Podcast episodes about American polarization, from the People Who Read People podcast

Zachary Elwood
9 min readOct 30, 2021

My name is Zachary Elwood and I host a psychology podcast called People Who Read People (behavior-podcast.com). For my podcast, I’ve talked to many people about political polarization. My goal has been to better understand the high levels of contempt and anger around us in America, how that contempt grows, and what we might do about this problem.

As part of this work, I’ve written some books aimed at reducing toxic polarization and I have a related Substack newsletter.

Ready to start listening now?

I’ve got a list of episodes about polarization farther down below, but if you want to jump in and start listening to something right now, I’d recommend one of these episodes:

Why should we care about polarization?

If you want to see the episode list, keep scrolling down, but I thought I’d spend a little time making the case for why you should care about this topic in the first place.

Many people, when they hear about polarization, think something like, “The other side is horrible so of course we’re polarized; it makes sense to be polarized.” If you think that, I hope you’ll check out a few of these episodes, so you can understand why so many smart people, from across the political spectrum, consider polarization to be such a huge problem — even the most important problem.

For one thing, when we talk about the problem of polarization, we’re not talking about our beliefs, but about the high levels of animosity and contempt we have for each other. And animosity breeds more animosity. Our righteous anger can cause a righteous anger on the “other side.” And this anger can even shift our stances on issues, making us more extreme and less willing to compromise, and giving more power to the most angry people in each group.

So, in a real sense, our anger can help create the very behaviors on the other side that are making us angry. (An episode focused on that idea.)

Also, I’d say: you can think one side is much worse than the other while at the same time thinking polarization is a major problem. Some people think that seeing polarization as a serious problem means taking a “both sides are equally bad” stance, but that is not required. Seeing this work as important only requires seeing that there are ways that people in both groups contribute to our divides, and things for many of us to work on. (If you’re liberal, here’s a piece I wrote about why you should care about polarization.)

Personally, I think that if we’re going to avoid worst-case scenarios in this country, we need more people to try to understand polarization dynamics, and more people willing to work on this problem.

Want to support the work I’m doing? Subscribe to my podcast or get my Defusing American Anger ebook.

Best polarization-related episodes

Here are what I think are the best polarization-related episodes from my People Who Read People podcast.

More episodes on polarization

Some more polarization-related episodes:

Episodes about specific political issues

Below are talks focused on some specific political issues, but approached from a depolarization/anger-reducing angle. I think these tough conversations are important because it’s the contentious topics that will be top-of-mind for many politically minded citizens.

  • Factors in excessive police force, with police captain James Mitchell: Part 1, Part 2. We talk about the problem of police brutality and excessive use of force in the U.S., with the goal of understanding the factors that can lead to unjustified and too aggressive police responses.
  • Can gender identity theory itself create more gender dysphoria?, with Carey Callahan. Callahan is detransitioned and writes about trans issues. We talk about how polarization has made transgender issues very hard to talk about. I attempt to show liberals what they might be missing about some conservative-side stances.
  • The political impacts of violent protests and riots, with Dr. Omar Wasow. A key driver of polarization is that the extreme behaviors of people in one political group can amplify anger and bad behavior on the other side. In this talk, Wasow talks about his research showing how civil-rights-associated rioting in the U.S. in the 60s resulted in an increase in voting for conservatives.
  • Interview with a militant Portland-based antifa/BLM protester. An interview from September, 2020. This was an attempt to understand what exactly was driving some of the aggressive and violent left-associated rioting behavior in Portland.
  • How has polarization affected beliefs about election security?, with Jennifer Cohn. Since the 2016 election, Cohn has been trying to draw attention to the vulnerability of the U.S. election system. I was interested in hearing how extreme polarization and Trump’s claims about the election had changed how interested people are in talking about election vulnerabilities.
  • Did Cambridge Analytica actually perform a “great hack”?, with Dave Karpf. Political researcher Karpf explains why it’s likely that CA was exaggerating their abilities and didn’t actually do anything that impressive with their Facebook political advertising. We tend to look for people or organizations to blame for our political animosity, when much of this is due simply to our us-versus-them polarization, which may not necessarily need much help from technology.

Want to learn more about the podcast? Go to behavior-podcast.com. Follow me on Twitter at @apokerplayer.

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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).