How do groups come to believe such vastly different things?, with psychology researcher Matthew Hornsey.

Zachary Elwood
36 min readMar 9, 2023

The following is a transcript of one of the most popular episodes of my People Who Read People podcast in 2022: a talk with Matthew Hornsey, who has done a lot of research on group psychology. We talk about what it means that people can believe such vastly different things, about us-vs-them polarization, about persuasion and how that’s done when two groups are polarized, and more.

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

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

Okay, here’s the talk with Matthew Hornsey:

Hi Matthew, thanks for coming on the show.

Matthew: Thanks for inviting me.

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

Matthew: Yeah, I think that’s a pretty close description of the various things I’ve done. If I try and throw a blanket over all my research projects, I sometimes think, “Well, I’m really interested in why people resist apparently reasonable messages.” And I think that — I don’t know if you’ve heard that phrase, quite often researchers gravitate towards things that they’re terrible at. And, you know, historically I think I was pretty terrible at persuasion. I was no good at influencing people. And I sort of lowkey blame my dad for this; when I was a kid my dad used to used to tell me, “Matt, you really don’t have anything to fear about speaking your mind, even if what you have to say is confronting to people. They might get defensive in the short term but if you have right on your side, if you have the facts on your side, then your argument’s going to win out in the end.”

That sounded like a noble and appropriate way to live your life. And so I went into my adulthood and I guess I became quite mouthy and assertive at speaking out because in my mind ‘good arguments win out in the end,’ right? I had nothing to fear. But over time, it became pretty clear that this wasn’t really working out for me. Yes, people were getting defensive. But no, this defensiveness wasn’t going away like my dad had predicted. And also, I wasn’t really changing people’s minds. If anything, other people seemed to be able to change people’s minds better than I could. And so at some point I had to stop and say, “Dad, I love you, but your advice was terrible.” And I had to go back to the drawing board and ask myself that question, “Why is being right not enough?”

And so that started me on this 20-year journey examining the science and the art of persuasion and influence. And I’ve carried that through. I started off looking at why people resist apparently reasonable criticisms of the grip culture, and then I was looking at why people resist reconciliation efforts from outsiders. I also do a lot of stuff about why do people reject conceptual views on science around vaccination, around climate change, etc.

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

Matthew: Well, look. Yes and no. I mean, many of these divergent narratives don’t really harm anyone. People can fight as much as they want about the origin of our species and about evolution versus creationism, but I struggle to see the victim sometimes, other than my internalized sense of scientific honor. And, you know, you’d have to say, “Look, would you wish it away if you had a magic wand and you could create a world where there was no diverging narratives and everyone thought the same thing and there was no conflict around ideas… Would you want that kind of world?” Because that could get a bit cult-like and creepy.

But then one of the reasons I’ve focused on climate change and vaccinations, for example, is that these are core existential threats. We need to know how to respond to a pandemic. And we need to know how to respond to climate change. And scientists are trying to help us there. That’s where I started to get concerned. And you see these schisms and society and cultural wars developing over high-stakes situation that actually we need to be agreeing on.

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew: Yeah, I completely agree. And my own data, it was just slapping me in the face around that. That you cannot create change in a group to which you don’t belong, particularly if there’s an us versus them dynamic. What I realized, and I was just learning through the process of running these studies, but what I realized is that the first question that people ask, for example, when you try and reform a group or make a recommendation for change or point out a problem, the first question people ask is not are they right or wrong, the first question people ask is, why are they saying that? What’s the motive? And it’s only after they’ve answered that question that they start thinking about the right or wrong thing.

And obviously you can’t just peel back people’s skulls and stare into their brain and discover their motives, you have to guess the motive often on the basis of fairly superficial characteristics. And group membership is one of those, and I’m telling you that the effects are huge that I’ve got situations in which people are perfectly ready to accept a criticism of their culture, their country, their profession, whatever it is, when it comes from one of their own. But if exactly the same message is sent by somebody who’s an outsider, they will hysterically reject it as being untrue. And people think, “Well that’s because the outsiders don’t know what they’re talking about.” But it doesn’t matter how much experience and expertise and information that I give to those outsider critics in my experiments, they just don’t get to square one. And it’s because they’re failing that first test, they haven’t convinced people that their motives are pure. Because by virtue of being seen as an outsider, people presume that you’re only saying these things to be hurtful, to be spiteful because you’re jealous, because you want to make your group better, etc.

And it’s totally transformed how I engage in persuasion now. I realized that I used to spend a hundred percent time credentialing my argument, and now I realize I have to spend 80% of the time credentialing my motives. And only if I can win that battle do I even have a shot at getting people to listen to the quality of the argument.

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

Matthew: No. I mean, again, would you wish it away? I mean, it’s part let a thousand flowers bloom. People are different. I was reflecting on music the other day. One thing you can predict with total confidence about any human you meet is that they’re probably going to be somewhat into music. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t enjoy music at all. And humans are very distinct like that, but I’m not sure there’s too many species who are massively into music.

But then people listen to completely different genres. For some people, their idea of bliss is nerding out on opera, and for other people, that’s their idea of hell. And so in all sorts of really puzzling but wonderful ways, our minds go down little rivulets, and even though we all are sort of the same, we have different kind of predilections and attitudes and values, and that’s part of the fun of it. I’m not really surprised by that.

I think what I get surprised by is again where it goes beyond just being a matter of taste or values or predilections, it becomes a matter of objective reality. So if you’re looking at science, for example, around climate change or whatever it is, I still believe that there’s such a thing that’s reality that lives outside our heads, and you get people who are honest brokers trying to synthesize that knowledge about those things that are outside our heads. And the stakes are high, and we need to do something quickly. It’s under those circumstances that I get surprised, I think, by our willingness to fight.

But I think that one thing I’ve learned over time is that often the fighting is not something that spontaneously happens under the skull of individuals, there’s vested interests and there’s kind of structures of misinformation that train us to fight. It’s not happening necessarily spontaneously, there are campaigns designed to turn things that should be, for example, scientific conclusions into scientific debates. And so I guess when you think about that, it’s probably less surprising.

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

Matthew: Yeah, I do. I think maybe we can talk about social media and the extent to which it has contributed to this. But it’s almost like anything can get sucked into an us versus them narrative. It just seems to be our go to thing, is to find our echo chamber or our tribe that believes X and to define ourselves against people who believe Y.

But I was really structuring COVID in the early days. I’m from the University of Queensland, and there was an academic there who had done a press release. And he was talking about some scientists out there were starting to get hopeful that we could use this malaria drug. And I always forget the name of it, but I think it’s hydroxychloroquine. “We can use this malaria drug, and for some reason, maybe it can be effective at treating COVID. And some of the early signs are not totally unpromising.”

And so I filed that away, we were in the early days of the pandemic and obviously looking for good news stories. And I thought, “Well, that could be massive if that was true.” The trials hadn’t been done, the test hadn’t been done, etc. Now you might remember that at one point, Trump embraced hydroxychloroquine and started talking about that as a therapy for COVID. And at that point, I was no longer able to talk about, “Oh, there’s incipient research on hydroxychloroquine and the jury’s not in yet, but maybe it’s something.”

I couldn’t say that anymore, because people would just hear that and go, “Well, so you’re a Trump supporter?” And it makes you realize that when people hear what you say, it’s not just a reflection of what you think, it’s a reflection of who you are. Who’s side are you on? What team? And so it got to the point where your views on the effectiveness of a particular drug that was still undergoing trials became a proxy for your values, morality, ideology, etc. Now, if anything can get sucked into a cultural war like that, then that’s what gets me kind of concerned.

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

Matthew: And I think one thing I realized pretty early on, I’ve got a scientific mind. And so everything I think is with a view to getting closer and closer to the truth. That’s why I’ve got an accuracy motive. When I have a belief or an attitude, it’s trying to get closer and closer to the truth. And I sort of thought everyone did. I just imagined that that’s how everyone thought that, that it was an accuracy motive that drove their beliefs.

And then after a while, and it was through my research, I realized actually very few people do that. Not very few, but I would say a minority. I think for many people, beliefs are tools that you use to signal what kind of person you are and who’s side you’re on. Sometimes it’s about signaling your group identity and sometimes it’s about signaling your personal identity. But really I think that is in many ways the communicative function of a belief. The identity expressive function of a belief has taken over as the primary goal of a belief. And that’s why you can have people say things that seem completely outrageous but bizarrely resilient in the face of counter evidence. It’s because ultimately it’s not about the truth, it’s not about accuracy, and you’re wasting your breath with all your facts and arguments. It’s about saying this is the kind of person I am.

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

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

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

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

Zach: Mock them on TV.

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

Zach: Yeah. When I talked about the fear of the other group, it’s all these complex emotions. It’s almost like a hurricane system of building, reinforcing in a vicious cycle of all these different emotions. I mean, that’s how I view these polarization dynamics. They’re all like self-reinforcing emotions in this big swirl. So you’ve got the hurt feelings, the feelings that you’re disrespected, the fear of the other group, the fear of your own group, it’s all this complex swirl of things going on. But maybe that’s a good segue into fear of what I want to talk a little bit about, internal group criticisms.

And so I’m working on this book aimed at healing American divides and reducing political anger. I don’t have high hopes it’ll do much, but that’s what I’m working on right now. And one thing that has seemed increasingly important to me is the idea of questioning and criticizing the views on our own political side that we view as more extreme and unreasonable and divisive. And so that would include not just political issue stances, but also very pessimistic and alienating and divisive narratives about the other group. And the more I’ve thought about these topics, the more important this idea of questioning one’s own group and speaking out about one’s own group in respectful ways, not angry ways, but the more important that idea has seemed to me. And the main reason being is that you really just don’t have influence on the opposite group. I mean, you can criticize and morally judge the other group all day long, but clearly that doesn’t have much effect, and I think many people would agree you’re just creating more animosity in the other group. But questioning our own group can help bring down the divisive narratives on our own side, can help break some of the perceptions of monolithic stereotypes people have about one’s own group, it can encourage other people in the other group to question and criticize their group and break those stereotypes and so on.

Thinking about those ideas is what led me to finding your research about group deviance and group conformity. From what I gathered, you were interested in group deviance because it hadn’t been focused on that much, that it was largely group conformity that had been focused on the research. So maybe you could talk a little bit about what led you to that research and what interested you and your colleagues in that area.

Matthew: Yeah. I mean, again, it was sort of a researchers research situation where I was a naïve but cocky kind of young academic, and I was trying to create change within my group. And that was within my discipline, within my school, and I felt a lot of conviction about that. And I just saw everything. I felt so rock solid in my argument, but I just felt like nothing was working. And so I started to try and do studies literally just to learn what I was doing wrong, and that was an interesting process. But also I was sort of emboldened to do this because when I first spoke to an academic about this idea about criticizing your own group, he said, “Well, there’s no such thing.” He’s like, “You can’t criticize your own group.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about?” And he said, well, he was talking from his theoretical tradition, which was also mine. And he was saying, “Well, according to that theory, if you’re criticizing your own group, you’re not a psychological in-group member, you’re an out-group member. Only outsiders criticize groups. Insiders don’t do it.” I’m like, “That is so obviously not true.”

And to me, if you think about what’s the definition of loyalty, it’s risking personal sacrifice to benefit the group. And what greater demonstration is there of group loyalty than trying to constructively create change to make it a better group, because you’re probably not going to get a whole lot of people thanking you for it. Criticizing your own group is an incredibly combustive act. You become a lightning rod for a whole lot of stuff. So you’re not going to win too many friends doing it, but you do it anyway sometimes because you just care. You’re criticize because you care. And so I became really intrigued by that notion, there was very little research. The research was all just assuming the groups are strong and individuals are weak, and it was all about conformity. And I’m like, “No, if that was true, groups would never change, but groups do change.

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

Matthew: So I think that in terms of my research, you opened this question by talking about criticizing your own group and about whether that can help in the polarization scene. It’s interesting because in a lot of my research, you can see that people actually, when you get their private thoughts as opposed to what they say out loud, when you get their private thoughts, people are okay about well-targeted in-group criticisms. They’re pretty good at dealing with it. But they sort of want it to be kept in-house. They don’t want outsiders to hear it because you don’t air you dirty laundry. And that makes sense.

But I really picked up my ears when you had your theory that actually by criticizing your own group, the outsiders are going to love you more, you’re going to get less polarization. And there is research that shows that, it’s not mine. But it’s some of my favorite research, where they’re looking at conservative Jewish Israelis and getting various messages from Palestinians.

And one of the messages is where Palestinians are saying, “Look, maybe we’ve gone too far. We’ve kind of tilted towards too much violence, etc.” And you look at those sort of situations and you think, “What are these conservative Jewish Israelis going to do with this information that there’s just Palestinians fighting amongst themselves that they’ve been too radical?” Because you could think, “Well, what they’re going to do is exploit that, they’re divided. We’re going to put our foot in their throat.” That’s the assumption. But what happened? Exactly what you imagine, that the conservative Jewish Israelis who received those messages with Palestinians criticizing their own group like Palestinians more, they’re more conciliatory to Palestinians, they’re more likely to compromise.

Zach: They showed that they were humans like themselves.

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

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

Matthew: But I think that insight from Jaime Settle, I completely agree, and I agree with you that we have mental models of what the other side are like and what they think. And those mental models are defined by pretty extreme examples, because it’s the extreme examples that sort of flow to our consciousness, and that is the problem. Because as a social scientist, I’m privileged, I get to see what people actually think, not what I think they think filtered through the prism of social media or other kind of things, I get to see what people actually think. And when you have that opportunity, it’s amazing, because people sort of converge around a middle ground, even around highly polarizing issues.

When I started doing research on climate change, I imagined that there were believers and there were skeptics and that they’re radically different in their behavior and their values and even their beliefs about climate change of course. But when I got the data, I’m like, “These self-identified believers, they sort of think climate change is mostly human caused and partly natural, and the skeptics are like, ‘Yeah, climate change is happening and it’s probably partly human, but it’s probably mostly natural.’” So that’s the difference, that’s where people live. And it’s a pretty subtle distinction, it’s not the dramatic differences that you imagine if you’re relying on just the extreme examples that you’re seeing filtered through the media.

Zach: Sometimes I have conversations where I’m trying to show the variety of thought amongst conservatives, for example, and I’ll try out some statistics like, “The majority of 50 something percentage of conservatives in America are supportive of gay marriage,” things like that. But I think skeptics would say like, “Well clearly, but there are more extreme people leading that party.” But I think what I would say is the more we treat the other side as monolithic and all the same, the more extreme by all these dynamics we’ve talked about, the emotional dynamics, the more extreme you’re helping make that party by treating them and speaking as if they are monolithic and all as extreme and unreasonable as the most unreasonable people in that group in the same way that the more conservatives act as if all liberals are American hating, want to burn down buildings and riot and stuff. The more they act in those ways, the more it feeds into some of the most angry and unreasonable liberal side. It fires up those kinds of beliefs.

So there’s just these dynamics. And I think these things are hard to talk about because people will think that you’re trying to make false equivalency both sides kind of arguments where you’re basically saying anything goes. But I think what I often try to focus on is the way that we speak, that is a very important thing and it’s not some side thing, it’s not some off to the side thing, it is a fundamental driver of these things that are happening. The language that we use, the divisive language that we use, the simplistic narratives that we speak are key drivers of the polarization and funneling into building the unreasonable narratives.

Matthew: Absolutely. I mean, the more you live in a divided world, I mean, we all live in echo chambers and bubbles, we all do. And so often I could live my life and not meet a Trump supporter in my inner circle. And all you have to define your sense of that group is language, it’s what they say. And all they have to define liberals is what we say. And so of course, language is important and loose talk can be destructive. But I heard you say earlier, well, of course we all presumably when we’re talking across group boundaries, we’re trying to persuade the other group.

And I think actually that’s another thing I’ve had to let go of, is that I always thought that when people were arguing about ideas, they were trying to persuade the other group. And then it took me a while to realize that actually that’s not true either. Because if they actually thought they were trying to persuade the group, they’ll do it differently. I think often what they’re doing is that they’re just enjoying the tribalism and they’re enjoying marinating in their own kind of virtuousness and they’re enjoying signaling into their own side their credentials as an in-group member.

But I mean, do people really think you’re persuading the other group by locating yourself as an outsider and hurling moral insults at each other? What experience have they had that that works? Does that work for them? I’m not always convinced that even activists are trying to persuade. That’s where I start to get impatient, because I think that if you really care, pragmatic focus on the psychology of communication should be front and center of what you think about. And I actually don’t see that a great deal. And also when I see people who do exemplify that, I sometimes see them torn down.

And so I think that, for me, I’ve had to if I really care about something, just adopt almost like a radical pragmatism. If something works, in climate change, for example, if you need to bring conservatives on board, I can’t be just talking about what I think and my values, I need to be thinking about my audience. I need to be thinking about their values and their fears and their emotions. And I need to come up with messages that are congenial to that. That’s my view anyway. But I have to say that pragmatism is sort of losing the battle with purity, and people tend to be focusing on purity of tactics, the purest expression of my world view rather than thinking about pragmatically what’s actually going to affect change.

Zach: Yeah. And I was actually going to ask, with your focus on all these topics, with your research, how frustrating it might be to look around and see how unpersuasively people speak. And I know that it’s been the case for me. I mean, I’ve just been tremendously frustrated by how even very influential people, politicians, and journalists, and other influencers, how even very smart and politicians that I think some people would perceive as being quite moderate and helpful, but to me they don’t speak persuasively and don’t seem good at and there’s so much antagonism even amongst people who get credit for being relatively not polarized or whatever but I think yeah and some of this stuff just for anyone who’s delved into these topics, it just seem so obvious that the path is to, like you said, trying to think about your audience and trying to persuade them.

But I think one of the problems with at least in American politics and I’m sure other places too, but I think that the system is set up for not rewarding more bridge building and persuasiveness. So for example if there was a politician who suddenly was trying to build bridges and speak to both sides and speaking to the most reasonable people on the other side and such, I think they would just immediately be perceived as weak and not get money and not get votes and such. And so I think there can be this, especially in a two party system and especially in the American system, I think for various reasons, there can be this rewarding of the most antagonistic us versus them rhetoric and in a way that’s really unhelpful.

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

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

Matthew: No, if you’re happy for me to digress in terms of opinions, I’ve got plenty of those. I mean, the thing about reflecting on modern life is that it’s very difficult to get a strong sense of what people were like before. But you said, well, maybe people are more isolated and I, it’s pretty hard to disagree with that. There’s probably less face to face community than there used to be. So if we take that, but people’s need for community hasn’t changed. And so I guess there’s a basic algorithm there, if you can’t achieve it through actual face to face communities, well, you can achieve it through virtual communities.

And so I think that, I mean, I remember when I was a kid I used to, in the playground, this is 1970s, 1980s era, where there was lots of violent games being played in the playground. All these games were various versions of groups of people ganging up on each other and doing terrible things. And then later I played sport and it was a bit the same. But I just remember just God, it’s fun. And it’s simplifying. If you’re in these intergroup contests, you’re not angsting about who am I, what do I think, what’s my place in the world, who are my people? You don’t. Those questions are answered for you, and there’s a euphoric rush associated with that.

So I think that people are achieving that through cultural wars these days. And it’s not just that people have opinions, but those opinions are then reinforced by an eco chamber, and then they identify with these communities. And so I think that maybe you’re right. The other thing reflecting on modern life and I don’t want to come across as too negative because actually I’m super optimistic about the trajectory of society in fact because we talk about the culture wars and everything’s about the left and right. But you don’t have to go back that far. I mean, look at the middle of the 20th century and all those battles are about the left and the right as well. But those battles cost tens of millions of lives. There was a blood flood, not just World War II, but a whole bunch of wars that happened around then.

And so if you take that 100 years ago, that kind of world, and then you look at what we’re fighting about now, which is morality and ethics and appropriateness, I’ll take that any day over what we were fighting about before, which is world domination. So, I think that the underlying instincts are always going to be there. We are always going to be tribal, we are always going to have these integral dynamics. But when you look at what we’re choosing to fight about now, you can afford to be a bit less hurtful about it.

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

Matthew: Yeah. I mean, there’s a tendency to think it’s always astonishes me that people think that the sense that the past was warm and benevolent and the present and the future is cold and conflictual and uncaring, and I’m thinking, do you know nothing about history? We have made so much progress as a species. We are smarter than we’ve ever been. We’re more educated than we’ve ever been. We’re living longer than we’ve ever been. We’re richer than we’ve ever been. And we’re nicer than we’ve ever been. And in terms of our moral duty of care for all people from all sorts of walks of life, this was not historically how we operated. We’ve got far fewer people dying from crime and war than at any time in human history per capita, right? And I’ve never seen.

It’s always strikes me how few friends you win by pointing this out. No one wants to hear it. Everyone wants to believe that we’re living in the darkest of times. Well, I think maybe what people assume is you’re saying is that there’s no problems right now and you’re being Pollyannaish with it. But no, I’m not saying that. There’s lots of problems. And I’m saying exactly what I’m saying, which is that the course of human history, we’re doing great actually.

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew: It makes me sad that science has been dragged into the culture wars but here we are, but it’s a good example you give because there’s huge. Like you said, there’s a huge gulf and trust in science between conservatives and liberals, but you go back to the early ’70s and if anything, conservatives trusted science more than liberals. It really started deteriorating in the ’80s and ’90s, but it’s the same with climate change. I mean, you get these enormous gulfs between conservatives and liberals in the US, but also in Australia, very polarized around ideology.

But you go back to the early ’90s, you struggle to find those effects. People, conservatives, there’s nothing inherent to being conservative that makes you reject science or reject climate science or whatever it is. And in fact, in many countries that those relationships don’t exist. It’s not like again, people are spontaneously reaching those views. I think that there come situations where elites let’s in this case, let’s say conservative elites start coaching conservatives, what to think about climate science. And you could argue about why that happened and people take their cues.

So in these very tribal environments, I think that’s what happens. It’s like people aren’t even really in charge of their own attitudes, behaviors, narratives, they’re coached about them. We can talk about the natural human instinct towards polarization, et cetera. But at the end of the day, you have to reserve a degree of judgment for those provocateur who create these intergroup dynamics. They do it mindfully, they do it strategically and they’re well-funded to do it.

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew: Well, I mean, I’ve done research on so many different things but I think I’ve anticipated some of the things that were revelatory to me and in retrospect seem obvious, but at the time are revelatory such as people say things sometimes without really believing them or their beliefs aren’t really about capturing reality or capturing truth, that was such a shock to me. The idea that people don’t listen to what you’re saying. They listen to what they think you’re really saying and what your motives are. That was a shock to me, shouldn’t have been, but it was.

And I think also with my research on climate change and vaccination realizing that you just have to screen out what people say in many ways because so often so much of what people say is a post hoc rationalization of a conclusion they want to reach for other reasons. It could be emotional reasons. It could be identity reasons. It could be for vested interest reasons. But I realize now that many of us operate like cognitive lawyers, not like cognitive scientists where you weigh up or the evidence and reach a conclusion. They’re more like cognitive lawyers, they’ve reached the conclusion, and then they embrace evidence in a biased way to reinforce that conclusion.

Now, whatever people say to reinforce that conclusion, you probably shouldn’t get too worked up about, right? Because it’s a retrospective, just grabbing at arguments to retrospectively reinforce a gut feeling. So really you just have to screen the words out. That was a surprise to me. And in terms of persuasion now, I think though what you need to do is to focus on those underlying reasons. What are the roots of people’s attitudes? What are those underlying identities, ideologies, fears, emotions, and work on them. So I guess through my career, I’ve just got to a much less literal notion about persuasion, where I thought it was all about the words and the arguments, and to have a more psychological approach.

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

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

Zach: That’s healthy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Zachary Elwood

Host of psych podcast People Who Read People. My research into online deception featured in NYT, WaPo, more. Wrote poker tells books (translated 8 languages).