train of questioning or your poker decisions where decisions could go either way and they’re decisions that don’t involve affecting someone else in a life changing way. 

Changing your interrogation thing based on something you think you’ve noticed isn’t going to send that person to prison wrongly. It’s just a way for you to maybe change your line of questioning a little bit and investigate something a little bit more conversationally. Same in poker, you might base something on a decision you think is slightly more reliable than not and it’s just a poker decision. Those are the kinds of things I think about when it comes to- 

Also, the interpersonal kind of things too like reading an audience better at work or something, those aren’t going to negatively impact their life. It’s just might be a way you slightly change something if you see something where that might be meaningful. Those are my thoughts about the practical benefit in people’s day to day lives kind of thing.

Alan: I hope listeners listen this part because there is a lot of practical applications. There is two ways of answering your questions, I think. One is with the explanation and one with an anecdote. I will start with the explanation. We need to understand which is the context of application of the knowledge you have on nonverbal communication. It’s not the same to apply it on the court on the judicial system than applying it in a conversation with a friend during a regular beer or at an interview with a colleague or a presentation when you are explaining the profits of the organization. It’s not the same. Because the consequences of the decisions you take are not going to be equal. 

So, I will argue that we need to consider what we know for a fact, what’s the science behind all what we know on nonverbal communication. If you understand not everything that has been published, but the holistic approach on the theories and the advances we have, I will argue that we are not able yet, based on the empirical evidence, to make judicial judgments based on nonverbal communication. Make [unintelligible] judgments on this is not the best way to proceed. 

There was a debate between Adler [unintelligible] which is the most known publisher article researcher on lie detection. I think he has over 200 articles, which is impressive, to say the least and Vincent Denault a colleague and a friend of mine from Canada. The first one argues that nonverbal communication is so ambiguous that you better forget it or don’t use it in the court, because it leads to worst lie detection. Vincent argues that thinking behavior is only useful for lying or for detecting lies or veracity is a way of really reducing the problem. Because behavior can talk or at least show information that is available for interpretation on personality, emotions, cognitions, attitudes, what we have told today. 

So you can use it to try to make up your mind to think about the person, but using it as a certified way of saying that you know what the person is feeling or thinking based on his face, he’s not feeling guilty. That is the problem. You could say that there is a probability to me that that behaviors are not related to feeling guilty. But you need to leave out some probabilities for making errors. Because we are error prone, we have lots of biases of, for instance, the Dunning-Kruger effect. For the pseudo experts it’s very common. The least they know, the more bolder assertions. But also, the expectancy bias, the confirmation bias that if we want to feel that the person is guilty, you are going to find the gestures that will at least show something related to them. 

I think that we need to be very careful to understand the consequence, also the literature and based on that, decide where are you going to apply this content. I apply it. I apply it to nonverbal communication every day of my life. I cannot take it out of my tools of communication. 

This happens to me yesterday. Yesterday was my birthday. I went to buy some books as a way of thanking or celebrating. I want books. I went to a bookstore for the first time. I didn’t know the person that worked there. That’s a huge important point. We started talking, and I spent 10 minutes talking about how was his work, how did he know that the book I was looking for was not here and the editorial could not bring it today, or they didn’t have it and it didn’t sell well. I was trying to look for a Robert Cialdini book. 

After a while, I decided to buy another books, two of Steven Pinker. We started talking about psychology and I spent 40 minutes talking with the owner of this bookstore. He started explaining to me his whole life, his recent separation, his divorce, his future, his mental health problems. He showed me photographs of his latest trips to Brazil and so a lot of things. But all this was possible because I understood that he had a certain kind of communication more dominant and I adjust myself to complement that with a nonverbal behavior of more submissive and open stance of listening. 

With time, and this is the crazy thing, he asked his daughter to go buy a cake to celebrate my birthday. So 15 minutes later, we were gathered, the three or four we were there, and they chanted, they sing Happy Birthday without knowing my name and we eat a cake together. I think that if I hadn’t applied nonverbal communication skills, which is not a way of trying to gain the upper hand, I was trying to have a good conversation, trying to understand who he was, what his problems were, and have a better understanding of him and connecting and we ended up in an impressive and very strange position. 

But these things, sometimes not always of course, happens to me because of how I do apply nonverbal communication. I am not saying this is the science. I know the literature. I know there are some constants. I think we need to look for constants rather than laws of behavior. There is no law of gravity in nonverbal communication. You need to look for constant tendencies. I know for a fact that when you compliment the behaviors of others, there’s usually more amicable interactions. Even with chimpanzees when there is an alpha and a beta interacting, this displays activities, the submissive signals tend to reduce the stress of the conversation. 

So I apply it with the purpose of connecting with other people. This is not the first time it happens to me. I want people to understand that you can improve your relationships with nonverbal communication, usually not with a simplistic approach of looking for these subtle gestures, the adapters or the unconscious gestures or microexpressions, you are improving your skills, your expressive skills and your sensitivity or interpersonal skills. It takes time. 

As you explained it, I think in other words, sometimes you need to use your intuition. But intuition only works if it’s trained. Intuition by intuition itself it’s good and it is not good. But if you train yourself, you’re going to be able to take quick decisions with your intuition. That’s, for instance, what firefighters that have 30 years of experience know when there is something amiss. I recall an example I think it was from David Epstein’s book Range, marvelous book, read it, how generalists triumph in a specialized world, that a firefighter noted that there was not enough heat or warmth in the department they were at the moment. He decided to tell his colleagues, “Let’s go out now.” 

A couple of seconds later, the floor of the department collapsed because the fire came from below. He’d made an intuitive call. He didn’t thought about it. He knew based on his experience or knowledge on the matter and took that decision as quickly as he could. Well, with nonverbal communication, you need to train your intuition to make these kinds of calls. You’re going to get a lot of misses, but you’re also going to get a lot of hits.

Zach: Yeah, I think you’ve brought up some great points that I want to touch on a couple of them. I think there can be skepticism from people about using interpreting behavior. In social or interpersonal situations, some people can have the skeptical opinion of there’s something exploitative about that or something unnatural, but I think it’s missing the point that adjusting ourselves to other people’s mood and matching their mood and being attuned to them is just something we do as humans. For example, if a friend comes to you and they’re in a sad mood, you don’t talk in a happy mood, you match their motion. It’s not like there’s something exploitative. It’s more just amplifying something we already do. 

A little bit of conscious training on these things isn’t really any qualitatively different than the random unconscious training that we learned growing up, because we’ve learned some of these things through socialization and our parents and such and it’s just accentuating a little bit more of that human ability that we have. I think that’s important because I think some people can look at the behavior bullshitters of the world and think, “Well, I don’t want to be like them.” But that’s missing the nuance. It’s taking a polarized view of the situation where there are some major bullshitters out there that focus on exploitative things and use bad information. There’s also a range of skills that you can accentuate in yourself to get better at connecting with people, to get better at reading people. I did want to mention that. 

I also want to say your focus on the consequences of your actions is very important. For example, if I’m sitting with a colleague and I get a sense through reading their body language that they’re repressing some anger towards me that they’re angry with me, upset with me and I changed my approach to them or my conversation with them based on that, there’s not really a big downside of that. If anything, I’m going to be more friendly to them or something more accommodating. It’s not the same as if I was interviewing someone and I decided to base a decision on whether to hire them or not based on some small piece of nonverbal information that has big consequences. You should be very humble about- You should think about the consequences of your decisions and basing them on small pieces of information. 

So I think that’s a very important point because I think that’s where things go wrong is people taking these ideas and applying them in situations where they really do have big effects on people, whether interviews, interrogations, TSA kind of stuff, security kind of stuff versus recognizing that there’s a lot of variance there and we should be humble and aware of the complexity in these scenarios. Yeah.

Alan: Two things are very important, motifs, the reasons why people use this knowledge or skills. Secondly, it happens to me quite several times that people tell me, “Hey, I’ve told you a lot of things and I usually don’t speak about these things.” It’s like, yeah, I know. Because gestures and behaviors are windows of opportunity. If you intervene with a good question about them, not mentioning, “Hey, I have seen you frowning and you may be angry.” No, no, that doesn’t work. Almost never. Maybe just maybe in psychotherapy, depending on how you approach your patients. But usually, the best way to proceed is indirectly saying something like, “Hey,” if you see a gesture of impatience you may say, “I have been talking like for 10 minutes. Why don’t you share with me what you think?” That’s a window of opportunity. 

If you choose the correct or a good intervention, verbal intervention is like a key for a lock. It opens new spaces of conversations that you weren’t allowed to enter if you haven’t seen the behavior and use that intervention. 

In my experience, I will tell people to be very attentive on the signals and try to develop verbal skills also as well as nonverbal skills to improve the possibilities of the conversations you have. The thing is going to happen to you, it happened to me and I have seen it with my students, that people are going to feel better around you. That’s maybe one of the most important things that people want to spend more time with you and you enjoy spending time with them because they don’t feel they are being analyzed or scrutinized with the eyes and… No, no. If you see something, you’re going to try to use it to improve the conversation and improve your relationship. That’s I think the best thing we can try to aim with this knowledge. 

Zach: That was behavior expert Alan Crawley, who goes by the handle ‘Sin verba’ online. You can learn more about him at his website He’s also got an Instagram channel, a youtube channel, and a Twitter account under his sinverba handle. Most of Alan’s content is in Spanish, but one great video he has in English is titled The Facial Expression of Cognitive States. I’ll include some links to Alan’s sites and accounts on my website, in the blog post entry for this episode.

This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about this podcast at If you like this podcast, please share it with your friends and family. The more listeners this podcast get, the more I’m encouraged to do more interviews. 

Thanks for listening. 


Interview with a Trump voter who thinks the 2020 election was rigged

An examination of reasons why some people believe the 2020 election was stolen, “rigged,” or otherwise illegitimate. This includes an interview of Peter Wood, a sociologist and political writer, who strongly believes that the 2020 election was stolen. Other topics discussed: election distrust by liberals, and how election distrust is a common endpoint for polarized democratic nations.

I think these conversations are important. If you’re someone who doesn’t believe these things and finds them ludicrous, I’d argue that we need to grapple with the fact that many people do believe these things, and that it’s possible to believe these things without being a horrible person or an ignorant person. As an extremely polarized society, we will continue to have more of these conflicts where one side perceives the other side’s concerns and beliefs as increasingly difficult to understand, and we won’t heal our divides by pretending our political opponents are monsters, or that their concerns are incomprehensible, or that their beliefs are evil. I’d argue we need more conversations and examinations of each other’s beliefs, and more treating “the other side” with respect and serious regard.

For a transcript, keep scrolling down.

Episode links:

Other resources related to or mentioned in our talk:


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

This episode examines beliefs that the 2020 election was not legitimate. It includes an interview with Peter Wood, who is a political thinker and writer who very much believes the 2020 election was not legitimate, who believes that it was rigged. So I’ll be asking him about that and examining these kinds of beliefs in general.

I think conversations about this topic are important; many people genuinely believe the 2020 election was not legitimate, and we need to be able to discuss that; the answer is not in pretending that such beliefs are not genuine, or that they represent some sort of malicious or even evil stance. When we act as if these very real divides we have are taboo to talk about, we run the risk of creating more animosity; we run the risk of confirming people’s fears that there is some grand attempt to silence them.

If you’re someone who cares about the United States and wants to see us succeed, or even just someone who wants us to avoid falling apart and descending into chaos, I hope you’ll listen to this episode. And it’s my hope that if you think this is a good episode on these topics, you’ll share it with other people, especially maybe conservatives who have suspicions about the 2020 election. And if you do share it with a conservative audience, I hope you’ll point out that on my podcast I frequently criticize liberal-side thinking that I see as unreasonable, and frequently try to share conservative perspectives, as I think those things might make some conservative people more likely to listen to this.

Now first I want to say: clearly not all Republicans believe the 2020 election was illegitimate. In surveys, around 35% of Republicans say they believe the 2020 election was legitimate, so clearly this is not purely a one side versus the other issue. I’d also say, though, that even within that roughly 65% of Republicans that say the 2020 election was not legitimate, it’s not exactly clear what such survey results mean. Are some of those people saying they believe the election was rigged just venting their suspicion and distrust and frustrations? Are some of these people similar to the 1/3rd of Hillary Clinton voters in 2016 who said they thought that election was not legitimate, likely some of whom were not certain about the topic but just expressing some distrust and frustration?

In a previous episode titled “How many Trump supporters really believe the 2020 election was stolen?”, I talked to political scientist Thomas Pepinsky about this topic. I talked about the views of some Trump voters who I’ve interviewed, and how there is a range of beliefs and uncertainty even amongst people who express high levels of suspicion about the 2020 election. And we also talked about the high amount of election distrust on the liberal side; we talked about the research Pepinsky did that showed that, in an alternate world, if Trump had been quickly declared the winner in November of 2020, there would have been a high percentage of Biden voters who believed the election was not legitimate. So you might like to listen to that episode first, as this episode is sort of a follow up to that one.

So it’s important to recognize first that in extremely polarized countries like ours, high distrust and suspicion of elections are common. It’s the natural endpoint of societies that have become very us-versus-them. We tend to think we are unique; we as Americans can be pretty myopic in not seeing how the things that are happening to us are completely standard and have happened to many countries. So I think it’s important to emphasize that high distrust in elections is completely standard and is exactly how democracies in many polarized countries fall apart. Both sides come to view the other with so much distrust and animosity, that they filter everything that happens through the worst-possible lens, they essentially become paranoid; they see indicators of malicious activity and big plots all around them.

For example, on the left, Russia’s attempt to influence our election in 2016 was one reason why many liberals thought the 2016 election was not legitimate, or at least what made many suspect it was not. It’s why, for example, Hillary Clinton, called Trump an “illegitimate president” and other Democrat leaders and pundits said similar things. But there’s no evidence Russia’s campaign actually did much of anything. For one thing, their disinformation was a drop in the bucket compared to other disinformation and distorted news out there; personally, as someone who studied and wrote about Macedonian and other foreign origin fake and biased news, the russian stuff was much smaller impact than those things, and probably even smaller impact than our many domestic fake and distorted news creators. Basically, in a very polarized country like ours, we have no need for foreign super powers to create very polarized and distorted news for us; we’ve got plenty of that ourselves, and there are plenty of incentives for us and everyone around the globe to cater to that anger, even just for financial reasons.

For another thing, the Russian online propaganda was likely consumed by people who were already very polarized.

If you want support for these things I’ve just said, check out a 2019 study by Christopher Bail and his colleagues about Russia’s propaganda attempts.

And you may be saying: but isn’t all the fake news, no matter where it comes from, a reason to view an election as illegitimate? And to that I’d say: clearly not: because there has always been news on both sides that can be criticized. As a country gets more polarized, it becomes more and more difficult to differentiate between people’s genuine positions and purposeful misinformation, so to act as if there’s some clear line that is crossed when it comes to fake news is missing the point. You can’t just say ‘well there’s a lot of bad and distorted information out there, so therefore the election wasn’t legitimate.’ Because some amount of people will always be able to say that about the news they don’t like. And there will always be foreign influencers of various kinds, if only just financially motivated foreign influencers.

Regarding Russian influence, an important point that I’ve barely seen examined is this: Russia may have done that work solely to get us to distrust our elections, because fomenting distrust in elections is a hugely country-destabilizing thing. So in that sense, even if Russia did absolutely nothing to impact our elections, they did succeed in making us have more doubt about our elections, and that alone could have been the goal. It would help explain why Russia would be completely okay with us finding out what they did. In other words: it’s a lot easier to get people to distrust their elections than it is to significantly influence those elections, and Russia would likely know this. And many liberals doubting the 2016 election fed into our mutual animosity and distrust and can be seen to later contribute to Trump voters distrusting the 2020 election. This effect can be seen in the many Trump voters responses about the 2020 election, which I’ve heard a lot personally, that go something like “Well you guys didn’t think Trump was a legitimate president, so you can’t complain if we feel the same way.”

When it comes to our elections generally: it’s important to recognize: we’re a large country, with hundreds of millions of people, so there will always be something going on somewhere that can be pointed to as an indicator of some bad behavior and used as a reason to arouse distrust and suspicion. This is just generally true about everything, not just about elections. Our country is huge, and if your goal is to find something that you can filter through a paranoid us-versus-them lens, there will be no shortage of things to find. You’ll be able to find one-off instances of people acting bad; oh look, some weird liberal did something weird in Wisconsin; some weird conservative did something weird in Florida. These one-off behaviors must mean something, we think. They must be part of a pattern that shows us what’s really going on; that there is maybe some big plot, or at least that these things point to the darkness that is in the hearts of our political opponents. This kind of picking and choosing of bad behavior by random people on the other side and holding it up as emblematic of the other side is a big part of what constitutes political dialogue these days.

And you can see how this dynamic applies to elections and leads to us doubting elections. Do you know how many election workers are involved in elections in this country? In 2018, for the mid-term elections, the country had 600,000 poll workers. And in 2020, due to covid, there was a shortage of poll workers, because a lot of election workers are volunteers and are senior citizens, and so this meant many people decided not to go out and volunteer that year. So it was understandably pretty chaotic, and I’d say it’s pretty chaotic even in the best of times. No matter if Biden or Trump had won the 2020 election, if your goal was to sift through everything that happened to find instances of seemingly bad or suspicious behavior, you’d be able to do that all day long. Oh, look, some inept person did something bad over here, oh look someone said something kind of weird over here; oh look there was an anomaly over here, oh look this video shows something that seems weird but maybe it’s not actually weird it’s just that we don’t actually understand what we’re seeing.

There’s really no end to that. You could do this for any election we’ve had. If you look back at articles about past elections, you’ll be able to find some stories like this, about various anomalies and mistakes and trivial instances of individuals voting twice, and such. Elections are messy things, even in the best of times. That’s why it’s so easy to create suspicions about elections, and why election distrust is one of the final stops for very polarized countries before everything comes apart.

If you’re someone who cares about the stability of our country, who doesn’t want us to descend into chaos and dysfunction, you have to require a high bar of proof to believe or claim that an election was not legitimate. When it comes to the things that threaten our country, threaten us falling apart, this is probably near the top of the list. It means taking the claims very, very seriously. And I mean that for people on both sides, because there is a similar problem on the left of using whatever things they don’t like about election integrity-related laws and regulations as a reason to believe that elections are not legitimate, and this is also a serious mistake.

I’ve been working on a book about healing and depolarizing America and I wrote a section about this specific topic, and if you want to read that, check out the entry for this episode at my site But long story short; if we want to avoid worst-case scenarios for our country, we have to make distinctions between things that are done legally versus illegally; we have to have respect for the law, even when we don’t like what the law is doing. We have to have as much faith as we can that the bad things we perceive as happening may be remedied by future legal means.

Because it will always be possible for someone to view some election-related law or regulation as unjust and unfair and use that as a reason to claim an election wasn’t legitimate. But that way lies madness and chaos.

And we have to acknowledge our own uncertainty about things and embrace that uncertainty; we have to acknowledge that it’s easy for us to be paranoid and see things that aren’t there when we’re very angry and distrustful; we have to see it as meaningful and important to be uncertain and to not give in to our most pessimistic and paranoid doubts. And that requires some discipline; we crave certainty, we do have doubts and suspicions, but if we’re going to survive as a country, we need more people willing to say “our doubts and suspicions and anger are not enough.”

I first became interested in interviewing Peter Wood when I saw that he’d been interviewed by Braver Angels, the non-profit group that works on depolarization and healing American divides; in that interview, Peter expressed his views that the 2020 election was not legitimate.

What caught my attention was that that interview had been removed by YouTube, apparently for promoting election misinformation, and this struck me as a bad decision, as I think we need more of these conversations. Interestingly, soon after that, an interview that had with Braver Angels leader Jon Wood Jr was also removed from youtube for misinformation, which was especially wrong and egregious as neither Jon nor I said anything that could remotely be construed as misinformation.

But in both of these cases, Youtube admitted they made a mistake and returned both of these videos to our respective channels. I mention this because on one hand, it’s easy to see where the perceptions of big tech censoring conservatives can come from; clearly there can be errors made about what constitutes valid discussion and what qualifies as harmful spreading of obvious lies, and I do think these companies make mistakes and often go too far in restricting speech. But on the other hand, it’s quite easy to see the challenges these huge companies deal with; i don’t envy youtube or any big platform trying to police and moderate content; it seems an impossible job; they have real pressures from the public to take down lies and misinformation, and to try to do that in some automatic way is very difficult. And they will never please everyone. They are, after all, just a bunch of people trying to meet the public’s demands, as all private companies do. I mean, there are many liberals who believe Zuckerberg has some sort of rightwing anti-progressive agenda , and you’ve got many conservatives who think Zuckerberg has an extreme liberal agenda; clearly these companies are never going to please everyone when we’re so polarized.

So anyway, I found the Braver Angels interview of Peter Wood quite bad. The reason I say it was bad is because it was merely Peter Wood talking at length about his views that the election was not legitimate, with basically zero pushback from the interviewer on the ideas Peter expressed.

Now I want to say first that I hugely appreciate Peter coming on to talk with me; as I said, I believe conversation is important. But I believe if our goal is healing our divides, we have to be willing to push back on bad ideas, to examine faulty logic and us-versus-them paranoia where we find it, no matter where we find it. I’d say that’s especially important to do on our own side. If you’re someone who’s listened to this podcast in the past, you know that I am often pushing back on bad and polarized thinking on the liberal side. I once interviewed a militant antifa person from Portland, Oregon, who believed that physically fighting with cops and lighting buildings on fire were rational and justified things to do, and I criticized his thinking in that podcast; I attempted to point out what it was that made that thinking bad and unhelpful. And in a previous episode I examined bad, illogical liberal-side reactions to the Rittenhouse verdict and how that could be examined through the lens of polarized, us-versus-them thinking.

This is just to say; I think we need to push back on bad ideas where we find them, and examine why that thinking is bad and do that as respectfully as we can. The answer isn’t just to say “oh interesting, you think the election was rigged and I don’t,” or “oh interesting you think cops are evil nazis and I don’t, let’s agree to disagree.” That hands-off, laissez-faire approach is what I found so bad about the Braver Angels interview. We need to be willing to challenge others and challenge ourselves, and to try to do that while being respectful and acknowledging that people do have understandable reasons for what they believe.

After listening to that interview, I bought Peter Wood’s recent book, which is titled “Wrath: America Enraged.” And I found it, like his interview, to be full of bad thinking and bad logic. In my opinion, Peter is a textbook example of a polarized mind, someone who has fully consumed us-versus-them narratives about what’s going on around us. And when I say someone has a “polarized mind,” I mean someone who sees all or almost all the fault for our problems and divides in originating on one side, who sees all the malice and deceit as residing on that other side, and who has almost nothing bad to say about one’s own side.

One would think in a book about American anger, you’d see examinations of how both sides have their fair share of anger; one could point to, for example, Trump himself and his consistently divisive and angry rhetoric, or the long history of rage-filled conservative radio, or how Newt Gingrich is well known for making American politics more divisive and angry in the 90s, or all the angry conservative TV pundits. There is clearly a lot to criticize on the liberal side, don’t get me wrong, and a lot to talk about with regards to society’s relationship to anger generally, but one would think any fair minded attempt to discuss our anger problems would be able to examine how many people on both sides have played a role in this.

But Peter’s book is primarily interested in explaining why liberals are the ones who are full of unreasonable rage and who are engaged in various deceitful and malicious plots, and explaining why conservative rage is justified. His book is less about examining our anger problems than it is about promoting the idea that the 2020 election was rigged and that America is under attack by liberals. He also promotes the pessimistic point of view that our divides are so deep and our conflicts so great that we’re likely at the point where we won’t be able to heal our divides, but at a point where one side simply must triumph over the other, so he counsels conservatives to channel their justified rage into practical channels. As he says in the intro to his book “I don’t want to dampen anyone’s anger. I just want to step back from the immediate sense of wrath to help us figure out where and how we can direct it. And if your anger is beginning to fade and you are concluding that we can wait this out, I want to remind you that your anger is worth sustaining. You will need it.”

In short, Peter’s book is less about examining American anger than it is about promoting the righteous anger that Peter feels is justified.

I’ll be getting to the election-related subjects and the interview, but first I want to go into some details about Peter’s views of the world. I see it as important to the subject at hand because, for one thing, it’s a manifestation of our very polarized, us-versus-them environment; many people, many liberals and conservatives, look at our country more and more in this way, and this is not surprising. Our us-versus-them divides lend themselves to this thinking, and create more people on both sides who see the worst in their political opponents. And so I think it’s worth examining how such views are present in one specific person.

For another thing, a belief that the 2020 election was stolen by some large liberal plot requires a certain kind of worldview. It requires a worldview where conspiracies like this are even possible, and a worldview where one confidently believes in such conspiracies instead of having some reasonable amounts of doubt and uncertainty. So in that sense, I think it’s valuable to examine the characteristics of that worldview and see how it manifests in other areas, on other topics.

I also want to say that clearly Peter is just one person; he only represents himself. When I interviewed a militant antifa person and examined their thinking, I got some feedback from liberals who were like ‘But that’s just one person; he doesn’t represent all the reasons antifa people or BLM activists were protesting or even rioting’. And clearly that’s the case; at the start of that interview with the antifa person I said exactly that. In this case, clearly Peter Wood doesn’t speak for everyone who believes the 2020 election was not legitimate, as there are a whole range of beliefs and emotions in that segment of the population. But by interviewing Peter, someone on the extreme edge of that population, it’s a way to understand some of the ideas of people in that population segment, and that’s all I aim to do, and if some people see things in a few different ways, or get a few different ideas than they previously didn’t have, then I see the effort as worthwhile. Put another way: I can’t interview a whole range of people; all I can do is interview one person at a time.

So first, I wanted to start out by examining some of Peter’s analysis of our anger problems in his book, and how they can be seen as quite biased and lopsided. In that book, he has a chapter about Trump, where he basically tries to make the case that Trump himself wasn’t that angry, that despite all appearances to the contrary, he was actually calm, but that he merely caused anger in others. To fit Trump’s divisiveness rhetoric, all his angry rally speeches and tweets and emails, into his narrative that all the unreasonable anger is coming from the left, Peter must engage in some real mental gymnastics. I mean, most Trump voters I’ve talked to, and many I’ve read statements from, will readily acknowledge how divisive Trump has been. One enthusiastic Trump supporter told me that Trump’s behavior has been like quote “throwing gasoline on the fire of our problems.” It’s just that most conservatives are willing to overlook Trump’s behavior because they view liberals so pessimistically or view him as accomplishing a lot. But Peter seeks to absolve conservatives and Trump almost completely. And most tellingly, Peter’s stance in this book is completely different from things he himself has said in the past about Trump. To quote from a 2015 article Peter wrote for the National Review:

Donald Trump is the angry man of the hour. He joins a long list of people who in the last half century have made their mark by bursting the confines of civility to say aggressively rude and obnoxious things. Vein-popping, vitriolic anger displayed in public is an art form — of sorts. It is a performance art, and it is a new thing — new, at least, in the yardstick of lifetimes and centuries. Donald Trump’s antics would have been unthinkable in the era of Eisenhower, let alone FDR.

Later in that article he says:

The Trump phenomenon, like a forest fire, will have to burn itself out. That won’t happen soon enough for many conservatives, but it will indeed happen. For even anger, after a while, becomes tiresome for the audience. Donald Trump himself is unlikely ever to feel ashamed. But new anger is a performance, and for every performance there is eventually a curtain, if not a final bow.

I fully believe that Peter’s current beliefs are genuine, don’t get me wrong. I fully believe that he believes the things he’s said in his recent book. So in that sense, it’s interesting thinking about how our us-versus-them polarization has a way of shifting our perspectives. Just as on the liberal side, there are now a lot of liberals whose beliefs are likely much different than they were a few years ago, due to how increasing polarization influences us to see things differently, to define ourselves more and more by the threats we see from the other side. And I think that’s important to point out because we often think that people whose stances have changed so much so fast or who have become so us-versus-them in their thinking are being deceptive or manipulative or not genuine. But in most cases, our beliefs really do go through big shifts based on what the people around us believe. A lot of our thinking is based on the thinking and emotions of the people around us, the people we define as our group.

I want to share a couple snippets from Peter’s book about how he views other contentious topics. Here’s one quote from the start of Peter’s book:

That wrath is further prodded by a progressive elite that seems to take sadistic delight in devising new ways to torment ordinary Americans. “Antiracism” (Peter puts antiracism in quotes) is a psyops campaign aimed at institutionalizing discrimination against Whites.

Note Peter’s confidence: he confidently states that antiracism is a psyops campaign. No question about it, no doubts. A psyops campaign, if you aren’t familiar with that term, is short for psychological operations; it means a covert, deceptive operation to influence a population. Now there are many legitimate things to criticize in the realm of antiracism: i’ve criticized some of those things in this podcast. One of the best writers I’d recommend on understanding what there is to criticize in this area is John McWhorter, who happens to be black and politically liberal; he’s written many articles for The Atlantic and New York Times on this subject; he’s also written an entire book on this subject.

But McWhorter recognizes that the people he disagrees with are human, that as misguided as he finds a lot of things in that area, he sees that most people are motivated by noble ideals, they feel they are doing noble work. And I see that, too. What Peter is doing here is no different than some of the extreme worst-case framings that some antiracism activists are capable of; take something you’re upset about and instead of attempting to see the understandable reasons for why well meaning people may be behaving why they do, look for signs of hidden aggressions and malicious behavior and even large conspiracies. There’s no shortage of this kind of paranoid thinking, this lack of attempting to understand the people we disagree with, on the left and the right.

Here’s another quote from Peter’s book:

Progressives manipulated the Wuhan virus epidemic by turning a manageable health crisis into a major economic disaster, an excuse for stripping Americans of their civil liberties, and an incitement of mass hysteria.

Again, a lot of confidence here. Peter sounds very sure that American progressives purposefully used covid to hurt the American economy and purposefully sought to strip Americans of their rights. Quite a doozy of a charge. I mean, clearly America is not the only country that instituted strict covid policies. For example, look at the large numbers of deaths in Spain and their overflowing hospitals and how they instituted extremely strict lockdowns in their big cities, much more strict than any city in America went through. I personally knew people in Barcelona who couldn’t leave their apartments without good reason, who were subject to questioning on the streets if they didn’t have a good reason. Does Peter believe that other countries were involved in this grand plot? How big is this plot exactly? Could it be that there wasn’t any sort of plot, but just a bunch of people trying to respond in understandable ways to a global pandemic? Is it possible to see how, even if you don’t agree with everyone’s approach to covid, that these were trying times that threatened people’s lives and that presented no easy answers?

And I’d ask, now that we’re returning to some semblance of normality in America, what exactly was the point of this huge plot that apparently involved most of the world? What civil liberties exactly have been stripped? What did these progressive masterminds gain? If American progressive reactions to covid were part of a grand plot by dastardly powerful elites to steal the American election, wouldn’t those people have been so powerful that they could have done that without covid? These paranoid narratives about covid just don’t add up.

Again, we live in a huge country, and it will always be possible to filter everything through a paranoid, worst-case framing lens. If you’re conservative and you dislike when liberals act hysterical about things they’re concerned about, I’d ask you to turn that telescope around towards your side and be willing to examine similar aspects of some people on your side.

To put it bluntly, I think Peter is just generally very paranoid, and I could go on for a while about his conspiracy-minded beliefs. In his interview with Braver Angels recently about the election, he also promoted a conspiracy theory that the January 6th Capitol riot was likely planned by the FBI, and again relied on some very weak logic to explain why he thought that.

So getting back to Peter’s book, a big part of his book, probably the most significant part, is that he promotes the belief that the 2020 election was not legitimate. And the most important aspect of this for me is that he spends almost no time on explaining why he confidently believes that. He says:

Progressives, claiming the need to protect “voter rights” seek to lock into place the subterfuges they used to steal the 2020 presidential election.

Later he says:

I will add, however, that my own wrath was kindled by what I take to be the Democratic Party’s significant electoral mischief in the 2020 presidential election. I’m fully aware of how contentious it is now to say the election was “stolen,” though I believe it was. I also believe that anyone who has been willing to look squarely at the nature of voter registration, mail-in balloting, vote-counting procedures, monitoring of vote counts, judicial unwillingness to examine the substance of complaints, irregularities in the use of voting machines, interruptions and delays in vote counting, ploys to neutralize the legal authority of state legislatures to set election rules, “consent agreements” on balloting, and -above all- results that are statistically impossible or nonsensical cannot but conclude that the election was marred by electoral fraud. Whether such fraud was decisive in the election of President Biden is technically an open question, but it is “open” only because the pertinent evidence has been either destroyed or ignored.

A little later he says “But I have little more to say on that topic in these pages…”. He explains why he’s not going to get into any of the details about why he believes such things in his book.

Now, if you’re conservative, imagine an alternate world where Trump had been declared the winner in 2020 and there was a liberal academic who wrote a book about why liberals were right to be enraged about the election being stolen, and in the intro he basically said “I’m not going to get into why I believe this; anyone paying attention in this area knows why it’s not legitimate, I’m just going to move on to what we do about it.”

You’d likely think, “hey, that’s a very serious and dangerous claim to make, maybe you should give some supporting evidence; what are the main reasons you believe that?”

But in Peter’s book, he glosses over this, and I want to examine that decision. If I were making a claim that an election were not legitimate, and if I cared about the stability of my country, I’d be able to point to the exact incidents that were the most persuasive pieces of evidence. I would view it as a moral duty to do that. I would view it as a cop-out, and a dangerous, irresponsible cop-out to say ‘hey, it’s totally understood why the election was not legitimate, I don’t have to explain why I believe this, look it up yourself.’ I’d say that the burden of proof is on the people who make big claims alleging large bad things to have happened.

Could it be that what is really at the heart of all these beliefs that Peter and others have about the election is an underlying distrust and suspicion of liberals? And not so much any specific incidents? In a similar way to how some liberals said that the 2016 election of Trump wasn’t legitimate, based mainly on a feeling, an emotion, that “this couldn’t be right; it doesn’t fit with how I think the world should work; something must be off; these people are gross and must have done something underhanded”?

I think that’s the case, and I think it helps explain why Peter wouldn’t want to get into specific incidents in his book; because even if some of the incidents he may have believed or may currently believe are suspicious are eventually explained satisfactory, or if there is just a standard uncertainty about what exactly happened with some incidents, what will always remain for Peter and for many people is the feeling that something bad happened; what will remain is that deep distrust and frustration, and therefore no matter what specific stories of election fraud or mistakes get debunked or explained, there will always be other things to point to, other reasons to be suspicious.

Just as in the case of Trump’s 2016 win, there were many things liberals would reach for to explain away the win: it was Russian influence, it was this or that fake news, there might have been hacking of vulnerable voting machines; it was Cambridge Analytica and manipulative digital marketing; it was weird that Trump won when the surveys said he wouldn’t win; basically, there’s always something to reach for when you’re angry and frustrated.

And I think this gets to the almost pointless task of debunking the specific rumors and stories about an election; because the root cause is the emotion, the anger, the frustration. And if we’re going to heal and have productive conversations about this, we have to confront that as the root cause in these areas. We have to confront and criticize the very nature of our paranoid stances, and see how the paranoid aspects of our political opponents that we don’t like can be true about us and about our own side.

When I was talking to Trump voters recently about the election, one Trump voter said at first he thought there was about a 50% chance the 2020 election was stolen. Later, after thinking about it more, he wrote the following:

I was just thinking about the election the other day. It went through my mind that no, the election was correct. I’m basing my opinion of that on the fact that no lawsuit proved otherwise. Now-a-days I don’t think you could get away with anything, with cameras and cell phone recordings, along with the fact that I think it’s impossible to keep any wrong-doing private. Once two people know something, it’s no longer a secret. If there was any large-scale fraud then someone would have sold their story. My opinion on overturning the election? The ONLY time I would support that is if it was proven in such a way that even both sides would have to agree there was fraud. I think the damage it could do to our country would be very bad.

And I think in this man’s uncertainty is real wisdom. We need more of that uncertainty. He may very much dislike liberals as a group and their political goals; he may very much suspect that some bad stuff happened during the 2020 election. But at the end of the day, he recognizes the limits of his knowledge, and also recognizes just how unlikely large conspiracies are.

And our tendency to believe in large conspiracies is another big factor here; it goes along with our growing paranoia. Fairly standard things take on more significance, start to seem part of some hidden plot. But we need to think through the logic here; big conspiracies are unlikely; it’s hard to keep secrets; it’s so easy these days to record everything we and others do and say, and people always end up fighting or wanting to spill the beans for revenge purposes or to sell their story for money or whatever. It’s very hard to keep secrets and we need to recognize that often our beliefs in big conspiracies are rooted in our increasing us-versus-them distrust and paranoia. If you want to read more thoughts on that, as I think it’s a hugely important topic, I’ll include some of that on the entry for this episode at my site

So now I’m going to play this talk I had with Peter Wood. And again, i want to say that my critiques of Peter’s ideas and beliefs are not meant to be personal insults to Peter. I believe Peter very much believes what he says he believes, and I also appreciate him being willing to discuss his ideas with someone who disagrees with him. It’s entirely unsurprising to me that people like Peter have extremely us-versus-them framings of things; that’s entirely expected in our polarized society; I’d just argue that it’s important to criticize those ideas and attempt to rise above them as much as we can.

Here’s the talk with Peter Wood.

Zach: I was curious what you thought about an idea I rarely see examined or discussed: the idea that liberals are the dominant force in society, in the sense that they’ve won the culture wars — they dominate entertainment media, they dominate academia — and I think that plays a big role in making many liberals blind to their biases and I think that’s a relatively unexamined dynamic, and I think it helps explain why, in surveys, in research, liberals don’t understand conservative views; conservatives understand liberal views better than vice versa. And I’m curious if you have any thoughts on this kind of assymetry in society and how that can affect the anger dynamics.

Peter: Is the left oblivious to its cultural hegemony? Well, that’s probably too broad a statement there. Well, let’s say I live in Upper West Side, New York City, a very blue part of blue America. My little voting district is the place where AOC has her largest set of financial contributors. I spend about a quarter of my time in rural Vermont. Likewise, it’s a Bernie Sanders country. So I’m surrounded all the time by people who think of themselves as politically liberal, and I generally keep my mouth shut so I pass. I keep my mouth shut on radio or podcasts and I write a lot, so anybody who wanted to know what I think could easily find out. But we are so smokestack to society that nobody ever does. I’m in conversation daily with people who view themselves as on the politically left, and they just assume that I am too, because anybody wouldn’t be. It’s the natural way to be. It’s what our society is all about. Yes, out there in western Pennsylvania or Kentucky or someplace maybe in Florida or Texas, you’ll find some people so wrongheaded as to disagree with our policy prescriptions, but certainly not around here.

So I get firsthand familiarity with the tendency of people on the left to just assume into place that their cultural likes and dislikes, their political preferences prevail and are natural and are everywhere. I have also spent a fair amount of time in conservative circles. I generally have to travel for that but I do a lot of traveling. I’m invited to speak to such groups and I never encounter the sense that these groups view themselves as speaking for how everybody feels. They are excruciatingly aware of the bias in the media, in the conversations they have with friends and relatives who hold different views. It’s a asymmetry that is astonishingly large, it’s a chasm. The left thinks that it owns America, the right thinks that the left owns America too but they think it’s time to take it back. That’s the real cultural division. I venture further on that I suspect that the right, in absolute numbers, has a larger footprint than the left does. That’s a dawning realization. Part of what helped make it dawn was the 2020 election. And on that I need to speak very carefully on several podcasts. I made reference to the 2020 election only to have YouTube take them down. So I’m speaking to you under the threat of censorship-

Zach: Well, you can speak freely because my next question was about the 2020 election, and you can definitely speak freely because they won’t censor us on the major podcast platforms. You know, it was mainly YouTube that I’ve seen that happen on for what it’s worth. But I’ll let you finish up, though, because my next question was going to be about the election.

A small note here: the Braver Angels video that was temporarily removed from youtube had already been returned to youtube at this point in time, and that episode of theirs was always available via other platforms, so I just wanted to point out that his unwillingness to talk about the specifics of his beliefs about the election is not justified from what I’ve seen. In other words, the reports of the censorship of his speech are greatly exaggerated. Back to the interview…

Peter: Well, this point I’ll just leave it then that it seems to me that division in the country feels to probably everybody that there’s this asymmetry involved. One side holds most of the cards right now. But in sheer numbers of people and in a sense of ownership of traditional American culture, the other side has a lot to say. I’ll just [inaudible]

Zach: Yeah. In your book, in your latest book, you talked about your belief that the 2020 election was not legitimate. And you talked about that in The Braver Angels Podcast recently. I’m curious, if you had to point to a resource online or wherever that summarized the reasons that you and other people believe that it wasn’t legitimate, where is the resource you would point to that has the compilation of those kinds of pieces of evidence to make your point?

Peter: Well, I don’t think I want to enter into that kind of question. There are now five or six fairly hefty books that can be easily found that attempt to summarize matters. But I think that as soon as I let the conversation go off in that direction, it becomes one of provoking people to say that I’m promoting Trump’s lies, or that the courts have said there’s nothing to this, or that we are living in some grand illusion. It seems to me that a fair-minded person would not want to rely on some set of documents or opinions that I push people to. I’ve read them, I’ve read things on the other side as well, but I don’t want to go there.

Where I would be willing to go is the really larger picture, the idea that President Biden garnered some 90 million votes, far more votes than any candidate in American history received for the office of president, far more votes than President Obama received in either of his elections. And it is a figure that kind of boggles the imagination given that he basically ran a campaign from his basement. He made very few public appearances, those that he did make were stumbling and not very impressive. So one would have to assume for those numbers to be achieved, that the American public was so repulsed by President Trump that it broke all bounds of historical precedent and turned out to give him this revolutionarily-sized mandate. Now, Trump was acknowledged to get about 75 million votes, which itself would have been a gigantic record in American history. In any case, we have to put these two numbers together, and you get a depiction of the 2020 election as a groundbreaking epochal event in which a higher percentage of eligible voters came forward to vote than ever before. Now, with no further word about whether there was mischief at the ballot box, or the voting machines were rigged, or the vote counters were up to mischief, something is very odd about that election.

A note here: this is a common point that I’ve seen people make about the election; that the results were not what they expected. But this doesn’t make sense to me as a criticism. For one, Trump has been a very divisive and anger-producing president; it’s fair to say he’s created more negative emotion than any president in a long time. He’s driven many conservatives away from the Republican party. Even people in his own administration have harshly criticized his behavior and his stances on various things. Even Trump voters I’ve talked to will admit he has been extremely problematic. There’s analysis of all sorts of shifts in conservative voters; some analysis said that Trump’s insults about Biden being old and senile lost him some votes of senior citizens, to take just one example. And what does Biden not campaigning much have to do with anything? People turned out in droves to vote for Biden largely because of their intense dislike of Trump, so in that sense it’s entirely understandable why Biden wouldn’t have to campaign that much, and why he would choose to not do much campaigning during a pandemic. For someone to not understand how much anger there was towards Trump seems to suggest being in a pretty big bubble.

So on top of the unusualness of Trump himself and how he’s affected us, we were in a global pandemic, and our voting behaviors were going to shift due to that, no matter what was done voting regulation-wise. It’s absurd to me to act as if any perceived strangeness in voting patterns, with all that we’ve had going on, is any sort of evidence of anything. And yet you’ll often hear this point brought up, that ‘hey some places that were fully expected to be Trump wins were not’. All these arguments are really really weak to me, and the fact that this is often touted as a primary point I think shows how weak the rest of the arguments often are. Remember that in the intro to Wood’s book that I quote, when referring to the supposedly strange-seeming election results, he referred to this aspect as being the most impressive piece of evidence. Back to the interview…

Peter (cont’d): And when one notices a historical anomaly, it seems to me there’s some obligation to ask, “Why? How? How did this happen?”

We got some clue as to how it happened when one of the supporters of Biden turned to the pages of Time magazine to explain, “Here’s how we did it.”

A note here: regarding this Time magazine article; this is something Peter points to in his book as one of the chief pieces of so-called evidence for why he thinks the 2020 election was stolen. It’s a piece by Molly Ball called The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election. In Peter’s book, and again in this interview, he points to this article as if it’s some amazing piece of evidence. But I’ve read that article and I invite you to read it; it explains how some liberals were concerned that Trump and the GOP would attempt to restrict voting in various ways that would help them, and so various people wanted to ensure that the elections would be as fair as possible. And then when covid hit, some of that effort turned into an effort to make it easier to vote using mail-in voting and other things.

The article even describes how their attempts were bipartisan; they enlisted conservatives and Trump supporters in that effort. And they would make the case to those people: look, if Trump does win and some liberals doubt the results, this will help you to be able to say ‘look, the elections were legitimate because we did our best to make sure things were done right.”

Long story short: I’ve read this article and it is a bit mind boggling to me that Peter Wood thinks this article is some sort of great evidence for why the 2020 election was not legitimate. I mean, the sheer fact that they published it in Time magazine alone shows that it can’t be that incriminating.

Put another way: even if you think liberals’ concerns about Trump engaging in shenanigans were uncalled for, surely you can understand how those are well meaning concerns based on Trump’s temperament and behavior, and also surely you can understand how covid caused many people to be genuinely interested in making it easier to vote using mail-in ballots. I didn’t agree with some of the ideas of the people in that article, but I understood why they were doing what they were doing, just as it’s possible for me to understand what it is that drives some conservatives motivations even when I disagree with them, but there was nothing in the article that made me think that the election was not legitimate. If Peter takes the view that attempts to make it easier to vote are what contribute to making an election illegitimate, would that mean that when conservatives make it harder to vote, those elections can just as easily be considered illegitimate?

None of the things in the Time article require any conspiracy, and clearly it would require a big conspiracy for many people to coordinate to cheat the election, and so I’d say: where is the evidence of that conspiracy? Do you really think with the hundreds of people such an effort would require, and all the communication that such a thing would require, you’d have no one, not a single person, leak evidence of that plot? Even assuming all the liberal conspirators could keep such a secret together, you don’t think a single conservative would have been in the loop somewhere who could blow the whole thing open? And again, if these people were so powerful to do this, why would they need covid to do this? And if they were so powerful as to rig this election, why did they not give some Democrats some more congressional seats? Again, these conspiracy theory ideas really fall apart when you examine them. Okay back to the interview…

Peter (cont’d): Part of the explanation of how we did it was very careful planning in the years before the election in order to install in place people running the local elections who were firmly on the Democratic side. Why should that make a difference? It shouldn’t matter who’s counting the ballots, if we’re counting them honestly they’re going to be the same number no matter what.

A small note here: I don’t know what Peter’s referring to here. In most jurisdictions there are, as there have always been, people from both parties involved in election procedures. It’s always been known that it’s important to have people from both parties involved to avoid allegations of fraud. Back to the interview.

Peter (cont’d): But we also had the COVID circumstances, which allowed for a call for the use of absentee ballots in a looser manner and in a more generous manner than ever before in American history. The absentee ballot regime was absolutely against the law in some states. State legislators didn’t want it but their state attorney generals without legitimate power said they had to be used this way. We ended up with ballot counts in some states that aroused a lot of suspicion. When early complaints were taken to some of the relevant courts, the courts generally said, “You don’t have standing to bring an argument, therefore we’re not going to hear it.” The ‘you don’t have standing’ position was promptly interpreted by the liberal press to say there’s no evidence. No standing and no evidence are two entirely different things. That may well have been the case that some of the people who did come forward did not have standing, or that they prematurely brought forward evidence that was not very substantial or credible. I’m perfectly happy to hear those arguments as well, but I do think we end up with an election in which for a great many Americans, including me, there’s an asterisk on the election. It doesn’t mean that at this stage it’s provably falsified, I think that there is substantial evidence in some states like Wisconsin that might go that far. But none of those have been properly adjudicated yet. In any way, a year into President Biden’s presidency it doesn’t make any difference. He is the president. But there is a sense among many millions, let’s say at least 75 million Americans, that this election was compromised and that the legitimacy of future elections is in question if the same balloting techniques are permitted to occur yet again in the midterms and in the next presidential election.

A small note here: 75 million is the number of Trump voters, and not all Trump voters believe the 2020 election was illegitimate, and it’s also questionable how much many of the ones who would say that on a survey really truly believe it. So this is just to say that Wood’s claim that 75 million Americans believe the election was compromised is just way overstating the number. And of course, many millions of people believing something doesn’t mean anything; remember that on surveys, ⅓ of Hillary Clinton voters in 2016 said that they thought Trump wasn’t a legitimate president. Back to the interview…

Peter (cont’d): Those two things go along with the current ferocious argument over whether it’s the left or the right that is suppressing the vote. Any attempt to say that you want to use voter ID is viewed as voter suppression.Any attempt to say that we should permit wide open access to the ballot via absentee ballots collected through ballot harvesting is viewed with a declaration that this is democracy in action by the left.

A note here: I do think Wood has a point here. For example, on a recent survey, around 80% of Americans supported voter ID requirements, and that included around 60% of democrats. This is just to say: when liberals act as if creating more stringent voting requirements is something related merely to voting obstruction or even to racism, or whatever, they do themselves a disservice and sound unreasonable to many Americans. Liberals might have to face the fact that, as unreasonable as they believe conservatives’ ideas about election integrity and fraud to be, that those are genuine beliefs many conservatives have, and creating more election security rules may be the necessary cost to pay for reaching a compromise and maintaining our country’s stability. For a good article explaining how some liberal-side framings of election security topics are overwrought and exaggerated, I recommend an Atlantic article by Derek Thompson about Georgia’s recent voting law titled The truth about Georgia’s voter law. Back to the interview…

Peter (cont’d): So there is a profound disagreement there on I know which side they come out on, but I’m also on my own side and I think these are matters for which we really need to have as close as we can to a dispassionate, careful exchange of ideas, coupled with a patient pursuit of real evidence. What really happened in 2020? For those who say the election was stolen, I’d say you’re probably right but we don’t know.

A note here: Note that Peter says ‘for those who say the election was stolen, I’d say you’re probably right but we don’t know.’ He says “we don’t know,” I just wanted to emphasize that, which seems in direct contradiction with his mostly very confident statements in other places. Back to the interview…

Peter (cont’d): For those who say it’s a big lie, I would say nobody’s lying here but I can see what we have is a disagreement. And that’s a disagreement that is worth putting out in daylight and having an actual discussion, rather than finding anybody who expresses doubts about legitimacy of the election cancelled or suppressed or treated as a kind of anti-constitutional monster. I’m probably closer to you on your own expressed views of how we go about seeking a solution to our cultural divisions, but I am to many people who call themselves Conservatives. I am willing to call myself a Conservative for the sake of convenience, but my loyalty is not to a party, it’s to a civilization. And that’s how I see we have to play this out.

Zach: Yeah. I guess the thing that strikes me in that area is claiming that an election was not legitimate is just such a huge serious accusation and potentially a country-destroying one. Because you look at many polarized countries and often how they come to an end at least democracy-wise, is this increasing distrust of elections, which is completely understandable in a very polarized and distrustful population. So, given the seriousness of it, it seems like there should be a very high bar for people who make those claims. For example, I’ve talked to many Trump supporters and trying to understand their perspective. And not all Trump supporters even believe the election was not legitimate. And the thing that strikes me is no one’s been able to point me to, you know, you’ve mentioned various books and ideas but you would think you would think for such a serious accusation, someone would have constructed some sort of online resource walking people through the best reasons, the best pieces of evidence for why they believe that. And what strikes me is there’s a tendency to just point to the all of these things, you have to go read and do your own research and it’s clear to the people that have done that. But it’s kind of like when I think of the American Revolution, for example, like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was making a case for why somebody who was skeptical would want to support America being its own country. I just don’t see that effort on the part of people who claim the election was not legitimate. I just want to see, in the same way that if Trump had been declared the winner pretty quickly in 2020 and liberals were the ones who would doubt his legitimacy, I would also want to see the real reasons why they were saying it wasn’t legitimate. Without that very good compilation of evidence, it’s just hard for me to take this seriously as somebody who’s looked into these things with an open mind and tried to get people’s perspectives. I would want to see that resource and I’m curious why that doesn’t exist.

Peter: Well, let me answer this in two ways. There were a very large number of Democrats who disputed the results of Bush v. Gore. Where is the resource in which they pulled together the evidence that the 2000 election is illegitimate? Where is the Tom Paine’s Common Sense of 2000? If it exists, I don’t know.

A note here: Regarding the Bush versus Gore election in 2000. Yes, some people thought that the 2000 election was not legitimate due to people acting badly and partisanly, and due to the belief that a recount would have resulted in a Gore victory, but at the end of the day, what happened was legal, and went through proper channels, no matter how faulty and biased one thought those channels might be. At the end of the day, there was no reason to say that Bush was not the legitimate president.

Also, it’s a much different situation because the main problem in the 2000 election was simply that the race was just so close in Florida, and because there were some ballot problems, the so-called hanging chad situation. When it comes to the votes cast, no one was alleging that one side was trying to cheat; it was just a debate over what to do with the messiness that ended up happening.

And things are never perfect; democracy and elections are messy, and they’ll be especially messy in a polarized country when elections are close. Our best general strategy if we care about our stability is to trust in the law, even if we think such things are messy. To quote from a 2001 piece by Gerald Pomper:

“Safety came instead from the American public, who showed remarkable restraint and calm, even as it avidly followed events. Americans’ “willingness to accept a less than perfect outcome reflects both a realism about the way we run elections and a lack of passion about either candidate.”

That willingness to accept a less than perfect outcome is important. Because everything we do as humans is less than perfect, and the more polarized we become, the less perfect things will be, and the less perfect they’ll be perceived as.

So maybe what Peter Wood is doing is similar to someone in 2000 confidently proclaiming that Bush was not a legitimate president. And I’d say it’s much less responsible than that because, at least in the 2000 election, there are a few very specific things people would point to to criticize; there weren’t that many things to point to. It didn’t require throwing out a bunch of nebulous reports. Presumably, ifPeter were writing a book about the 2000 Bush-Gore election, he’d be able to list the few specific things of what bugged him instead of, as he does in his book, confidently proclaim his belief that the 2020 election wasn’t legitimate without listing the reasons why.

Ok back to the interview.

Peter (cont’d): But when we turn to the more recent election, well, there are figures who I regard as pretty serious intellectuals like John Eastman who’ve made cases. There’s Mollie Hemingway, the editor at The Federalist who recently published a book titled Rigged: How the Media, Big Tech, and the Democrats Seized Our Elections. There is no shortage of pretty serious people who’ve put out homes that are worth considering on this matter.

A note here: Let’s take the Mollie Hemingway book that Peter points to as being a serious work in explaining how the election was stolen. I’ll read from a Wall Street Journal review of this book:

Seventy-five percent of Republican voters say the 2020 election was “rigged,” per a recent poll, with “real cases of fraud that changed the results.” Are they right? From the title of Mollie Hemingway’s book, “Rigged,” you’d think it would be easier to figure out. The prologue is titled “You’re Not Wrong.” She quotes President Trump saying he was “cheated” and that “it hurts to lose less than to win and have it taken away.”

Yet she criticizes “hyping” of “dramatic claims” about Dominion voting machines, plus Rudy Giuliani’s “disastrous” legal turn. Other flapdoodle theories make no appearance. When Mrs. Hemingway says “rigged,” she means everything from jockeying to kick the Green Party off Wisconsin’s ballot, to Fox News’s early call of Arizona, to Twitter’s blackout of the Hunter Biden story in the New York Post.

Some of this has merit, but when Mr. Trump says “rigged” he means “massive election fraud.” Here the book is less helpful. There was much to object to in 2020, but she overstates the case. Yes, Democratic lawsuits pushed to loosen rules, sometimes successfully. Mail votes rose from 25% in 2016 to 43%. That’s a concerning trend, but even before the pandemic most states let anyone vote absentee at will, including Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin. Covid was always going to create a deluge.

The rest of that article examines how the things that Hemingway attempts to point to as evidence of malfeasance are pretty standard and understandable aspects, some that could apply to all elections. To quote from that article again:

Mrs. Hemingway raises the question of Georgia voters who moved between counties. Temporary movers, such as students and military, are no problem. But permanent movers are supposed to re-register within 30 days. She cites an analyst who says he found more than 10,000 Georgians who changed addresses at least a month before the election, voted in their old counties, and only later re-registered. Fraud?

It’s tricky. People might temporarily move in with family amid Covid, only to stay. They might buy a house but spend weeks in transition. An address change isn’t legally enough to challenge a voter’s eligibility. WSB-TV spoke to a man who moved “a few blocks” over a county line. He “figured it was a statewide election,” so “it didn’t even occur to me that I could be doing anything wrong.” That’s a problem, not a “rigged” vote. Also, the state said 86% of these people voted in person. Mr. Trump won 55% of Georgia’s in-person ballots, so maybe the oversights helped him.

It seems that Hemingway’s book includes a lot of weak arguments. It seems that some of the claims that Hemingway would point to to make the “rigged election” case are based on legal things that happened that are completely understandable, and on other completely standard election-related phenomena being viewed in the most pessimistic light possible. For example, even if you don’t agree that it was necessary, hopefully it’s completely understandable why many people would want to make it easier to vote during covid. One would imagine that that would be something that conservatives, in different times, would be supportive of. In short, believing that the election was “rigged” or illegitimate due to such legal efforts is no different that liberals believing similar “election was rigged’ things due to legal election integrity laws that Republicans have put in place.

If we’re going to take the stance that completely legal procedures or completely standard small anomalies can render an election illegitimate, we’re really lost as a country because there simply will be nothing that we can’t turn into a reason to believe whatever we want about elections.

Back to the interview…

Peter (cont’d): But at the same time, there are also books and websites and so forth that are kind of fringe, they’re not very serious people who are making audacious claims that aren’t founded in real evidence. So my reluctance to get into this is-

Zach: Like Mike Lindell maybe. Yeah.

Peter: I’m not mentioning names, you’re free to.

A note here: Why wouldn’t Peter be willing to say what theories about the election are crackpot and bad? One would think that if these crackpot theories were hurting making the case that the election was not legitimate, that one would be willing to call them out, and say, for example, “Mike Lindell is nutty and he’s making our real concerns look bad.” So why wouldn’t Peter be willing to do that? I’ll just leave that question there for you to think about. Back to the interview…

Peter (cont’d): The point here is that in any contentious area of culture where disputes are taking place, the buyer-beware adage comes into play. Not everybody on the same side is to be taken with equal seriousness and you have to be prepared to sort through the arguments coming from left and right with the understanding that some people are relatively reliable reporters of the facts, and others dress up their opinions as though they are facts. We get into a real bind over these matters as soon as you start trying to sort that through for other people. But I trust people of good faith who exist on both sides have the capacity in the privacy of their own meditations to go and read materials on either side and see what sticks. Are they really convinced that the vote counts in various states were completely on the up and up? There are phenomenon which I’ve seen with my own eyes and I suspect you have as well, that get explained away also easily. An absentee ballot to be counted has to be folded, put in an envelope, put inside another envelope, and submitted maybe through a Dropbox or maybe directly through the mail. And yet when we saw the absentee ballots being counted, great many of them were stacks of pristine unfolded paper. What were those things? Once the question is raised, you get an answer like, “Oh, we made copies of the originals because it was easier to count them by photocopying them first, and that’s why they were flat.” So they, on Election Day, copied 10s of millions of ballots in order to count them better? We’re to believe that? I don’t know, maybe it’s true.

But this kind of thing happened with such frequency that we’d find the suitcase ballots emerging from under a table after the room was closed and the balloting count was reopened at — was it 2:30 in the morning? Two o’clock in the morning? It was caught on videotape, and now we’re told, “Oh, well, that was nothing. Never pay any attention to it.” Again, maybe there was an innocent explanation for it but why do we have 200 innocent explanations for odd behavior, and not a single one of them shows odd behavior on the other side? There’s something fishy in this election, whether it can be proven or documented.

A note here: I don’t know what any of these things Wood is talking about here are referring to. But again, it’s not surprising that if you look at an election in a country of 330 million people that you’ll be able to find all sorts of things that look strange, if that’s your goal. I would bet my life’s savings that if you did this kind of search for any election we’ve had in this country, you’d find all sorts of similar seemingly strange or unusual things that seemed on the surface hard to explain. And then add to that we were doing all this during covid, during a lot of chaos, and things had changed a lot. It’s not surprising you can find various unusual-seeming things. But none of that proves anything.Back to the interview…

Peter (cont’d): Now, one side of me says at this point, “Why bother?” Those of us on the side that there was something fishy in the election are convinced at this point that we will never see justice in the courts, we will never see the New York Times run a story on the front page or even on page 50 saying, “Oops, we made a mistake.” We know that the press, broadcast, cable news, print and so on has a narrative that it’s going to stick to no matter what. We know that the courts are just loath to get involved with this.

A small note here: just a reminder that Trump and his team lost basically all of his court cases that were filed that alleged election fraud. To quote from USA Today: “Out of the 62 lawsuits filed challenging the presidential election, 61 have failed,” and “decisions have came [sic] from both Democratic-appointed and Republican-appointed judges.” In fact, most of the judges were elected state judges. The 13 federal cases saw votes by 12 Trump appointed judges, and none of those cases were favorable to Trump. Back to the interview…

Peter (cont’d): It seems to me under those circumstances, wisdom is on the side of draw your own conclusions and proceed accordingly. But don’t expect this to be proved. Don’t think that Zachary Elwood is going to be convinced, because he’s not going to be convinced. He knows his side of the story perfectly well, too. And I’m good with that. Let Zach have his views, I’ll have mine, and we will proceed accordingly.

Zach: Do you think, I mean, isn’t natural and completely expected in a very polarized country as it is in many polarized countries that these things will happen? Like, say if Trump had been declared winner in November of 2020 and you would see in a similar way from the most polarized liberals, most angry liberals, you would see books and articles pointing to all these things that could be fishy, and you would see a very similar thing on the other side. Do you see that as being probable if Trump had been declared the winner?

Peter: Well, I would see that a titanic eruption of anger on the left would have happened for sure, because it happened in 2016. The left would not be happy with the results, yes. Would the left go to the argument that there had been tampering with the election? Well, yeah, that’s what it did before. It declared that Trump was in collusion with Russia and Russia had somehow rigged the election. Now, they spent 10s of millions of dollars trying to prove that, it turned out to be a phony allegation but one which was very helpful in trying to undermine the Trump presidency. Why wouldn’t they do it again? My assumption is of course, they would have. Would it have been legitimate? Well, it would have been legitimate if Trump had fiddled with the election. And, of course, we’re now going into the world of counterfactuals. I don’t see Trump or his people as having the capacity to engage in the kind of mammoth fraud that the left managed in the 2020 election. So they might have made the accusation, but I doubt that would have been true.

A small note here: Wood says that Trump and his people wouldn’t have been able to engage in the kind of mammoth fraud that the left managed in the 2020 election. And yet, why would that not be possible? Trump was the president at the time, with a huge amount of power. Why would he not have the capacity? And what is it about the left that gave them amazing capacity?

And this also points out another weird element of this narrative; if Trump and the GOP were so aware of the threat of the election being stolen, where were their efforts to combat this? Presumably there would be many things one could do, besides making it harder to vote, to ensure a legitimate election, like appointing various bipartisan committees to oversee things and such. But Trump’s strategy seemed to be to mainly complain loudly that the election was being stolen, which he did many times in the months leading up to the November election, and then after he lost, lodging a bunch of lawsuits when he lost and complaining more.

And also note that Wood, having previously said that we “couldn’t know” if the election was stolen, now says confidently “the kind of mammoth fraud that the left managed in the 2020 election.” So which is it? Are we just suspicious that something bad happened? Are we uncertain but think it’s likely? Or are we completely certain that mammoth fraud was committed? Because those are all big differences. We don’t convict people of murder because we’re “kind of certain” they committed murder; there’s a reason we require a jury to reach a confident conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.

Back to the interview…

Zach: Right. Yeah, you seem to very go back and forth between expressing a lot of confidence that the left did that versus like, can we really know for sure. And you act as if I have a stance or that other people have a stance on this. And my stance is just being uncertain because in the same way that you, for example, or other people can point to all these various things, I feel like it would be the same thing if Trump had been elected. You’d be you’d be having the most polarized and angry liberals pointing to all these inconsistencies and maybe strange behaviors of local election officials etc, etc. There will be no shortage in a polarized environment of people filtering everything through these very polarized narratives. And my stance is — it’s not even a stance, it’s like, this is such a serious accusation in the same way that I found it bad that a third of Hillary Clinton voters called the election illegitimate in 2016. That is very bad to me because high bar for such a theoretically country-destroying promotion. I’m erring on the side of uncertainty and just saying, this is a very very serious thing to believe in.

Peter: Well yeah, I certainly inhabit this sort of ambiguous point where my personal conviction is that the election was stolen, but as to a stand as to whether it’s publicly worth arguing that out at this point, the answer is no, I don’t think it is. I’m happy to see other people do it if they want to but I don’t think at this point much of anybody is left in the middle to convince.

A note here: if it’s so clear and obvious that there was mammoth fraud in the 2020 election, why does Peter Wood say it’s not worth arguing it out at this point? If it was so clear, presumably we’d be able to make a strong case about it. I know I certainly would. If I believe that that was the case, I’d certainly be trying to make that case to people who are unpersuaded, and I certainly wouldn’t just be vaguely pointing to things that could have happened; i”d be pointing to things I know happened. And I’d be pointing out bad crackpot theories that people are spreading that hurt the real case to be made. Back to the interview…

Zach: Let me let me ask you this. I know you’re kind of pessimistic about our divides getting better, but if there was something you would say to the liberal side as to how can we get better? How can we heal? What are the steps towards that? What would you say to a liberal audience?

Peter: Well, I do speak on occasion to liberal audiences. What I would say is it would behove all of us to cultivate some self-doubt that there are things that we believe are true that probably are not true. They seem very convincing to us at the moment, but it’s worth listening to people who have other points of view, and trying to understand not just why they have other points of view but whether there’s any legitimacy to those points of view. I welcome groups like Braver Angels that attempt to broker a conversation between left and right. I think it’s rather telling, however, that when Braver Angels did the brave thing of posting that podcast and getting it reposted after Facebook took it down,

A correction here. I’m pretty sure Peter means Youtube, not Facebook. Unless it was also taken down on Facebook, which I don’t think it was. Back to the interview.

Peter (cont’d): they got furious response from a fair number of their own members, people who had come forward and said, “I want to be part of this left-right discussion,” but as soon as they heard a view that was outside their zone of comfort, their anger bubbled up at the organisation that exists for that very purpose.

A small note here: I think what actually angered some listeners of that Braver Angels episode with Peter wasn’t that the conversation was being had but that there was zero pushback from the interviewer to Peter’s ideas. Which is the reaction I had when listening to it; just very much disappointment in the badness and unhelpfulness of the interviewer’s technique. Back to the interview…

Peter (cont’d): So my pessimism I think is well earned. I think cultural divisions like this, it’s not the first time it’s happened in human history, and they don’t resolve by people saying let’s find a happy middle ground. They usually resolve by one side or the other decisively triumphing. And right now the energy in the country is directed towards that, the left wants to win so does the right. It may not happen in the next election or the one after that but probably sooner or later it will happen, that one side will have such a decisive victory that the other side will be demoralized.

Generations die off, maybe some future generation of the grandchildren and millennials will think that this whole thing was silly and will be going on to something else. The other thing that can bring a culture war to an end is the great disaster, whatever that might be; another 911 or Putin-instigated nuclear war. We might forget our differences if we’re engaged in the struggle for survival. I hope that that’s not the answer to any of this. It would be nice if I could end my remaining days as someone who lives in a world where left and right can talk to each other in a civilized way. We still have that to some extent, but it’s not to be found in certain segments where one would hope it would be. It’s not to be found on college campuses these days, and it’s sort of not to be found in our mass media.

Zach: Yeah, I definitely agree with you about the part of our solution is being less certain and having more doubt in regards to doubts about what the motivations of the other side are or what your stance on a specific topic is, and doubts about the moral righteousness you have about those topics. I see that as a big part of the solution. But yeah, as you say, I feel like it’s hard to ask for that in a very polarized society. You’re hard to expect in any way. But yeah, thanks a lot for coming on, Peter. This has been great.

Peter: Great. Thank you for having me.

Zach: That was an interview with Peter Wood.

One reason in my opinion that Peter would not want to call out bad, provably false and debunked allegations about the election being rigged is that Trump and his family and other GOP leaders have spread some of those provably false allegations. So if Peter were willing to call out some of those bad, wacky ideas, it would mean acknowledging that Trump and his team helped spread some of those ideas, and that would mean examining the significance of that, and examining the motivations of those people.

Because even if you’re someone who believes the 2020 election was not legitimate, hopefully you’ll be willing to admit there’s a lot of bad information out there. To learn more about this, I’d recommend reading a Buzzfeed article about Eric Trump titled Eric Trump Is An Election Disinformation Superspreader.

And Trump himself, in the months leading up to the election and in the months that followed, promoted a whole slew of allegations that were debunked. On the page for this episode on my site, I’ll include links to my twitter thread of various Trump emails that promoted all sorts of weak and vague allegations that the election was being stolen.

Trump and his team’s approach to this was akin to throwing all sorts of spaghetti on the wall and hoping some of it would stick. It was about creating the perception that amongst all these things, even if many were debunked, there would be a lot of doubt created. Something would stick. Remember that many prominent conservatives, including Bill Barr, Trump’s own attorney general, said that Trump’s claims that the election was not legitimate was, to quote Barr, “bullshit.” It’s not much different than if Trump were to lose a golf game, and would start complaining about all the reasons for why he lost; pointing out his golf clubs were bent, and that he didn’t have a visor, and that his leg was hurting, and that his opponent got a lucky shot; if you can create enough doubt and excuses, people will start to doubt whether your loss was significant, whether it really was a loss.

I’d like to end with a clip from a recent Sam Harris podcast where he and Anne Applebaum and others talked about the 2020 election and Trump’s claims that the election wasn’t legitimate. I’d also like to point out that Sam Harris is someone who is often critical of liberal ideas. He’s even sometimes called rightwing or even racist by some liberals, quite wrongly on both counts in my opinion. This is just to say that he is someone who points out bad thinking where he sees it, and is no favorite of the left. And similarly, for Anne Applebaum, she is fairly conservative-leaning, and quite knowledgeable about political conflicts across the world, and knowledgeable about how democracies fall apart. And like Sam Harris, Applebaum has done a good amount of criticism of liberal-side ideas. She wrote a great recent piece in The Atlantic about liberal-side moral panic, which was called The New Puritans. Again, this is just to say that she is also not someone who simply regurgitates liberal talking points. And if you’re conservative hopefully that will help make her points more palatable.

Here I played a couple minutes from Sam Harris’s podcast. If you’d like to listen to this snippet, go to minute 32:00 of this episode.

Zach: That was Anne Applebaum from a January 2022 Sam Harris podcast about American democracy.

This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me Zach Elwood. You can learn more about this podcast at If you liked this podcast, please consider sharing it with people you know. I currently make no money on this podcast and spend a good amount of time on it. If you’d like to donate to my Patreon and encourage me in this work, that’s at My Twitter is at @apokerplayer.


How many Americans actually support political violence?, with Thomas Zeitzoff

A talk with political scientist Thomas Zeitzoff (, who has studied political conflicts. We talk about survey results that seem to show an increase in Americans’ willingness to think political violence is justified, and how that relates to our fears about future violent conflicts and “civil war” scenarios in America. Other topics discussed include: the psychology of polarization; the Ukraine-Russia conflict and the role of social media in that; the effects of social media on society in general. 

Transcript is below.

Links to this episode:

Resources related to or mentioned in our talk:


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

America is deeply divided; a significant percentage of the country, roughly 60% of Republican voters according to polls, believes that the 2020 election was not legitimate. 

In a previous podcast, an interview with Thomas Pepinsky, we talked about that topic; we delved into some skepticism I had about what we can really tell from such surveys; for example, are some people who say “the election was rigged” on surveys just lashing out, just expressing frustration and suspicion, in a similar way to how that may have been the case for a significant number of the Democrat voters in 2016 who said the same thing about Trump’s election? Clearly distrust in our elections is a serious and concerning thing, especially when political leaders promote it, but I think we should be hesitant to reach firm conclusions about what such surveys tell us, considering how polarized we are and how our emotions can affect surveys.

Related to these topics, you may have seen views expressed in articles and on TV news about the idea that America runs the risk of descending into a civil war of some sort, with significant violence. Often, as evidence to bolster these views, people will point to a specific recent survey that showed that the number of Americans who think that political violence may be justified has gone up significantly over the last few years. And that is worrying. But again, it seems some skepticism and uncertainty is warranted. What exactly are those polls asking and what factors might be influencing people’s responses? Are there dangers to taking the worst-case, pessimistic interpretations of such surveys, in how those interpretations might increase the fear and anger of people across the board? 

I’ll read from a January 2022 Washington Post article by Philip Bump: 

That there has been a broad discussion in recent days of the prospect of civil war in the United States is, by itself, telling. What drives public conversations is often nebulous, but, here, the proximate cause is obvious. One year ago Thursday, a violent mob surged into the Capitol in an effort to block the election of Joe Biden. So we’ve seen a multipronged discussion about the willingness of Americans to engage in acts of political violence and how far that willingness might extend.

For Vox, Zack Beauchamp spoke with a number of historians and political scientists about the possible trajectories on which the country might be headed. Titled “How does this end?,” the essay summarizes the predictions of those with whom he spoke: “hotly contested elections whose legitimacy is doubted by the losing side, massive street demonstrations, a paralyzed Congress, and even lethal violence among partisans.” […]

But there were also notes of caution. Political scientist Josh Kertzer found one component of Beauchamp’s essay puzzling. “I know a lot of civil war scholars, and… very few of them think the United States is on the precipice of a civil war,” he wrote on Twitter. Meanwhile, journalist Josh Barro thought Waldman’s essay was frustrating. “There’s this whole segment that wants to ‘talk more’ about authoritarianism,” he wrote, describing one facet of the essay — “to what end? Who are you convincing of what?”

Last month, I spoke with American University associate professor Thomas Zeitzoff on this subject. His focus is political violence and political psychology, and he had publicly objected to a different Post column elevating the concerns expressed by Barbara F. Walter.

Walter is a professor at the University of California at San Diego who wrote a soon-to-be-published book titled “How Civil Wars Start.” She was also one of the featured experts in Beauchamp’s essay.

Zeitzoff’s objections were varied. One, he explained to me, was that elevating concerns about “civil war” could be self-fulfilling. He used the example of two feuding neighbors who observe each other buying weapons and ammunition. The instinct would be to be similarly prepared — raising the risk of a confrontation. Another objection Zeitzoff offered was that surveys suggesting broad support for violence were often vastly overstating the effect, as demonstrated in part by the rarity of such events: particularly compared with the 1960s and 1970s, he pointed out, a period when political violence was far, far more common.

So this episode will be a talk with Thomas Zeitzoff, who was quoted in that Washington Post article I just read. I first noticed Thomas’s work on Twitter where he had a Twitter thread making the points he made in that article. This of course doesn’t mean we can’t worry about or talk about worst-case scenarios or prepare for them, it’s just a matter of recognizing that there can be value in avoiding sensationalistic and confident claims. I’ll read Thomas’s full Twitter thread about that later, during the interview. 

Thomas has also studied how social media can affect conflicts and wars, and he’s done research on Ukraine, so we also talk a bit about his takes on the Ukraine Russia conflict, and about social media effects on society in general. 

Here’s a little bit about Thomas, taken from his site, that’s ZEITZOFF .com : 

He’s an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University. His research focuses on political violence and political psychology. He’s particularly interested in the effects of social media and exposure to violence on political attitudes, why individuals fight, and how leaders mobilize supporters for conflict or peace. My research uses survey and experimental methods drawn from social psychology and behavioral economics, along with large-N analysis. 

You can follow Thomas on Twitter at zeitzoff. 

I’ve edited the interview a bit. We talked first about the Ukraine-Russia conflict and the role of social media on that, but I’ve moved that to the end of the interview.

Let’s go now to the interview with Thomas Zeitzoff. How concerned are you that influential people are crafting some very pessimistic and worst-case framings about the likelihood of violent outcomes in America, and are unintentionally making worst-case scenarios more likely? 

Thomas Zeitzoff: I’m concerned because I think just like we were talking about how most people don’t follow politics closely or care that much about politics, I also think that what’s way overstated is the percentage of people who actually support violence. We’re talking about maybe five to 7% of the US population. Maybe 12%, depending on how you’re framing. And if you have a really quirky question framing, you could maybe get it to 15%. So this is still like a very small subset of the population. But political violence is never… Generally, I wouldn’t say never. I would say generally it’s not framed as, “Look, let’s go out and smash the other side.” It’s not, “We’re going to just aggressively go out there and beat people up.” It’s almost always framed in a protective framework as “The other side is so bad that we have to do something extraordinary.” I remember the now disgraced former head of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr had this tweet that kind of summarizes the view of basically…

Because one of the criticisms that a lot of evangelicals and Republicans are getting about the full-throated support of former President Trump was, “How can you support this person? He’s done all these things that are antithetical to your worldview. He’s an adulterer, he’s a freakin liar, cheater, etc.” And Falwell kind of responded and said basically– this is his tweet verbatim. It’s “Conservatives and Christians need to stop electing quote-unquote “nice guys”. They might make great Christian leaders, but the US needs street fighters like Donald Trump at every level of government because the liberal fascist Dems are playing for keeps. And many Republican leaders are a bunch of wimps.” And so that’s basically saying, “Hey, the other side is so terrible. Liberal fascist step.” That’s not a, “I respectfully disagree with my esteemed colleagues or Democratic colleagues.”  And so I think when you amp up these perceptions that violence is coming, and particularly you amp up the belief that they want to destroy us, that’s when you can get a really bad spiral. So that’s why I think a lot of political scientists who study political violence are very queasy both in the sense that I don’t think it’s likely that we end up in a civil war, I think that’s very unlikely. We can talk about more why I think that’s very unlikely. But also that idea of we’re headed towards a civil war also has this kind of– not a self fulfilling prophecy, but a little bit of “Well, if that’s where we’re headed, then we need to play hardball and kind of screw the other side.”  

Zach: And one thing that struck me in this area and you can tell me if I’m off base or not, it seems that the more academic and scholarly someone is on these topics related to political violence and democracy, denigration and those kinds of things, the more measured and careful and uncertain they are about when they talk about what how a situation really is and how bad it is. And it seems that the more incendiary extreme takes often come from people who are more just writers, journalists, pundits, some of them not that knowledgeable about history or political violence in general, often just general culture or politics writers who might seem a bit myopic about these topics. And it seems that we’re sometimes being driven into a frenzy by the least knowledgeable people and I’m curious what you think of that observation. 

Thomas: Yeah. I would say I largely agree with it. People who are saying we’re headed towards a civil war are partisan pundits who are trying to get attention or sometimes scholars who are pushing some of those viewpoints. And if you actually read what they’re pushing, it’s actually much more nuanced and it’s like, “Well, if we categorize the Civil War as sustained combat between two sides and you have some fatalities, it’s like the political violence that we’ve had for the last eight to 10 years could be classified. I don’t think we’re in a civil war until we see people in the military actively rebelling. That’s where you have to really, really worry. But we’re not anywhere close to that. I do think, though, your point about academics and people who study political violence and democratic decline are very careful. But I think some of them are also worried and I think they’re worried less about the possibility of a civil war, but more about the worry of what does it mean when it becomes hard for one side to actually win free and fair elections? And I think that’s the concern that a lot of folks have. The concern in 2020 and beyond is, will Republicans accept Democrats winning? And if they don’t- 

Zach: What happens? [chuckles] 

Thomas: Yeah. And that’s the big concern. Like, Daniel Ziblatt who was one of the co-authors of How Democracies Dies, I think he’s not prone to hyperbolic statements. He’s concerned and worried. And I am as well. I’m less worried about a civil war and I’m much more worried about what happens when we have close elections. We’ve been following what’s been going on in Wisconsin with this fake review of, you know? It’s a sham. It’s a partisan sham review saying they’re going to take away and decertify Wisconsin’s electors, right? There’s no precedent for that, it’s not legal, it’s a bunch of pseudo, you know, basically pseudo-partisan posturing. But people always say the states are the laboratories of democracy. Also, they’ve been in the past laboratories of autocracy. A lot of our democratic dysfunction, you can look at what happened in Wisconsin, in North Carolina, in Texas in the lead up to 2020 is a lot of these kinds of contentions over voting rights, over certifying elections, over gerrymandering started in the States first. And so I think there is definitely a worry that, okay, what happens the next time the election is close and partisan election officials try to ram something through? What is the recourse for that? 

Zach: Yeah. And to be clear, I think the takeaway is it makes sense logically to be worried and concerned about a whole range of things. But there’s that possibility that framing things as if these very violent outcomes are likely can accelerate the worst-case things, which I think we are on the same page there. Maybe I thought it’d be interesting to get into a granular examination of what it means when people on surveys say something like that they would theoretically be for violent action against the government.

Because when I look at all these surveys recently of these kinds of questions and similar political questions, it always strikes me that there’s various factors involved that make it hard to reach much confident conclusions about what those results mean. And I’ll look at this poll that got a lot of attention recently about the Civil War and violence topics was a 2021 poll by the Washington Post and University of Maryland. It got a thousand or so people responding, and the question that got the most attention was this one: Do you think it is ever justified for citizens to take violent action against the government? Or is it never justified? And the answers one could choose were Justified, Never Justified, or No Opinion. And the newsworthy thing was that the number of people who said it was never justified had dropped from like 90% in the ’90s to 62% with the latest poll. So about one in three people now said they believe that violence against the government can at times be justified and that had increased substantially. So I’m curious, do you have any thoughts? Because there’s a range of things you could point to in that question, that specific question, that would make it hard to draw conclusions about what it means. I’m curious if you have some thoughts about that question. 

Thomas: Yeah. This is actually a very… What does it mean when people answer survey questions? I think that’s- 

Zach: In a polarized environment, too. I think that’s the other interesting thing. 

Thomas: Yeah. I mean, this is Phil Converse, John Zoller, all these scholars it’s like political scientists… When we see this, we’re like, “Oh, don’t pull back the curtain on how people answer surveys.” We don’t want to let the public know. But yeah, it’s complicated. So some people just say what’s on the top of their head, other people take cues from elites. Sometimes people also… Like, there’s evidence that certain survey respondents troll. I always think of it back to when I was in middle school in elementary school, we would take these tests like the national tests on substance abuse where they would ask you, “Have you done drugs?” And they would always throw in a fake drug like [Chromees] to see if… Because there were people in your class, there’d be a couple of kids would say, “I’ve done it all. Math? Yes. Heroin? Yes. Black tar heroin? Yes. Crack cocaine. Just great, I’ve been smoking it.” Right? And then, “Oh, yeah. I did [chromees].” But that was to pick up people who were trolling. And I think there are people who do that as well, there’s some evidence on that. So that’s all the different ways that people can respond. And then when you think about question-wording, are we talking about violence being just like, “What do you mean by violence? Are you talking about taking up arms and actively protesting? Are you talking about maybe some kind of [crosstalk] civil disobedience that’s sort of not violent but maybe is threatening? Are you talking about getting in people’s faces and shouting?” So that’s a concern. I do think, though, that one thing that is fair is you can criticize individual survey question for the snapshot that it is, but I do think the trendline is something to worry about for sure. That’s a part where you can say, well, presumably people who have taken this over time, right? Yes, there’s issues with question- wording and how people respond. But the changes or the shifts in that is something to be concerned about. And I think that’s part of Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe, one of their arguments and I think probably one of the more convincing parts of their story is that even if violence is rare and rarely acceptable, it’s still more common in our politics than it was 10, 15, and 20 years ago. That’s something to worry about, this politics of menace as some people have put it. 

Zach: And another thing for that survey is to read from an article about it, “Previous surveys were conducted by phone while the new poll was largely conducted online. And studies have found respondents are more willing to voice socially undesirable opinions in self-administered surveys than when asked by an interviewer.” So that was theoretically another thing, getting it to how people are more willing to say so anti-social things or whatever when they’re distant from a survey taker. 

Thomas: Oh, yeah. We can talk all about how it used to be the response rates for surveys have dropped. And it’s crazy, back in the day they used to get like 70% or 80% of people would respond and be willing to take a telephone survey when Gallup started doing surveys. 

Zach: Yeah, it was exciting. 

Thomas: Yeah, I know it was. I would be delighted to get my opinion on Congress. 70% of Americans trust Congress. Right? We’re way away from that. 

Zach: Yeah. Now we’re bombarded with questions all the time seeking our opinion and we’re burnout. And to the trolling point, Trump has added to that in his animosity towards the media. I’ve seenconservatives basically say, “When survey takers ask you questions, just lie to them because it’s all fake news anyway when you discredit them.” So that’s a real thing.  

Thomas: Or even if they’re willing to answer the question right. This is one of the big issues that happened in 2020 and 2016, right? The national vote was pretty accurate, more or less for Biden, but there were some really big misses and especially at the state level. And part of this is that there are certain people who maybe pretend to be male, they tend to maybe have some high school, right, and you have very low trust. And we know that that is correlated with support for Trump so it’s actually really hard to figure out what are you supposed to do with that. The fact that you can’t just rewrite your survey, those are people who are actually missing from the sample but that matter in time for voting. These are people who are socially alienated and or have low institutional trust so they’re not going to respond to your survey. And it’s not that it’s randomly Democrats or Republicans, it tends to skew towards Republicans specifically towards people who are highly identified Trump supporters. 

Zach: And to be clear, I agree that it is a worrisome trend because clearly we’ve had street violence and such, and clearly we’ve had January 6th and things like that. But yeah, it’s just interesting thinking how the fact that we are a very polarized society can lend itself to answering questions that may not be what someone actually feels for various reasons. It can just be to vent or to score, to feel like you’re scoring a point against the other side, and these kinds of things. Another interesting thing that occurred to me about that survey was just the sheer fact that we are so focused on politics on both sides, like you know, liberals have analogies they’ll make to World War Two or Nazi Germany or whatever, and conservatives have analogies they’ll make to the Revolutionary War or what have you. And just being more aware of politics, I think would make one more likely to answer yes to that question. Because I think it’s totally logical to answer yes to a theoretical question that, you know, is it ever justified for citizens to take violent action against the government? I mean, clearly in some universe even if you don’t live in it, it can be justified to take violent action against government. Yeah, the question itself was not about America, it was just a theoretical question. And it made me think, “Well, yeah, I would answer yes to that because obviously, it’s theoretically justified at some point.”

So I think there’s an element of even just being more aware of politics and political history would make one more likely to answer yes to that question, which we’re all more focused on politics these days in general. It gets to questioning these survey results– which I think they’re valuable, don’t get me wrong, and they do tell us important things– but I think it’s getting back to our main point of questioning and being skeptical of the most extreme interpretations of these things is a good thing to be.

Thomas: Yeah. And I think it also suggests to me, in my view, that surveys are really useful and helpful for a lot of reasons; for getting the polls, how do people feel on issues, etc. But I think if we want to know where do we need to be concerned, it’s at the elite level. That’s the level when we’re talking about party activists. People who are serving in our election administration, the fact that we have partisan elections is also… [laughs] We can talk about that in a second. But I think that’s where we want to be concerned. It’s, “Who are the people who are very politically active who are running caucuses and primaries are shaping party platforms and abetting candidates? How do they feel about political violence on the other side? And there, I think, you can say that that’s where we should be concerned in some respect. Not so much about political violence, but about particularly respect for democracy. 

Zach: That’s a great point and I often point out that it’s very important to distinguish between citizen behavior and political leader behavior. You’ll sometimes see people make that conflation that they are similar or the same. Somebody, for example, might say, “Well, I’ll excuse Trump’s behavior because of what these liberal citizens are doing.” Those are two completely different things. I would never base my judgment of a leader and their morality or their ethics based on what some random citizens are doing. Because we have all kinds of citizens and I don’t expect very much from them, basically. So I think it is a very important point to distinguish those two things and I think it gets into the basic polarisation dynamics of tending to equate the entire other side as being as bad as the worst people in that group, you know? Which is one of the fundamental drivers of polarization. So yeah, distinguishing between that is super important. 

Thomas: I just want to add, I think this can even clarify what happened on January 6th. So if we were to do a counterfactual kind of a ‘what if’ history; imagine that you still have to Stop the Steal rally, you still have that movement, but Trump is not parroting it from the White House. Right? We’ve always had fringe movements in Congress. I think that’s the unique part of Trump in many ways. There are a lot of unique parts, but I think that’s one of the most important things. It’s that he governed in his rhetoric and his bombast like a first-term member of Congress just trying to get attention. An outsider. And that spilled over into the rhetoric about Stop the Steal and the fact that you had… There’s always been Paul Gosars, there’s always been [Ryan] Pauls, maybe a few more of them in some sense because of polarization.

But it’s the fact that Trump was there from the precedent saying all those things that I think really was the signal. Because if the signal– maybe if we think about this in terms of a coordination story, right? If a few members of Congress say something, people will say, “Oh, look what they said.” But it’s not going to have the same effect as the leader of the party and the President of the United States saying the election is stolen, you need to be strong because they’re not going to be strong, go tell them. I think that matters sometimes. 

Zach: Yeah, huge. I think it gets to being careful with where we direct our anger too because, to me, my criticism is directed at the people I believe are directly responsible. My anger and criticism is much less directed at the voters, for example, because I think voters can be influenced. When the President says something, they’re going to be influenced, right? It’s understandable in many ways how people come to believe things we strongly disagree with you even if we think they’re wrong. So I think it points to thinking about where we direct our anger and our criticism, because acting as if a Trump voter who believes the election is rigged is an evil person who wants to destroy America is just as unhelpful as a conservative acting as if liberals are trying to destroy America. It lends itself to this large scale us-versus-them we’re-at-war feelings, when we should really just be focusing on these people that we can point to as being directly responsible. I just think it’s helpful to think in those terms. 

Thomas: Yeah. I think one thing that’s important to point out– there’s two things I always think as somebody who’s spent a lot of times studying politics outside the US is compared to many other countries, we have this weird combination as in we have very strong partisan polarisation so people feel very attached, they’re increasingly less likely to vote across the aisle and all sorts of issues. But we also have comparatively weak parties. Parties in many other countries, they have internal elections, they’re able to ferret out people who maybe aren’t in the best interest of joining their party. So somebody like Donald Trump never would have been allowed to run in Germany besides for his views, or in Israel besides for their views, but because he wasn’t even really a member of the party. So he never would have been allowed to be in that same position. And so I think that’s one of the criticisms of the US system that we have or at least the party system we now have is that there’s a lot of criticisms you can make about the smoke-filled backroom deals that used to go on in party conventions and other things. 

But there’s a reason party leaders… Parties are not democracies, right? That’s the other thing that people tend to conflate. Political parties don’t… In many cases, the most effective political parties are not purely democratic. They are ways to basically funnel and sift through candidates who would be good electoral candidates and also protect the party brand. And I think if we had stronger parties, we never would have seen Donald Trump being able to run. The other thing too, is in most other countries he wouldn’t be able to run again right after what happened on January 6th. 

Zach: And I was reading, you know, there’s lots of how our governmental system lends itself to more conflict. I was reading Ezra Klein’s book, Why We’re Polarized, and it’s really good description of the criticism of how we can have a President and the Congress at odds and it lends itself to both sides not having an incentive to compromise because by helping– say you compromise and negotiate and help the other side, you’re theoretically lending them a win. And it’s for the next election cycle which would help them. And there’s a reason why America has helped set up democracies in other countries. We don’t use the system we have for that reason. So it’s interesting examining the various factors that can lend themselves to polarization. And I think there’s a lot of things that lend themselves to polarization. 

Thomas: Yeah. I think the point that you made, like one of the biggest points, is the fact that in the US if you get 50.001% of the vote, you get everything. Right? And the person who got 49.999, sorry. And what that does especially with polarization is that it just raises the stakes of every election. Whereas in a proportional representation system, it’s like, “Oh. Well, they get six seats and we get five.” That’s not essentially do or die. Right? It’s not that we went from having complete representation to having no representation, it’s they have slightly more than us. And that helps lower the temperature. The political scientist Juan Linz, this was always what he called the perils of presidentialism. He always had this famous quote that basically said, “Presidential systems like the United States are inherently unstable, with the exception being of the United States.” I think that has changed. 

Zach: Yeah. Is he’s still alive? What’s he saying? 

Thomas: No, he passed away recently. 

Zach: Oh, I see. Yeah, I’m sure he would have been interested to see how things turned out. Have we not touched on something that you wanted to talk about either in your research or in things we’ve talked about?

Thomas: One thing that I would say too is when you’re talking about the Civil War stuff kind of circling back to why the US is not headed towards a civil war as one of my colleagues and friends, Dan Silverman, pointed out as like, the top predictors of a civil war are poverty, a weak state, and lootable resources. And we don’t have any of those, right? Especially the weak state, it’s hard to see the FBI and all of the different Homeland Security apparatuses that we have just basically saying, “Yeah, that’s great. We’re totally going to allow this to carry on.” What’s very clear is when the FBI and the full weight of the US state decides something is a threat, they have the capacity to take it down and I think pretty effectively. So whenever somebody tells me a story about how we’re headed towards a civil war, I’m like, “Explain to me that sort of causal logic.” 

Zach: Well, and the lack of geographic separation seems pretty significant too. We’re so interspersed. I’ve thought through how that would look, it just seems… I can’t even imagine how it would play out. I think it’s much more logical to envision a limited, violent interaction in the Capitol or things like this, you know? But it’s just really hard to imagine how it would play out. 

Thomas: Yeah. And just because we don’t have civil war doesn’t mean we don’t have contention and political violence. I also think it’s helpful to sort of zoom out a little bit in that COVID– fingers crossed– things are starting to open up more and this pandemic wave hopefully will recede and hopefully, that’s where we’re headed. But we’ve lost close to a million Americans, and this was a period of time that was a social pressure cooker. Like if you were to say, “Hey, I’m going to figure out a way to basically heighten as many social stressors as I can, it’s ‘Okay, have a massive pandemic. Close all the schools. Put a lot of people who are unemployed. Have a contentious election. Have some of the largest social protests associated with Black Lives Matter.” Right? In the country, it’s not surprising that this feels like a very heightened and stressful period because this is by definition, Émile Durkheim, the famous French sociologist talks about autonomy, right? Social stress, disorder. Yeah, exactly.

Zach: Well, totally. That’s what worried me so much when COVID started, I was like, “Oh, my…” Because I was always thinking well, we’re okay as long as something really bad doesn’t befall us. [laughter] [crosstalk] I know. Because during Trump’s term, I was always really pessimistic and I was like, “As long as nothing really bad hits the economy…” And then bam! Yeah, the gun has to go off. Yeah, it’s a bad script we’re in, or the simulation or whatever. But that also gets to some forgiveness in terms of like, you know I’ve seen so much arrogance about how could those people have done that during January 6th. But to me, we’re going through the COVID effects of both financial stress and existential stress, and I’ve seen that effect. Liberal people I know in terms of being more willing to go out and go into the streets and fight the cops in Portland, for example. So I think it points to having some empathy for the fact that we are in tough times no matter how much you disagree or think people are stupid or misled. We are in trying times in terms of COVID and how that affected us and in our polarization and growing animosity. I think it points to having a bit of empathy for the hardships that people can be going through both psychological and financial instantly. 

Thomas: Yeah, I think that’s right. I also would say, though, is that when we’re thinking about what went on at the Capitol and the insurrection, and then we’re getting more out that it maybe was not just an insurrection but also potentially planned. Which is very concerning. I think the- 

Zach: They were separating from the citizens and the leaders again. Yeah. 

Thomas: Yeah. There were people there who were for sure like MAGA tourists who were hopped up and excited and trespassing. But there were also people there with bad intentions with zip ties. Oath Keepers with bear spray were there to– even though it was unlikely to succeed– were trying to basically overthrow the seat of power.

Zach: And don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing all of that stuff. I’m more advocating for the less violent and less malicious people and separating it from the leaders and the citizens kind of thing. But yeah, I think there is something too thinking about how I think of… I mean, the DC police were woefully unprepared. It was clearly obvious that they did not think that a conservative crowd would do what they did. And it’s interesting to think about how if they had just been slightly more prepared, none of that stuff would have ever happened. I don’t think. There’s kind of something in a different universe, they completely prevented any violence from getting out of hand and it would have been just a standard protest in some ways. But yeah, not to say that this is not serious, because I fully believe it’s serious, but there’s a number of factors that went on that day including incompetent preparation by the police, in my opinion.

Thomas: Yep. I think that’s completely right. That’s kind of shocking that they knew and were monitoring, and yet there wasn’t any- 

Zach: Pretty sad. Because I fully expected it to be much worse than it was. I knew something was gonna happen that day and a lot of other people did, and it’s just mind-blowing that they would not prepare for that. Yeah. Anything else you want to throw in? I know you need to get going, so… 

Thomas: Yeah. I would say my last thing is it’s not a hobby horse, but I do think one of the things that’s also interesting is to think about, “Okay, what are the future cleavages and lines of conflict that we’re likely to see in American politics and American society going forward?” And my feel in my view is that the Biden presidency in this period has actually kind of masked one of the big cleavages that I think is going to rear its head going forward in a pretty dramatic way, and that’s the generational divide between boomers and everyone else. I think the fact that Biden is older and you have Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership all there has kind of tamped that down.

But if you look at the political views of baby boomers versus Gen Z and millennials, especially as an elder millennial myself who’s coming into my prime voting years, I think that’s only going to be accentuated. Because if you look at the views on racial issues, on the economy, on the environment, it’s a huge one, right? Where it’s just diametrically opposed, and especially as boomers retire en masse like, “Well, why should we have a social safety net? I want my Social Security check.” I think it’s going to be a pretty dramatic axis of conflict. And it’s also a demographic one as well because younger generations, my generation, and Gen Z are more diverse. They are more non-white people. And so I think a lot of the Trumpy angst and if you look at voting demographics, it kind of bears this out that it is also this generational conflict that again has been sort of tamped down, but I think will increasingly rear its head. In fact, this is what I’ve argued to my baby boomer parents. 

Zach: Yeah, I think it’s an interesting question because I like to consider what the future topics of polarization will be. For example, cryptocurrency is already starting to be pretty polarized. You had Ted Cruz the other day tweet something about how, of course liberals don’t like cryptocurrency because it’s unregulated. And it just points to there’s no limit to the kinds of things that could theoretically be drawn into these polarization dynamics. I mean, some of them are more predictable like yours, but there’s also these range of things that as Michael Macy the researcher has examined, there’s these things that don’t have previous ties to existing political party stances and they’re liable to go either way depending on the chaos of polarization. Yeah. Anyway, I know you gotta get going. Is there anything you want to say about how people can keep in touch with your work? 

Thomas: Yes. You can follow me on Twitter, on my website. And yeah, it’s just great, Zack. This was awesome to have a conversation. Also, it’s funny your crypto point also made me think too that if you look at the Bitcoin crypto caucus in Congress, it’s strange bedfellows, right? 

Zach: Yeah, for sure. 

Thomas: So I think that’s also something. It’s that there were these weird– like the same thing with the letter that was signed by Paul Gosar and AOC telling Biden don’t commit US troops. Sometimes politics can make strange bedfellows, and living through political realignment can be always very interesting. 

Zach: Okay, here’s the section where Thomas and I talk about the Ukraine-Russia conflict and the role of social media in that. Also, we just talked about social media dynamics in general. So maybe we could start with your research on social media, and how social media impacts conflicts and violence. I’m sure you have some thoughts on the Ukraine-Russia conflict and how social media may have changed things in that conflict. Maybe you care to talk about that a bit? 

Thomas: Sure. First of all, it’s terrible what’s going on there. I mean, as alluded to when we were chatting previously, Ukraine is a country where I visited a lot. I have friends, I have colleagues there, and I’ve been staying in touch with them. Which is, again, something that before social media was very difficult. [chuckles] Before WhatsApp and other things. So first, it’s just terrible that there’s basically this war that, Putin’s war unprovoked against Ukraine. And I do think one of the interesting things, and one of the things that if you would ask political scientists and other folks, they would be shocked at basically how the misinformation machine of Russia has basically ceded social media to Ukraine. Yes, there are pockets always within the internet in the West where you can find obviously folks that are supporting Russia, you know? Whether it be [wipers] or people associated with Nick Fuentes and some of those folks. But for the most part, mainstream social media coverage is decidedly pro-Ukrainian. And there are a lot of reasons for that. One is that it’s very clear that this was a decision that Russia made to invade Ukraine without provocation, they tried to manufacture one. But even more so right, people like a David-Goliath story, and then Ukraine’s unique president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has a background as an actor. It’s kind of a story that Tom Hanks starred in a movie or TV show about him becoming president of the US called The American President, and starts a political party called The American President then actually wins office. And then three years later, he is caught in a war. I mean, you would say that’s a farce, that’s ridiculous. And that’s what’s actually happening in Ukraine and so that makes it a very compelling story. You know, Zelenskyy was a comedian, showman kind of, and his leadership has surprised a lot of folks. I think that also plays into it. 

Zach: Well, charisma. 

Thomas: Yeah, for sure. I think social media has played a big part but I think it has been way more lopsided towards Ukraine in rallying folks. 

Zach: Yeah, I’m curious about that because the one thing that strikes me there is you would expect Russia with all of their history of being pretty skilled or at least very focused on disinformation and manipulation, you would think all the things that have happened would be foreseeable to, you know, Putin’s supposed to be smart and good at manipulation and things like that. So I’m kind of curious why do you think Putin wouldn’t have foreseen the things that are happening now as happening? 

Thomas: Yeah, one of my colleagues had this great thread like, “How has the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine changed… What have you updated after the invasion?” And I think one of them, I remember talking to another colleague who said that Putin is much more ideological than the West. I think many people realize, right? And I think that’s kind of been revealed that he’s way more ideological in making these choices. I also think the other thing too, as we talked about, is the Russian disinformation issue. And I’m more of a skeptic in terms of I think a lot of people it’s very easy to blame, you know? Conclude that social media did it. Social media murdered American democracy or something like that. Which I think besides being hyperbolic, it’s also incorrect. I think the reason why sometimes Russian misinformation campaigns were effective is because they were essentially laundered through opinion leaders, particularly in the Republican Party. With the exception of a few corners and maybe like Tucker Carlson, for the most part most Republicans are like they can have whiplash that they voted against Trump for basically doing a shakedown on Volodymyr Zelenskyy in October of 2020 but then… Sorry, October 2019. But what’s interesting is now they’re very much pro-Ukrainian. So I think there’s also not that fertile conduit for Putin to push and launder Russian misinformation. So it looks very clunky. 

Zach: Anything you want to say about your past research into social media and how it affects conflicts and how you see that playing out now? 

Thomas: I think there is a tendency to view social media as this great persuasion machine. And I actually think persuasion is really hard. I think what social media can do… And again, most people aren’t consuming information on Ukraine. Most average Americans they’re seeing maybe a few things, but instead, they’re watching TikToks or they’re thinking about Dancing With The Stars or other sorts of pop culture things. But for elites who pay attention a lot, this has been a way for them to get a window into the conflict, and particularly a pro-Ukrainian window into the conflict. And the Ukrainians have done a very good job of this and I think a lot of people are surprised at the swiftness of sanctions towards Russia, and also towards European Union support for Ukraine. Whether it be weapons or other kinds of financial guarantees. That’s a big deal and I think that’s another thing that people wouldn’t have guessed ex ante. And I think part of that again is for people to very much see different European capitals getting this very pro-Ukrainian anti-Russian viewpoint. It also doesn’t help that Ukraine is a much weaker military country that Putin clearly invaded and tried to engineer through ridiculous provocations. 

Zach: Yeah, that gets into something I was thinking about recently was the exaggerated views people have about the influence of social media or maybe media in general. I interviewed Dave Karp, a political scientist about this and we talked about the exaggerated views that for example Cambridge Analytica had a big role, and the well-known fact that political ads in general just don’t do that much compared to other factors. You can see social media on the one hand as it’s influential. It can be persuasive but on the other hand, the huge amount of media and content leads to some burnout with too much content and desensitization with so much content. And I think those kinds of things can balance each other out. You know, it’s like you see so many things and you’re like, “Well, is that really real? Is that really real?”

So it’s a lot more complex than people think, and that kind of gets into a good tie-in maybe when we talk about the effects of social media. Some people act as if it’s some separate sphere, like it’s separate from other media, like it’s separate from cable news. But all these things can be seen to be just an acceleration of being bombarded with different views and different ideas. Like, the cable news channels in the internet age or the modern age amplified our bombardment with all of these things, and then social media is just adding another layer on top of that and making it more interactive, which maybe engages our emotions more. But I’m curious if you see these things as being a lot more complicated than is often talked about. 

Thomas: Yeah, you’re gonna get the academic version of me that says, “Yes, it’s more complicated.” [laughs] But I think it’s complicated, and it’s maybe helpful and I think you’ve teed it up nicely to think about some of these things of how it’s more complicated. So I think one of the things that people mistake is they mistake clicks and engagement for persuasion. I can get you to click on something, right? That’s very easy. I show you something super provocative like, you know, “10 things about Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s secret relationship. Number nine is going to blow your mind!” I probably if I had some really nice graphic, I can get you to click on that. Am I going to persuade you to vote against Joe Biden or Barack Obama? Probably not. So that’s one of the things. The other thing, too, is that when we’re thinking about these strategies for what is social media doing…

So the kind of conventional wisdom like Russia hacked our democracy, or social media is killing our democracy, or Facebook is engineering people to be, you know, is engineering people to be really unhappy, I think that’s way overblown. That’s the persuasion story. I think the understudied part of this is the coordination story. So it’s not that social media is changing people’s minds, but maybe what social media is doing. Already people for instance in the Ukraine case, the Russia-Ukraine war, people who are already sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause are becoming more aware of it, and they want to do something. So I think instead of persuasion, you’re maybe getting an activation effect. And that’s a different story, but I think it’s also… I think it’s an important one.

Zach: Yeah, it’s kind of this magnification effect. It’s focusing everyone’s attention on one thing, which is a relatively new phenomenon, you know? But it blends into exactly what cable news does, it’s just on maybe a broader scale. The ability to focus a large population’s attention on one thing is a relatively new phenomenon and it can lead to exaggerations or overcorrections and overreactions, but it’s a continuation of things that have already been happening in other media. 

Thomas: But the one point where I would push back… So I totally agree that you can’t separate what happened on Twitter from the fact that tweets also get blasted across Fox News and CNN, right? Like Trump when he was president, he was not tweeting just into Twitter, they would get covered– his tweets and other things. And so that was part of that ecosystem. But I also think the other thing too that we forget is that one of my good friends and colleagues, Michael Bang Petersen, he’s a professor at Aarhus in Denmark. He had this really nice thread on Twitter about social media– he’s very meta– about his testimony that he gave in front of the Danish Parliament. To summarise what he was saying is that social media is basically a place of very intense polarisation where it’s kind of like the angriest corners of politics. 

Zach: A little note here. Previously, I interviewed Kevin Arceneaux who worked with Michael Bang Peterson on research into the so-called need for chaos views. The need for chaos views are antisocial and burn-it-all-down views that a surprisingly large number of people seem to have these days, at least according to that research. Kevin and I talked about what the causes for those views might be, and how social media might give people with those views more power. Back to the interview. 

Thomas: It reflects offline cleavages, but I think the additional addendum to that is most people don’t care about politics. Most people care more about sports, they care more about other things, they have a very surface level of understanding. So the people that care very intensely about politics and are following it on social media, those are people who are voting in primaries. I think the turnout for Democrats in the primary was 6% and for Republicans it was 11% in Texas. That tells us something. That tells us again that again we are getting a very skewed view of the world; that social media reflects things that are important, but it’s not a pulse of the nation, so to speak. 

Zach: Right. And then the worrying nature of polarization is like people who previously were not that interested in politics are increasingly drawn into these conflicts because it starts to feel like not just a political thing but a cultural thing or even a war thing. So it becomes bigger than politics in a way for many people, and it starts to take on that form. 

Thomas: Yeah, I think your point is right. I think there have been polls that have been done about people who don’t want to talk about politics at Thanksgiving, and how that number has increased across time linearly. So I do think one of the dangers when you pointed out about polarization is when people’s party or who they voted for is not simply just a “This is who I voted for,” but it also is a signal of “This is the kind of car or truck I drive. This is the kind of sports I watch. I’m not a vegetarian or a latte-sipping liberal, right? I eat meat.” 

Zach: Yeah, just how much I hate the other. Yeah. 

Thomas: Yeah, I think that’s the part where that’s concerning in some ways. It’s when it kind of tips over and- [crosstalk]

Zach: – more emotional. 

This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. That was an interview with political scientist, Thomas Zeitzoff. 


Why are we drawn to the past?, with Jannine Lasaleta

A talk with Jannine Lasaleta, who’s done research on the effects of nostalgia. Her research has shown how nostalgia makes us more loose and carefree with money. We talk about why nostalgia is such a positive and attractive feeling for humans: how it can be a way for us to build meaning, establish consistency of our selves over time, and combat existential angst. We also talk about Lasaleta’s work showing that nostalgia makes people more likely to make healthier consumption choices. We also talk about common human desires for experiences that seem authentic, old-fashioned, or traditional, and how those may relate to nostalgia.

Jannine is an associate professor at Yeshiva University (her university page). She will occasionally be blogging at Psychology Today.

Episode links:

Topics discussed:

  • How remembrances of good times and our social connections can relieve anxiety.
  • Why is it that nostalgia makes us less concerned about money?
  • Why the past can feel more real and authentic.
  • How traditional or old-fashioned activities can be stress-relieving because we are following established guidelines and not having to create something new.
  • Hedonic consumption research: studying what makes someone enjoy or get bored of the same frequently served food.
  • Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and nostalgia for an earlier America.
  • Theoretical political/governmental applications of using nostalgia in messaging.

Related or discussed resources:


Here is a transcript of the podcast. Note that there are some errors present. 

Zach Elwood: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast. I’m Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding people. You can learn more about it at In today’s interview recorded September 14th, 2021, I talk to Jannine Lasaleta who’s researched the psychological effects of nostalgia. One of her research findings is that when people are feeling nostalgic they care less about money. They’re more willing to spend it or give it away. And this can help explain why we see so many companies use nostalgia and retro elements in their marketing and product packaging and such. Jannine and I talk about that and what the factors behind that are, we talk about people’s desire for authentic experiences and products and brands and what authenticity means in that context, we talk about the desire many people seem to have for old fashioned traditional pastimes, and we talk about how all of these things may overlap a bit and how they’re related. I got interested in this topic recently thinking about how a lot of people seem drawn to activities associated with nostalgia or old fashioned or traditional or even ancient concepts.

 To give you just a few examples, this would be things like people getting into old video games or video game systems, getting into making one’s own soap, getting into raising animals or butchering one’s own meat, getting into wine making or beer making, getting into beekeeping, getting into ancient paleo or caveman diets, getting into Eastern medicine, which has a much more ancient tradition than Western medicine. Then you’ve got all sorts of products and experiences that market themselves using nostalgia or using elements of tradition and ancientness and such, even when they don’t have much to do with those things. These are just a few examples. And to be clear, I’m not denigrating being drawn towards such things. I’ve just been interested in how and why old seeming things can be attractive. And I have an interest in existential psychology which theorizes that much of what drives our behaviors is related to a few core anxieties that are likely to be present for all humans, fear of death, fear of meaninglessness, fear of isolation, fear of freedom. And so I’m interested in how nostalgia or a longing for the past may represent various ways to assuage such anxieties. A little more about Jannine Lasaleta, her research focuses on how nostalgia affects consumer attitudes, behaviors, and choices across varying contexts, for example, politics or health. Her work also examines the motivation for money, product choice, and hedonic consumption. And we talk a little bit about her hedonic consumption work at the end of the podcast. Her research has been published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and Food Quality and Preference. And her work’s been featured in multiple media outlets like BBC, CNN, Fortune, and Forbes. Also maybe of interest, towards the end of the podcast we talk about some other things, including a little bit about politics, we talk a bit about Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan and how that can relate to nostalgia and about how nostalgia research might be harnessed by political or governmental communications. We talk about using nostalgia to influence or manipulate people. We talk about the Danish concept of hygge and how that may be related to nostalgia. We talk about other psychology research Jannine has done related to what’s called hedonic consumption. With that work she studied what it is that makes people tired of having the same foods and strategies for making people continue to enjoy the same foods even when they have them over and over. 

Okay, here’s the interview with Jannine Lasaleta. Hi, Jannine. Thanks for coming on.

Jannine Lasaleta: Oh, I’m happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Zach Elwood: So maybe a good place to start is defining nostalgia. How do you define nostalgia?

Jannine Lasaleta: I define nostalgia the same way the new Oxford dictionary of English does. In my work and the work of my colleagues, we define nostalgia as a sentimental longing for a personally experienced past.

Zach Elwood: Would you say that that can be nostalgia for something in your own life or can it be outside of your own personal experience? Can it be like history?

Jannine Lasaleta: So that’s a good question. So there’s two main ways that nostalgia has been defined in the literature. And one is the first way as a sentimental longing for a personally experienced past. It means a past that you yourself have experienced. So for me, I could be nostalgic for the, and I’m kind of nostalgic sometimes for the 1980s or the 1990s. But according to this definition, I could not be nostalgic for the roaring ’20s or the dirty ’30s because I was not around for that time. So I could not personally experience it. However, there’s another definition of nostalgia or conceptualization of nostalgia that is by Holbrook and colleagues, and basically it’s a preference for anything that was from a past or from the past. It could be personally experienced or it could be historical nostalgia. So there’s also work in historical nostalgia, which is also quite interesting. But in my work thus far, I’ve primarily been focusing on personal nostalgia. And for it to be personal, it has to be something that you had experienced personally yourself.

Zach Elwood: Can you talk a little bit about your work on nostalgia and consumerism?

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, absolutely. When I was thinking about or looking for a dissertation topic, one thing that I noticed is there was a lot of nostalgic or retro styling in stores, etc. So I really love aesthetics and how things look like. And I would notice that every so often Hershey’s, might have a throwback wrapper for their chocolate bar or, I was in Minnesota at the time and General Mills every so often has like throwback packaging for–

Zach Elwood: Sodas do that.

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, absolutely like Pepsi, in particular, Pepsi would have a throwback Pepsi soda with the older packaging and also the older formulas where they use real sugar versus, I think, corn syrup. Those are things I noticed in the marketplace. So I was wondering why is nostalgia, it seems to always be used or it was used so frequently, and not only marketing products but also promotions. Sometimes there’s this, I can’t believe it’s not butter promotion, I don’t know if you remember it. It was an ad and there were… I forget the name of the family, but it was a family from like the ’60s or ’50s. So I was wondering why it was used so often. I was thinking, “Well, maybe one reason nostalgia might be so successful in marketing is that it makes people spend their money more easily.” That’s how I started on my nostalgia work.

Zach Elwood: And you did several studies demonstrating exactly that.

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, so many studies. I think people that are not in this academic domain might not realize that we run so many studies to make sure that our effect can be replicated, that our effects can be replicated using different conceptualizations or operationalizations of what our dependent variable is. In other words, when I did my nostalgia and money work, not only did I look at the overall theme or the overall hypothesis was that nostalgia decreases the desire for money. And by that I meant the desire to have money, to earn money, to hold onto money. So I looked at things like people’s attitudes towards money, how important they think it is or in some other studies, I endowed people with actual money and observed how much they gave away if they were nostalgic or not, if they were in a nostalgic condition versus control condition.

Zach Elwood: What do you think the psychological causes are behind that for thinking of money as less important?

Jannine Lasaleta: When I was looking out in the marketplace, I saw nostalgic was prevalent not only in products but promotions for products or for brands, etc. And I thought, “Well, maybe one reason that nostalgia is so prevalent is because people are less motivated to hold onto their money, right? Their desire for money is less.” I was thinking, “Well, how can that be?” So I’m like, “Well, money is so important for us as a society because we use money in exchange for goods and services, right?” But if you think about it, we don’t always have money, especially when we’re younger. I think about times when I was a graduate student as well. If I moved, you’d ask your friends. Or if I went to a conference and came back, I’d ask one of my friends to pick me up from the airport because I didn’t have money then. So we can access these same kind of things through the help of our friends and family or through money, right? So people that are completely independent, they don’t need to rely on other people theoretically because they can get everything they want with money. Like even you can get companionship with money, right? Kids, they don’t make money, but they’re fed, right? They’re fed, they have clothing, etc. Money’s not as important to them because they can access these goods and services… I don’t think they think about it this way, but they can access goods and services through their social support and social connections.

Zach Elwood: Less existential anxiety around having to perform. They’re less stressed about surviving, yeah.

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, absolutely, yeah. So I thought, “Well maybe when we’re nostalgic and because we’re filled with thoughts of close significant others and we feel more socially supported, money might not be as important because we have the sense that we can access these goods and services through connections with other people versus having to access them through money.”

Zach Elwood: So you also had a study about being reminded about friendships had a similar effect on making people more loose with money. Is that right?

Jannine Lasaleta: Do you remember what experiment that was?

Zach Elwood: Oh, it was with friends like these who needs money.

Jannine Lasaleta: So that’s a project that it’s still not published yet, it’s still underway, but it takes the same idea, right? It looks at not just social support through nostalgia, but just feeling socially supported itself. Does feeling socially supported, does it offset… In a way you can think about feeling socially supported offsets the need or the desire for money.

Zach Elwood: When I read about your work, and maybe I’m just phrasing it differently, but the thing that pops out to me is when people are reminded of meaningful things like the things that actually matter in life, like their friends, family, their experiences, it just makes us get out of that more competitive kind of rat race mindset. A bit like our day-to-day life, we’re focused on money a lot, we’re focused on making it, we’re focused on getting by and the stress of that. But then, yeah, I think I’m saying the same thing, basically, that people feel more at ease when they remember that, “Oh, I have a social network and I have these meaningful connections, so I’m less worried about money and I’m more likely to spend it because I’m focusing on what’s really important in my life.” Does that make sense?

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, it totally makes sense. It might be a little bit of a different take on the substitutability between or the offsetting money versus social support as a means to get things. But I do agree that when we think about our friends and our family, we kind of shift onto intrinsic kind of rewards or values, our motivations, that’s a better way to put it. So I think when we don’t think about our friends and family, we’re more extrinsically motivated. We want to get that money, we want to get that paper, we want to become successful. But when you think about friends and family, it will shift it towards a more extrinsic kind of motivation or reward system.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. I think we’re talking about a similar thing, but yeah, I see it might be just a different angle or focus. But I mean, that definitely rings a bell for me when I think about the past or friendships which seem very related because your positive memories are often about friendships and the experiences you’ve had with people. It makes me think like, “Oh, why am I so worried about money? These things don’t matter. I mean, yeah, just on that narrative kind of aspect about it, it makes a lot of sense, yeah.

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, it’s definitely compatible, right? Because in my work I look at how priorities change when people are nostalgic. And what you’re saying is also priorities change when we think about our friends and our family.

Zach Elwood: Does anything stand out as being a really surprising finding in your research where you were like, “Oh, didn’t expect to see that.”

Jannine Lasaleta: Not necessarily surprised but kind of surprised. Like pleasantly surprised that the nostalgia effect, this is what I call it in my dissertation, that when people are nostalgic, their desire for money decreases, their motivation to have, hold onto, or make money decreases. That works not only for people’s attitudes, but we actually give people money. And when people were nostalgic versus not, they actually gave it away. We endowed people with $4.75, there were two different conditions, an ordinary life condition or a nostalgic condition. And each condition people had to think about a past event. The difference was in the ordinary life event condition, it was just something, an everyday kind of thing. And in the nostalgia event condition, they had to think about… They were given a definition of nostalgia, a sentimental longing for a personally experienced past, and then they had to think about a nostalgic event. And in that condition, they played this game, which isn’t really a game, it’s like a one-shot game, it really doesn’t seem like a game. It’s called the dictator game, where there is someone that is endowed with an amount of money and they have to decide how much they’re going to keep for themselves and how much they give to the other person. And that’s the end of the game. They gave him $4.75. So everybody in the study, they thought they could either be the person endowed or the person receiving. And they had to pick… It’s a classic psychology experiment. They had to pick a slip from the hat that says which role they did, but all the slips said they would be the one that would be endowed with the money. They had to decide how much they would keep themselves, then put how much they wanted to give to someone else in an envelope. And we found consistently that those in the nostalgia condition give away more money. It was really cool to see that happening. It didn’t make the final published version, but it was in my dissertation as well. We played a public goods game where people were in teams and they had to decide how much they were going to put in. There are say four players, and everybody’s endowed with… We didn’t have this much money, but 10 bucks. And they have to decide how much they want to put into this communal pot. And then that pot gets multiplied by maybe 1.5 or 2. So it’s in the best interest for everybody to put as much money as they can in the pot. The money, it gets equaled whatever the pot is, it gets equally divided by the players. But there’s also a selfish component, you could just keep that $10 for yourself and not put any and still reap the benefits. We found that when people are on the nostalgic condition, they put more money into the pot. So they gave away more money at the beginning. So it’s really cool to see it happening and it’s in so many different ways. So we have different, we call them operationalizations of desire for money. And one was the dictator game, one was that public goods game, another operationalization was asking people’s attitudes about money. One really cool one that I asked people, I gave them a snippet for some reason had sound effects from, I think, a Sony sound effects CD set, it was a long time ago, a CD set. And there were these horrible, horrible sounds. I think there was a car crash and someone playing the violin really poorly, a rooster, etc. And I gave people a snippet of each of them. And I asked how long they would be willing to listen to them in order to get $5 or something, I don’t know what the exact amount. And the logic was that the longer people would endure something horrible for money means that they want money more. It’s like when you think about a different situation your… I will line up for this free, which I have in New York, there’s a free scoop of ice cream for like half an hour, right? If I didn’t care about the ice cream, I wouldn’t. I mean, that’s a different resource, but what I found was the same thing, right? So people that were in nostalgic state, they would not listen to it that long because it wasn’t that important to them. Also willingness to pay for products, people were willing to pay more when they’re nostalgic cause the logic was if you don’t care about money that much, you’ll more easily spend more of it. So we found that when people were in nostalgic state by and large across durables, non-durables, high-end, low-end products experiences versus products you can hold in your hand, people were willing to spend more when they were in the nostalgic condition. It was very cool that we saw or that I saw the effect across many different types of operationalizations.

Zach Elwood: Do you think this was a known by companies even informally? The fact that a company like Pepsi or Coke or whatever would notice that when they did retro nostalgic things their sales went up, do you think it was well known in the industry, even if they hadn’t like specifically studied it?

Jannine Lasaleta: I suppose it was well known enough. I would see it so often. Why would you have the throwback every so often? It’s not only just one time, so.

Zach Elwood: It’s almost like they didn’t need to study it cause it was so obvious for them that they got results.

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, absolutely. It was like it wasn’t broken. So, you know.

Zach Elwood: Just keep doing it, yeah. And you mentioned, I think you mentioned in your paper, maybe it was someone else, but you mentioned the non-profit implications of trying to raise funds for charities or whatever. You could do some psychological influence there by using nostalgia to your benefit.

Jannine Lasaleta: Absolutely, yeah. I think nostalgia is very easy to implement because everybody is nostalgic about things, and you can even just write nostalgic with a question mark. Even there’s stimuli from one of the studies in the way it work, and it was done a while ago. So it was for Kodak, but we just used a picture of a family and we asked people to think about memories from their past or think about memories from the future. And even though the picture wasn’t of them, of course, eventually you can prompt them to think about their own past.

Zach Elwood: And are you saying that even just the word nostalgia can make people nostalgic?

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah. I think it can. Absolutely, yeah.

Zach Elwood: It’s like shortcuts to our feelings. Yeah. One random thing that I just thought of is I was thinking about how casinos might make use of this. And it struck me that there’s a lot of casinos in Vegas and elsewhere that have a really old fashioned vibe, they haven’t updated their stuff in a while. It looks really old. And I used to think that was just because they were lazy or didn’t want to spend the money to update, but now I’m wondering maybe that’s a purposeful thing to kind of look kind of throwback like you haven’t changed.

Jannine Lasaleta: It could be. I think about the Riviera or something. Is that the Riviera that’s just…

Zach Elwood: Yeah, there’s a few in Vegas where I’m like, “This looks really old. Why didn’t you do more with this?” But, yeah, if anybody’s thinking about how to loosen people monetarily, it’s the casinos. Yeah. And the reason I’ve been interested in these topics is I sometimes think about how the desire for nostalgia or more authentic or old-fashioned seeming experiences can be a way to combat existential angst and existential fears of meaninglessness or fears of death, things like that. And as the modern world seems to produce more loneliness and stress in that regard, there’s polls showing that loneliness has increased over the past few decades and disconnectedness. So I’ve been interested in how those things relate. And I’m curious, do you see a connection to the stress of the modern world and our desire for nostalgia or authenticity or whatever?

Jannine Lasaleta: I definitely see it. I was talking to someone else about this the other day and anxiety and interruptions in our day-to-day life. People are more lonely these days. These are all things that would make nostalgia more attractive to people. Nostalgia even though… I don’t think I mentioned this earlier, but initially nostalgia was used to describe homesickness. It was a disorder, something that caused pain. But what more and more research is showing is that when people feel a decrease in social support or when they don’t feel so good about themselves, they feel like their life is meaningless, they turn to nostalgia. So it might be spurred on spontaneously or they’ll be drawn to nostalgic things. So I think definitely… We see it a lot during the pandemic, there’s so many more throwback Thursdays or flashback Fridays, half the new content on Netflix is reboots of old sitcoms like Full House or, I don’t think this is on Netflix, but there’s a new Wonder Years coming out soon, etc. So I think nostalgia I think is also… They always say nostalgia is at an all time high, but I really do think that… But it always is. I mean, because we always feel good all the time. And I think now there’s more of a reach for nostalgic things because people are under duress. The same thing with maybe looking for authentic experiences, I think authentic experiences and nostalgic experiences as well, or waxing nostalgic as well plus authenticity brings a sense of meaningfulness or continuity. If it’s something authentic, it might not be something that, this is a little bit different than nostalgic or it overlaps, but it’s not entirely a hundred percent overlap with nostalgia. Authenticity, doing something authentic it’s kind of meaningful because it feels real. There’s a tradition of X, Y, and Z, me doing it makes me feel more authentic and that makes me feel good about myself or it makes me feel that I’m doing something meaningful or participating in something meaningful.

Zach Elwood: Right. Yeah. I mean, maybe this is a good part to talk about that link to the desire for authenticity and the desire for nostalgia because they do seem very much related to me. Like you said, it’s the desire for something real and you can perceive the past is more real than the present because it’s closer to the source of something. We know that the present is us just reacting to things. And it seems like it could go many different ways, but the past is closer to something or seems closer to something real in the same way that our nostalgic experiences seem more real or closer to the source. Maybe you have some thoughts on the link between authenticity and nostalgia.

Jannine Lasaleta: Could you unpack a little bit why you think or the reasoning why being authentic is more to the sore or the past is more–

Zach Elwood: Well, yeah, no, that’s a good question cause I don’t think it is obvious. Cause I was reading a lot of studies on, not your stuff, but studies about the desire for authentic experiences and authentic things. There’s a study showing, not surprisingly, that when you’re shown a painting, if you’re told that it’s an original Rembrandt or whatever, you appreciate it more, it actually fires off more appreciation things in the brain than if you’re told it’s a copy. And so we desire things that seem more real close to the source, authentic. And you can kind of perceive the past as being… Well, especially if we talk about like modern life being more artificial. We’ve created all these artificial experiences, the things we do in our day-to-day lives become more and more artificial in the sense that people are creating our experiences. And so the past seems more authentic because it wasn’t a human creation. There were experiences that were more natural or at least seemed more closer to the old days where we didn’t have these artificial experiences. So I kind of see them all kind of linked, whether it’s nostalgia or appreciation of an original painting or appreciation of a draw towards these like cavemen diets or wanting to make our own beer or wanting to make our own wine, whatever it may be. We want something that hasn’t been polluted by humanity or something.

Jannine Lasaleta: So the authentic experiences would be… So on the flip side, what would be something… You were saying that presently there’s all these human made experiences that are not so authentic. Can you give me an example of that?

Zach Elwood: In the modern world, many of us live in cities or towns where we go out to the store, we might go spend a significant amount of our days in artificial environments, whether that’s stores or homes or buildings. And then we watch artificial experiences in the media. And so it’s kind of like the Solaris thing, the movie Solaris, was all about the artificiality of our surroundings in the modern world and our craving for something that seemed more real. So that’s what I mean, it’s like in the old days there’s the perception that we were less part of that human made creation and closer to something that was more real, but I guess basically nature.

Jannine Lasaleta: So the question is what I think the overlap is or the parallels between people craving nostalgia versus people craving authenticity.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. And I think you kind of answered it already. I think you basically saw a connection there and would you agree they’re similar attracting forces basically when people are attracted to old-fashioned ways of doing things, whether that’s farming or getting back in touch with the land or Eastern medicine even, things like this. Do you see a connection there between those kinds of draws and our draw towards nostalgia?

Jannine Lasaleta: I think in both cases, people are trying to find something more meaningful. And when I think about everybody was making sourdough or I remember during the pandemic at one point me and all my friends, I don’t know if you saw it, but you can like repot scallions in water and it will regrow. So we were all doing that. And I think in a sense it was giving us some… We were also probably bored. But when people are bored, there’s some research that has shown that when people are bored, they feel more that their life has less meaning. So we’re doing these things and maybe these things that are more authentic and to get some type of meaning back into our lives. So I think they’re similar on that level.

Zach Elwood: Exactly. Yeah. I think you’ve hit it because that’s what I was thinking about. I was thinking about how what really ties all of this together is just people not wanting to be bored and not wanting to feel like they’re not doing anything meaningful. And so whether it’s nostalgic experience or whether it’s something that’s perceived as some traditional experience, whatever it may be, there may be many other things. But they all fall under the umbrella of we just hate the idea of stagnation and meaninglessness. And so we’re looking for ways to accomplish that. Yeah. So I think you’ve hit what’s going on there pretty well in my humble opinion. And another interesting thing, I think about the tradition, following traditional things like whether it’s sourdough or making your own soap or things like this, these traditional things. I think there can be a sense of calm there too because it gives us a guidebook of things to do, things to follow. I don’t have to decide something new or something less tested. It’s like we’re following in the footsteps of people and by putting tradition on a sort of a pedestal like that, it has a calming influence. Do you think there’s something to that too?

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, absolutely. I think traditions are in themselves are meaningful. And I agree that when there’s a tradition of doing a certain thing in a certain way, it decreases a lot of ambiguity or decreases our anxiety about what we need to be doing in that moment or how we have to prepare something. I was thinking about… So this past Christmas, I wasn’t able to see my family, my family’s in Canada and I’m in New York. And I was thinking about the traditions that we have, and I did them here in New York and I was especially nostalgic for them. And I was lonely because I wasn’t with them. And it just made things a little better because they were meaningful. And I think many of our traditions that we learn are through our families and through our friends. So altogether, I think, they really can help people in times of stress or duress.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, might be getting too philosophical, but it’s like there’s that terror management theory of how many things we do are to abate our sense of existential terror. And I think that there has gotten a lot of criticism, but I can really relate to that in my own life, just that it feels like the things that draw on me are things that abate, that they kind of attempt to eliminate my fear that things are meaningless or that there’s the abyss, so to speak. We’re drawn to these things that seem to set us at ease a bit in that regard.

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, or to buffer it. There’s work, you’ve probably come across it on nostalgia and terror management theory, where nostalgia acts as a defense in the face of existential threat, so.

Zach Elwood: Oh, I haven’t seen that. Okay, I’ll have to check that out.

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, it’s the terror management function of nostalgia. It’s Clay Routledge.

Zach Elwood: Oh, right. Maybe I did see that cause that name rings a bell. Yeah, okay. Anything else stand out that we haven’t covered that you want to mention?

Jannine Lasaleta: You know we’re talking about authenticity and what makes somebody authentic is being true to the self and acting like themselves across different situations, or when you think about what makes you you, it can be your hobbies or things you do outside of your work or even in your work to some extent or probably to many people’s extent, but they don’t want to admit it. When the pandemic hit, all of these things were disrupted. So usually I have a running crew uptown called We Run Uptown. I would meet with them every single Monday, basically, almost when I moved to New York a couple of years ago. And that was something I did. And I’m not a task runner, but, I was a runner. And this was kind of my crew, my group that I would see once a week, it was something meaningful to me. But when the pandemic hit, nobody was getting together anymore. And other things I would do, I would just do small things, just go shopping downtown or go to the green market, which I think kind of stayed open. But I was too afraid to do those things. So when we had all these disruptions, I kind of lost the sense of what made me me, and I was drawn to more nostalgic things. I would listen to… I really love ’90s hip hop. I don’t know if it’s on anywhere, but I used to be a hip hop director at a radio station and I had an underground hip hop show for several years, which is still on in some way shape or form 20 years later which is very weird. And so I would listen to a lot of hip hop, these things that made me me. I felt less authentic and I felt less… Maybe not explicitly less authentic, but I did not feel like myself. In this time, I would watch nostalgic shows or I listened to nostalgic music.

Zach Elwood: No. Yeah, totally. I think the way that COVID disrupted people is really not understood. I think people focus on the financial aspect, but there was such an… Even if you were doing well financially, there’s an existential disruption. there looking for meaning that wasn’t there previously. I know people in Portland, especially in Portland, Oregon, where we’ve had a lot of good amount of violent stuff and riots and things like that. I personally know people that they were not like that, they were out there doing those things and they were not like that a year before, they changed substantially. And I think there was for a lot of people… That’s just one example, but I think a lot of people went through a disruption of their sense of meaning. I had this plan for what I was doing, and then I cannot pursue that anymore. And especially for younger people, I feel like that’s very disruptive to feel like, “Oh, I’ve got this plan and now I am adrift, don’t know what to do with myself. And yeah, I think that’s underappreciated I feel like and in no way am I giving excuses for the January 6th stuff, but I feel like that’s a factor for some of those people too in the sense that COVID has been very existentially disruptive to a lot of people. And I feel like if COVID hadn’t been going on, some of the things that happened over the past year would have taken different forms I think.

Jannine Lasaleta: I totally agree with you. I think a lot of us are bored and trying to find meaning. And there are these opportunities that were there that people could kind of reassert what their meaning is, be it protesting in the streets against racial inequality or I guess, protesting at The Capitol to try to assert or engage in the values that were consistent with that.

Zach Elwood: Right. It can almost be a violent thing in the sense that if your continuity, your sense of self and your goals get wiped out, it’s almost like you need to look for something quick to replace that. I felt like that happened to a lot of people where it’s like I quickly need something very strong to re-establish my sense of meaning. I think that can be kind of a violent shift for some people.

Jannine Lasaleta: Absolutely. People were threatened. I think to an extent we were all threatened. And not only by the virus, by everything. So there were so many threats to themselves. So I think it’s a prime time for nostalgia, which is a way that… It’s a comfort and I think it’s a good way to just like I’m not feeling so good, why not indulge in these things? And there’s not really harm. If anything, it will motivate you to reach out to your friends and family. So I think nostalgia is a great way of battling these things. And I think that one thing that’s great about this nostalgia research is that by and large nostalgia does so many great things for people. That’s what we’ve found so far. And even though you might think it’s a little bit sad, and it is sad, there’s a bit of logging. It’s bittersweet. But the sweet outweighs the bitter so much.

Zach Elwood: Do you see a connection to the Danish word hygge or however you say that? You know what I’m talking about? Do you see a connection there?

Jannine Lasaleta: I’m not so familiar with hygge. I only know it in terms of design and aesthetics. Can you explain it a bit more for me?

Zach Elwood: Well, I’m just reading the Oxford dictionary definition that says a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or wellbeing regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture. I don’t know much about it myself, but it just suddenly occurred to me. It’s almost like a place version of nostalgia. Presumably you have to have some nostalgic feelings to have a feeling of contentment about coziness or a sense of place. So it kind of struck me that it might be very much connected, just another form of nostalgia almost.

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, there definitely could be some type of overlap. I think hygge when I think of it, I just think of people with socks on in front of a fireplace or something.

Zach Elwood: Right. I guess it’s a feeling, it’s not necessarily place, I might be misspeaking there. But I guess they have things that they describe as a place, a room embodies hygge or whatever. But yeah, probably just related in the sense that they bring a sense of comfort.

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, absolutely.

Zach Elwood: Is there any other psychology work that you’ve done that really stands out as something you’re proud of besides the nostalgia work?

Jannine Lasaleta: There’s another project actually about nostalgia that was published earlier this year, which I guess this could also go underneath surprising findings. We found in a series of experiments that nostalgia actually increased healthy consumption and decreased unhealthy consumption. The theory was also grounded in social support. We thought, “Well, maybe nostalgia might influence healthy eating behaviors cause if we think about close friends and family, it makes us feel socially supported.” And there’s this work, not my work, but this body of work that shows when people feel more supported that this increases self-control. So people will better control their urges to eat something unhealthy or they’ll eat more healthy things. So nostalgia can be seen as a self-regulatory force. We had students come in, they either wrote about a nostalgic event or an ordinary life event. And once again, these are both events from their past. After, students were given a small bag, and the bag either had peanut M&M’s or they had baby carrots. And we found that where there was a nostalgic condition, they ate less M&M’s and they ate more carrots compared to those in the regular condition or the control condition.

Zach Elwood: I mean, that makes a lot of sense. It’s getting at kind of the stuff we talked about before, where memories and connection give us meaning and protect us against worst case scenarios. And it’s kind of why abuse and trauma and those experiences are so sad because they set people up to not care about themselves. When you have connections, when you have good experiences, it makes you care more about yourself. And yeah, I think that’s kind of getting at the heart of it there, yeah.

Jannine Lasaleta: Sometimes people think because I’m a marketing academic that all the stuff that I do is about nostalgia and money, we’re just trying to get people to spend their money, we’re trying to get firms to be richer, etc.

Zach Elwood: Manipulate people, yeah.

Jannine Lasaleta: I used to teach in France and I taught this class about… I don’t know if you’re familiar with Bob Cialdini’s influence.

Zach Elwood: Oh yeah, I love that book.

Jannine Lasaleta: So actually, half the course is me teaching Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath, and how to make sticky messages so people remember them. And the other half is Bob Cialdini’s. And I just teach them the principles of influence in France. I’m like, “Oh, it’s influence.” And they’re like… I think my French students were trying to translate it. They’re like, “Oh, manipulation.” But, no, it’s not necessarily manipulation. But this work in nostalgia and money can… And you mentioned it earlier, it can be put to good use if you want to elicit donations from people for a good cause, I feel like this is something that people can use. And it also has been demonstrated that nostalgia can be used for charitable donations. One thing I was thinking about though Zachary is that the social component about nostalgia, when we think about our friends and family, this could be something that can be used to enforce different… I also don’t know how political people are when they listen to your podcast, Zachary, but it can be used to help, I want to say enforce but…

Zach Elwood: Persuade.

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, persuade people to wear their mask or to get vaccinated or socially distance, to do these things that it’s been so hard for us to implement. If we think about keeping our family members safe, we also talked about how priorities shift when we’re nostalgic. So when we’re nostalgic, we might care about money less and friendships more. Maybe we care about our personal freedoms less and our collective health more. That could be something, I don’t know, it hasn’t been tested, but given that nostalgia leads people to put social connections at the forefront and our friends and family at the forefront, that might be helpful for the positioning of getting people to wear masks or getting people to be vaccinated.

Zach Elwood: That totally makes sense. It’s like the map over from if you’re not caring about money, you’re also presumably not that greedy in other ways and you’re more collective focused. Yeah.

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah. I think these things can be used for the greater good.

Zach Elwood: Getting on the political tangent, interestingly, when I was listening to things about nostalgia, some of the interviews touched on the so-called dark side of nostalgia, and it would mention the Trump campaign and the Make America Great Again slogan, which interestingly enough to me, there’s nothing that offensive about the slogan itself because you can imagine it pertaining to the fact that America has lost its manufacturing base. And its middle-class has suffered a lot, things like that. So for me, the focus on the seemingly negative interpretations of the Make America Great Again thing, well obviously, Trump plays a role in the negative associations, but if we’re just talking about the slogan…. Oh, and the other interesting thing about that too is Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton both at one point use the Make America Great Again slogan for themselves. That was an interesting detail too. And if they had used it, presumably they would have focused on the high points that Democrats perceive, the fact that we lost our manufacturing base and looking back at the better times when there was a stronger middle class, things like that. So to me, the focus that that’s necessarily just a bigoted view of the past or a longing for some… Basically, there’s very negative interpretations put on that which I don’t think necessarily have to apply just based on looking back fondly on American history. And I was going to say too, he kind of makes me think of… It seems like Democrats could use those kinds of things more in their messaging where it’s like

it shouldn’t only be conservatives that are looking back fondly or nostalgic messages. There’s definitely a space for those messages, but as we’ve seen, I don’t think the… I feel Democrats or liberals in general have kind of rejected that fond looking back at the past due to the fact conservatives seem to have claimed it, which I don’t think needs to apply. I think you could have… I think people of all political spectrums can find ways to look back fondly at certain things. And as you’ve shown, there can be positive persuasive aspects to that. But anyway, a long soapbox there, but I’ve been thinking about those things too.

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah. I have work we had published about what kind of messaging is more effective for Democrats versus Republicans. And I think it reflects what you said too. It’s kind of nuance cause thinking about the past but thinking about what from the past.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, what exactly?

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, yeah. So, I mean, definitely both parties can be nostalgic, but it’s about what. And I think when you think about the Trump campaign, he is telling you or the campaign’s telling you what are the things that America… I’m not American by the way, but what things you should be nostalgic for. And I think that resonated with that particular segment. So I think it would be interesting. And I think it would be interesting to see what type of nostalgia would attract both sides. If you wanted somebody that was Republican to switch and vote for a Democratic etc.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. And that’s what gets me about it, is I think, I mean, I think if you were to ask the average Trump supporter what that meaning of that phrase means, I think it would be about the working class and things like that and middle class. I think it gets… Obviously, I think there’s also some [dig] people on the Trump support side, don’t get me wrong, but I think it gets a bad rep in the sense that I think there’s things that there’s much more common ground, I think, than people suppose. If I was a politician, I would be focused on like, “Oh yes, we can agree there are certain things in the past that everyone can look back fondly on. Or there are certain ways that we’ve let our poor and middle class people down,” things like that. I think there’s just a lot of common ground and the very polarized nature of our society makes if one group has this thing, then the other group has to be against it kind of tendency. I just don’t think that needs to apply. I think politicians do themselves a disservice by not trying to bring people together more and say, “Oh, there are these things that we all really want. Yeah.

Jannine Lasaleta: And we all have in common, I think, yeah. So I’m Canadian, but I’ve been here through the election cycle, during the last one, and also I was in Minnesota doing my dissertation, I think, both times Obama got elected. And it wasn’t so much then, but I realize now, [we’re very polarized]. 

Zach Elwood: I think I’m going to do the podcast wrap up here, but if you’re interested in psychology research, you might want to stick around to hear about some other interesting work she’s done. She’s done research on how there are ways you can manipulate people’s experiences to make them continue to enjoy pleasant but repetitious experiences, for example, like eating the same meal many times in a row. If you’d like to learn more about Jannine Lasaleta’s work, you can check out her Google scholar page. Her last name is spelled L A S A L E T A. My name is Zachary Elwood. If you’d like to learn more about this podcast and read summaries of past episodes, go to If you like the podcast, I very much appreciate a rating or review on iTunes, that’s greatly appreciated, as are shares on social media. I make no money on this podcast and spend a good amount of time on it. So any help you can give me getting the word out there is much appreciated. If you’d like to learn more about existential psychology, which I think explains so much about our world and people’s behaviors, I hugely recommend the book Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom, Y A L O M. I can’t say enough good things about that book. Personally, I found a life changing book. Okay. Let’s go back to Jannine explaining some of her other psychology work.

Jannine Lasaleta: So the one thing that I wanted to talk that I thought was really cool that I’ve done and that has nothing to do with nostalgia, I have a paper on consumption, hedonic consumption. So it’s the drop in enjoyment after repeated consumption. So it could be, so say I eat strawberry yogurt every single day for breakfast, over time people get sick of it, their enjoyment for eating strawberry yogurt decreases. So what are things that you can do to prolong that enjoyment, to kind of make that slope that’s going down to make it a little bit…

Zach Elwood: Get the magic back.

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, yeah. So Zachary, if you ate strawberry yogurt every morning for breakfast and you’re getting sick of it, what’s one thing that you could do to make you–

Zach Elwood: Take a break and come back to it, go cold turkey.

Jannine Lasaleta: Actually, what my work shows is that when you come and take a break cold turkey, it really doesn’t help it that much because when you come back to it, you just think about all the strawberry yogurts you’ve eaten. But I think one thing that people usually would suggest, the research suggests is that you would eat blueberry yogurt Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. So when you come back to the strawberry yogurt, you’re like, “Yeah, I had strawberry yogurt, but I also had blueberry yogurt.” So I’m not so sick of the strawberry yogurt. So there’s all this work that shows when we increase variety, people have better whatever the focal product is, people’s enjoyment will be prolonged. And there’s tons of studies in the academic marketing research that shows this. But I was thinking when I was in my PhD, I was like, “Well, is this always true?” I thought about if we follow this logic, we should try to make our experiences, so what you eat for breakfast every single morning, as different as possible to prolong enjoyment for a certain product. So if the focal product’s strawberry yogurt, we should eat blueberry yogurt every other day. So we follow the logic that all the research has shown. It would probably be the best thing to eat something so different. So maybe eating a piece of pizza or breakfast burrito Tuesday, Thursday, Friday would be the best. But what ends up happening is that when our experiences are so different, we don’t put them in the same consideration set. So when we think about that strawberry yogurt, and so you did have the breakfast burrito or the pizza, you have endless pizza around. We don’t consider the pizza or the breakfast burrito in the same consumption–

Zach Elwood: Same category.

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, yeah. So it’s all about… Oh, go ahead.

Zach Elwood: Oh, yeah, you’re saying you need something different enough but in the same category in order to reset your appreciation.

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, absolutely. Yes. So what I found in my work is that when experiences are categorically different, if people the natural categorization is different, it actually benefits us when we make the experiences more similar. So I would say maybe the burrito I would emphasize the breakfast burrito just like all the other breakfast items I’ve eaten. And I found that…

Zach Elwood: So the framing can really matter.

Jannine Lasaleta: So basically that’s what we just frame different things. So we had people come into the lab and they chose their favorite chocolate. So Hershey’s Kisses or Rolos or small Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and it was a taste test. And we just asked them to eat one and then write their enjoyment. And then every so often they would have to eat oyster crackers, two oyster crackers. And in one condition we said, “Oh, you’ll eat oyster crackers as a break, as a palate cleanser. And then the other condition we said, you’ll eat oyster crackers, which is another type of snack food.

Zach Elwood: Oh, wow.

Jannine Lasaleta: So when we told them that oyster crackers was another type of snack food, the drop in enjoyment was much less than people that were told that this is a palate cleanser.

Zach Elwood: Oh, so you’re saying when you went from one snack food and framed the oyster crackers in between as another type of snack food, when they went back to that first thing, they didn’t see the drop off because they enjoyed something in the same category, but that was different enough. Yeah.

Jannine Lasaleta: There’s a drop off in both, but the drop off was much less. So basically these studies it’s the same kind of dependent variable. It’s like, “Eat this piece of chocolate. On the scale from zero to 100, how much do you enjoy it? Zero, not at all, 100, I really enjoy it.” So every time they eat the chocolate, they rate it and it will always drop, but it drops less when we tell them that the cracker is also another type of snack food. And we found the same thing with we had people listen to Haydn, a 32nd clip, over and over again. And every so often we put nature sounds, and we tell them we’re going to listen to nature sounds every so often or we’re going to listen to nature sounds and studies have shown that the classical music reflects nature sounds, and we found the same thing. We did this same thing with… We had people listen to a U2 song, maybe With or Without You or something. And every so often, they would see Gustav Klimt The Kiss. So it was two modalities. It was listening to music and then seeing art. And then sometimes we’re like, “Oh, you’ll see this image every so often,” and then we said, “Oh, you’ll see this image every so often.” And we posed it in a way that it was also maybe about love or something, I forget now. And we saw the same–

Zach Elwood: Similar framing.

Jannine Lasaleta: Yeah, similar framing. And we also saw the same thing when we also had another condition and basically the other condition didn’t have any Gustav Klimt, and the drop in enjoyment for the condition that had no Gustav Klimt and the one that had Gustav Klimt but we didn’t say it was similar to U2, the drop was exactly the same. So people are ignoring that variety until you tell them it’s similar enough.

Zach Elwood: That seems like it has… Yeah, seems like it would have big applications to anything marketing related, anything experiential or anything food related or anything even restaurants or whatever, yeah.

Jannine Lasaleta: Or even astronauts, they have a certain amount of food. The professor I was working with, my colleague, I think he did some work looking at how to increase the enjoyment for food that you’re just eating basically over and over again because you’re in space. That’s something I think is really cool, but I didn’t really prepare so I don’t know how useful it is for the podcast. And it hasn’t gotten as much traction. The nostalgia one always gets so much traction.

Zach Elwood: People love nostalgia.

Jannine Lasaleta: People love nostalgia. And it’s really easy. When you’re nostalgic, you care about money less, boom. And this one is like it’s really hard to–

Zach Elwood: It’s subtle.

Jannine Lasaleta: It’s subtle, and it’s moderately similar, but you hit it right on the head at the beginning. There’s an optimal level of differentiation in terms of what prolongs enjoyment. So, that’s something but…

Zach Elwood: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting thinking about the implications of that. There’s probably a lot of uses for that of various sorts. Yeah. I can see why you’re interested in that. Yeah. 

This has been the People Who Read People podcast. Thanks for listening, hope you enjoyed it. Music by Small Skies.

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