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Why do so many people “want to watch the world burn”?, with Kevin Arceneaux

An interview with Kevin Arceneaux, a researcher on the “need for chaos” research project, which found that a surprising number of people (up to 40%) expressed antisocial views about society in either agreeing with or not rejecting statements like “When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking ‘just let them all burn’?” We talk about what that study entailed, and what the psychological and environmental factors could be that help explain this surprising find. Transcript is below.

See the bottom of this post for other topics and resources. Podcast links:

Other topics discussed include:

  • How the “need for chaos” was evident throughout the political spectrum and wasn’t correlated with any particular political ideology (although it was high in Trump supporters and Bernie Sanders supporters).
  • How modern society, in increasing isolation and loneliness, could be playing a role in amplifying antisocial views.
  • How the internet and social media give an easy outlet to people with this mindset, and give them an extraordinary amount of power.
  • How the “need for chaos” wasn’t directly tied to poverty or inequality.
  • Thoughts about how modern society, by giving us more free time and time to dwell on perceived slights and injustice and our thwarted desires for recognition, may contain the seeds of its own demise.

Related resources:


Zach Elwood: I’m Zachary Elwood and this is the People Who Read People podcast. This is a podcast about examining and understanding human behavior; you can learn more about it at my website

In a pretty large study done in 2017, 40% of people polled either agreed with or did not disagree with the following statement “When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking ‘just let them all burn’? 

And similarly, 40% of those polled either agreed with or did not disagree with the following statement “We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.” 

These were some of the pretty startling findings of a research project done by Michael Bang Peterson, Mathias Osmundsen, and Kevin Arceneaux, where they surveyed more than 6000 people in the U.S. and in Denmark, a country considered less polarized than the United States. They labeled a certain level of these destructive and antisocial mindset a quote “need for chaos”. In the U.S. study, these feelings were found across the political spectrum, and weren’t correlated with a specific left or right type of ideology. While these feelings were significantly high in Trump supporters, they were also pretty high in Bernie Sanders’ supporters, and presumably they were also present for people who can be hard to put in political categories. 

In today’s episode, I’ll be interviewing Kevin Arceneaux, one of the “need for chaos” researchers, about this work. We talk about ideas of what it is exactly and what might be creating those mindsets. 

The title of their paper was “The “Need for Chaos” and Motivations to Share Hostile Political Rumors.” I’ll read from their paper’s abstract now: 

“Why are some people motivated to share hostile political rumors, such as conspiracy theories and other derogatory news stories? Previous research mostly focuses on the thesis that people’s partisan identities motivate them to share hostile political rumors as a way to tarnish their political opponents. In this manuscript, we demonstrate disruptive psychological motivations also play an important, but often overlooked, role in the spread of hostile rumors. We argue that many individuals who feel socially and politically marginalized are motivated to circulate hostile rumors because they wish to unleash chaos to “burn down” the entire established political order in the hope they can gain status in the process.”

When I heard about this study, I was intrigued, because I thought it helped explain a lot of behavior I see these days, from people across the political spectrum. A lot of the mainstream focus this study has received has been about how it helps explain Trump supporters. A New York Times op ed about it had the headline The Trump Voters Whose ‘Need for Chaos‘ Obliterates Everything Else. Farther down in that piece, it only briefly mentioned how the “need for chaos” was also significant for Bernie Sanders supporters.  

But I’ve seen a good amount of this kind of mindset on the left, including from some people I know. And I think as we grow increasingly polarized, that contributes to this, too, and makes such stances more likely. If you’re a liberal listening to this, hopefully as you’re listening to the upcoming interview, you’re not just going “yeah those crazy Trump supporters”; hopefully you spend some time considering about how these chaotic worldviews may be present on the liberal side, how there’s been a pretty evident and substantial “burn it all down” mentality amongst many on the liberal side. And similarly, if you’re a Trump supporter listening to this interview, hopefully you’re willing to challenge yourself and examine how Trump himself can be perceived by many as emblematic of chaotic and anti social tendencies in how abusively and recklessly he behaves, in how he has constantly tried to divide everyone into “us” and “them” since before even taking office.

One of the key aspects of how polarization dynamics play out is that we tend to not question our own side and give them a pass on things; in psychology, this is called in-group favoritism, the in-group being our own group, our tribe; And at the same time, we also filter everything about the other side through the least generous, most pessimistic lens; this is called out-group bias. If you’d like to learn more about these dynamics, I recommend listening to an interview I did of Jennifer McCoy about polarization dynamics and how they get worse. 

If your goal is to try to understand how these polarizing us vs them dynamics play out, how they ramp up, it’s important to try to see things from a more removed and objective vantage point, to try to eliminate your in-group favoritism and out-group bias. And one step in doing that is to attempt to see your own side as your political opponents view it. 

To take a specific example here: if you’re a liberal and you can see the perspective that a good number of people on the left do have some pretty antisocial and destructive views, if you can admit that there are some very bad takes that conservatives are seeing, you can better see how the perception of such things is what drives the anger and animosity of those on the right. In the same way, a liberal person’s perceptions of the worst aspects of conservative people is what drives anger and animosity on the liberal side. Attempting to see these alternative points of view helps us better see how there can be people on both sides who use these us vs them, good vs evil framings and helps us better understand how those behaviors ramp up tensions. Trying to get that vantage point also makes you more capable of making points in a way that speaks to the other side. 

It should go without saying, but each political group contains a wide variety of people, with a wide variety of beliefs, and not everyone is as bad as the worst person in that group. Some liberal people listening to this may be thinking: no, Trump supporters are horrible, they’re racist, they can’t be reasoned with;       if you’re thinking that, I’d like you to remember that about 10% of black voters voted for Trump in 2020, and about a third of Muslim voters voted for him, and that these percentages increased significantly from 2016, and that many analysts think the anti-police and anti-prison type slogans, and the militant protests and riots, and people on liberal side acting as if those things weren’t a big deal, played a role in that minority support growing for Trump. And if you can understand how there can be black and other minority Trump supporters, then you can also understand how it’s possible to be a white Trump supporter and not be motivated by racism or xenophobia; I personally know some white Trump supporters who don’t understand these framings, and while I disagree with them in their support for Trump, I do see their point of view in that regard and see how being unfairly maligned drives the us vs them polarization dynamics for them.  

Put another way: it’s important to separate your perceptions about who you see as the worst and most malicious leaders from your perceptions about your fellow citizens. While I dislike Trump as much as anyone, and believe that he might be the cause in the near future of the United States becoming a failed democracy, I also draw a big line between my beliefs about Trump and my beliefs about a randomly chosen Trump supporter. I know a lot about Trump; I don’t know a lot about that randomly chosen Trump supporter; in fact, I believe many Trump supporters are fine people. And even if you think that the other side is very wrong, we should be able to recognize that humans can be fooled and misled in various ways, and that that doesn’t make those people horrible or crazy people. For example, believing that the 2020 election was stolen doesn’t make you a white supremacist or an evil person, which are both framings i regularly see from liberals; to me, belief that the election was rigged only indicates to me that you were successfully misled by some pretty powerful people and media sources. But even this rather basic level of generosity and empathy, acknowledging that our fellow citizens are fallible, seems missing for so many people these days. 

On both the left and the right, there seems to be a percentage of people who are very unreasonable and antisocial, who have this so-called need for chaos, or something close to it. And maybe it’s possible we’re letting the most unreasonable people on both sides have undue influence on our public discussions and online discussions. In my talk with Kevin coming up, we talk about how the internet gives a lot of power to the most destructive voices.

Some people listening to what I’ve been talking about so far are thinking: ‘these are false equivalences, obviously one side is way worse.’ But I’m not debating that; obviously we all have our thoughts about which side is worse. But we’re talking about individuals here; we’re talking about psychology at an individual level. The matter of ‘who started it’ or ‘which side is worse’ isn’t relevant if our goal is understanding why individual people behave the way they do, or what we might do to help or hinder things.

And I think one big factor here: as polarization grows and we perceive more and more people around us to be unreasonable and horrible, the more our anti-social tendencies grow. When we perceive a large swatch of our fellow citizens to be horrible people, beyond redemption, the more we can understandably have an urge to “burn it all down”. Because when you perceive the world that way, your love for humanity withers; you see less and less worth saving. And I’d argue your love for your self and your own life also withers, because we are humanity and humanity is us. And I think these effects are also being amplified by the fact that modern society seems to increasingly be isolating us and making us more lonely. If these ideas are correct, then the “need for chaos” is likely growing as our polarization grows. And maybe that means in order to avoid worst case outcomes, we need more people willing to work on things that take some effort and some courage: hating the other side is easy, it’s the path of least resistance; what’s much harder is attempting to understand others’ points of view, attempting to see things from their point of view, and being willing to have conversations and listen and not presume the worst about your fellow citizens. 

I’m sorry about this very long introduction; I think these things are very important and I think they’re connected to my and Kevin’s ‘need for chaos’ conversation. 

Here’s a little bit more about Kevin Arceneaux: he’s currently a professor of Political Science at Sciences Po Paris, Center for Political Research. He’s been a Professor of Political Science with the Institute for Public Affairs, and Director of the Behavioral Foundations Lab at Temple University. He studies how people make political decisions, paying particular attention to the effects of psychological biases. A book that he co-authored was called: “Taming Intuition: How Reflection Minimizes Partisan Reasoning and Promotes Democratic Accountability”, and that took a look at why people vary in their ability to get beyond their biases. It won the 2018 Robert E. Lane Best Book Award from the APSA Political Psychology section and was co-winner of the 2018 APSA Experimental Research section’s book award. Another book he was co-author of was: “Changing Minds or Changing Channels: Partisan News in an Age of Choice”, and that studied how people’s partisan biases shape the influence of political media. It was co-winner of the 2014 Goldsmith Book Prize awarded by the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy.

And of course he was a researcher on the ‘need for chaos’ research project.

Zachary Elwood: Okay, here’s the interview with Kevin Arceneaux, recorded July 22nd, 2021. Hi, Kevin. Thanks for coming on.

Kevin Arceneaux: Thanks for having me, Zach.

Zach: Yes, maybe we can start with… Can you talk a little bit about what the interest was, what the motivations were for you and the other researchers when you were thinking about researching these hostile political rumors.

Kevin: It started all right after the 2016 election. Michael and Mathias and I were sitting around, I remember I actually traveled to Denmark for a collaboration meeting where we were trying to figure out how to get our heads around what had just happened in social media, and how a lot of rumors and fake news spread during the 2016 election. And we didn’t think that the whole story was that this was just another outgrowth of partisan polarisation and partisan cheerleading, we thought that there was something a bit deeper going on. And really, this whole project has its roots in trying to understand a reaction to the events of the 2016 election.

Zach: And other objective indicators that show those kinds of things increasing, I know we all have our sense that those things are increasing, but are there objective indicators?

Kevin: That’s really hard to answer. I guess the easy answer is not any, in my mind, credible or reliable ones. Because it’s a difficult thing to chart over time. So if you think about even looking at, say, there’s work for instance on the spread of false and true stories and news on social media, especially Twitter. [unintelligible 00:12:18] are probably the most famous folks to have looked at this question. And so they look at, say, Twitter from 2006 to 2017, I believe. But even that, they don’t make claims about whether it’s rising or not, because how many people on these social networks has also grown over this time? So it’s hard to know, even if you did see an increase, it’s hard to know is it just because there’s more people there or the composition of the folks that are there has changed in some way. I think the only thing that we can say is that whether or not it’s grown or not, the ability for rumors and fake news to travel quickly across networks, that power has increased with social media. And as social media becomes broader and more embedded in our lives, that ability has also increased.

Zach: Is it accurate to say that our study of the internet and social media, how we communicate on there is still in its infancy just because it’s so hard to get a handle on these things and they change so quickly?

Kevin: Absolutely. And it’s funny to say that because we’ve been studying the internet. The internet’s not new, in a sense. We’ve been studying it for 20 years. But social media is relatively new and I think that the work on it is much better than it was 10 years ago. But we are still getting our heads around it because the platforms themselves and the technology and how we engage with it are continuing to unfold and change before our eyes.

Zach: Yeah, it just seems there’s so much disparity and thought about this. I interviewed Jamie Settle who researched and wrote a book about how Facebook seems to amplify polarisation, then you have Levi Boxell who I also interviewed saying it doesn’t seem that big a factor. And I think at the end of the day, these things are still very much in the beginning stages of being understood. And the wild thing is just how big an impact they seem to have and how little we understand the impact.

Kevin: That’s absolutely right. And you mentioned Jamie Settle’s book. Right now at this point I think it sort of stands as the strongest and deepest reflection on this by providing a theoretical framework in which you understand how people engage with social media. But even with that, we still are funny enough in a position where we’re inundated with data. I mean, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, there’s so much data we don’t even know what to do with it. And at the same time, we’re still grappling with how to understand the basic questions like the one that you posed, you know?

Zach: It’s almost like if the situation would stay static for a while, then you could get a handle of it. But it all changes so rapidly.

Kevin: That is the problem with studying technology. The nature of the beast is that it’s a moving target.

Zach: Yeah, I thought Settle’s book was so great and I think the interesting thing there is how little that work is known. I think it’s largely confined to academic areas. People will run with Levi Boxell’s work and other work critical of social media impacts, but it’s like there’s other academic work out there about the effects of social media. But it seems largely in the academic world.

Kevin: Well, thanks to folks like you, you know, more people can learn about it. The problem with the academic world, if I can criticize us for a bit, is that Jamie’s book is written beautifully. But it is still written for an academic audience and so I think a lot of people if you’re choosing a book to read on an aeroplane, it’s probably not going to be an academic one.

Zach: It’s expensive. It’s big.

Kevin: Yeah, exactly.

Zach: Yeah, let’s get to your work now. Let’s talk about your study. Maybe you can talk about the jist, if you could sum up in a few sentences what your study involved?

Kevin: Well, we were interested in understanding the psychological motivations for why people share what we call hostile political rumors. These are things that are negative and they’re meant to be negatively directed at political opponents. We were interested in what motivates people to share– not necessarily believe, but to share those items. Our work basically attempts to uncover some of the psychological mechanisms that lead people to do that. And the broad takeaway is that for many people, or I should probably say for some people, sharing things like fake news and hostile political rumors is driven by their desire for social status. And one way in which they go about trying to gain that social status is by creating chaos. And certainly sharing fake news and rumors and things like that are in a sense, a means to an end.

Zach: Your study involved asking– basically polling many people and to give people a sense of the kinds of questions you ask people. I’ll just read a few. “I get a kick when natural disasters strike in foreign countries. Our social institutions are rotten to the core. I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over. I think society should be burned to the ground. When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking just let them all burn.” You ask questions like this and you rated people’s agreement or disagreement with them. And I think you also in the US, at least, you also collected information about the political side that they were more aligned with. Does that all sound accurate?

Kevin: That’s exactly right.

Zach: Can you talk a little bit about the number of people that agreed with such statements?

Kevin: Thankfully, the number of people that agreed… I think we end up having 11 total statements with this scale. And most of the analyses that we run, just look at a summary of eight of the questions on the scale. If you asked, “How many people strongly agreed with all eight of these?” It would be a very small number, less than 5%. And that’s, in some sense, the good news. But if you look at the individual items here, we do find that there are a good slice of the sample– say somewhere between 10% and 15%– who do agree with questions like, “When I think about our political and social institutions, I can’t help thinking just let them burn.” As well as the statements about starting over again. So when we look at these questions and we do an analysis that actually tries to put people into categories, what we find is that there is a group of people who are sort of high in what we call need for chaos. And these are folks that tend to strongly agree with all these statements. And that’s about, like I said, about 5%. But you have another group of people; they don’t agree with all of the statements that we have, for instance they don’t get a kick out of natural disasters, but they do tend to agree with the ones about restarting society over again. And if you look at that slice of folks, it’s closer to about 15% of our sample that agree with those types of questions. So the way I would think about it or the way I think about it in my own mind is that this is a minority of folks who have these sentiments. They probably have them for different reasons. The folks that have them for the most darker elements of this– so people who enjoy natural disasters, for instance– that’s a small portion, thankfully, of the United States. But once you consider the maybe less dark motivations for wanting chaos, we do see a substantial or considerable minority of folks who might have these inclinations.

Zach: Somebody described the results as staggering, for example the fact that 24% agreed that society should be burned to the ground. Were you surprised by how high these numbers were?

Kevin: Definitely. And I think if you look at question by question, there could be some reason that a lot of people liked a particular question. But you should know that we, in a sense, did something that can be a bit risky and scary for academics. We created the scale ourselves. It’s usually the standard approach that you kind of stand on the shoulders of giants that have done things before you, which also gives you a little bit of cover to say, “Well, other people have bedded the scale.” So a lot of the preliminary work that you don’t even see in these papers was us just developing a scale that got us this characteristic that we call Need for Chaos. So  I think that in the beginning of developing the scale, I can remember Michael in TSI being like, “You know, how many people are really going to agree with these sorts of things? They’re gonna be just trolling us” And unfortunately, after working on this for a couple of years, it’s sad to say I am a bit surprised by how many people are out there that feel this way and aren’t just trolling us. I should note that all of this work happened before the pandemic, too. So, you know?

Zach: Mhm, which seemed to amplify some of those feelings on both sides. [chuckles] Yeah. There’s trolling and then I think there’s also the caveat of, you know, for a lot of people it can just be kind of cool or approved to say some of these things without really thinking about their meaning. For example, we cannot fix problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over. I know some liberal people who basically will say things like, “Burn it down.” And I know that they don’t actually believe that, it’s almost like some of the meaning of that has been subtracted because the things have become so easy and common to say. I think there’s a little bit of that, too.

Kevin: Absolutely. One of the things that we tried to do in all of these studies is try to make sure that we weren’t just picking up people who were just playing around or not being fully serious. In doing so, that means that we do end up trying to control for or remove those types of responses from our analysis. What you do find is that there still remains some group of people who seem deadly serious about this, they really do. I’ve been asked before in the past, “Is this an ideology?” I don’t think it is an ideology, but I do think it is a form of nihilism that some people just seem to gravitate towards.

Zach: I will say personally I see that around me, whether from conservatives or liberals. I have a sense of that growing from interacting with people I know and things I see in the world. That’s why your paper spoke so much to me. And I feel like a lot of people talk about the, you know, they’ll talk about the misinformation or the media and things like this. But I think it’s missing the key point which I think your study gets to, which is that there is this growing nihilism across the board for a lot of people. I think that your study captured that. The other thing you talked about, another limitation of the study is that obviously the people that believe these things aren’t necessarily going to go out and actively try to destroy society, but it gives insight into how many of these people may be acting when they’re alone in front of their computer. And those actions, the actions on the internet and on social media now have very real effects. Does that sum up your thinking in that area?

Kevin: That does. And I’m glad you brought that up because one of the things that we try to keep right in our minds and when we communicate this to other people we try to communicate, is that we developed a framework for trying to understand how people behave in an online world. And so these sorts of feelings or attitudes towards society and nihilism can be a thing that kind of lives in an online or virtual environment. We certainly don’t have any evidence on, and therefore I wouldn’t make any claims about whether or not this helps us understand whether or not folks are going to actually do something violent or join a violent movement or something like that. There are people who do study those things. And I do see some parallels with that work, but for the most part I think we’re really getting at the kind of behavior that is more or less contained in clicking and sending and basically engaging with people in a virtual environment.

Zach: Yeah, one thing that comes to mind in that area is I’d done a good amount of research into one of the most prolific fake news creators (domestic fake news creators in the US) and he went by the name of True Pundit. He was an anonymous fake news creator and he was pretty influential. He got shared… He had a lot of fake news about Hillary Clinton that was shared leading up to the 2016 election. I was this close to outing who he was and BuzzFeed beat me to him. I was actually talking to the BuzzFeed journalist and it turned out it was this guy named Michael Moore behind it. Not the Michael Moore [crosstalk 00:26:24]. Yeah, not him. It was a former journalist in Pennsylvania who kind of went off the deep end who’d been arrested by the FBI for selling bootleg hockey DVDs and had a grudge against the system. His fake news creation was very influential. In my opinion, it was a key factor in Trump winning in 2016 because his fake news got shared by Donald Trump Jr, General Flynn, and a lot of people in the right-wing conservative world. I thought it was a good example of how the behaviors of these disgruntled and angry people can have very real-world effects.

Kevin: [laughs] They really can.

Zach: In the US study that you did, you saw a need for chaos both high amongst Trump supporters less so, but also amongst Bernie Sanders supporters. Was that right?

Kevin: That’s correct. We’ve actually sort of dug in a bit more in subsequent studies. And what you find is that there really does appear to be this measure need for chaos. It doesn’t appear to neatly map onto the left-right political divide, as we sort of think about it. There do seem to be people that are a bit more on the right that are high on this need for chaos indicator but not exclusively so, and there are plenty of people who are actually on the left. But there are also, I should say, plenty of people that don’t really fit neatly into any of these political labels. And at best, we basically did a follow-up study where we tried to understand the motivations of these folks who are high in need for chaos. What we found is that they seem to be motivated not by a political ideology, it’s usually something that’s about a system for a better society. Folks on the left and folks on the right, they disagree about what that is. But they believe that if government and society were to be organized in a way that’s consistent with their belief system, it would be better for everybody. Folks that are high in need for chaos really don’t care about that. Instead, they’re much more interested in systems being designed to benefit them and people like them. So their motivation is much more self-involved, it’s much more selfish. I think that also fits with the nihilistic view of the world as well, which is the only thing that matters is me. Everything else is meaningless.

Zach: Yeah, this might be getting into too broad philosophical area, but one thing I often think of is that there can be some aspects inherent in modern society that can induce some of these feelings. For example, modern society being pretty isolating, there’s a high loneliness quotient, we have less communal activities, modern societies are a bit sensory depriving and boring, which maybe makes people longing for something more real; some purpose, some conflict. And that’s not even taking into account actual inequality of how people can look around– even if they’re doing quite well– can look around and more easily see how people better than them are doing– the people that are doing better than financially. And I’m wondering if, you know… Obviously, we’re in the very much opinion area here but I’m wondering if some of those aspects of modern society, in your mind, caused some of these things.

Kevin: We actually have some evidence that sort of… You’re right though, the broader question about society we can’t really manipulate society. But what we do find is that when we try to understand the antecedents or the substrates that lead people to develop higher levels of need for chaos. And one of the things that we see that go along with that as you were mentioning is loneliness, as well as a set of dark personality traits. So it’s not just loneliness by itself, but it’s loneliness combined with the type of people who might be higher in what psychologists call dark psychological traits. This would be psychopathy, Machiavellianism ( the desire to manipulate other people to your end), as well as narcissism. These are folks that aren’t… They’re not people you necessarily want to have as your friends, and maybe for that reason, they don’t have a whole lot of friends so they feel pretty lonely and they feel pretty isolated. What’s also interesting about that, too, and I think it touches on this question about the role that society plays in here is that folks that are high in need for chaos, they tend to be lonely, they tend to be high in dark psychological traits, but they do not tend to be poor or deprived in a material sense. If anything, folks that are high in need for chaos tend to be a bit more on the wealthier side– not rich, but not poor. And I think that one of the things… Now, this is where I’m gonna get into opinion and speculation. One of the things that I think that could be going on here is that you have folks who are not destitute, right? They feel like they have the material trappings of the type of people that should be well-off and respected in society. But for a set of reasons, real or imagined, they feel marginalized and slighted and not respected to the level that they feel like they should be in society. This is what motivates them to sow chaos. They’re angry about it, but they also don’t have much of a moral compass that reigns in how they deal with those feelings of marginalization. And as a result, they act in ways that are disruptive.

Zach: Also if we’re talking about social media effects, social media how I see it is the way it factors into a lot of these things is it allows us to be the worst versions of ourselves so easily. Whether it’s online gambling or spreading hostile political rumors, it just basically gives us an easy path to doing these things that are either bad for us or bad for society.

To clarify here on a little note, I meant being addicted to online gambling in a self-destructive way and not just engaging in online gambling. I could also have mentioned becoming addicted to online porn, becoming addicted to shopping, or any number of things that the Internet gives us an amazing power to indulge in.

Kevin: And you layer on top of that that you get to create an avatar of who you want to be on on social media. These are the same folks that if they actually were in the room talking to you, they might behave in a very different way. But online, they can hide behind pseudonyms. They can basically construct a world in which they feel powerful and dominant. And I think you’re absolutely right, social media provides folks in this position a way to kind of live a double life in a way that they didn’t have before. 

Zach: Yeah. And I’d say even for people that are not anonymous, the Internet can be a pretty deranging and distorting place. That was one reason I researched and wrote my piece on- the inherent ways in which social media may be amplifying our divides. Because I think in a few years, we’ll probably have a better sense of how deranging our interactions on social media can be, because I see a lot of people they’ll get anger from people and that seems to cause them to behave in ways that are just completely unreasonable. Because being hated online, having angry interactions online can be very destabilizing. It makes us short-circuit our reason and that can have cascading effects on how people behave.

Kevin: I completely agreed with your article on that, actually. I think you also layer on top of that, Chris Bail’s work on this topic of polarization and social media. You also layer on top of that, that most of us live in distorted… Social media, I should say, provides a distorted view of what people are saying and thinking and worried about. Not just because of the algorithms that select and sort what we see, but also because what we decide and what people decide to post on social media might be wildly different from what they would do or what they would say if they were at a dinner party or talking with a friend. So, of course what happens is we get ourselves in this sort of vicious cycle where it’s negative and provocative content that gets attention. People who want attention and likes and clicks and retweets then respond to that incentive, so then when we go on social media we think everybody is unhinged. [laughs] And then I think you’re absolutely right, then we’re in this context where people are yelling at us and we yell back at them. Then, of course, the etiquette that then governs polite interactions in the face-to-face world fall apart when you’re online, right? I mean, I don’t have to watch the person in front of me cry because I tell them I hope they get run over by a bus. Right? So I say it.

Zach: Yeah, and I think while we’re on the subject, I might as well throw in a lot of people point to Levi Boxell’s study showing that older Americans are more polarised. And people will use that to say, “Well, obviously social media can’t be a big influence.” But having talked to Levi Boxell and just did some research on it and looked at other studies, I think it’s still entirely possible that… I mean, I don’t think anybody would say it’s the main driver or what the argument is that it’s an amplifier. And I think even with the older people being more polarised, there are other routes to that that could be theoretically due to social media. Like the fact that, for example, Fox News shares the worst and most unreasonable takes from the left and uses that to rile up their audience. Things like that. There’s still mechanisms by which older people might be more disturbed by that kind of thing than younger people are.

Kevin: I think that’s absolutely right. I think it’s amplifier. I think also there’s just a different understanding about how you should engage with social media, and I think that older folks might tend to engage with social media posts. I know for a fact that there’s evidence of this in a more literal way. Whereas younger folks might see things in a more ironic or funny kind of thing, and so they might see hyperbolic posts and laugh at it. And so these things, these dynamics really do kind of complicate. It’s hard to answer the question, “What is the effect of social media?” Because it has different effects on different people for different reasons.

Zach: Totally. You can see that every day in Facebook seeing older people overreact to something that’s obviously a joke or just said to rile people up and younger people are just like, “Aah, whatever.” Yeah. I feel like there’s a tendency on the part of many on the liberal side to look at a study like yours and make simplistic deductions about this. For example, they’ll say, “Oh, well, that explains support for Trump.” But I think they’re missing the fact that while there may be more of that on the Trump supporters’ side, A, many Trump supporters don’t have these qualities. And B, many people on the liberal side do have these qualities.

Kevin: I would say that in some respect, people that want to use or do use chaos as a way to try to obtain their own reputational ends, you know, that they want to burnish their reputation or feel better about themselves, essentially. And they do this by trolling and spreading lies and rumors as well as trying to provoke others. That’s always been with us. Social media gives those folks a platform that allows them to do this on a grander scale than before. Trump, especially in 2016, Donald Trump was a perfect, if you will, weather vane. And this is it allowed them they could basically harness his candidacy to play with and troll and have a lot of fun in a sense. I mean, folks are high in need for chaos. They tell us that the two reasons that they like to spread hostile political rumors isn’t because they believe them per se, but because they think it’ll help them obtain their ends. And also because it’s funny. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton I think we’re a perfect storm in terms of if you wanted to really rile people up. It was the perfect two. Because you have Donald Trump who is essentially a chaos candidate. He’s doing things that folks hat are high in need for chaos love and find funny. And Hillary Clinton is a perfect foil. [laughs] She’s in a lot of ways maybe could be considered overly serious and all this sort of stuff. I think we should also mention… But we should also mention that her gender, I think, also attracted. If you think about Gamergate and these other instances where we see people high in need for chaos behaving in horrible ways, turning that iron and that fire on women I think is something that for folks that are high on these kinds of dark traits, it’s even more fun for them to do. So the 2016 election, I don’t think was about the moment that folks high in need for chaos were getting their political ideology net by Donald Trump. I think if Donald Trump were a Democrat, they would have done the same thing.

Zach: Also, the Clinton family itself they’re a good example of how these things have been going on for a long time because people have been spreading hostile political rumors about them for their family for 20 or 30 years or whatever.

Kevin: How many people have they killed? [laughs]

Zach: Yeah, exactly. So many stories there. And I was gonna say, too, the focus on whose side is worse while obviously we all have our beliefs about that. I think what I see happening here is a ramping up of the fact that the most angry and unreasonable people on both sides, no matter who we believe started it, they’re both driving both things to ramp things up. And it really feels like it is the way that the most nihilistic and tear-it-all-down members of both sides seem to be having an unusual amount of influence on ramping up the divisions. At least that’s how things seem to me these days.

Kevin: I think you’re absolutely right. They do it for different reasons but it has the same outcome.

Zach: And I can’t remember his name, but some of what you’re saying has reminded me of this guy, this social theorist who studied Beatles and then got into talking about how there will be an impending destruction of society because modern society has created too many people who want to seek being elites but they can’t actually become elites because there’s not enough space for them. Do you know who I’m talking about? I can’t read his name off head.

Kevin: I’m in the same boat as you are. I’m familiar with that argument but I can’t tell you who said that.

Zach: A little note here. The person whose name I couldn’t remember was Peter Turchin. T U R C H I N. If you’re interested to learn more about his ideas, you can find an interesting piece about him in The Atlantic.

 Zach: He was kind of scoffed at but I thought he made some good points in seeing how there can be this drive for recognition, you know? That we see other people getting recognition around us but yet society doesn’t offer enough spots for that recognition, so so many people end up feeling slighted and feeling like, “Well, I just want to tear things down then.”

Kevin: I mean, that’s part of it. I would maybe also reframe that as part of what’s going on. Especially right now one of the dynamics in the western world is by trying to make hierarchies flatter, and therefore allow more diversity and more people to be who once before were considered lower on the social hierarchy. Once you sort of say, “No, we’re going to challenge sexism, we’re going to challenge racist ideologies. We’re not going to accept these anymore,” there’s always going to be a group of people that say– folks in this case, white men, are going to say “Well, that’s where I get my status. It’s from just being unquestionably in this higher part of the hierarchy. Once you say it’s open to more folks, then these people will feel slighted and marginalized even if they’re not necessarily really are. But just because now it’s not unquestionably the case that because you’re a man or because you’re white or because you’re filling in the blank, you get X privileges. I think that’s actually motivating a lot of this. Not 100%, but from the data that we’re looking at, you know? To the extent that folks that are high in need for chaos tend to be on the right, they’re the type of person who says, “I basically want the world to be like it was before we talked about all this equality stuff.”

Zach: From the conservative side, one of the more interesting arguments I’ve heard on that side was a talk between Ezra Klein and conservative David French. He espoused the conservative view that while the liberal side may be giving service to those ideas from many conservatives point of view, that’s just being used to foster similar power dynamics and attempts to gain power. That was a  really interesting talk if anybody wants to hear that. It was one of the more interesting political discussions I’d heard, just from getting a sense of what it is that some of the more reasonable conservatives think on topics like that.

Kevin: I think part of what’s going on there too is it really is a different mentality. And sometimes these drive ideological differences. So if you have a worldview that things are zero-sum, equality isn’t really a thing. Right? You have a hierarchy and then you’re just going to decide who’s on the top and who’s not on the top. And I think a lot of folks on the left, they tend to have a nonzero-sum view of the world. Which could be equally as sort of Pollyanna or overly idealistic. Because, of course, you can’t have a fully flat organization either. Things have to get done and you have to have…

Zach: And people do have a desire for getting above others, which always messes the equality thing up. Yeah.

Kevin: It always does. Yeah, absolutely.

Zach: So your study sheds a pretty dark and disturbing light on human nature and the current political environment. And one thing I sometimes wonder if there’s something inherent in humans that is very hard for us to achieve a stable large group, and that it always seems to end up in some sort of bad outcome and us-versus-them conflict. Do you think there’s something to that that modern society may in some way contain the seeds of this demise and in allowing us to reach a point where we’re not thinking as much about survival. That we’re able to look around us and say, “Hey, this system is very unfair,” no matter who’s saying that. Because you can always find elements of the system that are unfair in some way and lead to bad outcomes, or look around you and say, “These leaders are very fallible making lots of mistakes.” I’m curious if you see… Am I being too negative, too pessimistic in seeing some of these dynamics?

Kevin: I don’t think you are. It’s easy to be a pessimist especially in these times. And I think that for me, I prefer to think about this as challenges or limitations created by human psychology, rather than a deterministic thing where it says, “Well, because humans have a particular bias, we can’t get up and get over it.” But I will say one of the challenges that large-scale diverse societies have always confronted is the fact that humans have a tendency to identify with groups, and a desire to belong to groups that are distinctive in some way. The social psychologist Marilynn Brewer who’s done some of the most important and the most interesting work on social identities notes this sort of, in some sense, opposing drives that are intention. The desire to belong to a group that has status and is powerful in some sense or well respected, but at the same time one that is distinctive. What that means is that there’s some optimal size for how large our ingroup can be. And it’s difficult, therefore, for humans to say, “Well, I’m just a human being. That’s the group I belong to.” Or,”I’m just a creature, all creatures are in my group.” Even folks on the left, we will see the world through the prisms of groups and will– I see this on social media all the time– will do the things that humans do when they’re in competition with another group. And that is to denigrate the opposing group, to treat them with a double standard, and to behave in ways that I think is destructive when you’re trying to live together. It’s destructive even if you’re trying to live side to side, right? Those are the things that lead to wars and other horrible stuff. But that’s it. The reason why that’s a challenge for modern society, diverse modern societies, is that the hope of a democratic political system is that we can resolve our differences peacefully through elections, through reasoned debate, and these sorts of things. That’s all completely short-circuited when we divide ourselves in a sectarian way where we say, “My group is the best thing, it’s always right, and is existentially threatened by some other group.” When societies find themselves in that place, what we see is that it’s almost impossible to resolve that democratically. Sure, you can have an election. But if you lose the election, it’s because the other side did something horrible and terrible and they cheated and we need to go kill them. That’s the thing that I worry about when I’m being pessimistic, is social media I don’t necessarily think it’s a cause of this, but it does allow us to fall into a sectarian pattern where we don’t just disagree or see ourselves different from another group of society, but we see them as the enemy and as evil incarnate. And therefore, we can do anything necessary to protect ourselves from them. That dynamic which we see increasingly in the West, certainly in the United States, I think that’s the biggest threat as having a stable society that’s diverse.

Zach: I’ve had conservatives ask me what the worst thing about Donald Trump is in a genuine way, because they just don’t see it sometimes. And the number one thing I point to is just the division, you know? The creation of this… And he’s a good example of all of these things. He’s a very representative of these us-versus-them dynamics and he’s fostered that so much in his speeches and emails and painting liberals as not real Americans and all these kinds of things. Yeah, just a very good example. There’s a lot of other things we could talk about but I think I’ve probably taken enough of your time. You’ve done some very interesting work, you’ve written books about the effects of cable TV, news, and you found that it wasn’t as big as an effect as most people think. In fact, you thought that people were largely polarised before watching cable news. So that looked very interesting. I don’t know if you want to talk a second about that book and how you see that.

Kevin: I see this fitting into social media. One of the things that I think that that book points to and that I found over and over again in my research is that we make a mistake when we’re thinking about the effects of media when we treat people as if they’re just passive receptacles of information, so if they see a media post on Twitter, they’re just going to believe it. That’s usually not the case, people are not that stupid. Instead, largely what we see is that when it comes to politics, first of all not that many people are interested in politics or motivated to discuss it or to engage with it. That’s number one. It’s a small slice of society or the polity that engages in this. Those folks already have opinions, often very strong ones. And so largely, cable TV 15 years ago was sort of the Twitter of today, right? When people engage or receive information, partisan information, they tend to put it through a filter which is “Does this agree either with my worldview, if they’re being sophisticated about it? Or is this consistent with what my political group thinks? Is this is what other Democrats or Republicans think or other liberals or conservatives think?” And so those things, I think are the bigger problem. It’s not necessarily partisan cable news or even rumors and misinformation today that we’re talking about on social media, it’s about people’s often inability to stop and be a bit reflective and second guess their own intuitions and biases. Those are actually a bigger deal in creating this dynamic that we have-

Zach: And you’ve written a book about that, too, the ability to take a step back and think about-

Kevin: That’s the more optimistic work I’ve done. Although you could say the pessimistic aspect is that it’s also not that many people [laughs] that habitually, I should say, tend to be reflective. But the silver lining there is that humans do have this capacity. It is one of the things that I think allowed human beings to become the apex animal, if you will, in the ecosystem. It’s the ability to think and reason. I think that this might be getting a little too broad and philosophical, but think about the idea for democracy. And the idea of not just democracy, but democracy in a broad diverse society. It’s something with its roots in the Enlightenment era. And so a lot of the philosophical under support for democracy starts with the notion that people can reason, and are enlightened enough to reason and come to decisions in a peaceful way even when they disagree. I think that’s true, but in some sense the Enlightenment led us to maybe think that… I think it led many people to think that it’s just something that is inevitable. That we’re constantly moving forward, we’re getting more educated, we’re getting more tolerant, et cetera, et cetera. I think there is something to that. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve left behind us the Dark Ages. That’s always going to be with us. Those mentalities are always going to be with us. The drive to want the world to be a simple place where you’re always right and your group is always right, that’s just always going to be with us. And so I think the challenge for modern society and for democracies is how can we get more people to stop and push against their own comfort zones? I think right now we’re in a dark place because as you say, when you put people in a context where they’re just yelling at each other, even the most thoughtful person is gonna get angry and fire off some ill-thought things.

Zach: And it could be that there’s some structure, some societal government structure that prevents these things better from happening. Like, people talking about the rank voting things. It’s entirely possible that we’re just– in the US anyway– that many people are in structures that foster these worst outcomes, and then there’s some structures that would do a better job at preventing those outcomes, whatever those structures may be.

Kevin: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that is a problem in the United States. It’s having the two-party system. Once you get into this sort of like… Lilly Mason has done work on this. Once people completely stack their social identity so that they completely align with one political side or the other, you get into the sectarian mindset where it’s us versus them. In a multi-party system, you’re less likely to have that kind of dynamic. Nonetheless, I’m living here in France right now and it’s a multi party system, but you see some of the similar dynamics. Largely though, because again, you can always try to boil things down to us versus them. You know, it’s French people who are French versus new arrivals who are not playing by the rules. So you can always create a world in which there’s just two groups that hate on each other. But I do agree with you that the political system in the United States just allows that to be amplified and harnessed in a sense for political gain. And that’s the most difficult thing to address. Once you have a political party that can reliably attract votes by stoking those divides, then those divides are going to get stoked.

Zach: All right, this has been a great talk. Thanks, Kevin.

Kevin: Thank you. This has been a lot of fun.

Zach: That was Kevin Arceneaux. You can find his research and books by searching for his name online, and you can find his website that way too.