Podcast episodes about American polarization, from the People Who Read People podcast
My name is Zachary Elwood and I host a psychology podcast called People Who Read People (site is at behavior-podcast.com).
For that podcast, I’ve done many talks with people about political polarization and the psychology that drives it. My goal has been to better understand the us-vs-them anger that we see around us in America, how it grows, and what we might do about this problem.
I’ve got a list of episodes below, but if you want to jump in and start listening to something now, I’d recommend these episodes:
- The psychology of group-versus-group polarization
- Researching people who “want to watch the world burn”
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.
Best polarization-related episodes
Here are what I think are the best polarization-related episodes from my People Who Read People podcast.
- Political polarization: its causes and effects, with democracy and polarization expert Jennifer McCoy. We talk about why extreme polarization is a problem, the common ways polarization unfolds, and talk about examples of polarization in other countries (like Venezuela).
- What do we owe our fellow citizens (even when we think they’re very wrong)? This is a talk with Robert Talisse, author of Sustaining Democracy, which is one of the best books I’ve read on both political polarization and democracy. I think it’s an important talk.
- Overcoming conflict in our intimate relationships and in our political relationships, with Bill Doherty. Bill is a couples therapist and the co-founder of Braver Angels, the depolarization-aimed organization.
- Psychological factors in polarized groups, with group psychology researcher Matthew Hornsey. If you’re interested in how two groups can grow to believe such different things, and how persuasion and bridge-building might work in polarized groups, this is a great listen.
- Why do so many people “want to watch the world burn”?, with Kevin Arceneaux. A talk about research on the “need for chaos,” a seeming desire for antisocial, destructive outcomes found in a surprisingly high number of people. This may be related to polarization in various ways (e.g., polarization may make people more anti-social; social media amplifies the power/reach of “need for chaos” types).
- Is the whole world growing more polarized?, with Andrew O’Donohue. Andrew is the co-author of the book Democracies Divided. Research shows that most countries have been growing increasingly polarized since 2005, so we talk about that and the reasons why this dynamic is so common.
- Are a large percentage of Americans actually racist? A talk with political researcher Leonie Huddy. We talk about framings (like this one) that state that most Americans, or most white Americans, are racist. Are these claims defensible? Or are they irresponsible and contributing to polarization?
- How does social media affect polarization?, with Emily Kubin? Kubin reviewed more than 100 studies related to how social media may be affecting political polarization.
- Are liberal-side bias and polarization obstacles to American depolarization efforts?, with Guy Burgess. Guy and his wife Heidi are conflict resolution experts who run the project beyondintractability.org. We talk about liberal-side contributions to our divides and why it’s important for liberals to see polarization as a problem.
- How many Americans actually support political violence?: a talk with political scientist Thomas Zeitzoff, who has researched political conflicts. We talk about surveys that show an alarming amount of people seem to be supportive of political violence, and talk about what that really means and if it’s as worrying as some say it is.
- Leaving MAGA, with Rich Logis. Logis used to be an adamant, enthusiastic Trump supporter and activist, but is now adamantly opposed to Trump and sees him as a danger. We discuss what motivated his previous passion and his change of mind.
- Examining American antisemitism, with James Kirchick. A talk about different types of antisemitism, the factors behind it, Kanye West’s behavior, George Soros, and more.
- Do some Jewish people have exaggerated views of antisemitism?, with Yakov Hirsch. This is a sort of follow-up to the piece above. Yakov is someone interested in cognitive empathy and sees a huge lack of it in the world today.
- The role of insults in political conflicts, with Dr. Karina Korostelina. Political researcher Korostelina is the author of the book “Political Insults: How Offenses Escalate Conflicts,” and we talk about the role of insults in conflict and polarization, including how social media may create more opportunities for insult generation and perception.
- Does Facebook increase political polarization?, with Jaime Settle. Settle is a political psychology researcher and the author of the book “Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America.” She talks about the mechanisms by which Facebook and other social media may be amplifying animosity.
- How many Trump supporters actually believe the election was rigged? A talk with political scientist Thomas Pepinsky discussing election distrust and what it really might mean when people say “I think the election was rigged” on surveys.
- Is paying so much attention to politics hurting us societally and emotionally?, with Chris Freiman. Freiman is the author of the book “Why It’s OK to Ignore Politics,” and we discuss his ideas, including how the widely held assumption that we need to pay attention to politics may be making us more angry and dysfunctional.
- An examination of “election was stolen” beliefs: a talk with Peter Wood, who firmly believes the 2020 election was illegitimate. I examine the logic of this stance, and also discuss liberal-side election distrust.
- Does our political anger help create the very things we’re angry about? A common objection to thinking about polarization as a problem is, “But the other side is so horrible, so it makes sense to be polarized.” Here I give some thoughts about why politically passionate people should want to reduce our us-vs-them anger.
More episodes on polarization
Some more polarization-related episodes:
- Are some political party stances due to chance?, with Dr. Michael Macy. Part of polarization is people believing the other group’s set of beliefs makes them bad people. But research shows we often are much more emotion-based and team-based in our stances on issues, and not as ideologically consistent as we think. Macy’s research is relevant because it shows how some groupings of issue stances may be due to randomness and initial conditions.
- How social media may be amplifying our divides, by Zach Elwood. A reading of a piece I wrote about the inherent aspects of internet communication that may be amplifying polarization. This focus on inherent aspects was meant to be a contrast with a focus on product feature choices, which get most of the attention. For the text version, click here.
- Perspectives on being a black conservative: depolarization group Braver Angels leader John Wood Jr. discusses his views on American polarization and what it’s like being a black conservative.
- Us-vs-them polarization in a small town. I talk to a resident of the small town of Caroline, New York, where people are using heated, war-like language to describe the town’s divides over proposed zoning laws.
- How big a problem are hate crimes in America?, with Wilfred Reilly. Reilly is the author of Hate Crime Hoax, and argues that many liberals have very distorted perceptions on racism in America, amongst other things, and that these distorted perceptions contribute to us-versus-them polarization and anger.
- Liberal-side reactions to the Rittenhouse verdict and how that relates to polarization.
- How democracy breaks down and authoritarianism rises, with Thomas Carothers. I ask democracy expert Carothers about how he sees democracy erosion relating to some fundamental aspects of our human psychology, and how that might explain why so many of these nations-falling-apart scenarios seem so similar.
- Does blaming “media” help us avoid responsibility?, with Elizaveta Friesem. Friesem’s book “Media Is Us” pushes back on the common perception that media is something separate from us, and argues we should see all media as simply reflecting aspects of our human nature. We talk about how modern media acts as an accelerant of human communication, and how that amplifies some of the darker sides of our nature.
- On media bias and polarization, with Vanessa Otero. Vanessa is a professional analyst of bias in the media, and we discuss how that relates to polarization.
- Questioning if social media plays a big role in polarization, with Levi Boxell. Boxell and his team’s research showed that older people were more polarized than younger people, which suggested that social media may not be a big driver of polarization. We discuss his work.
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.