Genetics, Votes, and Colin Firth

[Season 2, episode 23. Published Nov 10, 2023.]


The U.S. has fallen into polarized, partisan, political bickering. Online, liberals and conservatives seem to despise each other. But nobody seems to stop to ask: How did we get our liberal and conservative views in the first place? We formed our opinions by carefully weighing the issues and thoughtfully choosing a stance, right? Well, no; turns out over half of our political leanings are determined, incredibly, by our genes. In this episode: How we figured that out, and what it means for our future.


Theme begins.

Maybe you’ve noticed: This country has fallen into polarized, partisan, political bickering. But where did we get our rigid political views in the first place? Well, obviously: By carefully studying the data on each issue and thoughtfully choosing our positions accordingly, right? Not quite.

ROSE: Most of the studies seem to indicate that about 60% of the difference between you and me and anybody else in their political ideology comes from genetic or heritable factors. 

That’s right: You’re a liberal or a conservative in the same way you’re a redhead or a brunette. So wait—are all our debates, speeches, and channels of persuasion pointless? Is it impossible ever to change anyone’s mind? 

I’m David Pogue. And this is “Unsung Science.” 

First Ads

Season two, episode 23: Genetics, Votes, and Colin Firth. 

Every country around the world has political parties that are fundamentally either conservative or liberal. In the U.S., we call them Republicans and Democrats. Other countries call their parties different things—but underlying all of it, they’re essentially conservative or liberal.

And just so we’re clear on what those words mean, I sought answers from the oracle, ChatGPT. Version 4. Yeah, that’s right. The one that costs money. I went all-out. Here’s what it said:

“Conservatives tend to support existing norms and values and resist change. They advocate for limited government intervention. They support lower taxes, reduced government spending, deregulation, and a strong national defense.

“Liberals generally believe in an active role for government in addressing societal inequalities. They tend to support progressive reforms such as LGBTQ+ rights, abortion access, and gun-control measures. Economically, they favor regulations on businesses, progressive taxation, and social welfare programs.

It’s essential to recognize that these are generalizations and that there’s a broad spectrum of beliefs within each category.”

Well done, ChatGPT.

JAY: Yeah. So conservatives care a lot more about order, things like purity, things like sticking with people who are just like you. And liberals tend to score high, the main personality characteristic, is openness. And so it means open to new ideas.  It might mean openness to different forms—there’s research showing there are different—liberals like modern art more than conservatives. Conservatives prefer, like, classic forms of art.  

This is Jay Van Bavel. He’s a psychology and neural science professor at New York University, and co-author of “The Power of Us,” a book about the psychology of groups. 

OK—so today’s question is: How did we get to be conservative or liberal? 

JAY: If you talk to an average person on the street, most people think that they chose their politics. You turn on the, you know, the presidential debate and you think you’re going in with an open mind and you’re going to listen to the two ideas and maybe change who you vote for. That’s kind of the way our political system operates, with that assumption. But what the brain structure data suggests is maybe that’s not quite true.

See, this episode has the most bizarre origin story in “Unsung Science” history. I was reading an article on It begins like this:

“Peering inside the brain with MRI scans, researchers at University College London found that self-described conservative students had a larger amygdala than liberals.The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is active during states of fear and anxiety.”

OK, what? So you vote conservative because you’ve got a big amygdala?

I mean, if that’s true, then what are we doing? Why are we having debates and discussions and protests and policy conversations? If our voting patterns are determined at birth by the size of some brain organ, then there’s no hope of convincing anyone of anything. The die for every election is already cast. Free will is a lie!

So I contacted political scientist Rose McDermott, a professor now at Brown University who’s done a ton of studies on the differences between these two species, conservative and liberal. And when I say different species, I’m serious—wait till I tell you about her armpit study.

Anyway, I sent her the article. 

POGUE: I can link you to the abstract here. 

ROSE: Yeah. Interesting. 

And in the article, there’s a link to a study that it was based on. She clicked it—and noticed something spectacularly weird.

ROSE: Oh this is funny. This article—one of the authors is Colin Firth, who I think is the actor. 

POGUE: What?! 

ROSE: Yeah. 

POGUE: No. What? 

ROSE: Yeah. No, if you, if you click through to the link to the original article in Current Biology, he’s the third author. So that tells you something important. And it’s also like—Current Biology is a very respectable journal. And it could be a different Colin Firth, but I kind of don’t think so. 

POGUE: [00:03:31] No, it’s not. Because if you click his link, the affiliation is BBC Radio 4. 

Yes, it’s true: The third author of this published study is this guy:  

COLIN: What I’m trying to say…very inarticulately is…that I like you. Very much. Just as you are.

How on earth does a star of “Bridget Jones’s Diary” wind up publishing a paper in a scientific journal? Well, Rose has a theory:

ROSE: I suspect the reason he’s an author is because he funded it, right? So like, if you pay for something, you get to be an author. 


ROSE: Current Biology is a very reasonable place. But the Colin Firth thing makes me suspicious. 

As it turns out, she is right. On December 28, 2010, Colin Firth was the guest host of a BBC radio show called “Today.” And for his episode, he paid for professor Geraint Rees to scan the brains of two politicians and 90 regular people. 

JAY: And they found that there were some key differences in the brain structure—in particular, it’s called the gray matter volume—between liberals and conservatives. 

Apparently, conservatives have more gray-matter volume in their amygdala; liberals have more of it in a different part of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex.

JAY: Our brains are wired a certain way that filters and changes how we see the information, and in ways that are going to make it very hard to persuade us, you know, with rational arguments and facts and so forth. And so this is something that also is related to genetic studies. 

If you take identical twins, identical twins are genetic clones. They share 100% of the same genes with one another. That’s why they look identical. If you take, let’s say, you took two identical twins at birth and raised one in a liberal family and one in a conservative family. And then you—you know, you followed up with them 20 years later to see who they voted for, I think most people have the assumption that the person, the little baby, raised in a liberal family would be total liberal. And the kid late raised in a conservative family be totally conservative, because—

POGUE: It’s not?

JAY: No! Most— On average, those twins are actually going to want to vote the same way. 

POGUE: Oh, my God. 

JAY: The data suggests about half of our political preferences are genetic, so half are shaped by the environment; a big chunk of it is biology. 

Rose McDermott has studied the genetic component of your voting tendencies, too. 

ROSE: And by genetic, I mean that it’s heritable, right? It goes from parents to kids. But importantly, it doesn’t necessarily mean you share the ideology your parents do. Like, think about red hair. You can have red hair because your grandparents have red hair, or your great-grandparents have red hair. Ideology can work that way, too, right?  I mean, it’s a trait that passes through generations. 

OK, so if that study is true, then people with more gray-matter volume in their amygdalas tend to vote conservative; people with less tend to be liberal. 

Aha—but remember one of the golden rules of science: Correlation does not imply causation. Just because two things happen together doesn’t mean that one causes the other. I had a high-school science teacher who made this point with a fun example: every summer, ice-cream consumption goes up, and so do swimming-pool drownings. But obviously, that doesn’t mean that eating ice cream increases your chances of drowning; those measurements both go up in the summer because it’s hot out, so people go swimming, and people eat ice cream. Those two statistics are correlated, but one factor does not cause the other. 

Anyway, the point is: Are you conservative because you’ve got more gray-matter volume in your amygdala? Or do you develop more gray-matter volume in your amygdala because you’re conservative?

JAY: Yeah, there is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. So we don’t fully know. There’s kind of like a little bit of a missing link there right now in that area of science. 

The Psychology Today article points out that your amygdala is active when you’re fearful. No wonder, the author says, that “The conservative party is big on national defense and magnifies our perception of threat, whether of foreign aggressors, immigrants, terrorists, or invading ideologies like Communism. To a conservative, the world really is a frightening place.”

And Brown’s Rose McDermott has studied this question. 

ROSE: My colleague, Pete Hatemi, who I’ve done most of this work with, and I did a—really before its time, it was about 2012, on fear. And what we found, really, is that fear makes people conservative. It’s not that conservative people are fearful, right? So it’s not that you’re conservative and therefore you’re scared. It’s that you’re scared, and that makes you conservative.  

And the reason for that makes sense, right? That if you’re scared, one of the things you want to do is control the environment. So you reduce the amount of uncertainty, reduce the amount of things that, you know, can hurt you.

POGUE: It’s like the old saying, a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged. 

ROSE: Right, right, right, right, right, right. 

Social and political scientists seem to uphold the theory that a conservative person sees more things to be feared in the world than a liberal does. And that your amygdala’s makeup seems to correlate with your political leanings.

But Jay Van Bavel’s research doesn’t back up the notion that your amygdala size is tied to your fearfulness. That’s not quite the same thing.

POGUE: The Psychology Today article, the oracle of this whole thing, spoke a lot about fear. The article kind of said, well, the amygdala is the fear center. And so that makes sense because conservatives are more fearful than liberals. 

JAY: Yeah. I mean, I actually bought into that theory at one point, but I’ve done a bunch of research since, and a bunch of other labs have, and they really find that the fear/conservative link seems to be overstated. Very significantly. 

POGUE: Really? 

JAY: Yeah. So I’ve changed my opinion. Or if there’s a link, it’s very, very weak.  

We ran a structural MRI study, two of them, at NYU, where I work, just like the one they ran in London. And the variable we found that seemed to be related to amygdala size, first of all, was support for the status quo, and defense of the existing system. And so conservatives tend to score higher on support for the status quo. In fact, that’s almost the definition of conservatism is, you know, conserving and sustaining the status quo. 

And liberals are—wanna—wanna challenge it more. And so that seems to be the key variable, at least that we found that’s correlated with amygdala volume. We found it in two studies. 

And then we followed up those people in our study, you know, I think up to a year later. And we found that the people who had really low gray matter volume density in their amygdala were the people who are more likely to go to protests. And so these are the people at Black Lives Matter protests, global climate change protests, Occupy Wall Street protests. And so they’re out there challenging the system and trying to change it. And it doesn’t really seem like it maps really cleanly on to fear. It seems like it maps more into like sustaining the status quo, and existing hierarchies, and things like that. 

In other words, like so many other things in science—and the real world—the truth involves accepting a bit of nuance. Your amygdala does affect your political leanings, and your fear level does too—but it’s not necessarily true that your amygdala determines your general fearfulness level.

Anyway. None of that changes the startling fact that, apparently, your genes help determine your vote.

POGUE: Whoa. I mean, I can imagine a lot of people reacting negatively to this news. It sounds like we’re being puppeteered, to a certain extent, by our genetics and by our amygdala size. But it doesn’t give us the credit for being our own thinkers and cultivating our own independent opinions. 

If that’s true, then there’s no point to anything. There’s no point to every tweet and every argument and every debate on stage. 

JAY: But I always want to keep hammering this home: this is about half of the story.  The other half of it is that, you know, we also have these huge prefrontal cortices which sometimes engage in rationalization, but a lot of times they’re actually thinking. People are reading new things, they’re learning, they’re exposed to new people. And they’re contemplating it all and making decisions. 

You’re shaped by your social environments, the groups that you’re in, the peer groups that you have. And so that can guide us in different directions than our predisposition.  

POGUE: Okay. So there’s some hope for our egos and thinking that we can make up our own minds. 

JAY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s some—there’s some hope that we have a little bit of rationality. 

And that’s not the only reassuring tidbit I picked up from these interviews. After the break, our guests are going to put the American partisan mudslinging into perspective. And I will tell you, at last, about Rose McDermott’s armpit study.

Second ads

Welcome back.

This whole episode is dedicated to the proposition that at least half of your political tendencies are outside of your control. They were determined by your genes. It’s not impossible for you to change your beliefs—but Rose McDermott says it’s pretty unlikely. 

POGUE: Does anybody ever switch from liberal to conservative? 

ROSE: Oh, sure. I mean, I’m not going to say it’s common, but this is where I think environment really matters. 

So there’s good data, for example, that having a divorce really changes people’s attitudes about certain things. So we have to have parts of that ideology that are receptive to stimulus that we get from the environment. When your child gets killed in a mass-shooting event, when you have cancer, when, you know, there’s a big thing that happens in your life, it can dramatically and very rapidly change your ideology in either direction, right? And there’s pretty good evidence to show that. 

But I mean, if we’re these genetically preprogrammed voting robots—well, half-preprogrammed—that makes us sound like we’re two totally different tribes, or even totally different species. 

ROSE: Let’s say I’m a liberal and you’re a conservative and we’re fighting over some stimulus. The main part of what we’re fighting about is that we’re actually seeing different things, we’re hearing different things, we’re experiencing different things, but we think that we’re each seeing the same thing. 

She says it’s like that crazy internet meme from a few years back, where it was a photo of a dress, and half the population insisted that it was a blue dress with black stripes, and half insisted that it was gold and white. 

ROSE: Just because you see it one way and you know other people see it a different way doesn’t change how you see it. You just think those other people are wrong, that they just really should see the dress as gold or the dress as blue or whatever it is.  

So, for example, you can do this with these eye tracking studies we’ve done, where you show people pictures of, for example, a soldier picking up a child. And liberals will be looking at the child who’s got blood dripping from it and not really paying attention to anything else in the picture. Because you can see with eye tracking what they’re looking at. And the conservative person will be paying attention to the uniform, the gun on the hip of the person who’s carrying the child. They won’t even see the child. 

And then they have a fight about whether or not U.S. forces should do a humanitarian intervention. And they think they’re fighting about humanitarian intervention. They don’t know that one group of people only sees the bleeding child and the other group of people only sees the, you know, threatening characters with guns. 

And so it’s very difficult to have a conversation and achieve a compromise when you don’t know that you don’t know that you’re not experiencing the same phenomenon. I see that going on a lot these days, where people think that they’re fighting over values, but they’re really fighting over perception. 

And that’s where her armpit-stink study comes in. 

ROSE: The armpit study was, was really trying to look at whether—how it is that people recognize each other in mating, right? If liberals are marrying liberals and conservatives are marrying conservatives, how is it that they’re finding each other? We thought, “Gee, we wonder if you’re actually looking for somebody who aligns with you, who’s similar to you on your ideology.” 

And so we had all these subjects who were extreme liberals or extreme conservatives, and we did all these things to make sure that—we got a kind of pure sense of their smell. So they had to wash their hair and their bodies in scent-free shampoo and soap. And they couldn’t sleep in a bed with somebody else for two days, and they had to eat food that wasn’t spicy, and they couldn’t, you know, sleep with their animals. I mean, I couldn’t believe people would do it for 20 bucks. I wouldn’t have done it for 20 bucks. 

And then we had them wear gauze pads under their arms so that we could get their sweat. And then we extracted that, and had other people smell it. And we asked them questions like, How intelligent is this person? How trustworthy is this person? Can you tell what this person’s political ideology is? 

And then the kicker question is, do you find the smell attractive? So in asking them about intelligence and trustworthiness and aggressiveness, there were no findings. I mean, there was nothing consistent. Could they tell the person’s ideology? Absolutely not. 

But if you looked at who they found attractive, it was completely predictive. So liberals found other liberals, the smell of other liberals, really attractive; conservatives found the smell of other conservatives really attractive. 

I wasn’t sure it was going to work because it was, you know, everybody thought I was crazy for doing it to begin with. They just thought it was the nuttiest thing they’d ever heard. 

And so, the first day I was standing with the first vial, and I opened the first vial, and I smelled it and I couldn’t smell anything and I thought, “Oh, this is really not going to work.” And then the guy who was doing the statistical analysis was there, too. And I gave it to him, and he’s one of my coauthors. And I said, “Can you smell anything?” And he took a whiff and he almost started to throw up. I was like, “Yes!    And in fact, it did work.”

On the last day of the study, two subjects approached McDermott.

ROSE: So there was a guy who said, “I have to tell you, one of your samples is rancid. It was so disgusting, so awful. I just want to tell you.” And I was like, “okay.”

 And I took down the number and everything. And then right after that, a woman came in and she said, What are you going to do with the samples? And I said, “I’m going to do a molecular extraction on it.” She’s like, “Well, can I take one of them home with me? I want to sleep with it under my pillow.” 

POGUE: Oh my god.

ROSE: And I said, “Why would you want to do that?” And she’s like, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever smelled in my life.” 

POGUE: It’s the same one that was thought to be rancid by the guy??

ROSE: Exact same number as the guy who one minute before had told me it was rancid, and I had to stop the study because it was so vile. Exact same one. 

And what it was, was that the sample was a very conservative male. The male who said it was rancid was a very liberal male. And the woman who wanted to take it home with her was a very conservative female. 

So we think that we’re smelling the same thing, but we’re actually not, right? There’s no way to know what someone else experiences. We were able to show that we could predict political ideology based on the attraction that people found to the different smells that they had.

POGUE: But it just, it just doesn’t make any sense. Like, your political leaning is a thought process. It’s in your brain. It doesn’t affect your armpit stink!

ROSE: Oh, but see, your brain isn’t your brain, right? Your brain is also your body, right? Those things are intricately interconnected. And they’re connected in a deep, somatic way. 

So, um, information that we get from the world in smell is very potent. Smell can be a very powerful reminder. Perfume, you know, a certain perfume that we associate with a person or, you know, you go to Hawaii and you smell plumeria, and it reminds you of all the experiences you’ve had in Hawaii. You know, there’s certain smells that are very evocative. And so we have more of that available to us than we realize, and we get more information than we consciously process. We undervalue those things because we privilege our brain, and think that our bodies are just these, you know, stick figures that carry our brains around. And so, yes, it is distinct, but it’s also integrated. 

POGUE: But, but we are saying— that in this case, something about the way you perceive the world, politically, is affecting the chemicals coming out of your—. 

ROSE: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.

POGUE: That’s crazy.

ROE: It’s affecting not just the chemicals, but the way that we perceive other people’s chemicals. 

POGUE: Hmm. 

ROSE: And we’re not aware of that. We think everybody else is having the same experience that we’re having. And so, you know, if there’s one takeaway that I try to teach my students, which never works, is: Don’t think that your perception is THE perception. That the way you see the world, hear the world, smell the world, feel the world is the truth. It’s a truth. It’s your truth. But it’s not necessarily everybody else’s truth. And that I would hope that that kind of humility would allow for a particular kind of mercy toward other people that you disagree with.

Aha! A takeaway from all this! A strategy to use! A conclusion from all this science that we can use in the real world. Jay Van Bavel has similar advice, based on his research indicating that conservatives care about purity, and liberals care about harm.

JAY: There’s some research suggesting that if you want to convince, say, you know, conservatives to support climate change more, you should use language that frames that in the type of personality, style, and moral values that they care about. 

So one of the studies on this found that if you frame climate change in terms of harm, well, that’s something that liberals care a lot about, but it doesn’t really translate to conservatives, doesn’t resonate with them in the same way. But if you use the language of purity, which is something that conservatives resonate with more, that they’re more convinced to support climate change because they don’t like things that are impure.  

And vice versa. You know, if conservatives want to change, you know, liberals’ attitudes about, you know, immigration policy, they can frame it through the language of harm and care in ways that will resonate with them more. That’s the type of insight that this gives us. 

Wow…this whole episode is kind of taking a hopeful turn as it approaches the end, isn’t it? What a beautiful structure! Its writer must be some kind of genius.

There’s good news about polarization, too. Yeah, yeah, America is divided against itself, we all rip each other apart online, blah blah blah…but according to Rose McDermott, you’ve got to consider us in the spectrum of the whole world.

POGUE: I hear four sets of terms referring to political leanings. You hear left and right. You hear liberal and conservative, Democrat/Republican, blue state/red state. Are those all equivalent? 

ROSE: No. So when you talk about liberal and conservative in the world sense, it’s much, much wider than Democratic and Republican in the American sense. And to be clear, the world spectrum—left, liberal, would be communism! It would be like what the Soviet Union was. And right is conservative, is fascism, the way that Hitler was, right? So America actually is in the middle of those things. It’s still nowhere near as extreme as it can be in the world spectrum. And so those terms are often used synonymously, but they’re actually not the same. 

POGUE: So Republicans and Democrats in this country are actually closer than we think? 

ROSE: Way closer. Yeah. 

POGUE: Really? 

ROSE: We’re getting more divided. But in terms of world political spectrum of liberal to conservative, we’re much closer than we think that we are. The world spectrum issue is much broader. 

Of course, we have a two-party system in the U.S.…which you might think would make it harder to compare us with other countries. But as it turns out, there are two fundamental views of the world that are universal: Conservative and liberal. 

POGUE: Does this thing about favoring the status quo versus favoring change, does that translate universally, even if the parties have different names in other countries? 

JAY: Yeah. So the tendency—and it’s called system justification, it was developed by a colleague of mine, John Jost—is that some people score high in system justification. They want to defend and support the system. Other people really want to challenge the system. 

He’s measured that in almost every country in the world at this point, and almost always it’s correlated with how conservative you are in almost every country. 

Two things seem to be different about America. One is that we’re in a two-party system here. And so there’s very much a psychology of “us versus them.” If I don’t agree with your party politically, I’ll vote for a leader that I might not even trust or like or respect, or who’s corrupt, just to stop your party from getting power. 

Whereas, let’s say, like, I’m actually from Canada. Canada has like, you know, five parties, one of which is, their main role is just to separate their province from the rest of the country. That’s a party in Quebec, the French part of Canada. But even in the rest of Canada, there’s at least three major parties. And so if your party that you supported in the last election is corrupt, but you really hate that one on the other side of the aisle, there’s still a third party that you can vote for. 

And so people engage in a lot of what’s called strategic voting. And so that dynamic gets a little bit out of this us-versus-them psychology, where I always have to support someone, even if I don’t like what they’ve done. And it makes people more—more flexible. And I think it’s a system that maybe allows for more accountability of bad actors and corrupt politicians. 

And that’s very common in Europe and other countries that some of them have like ten or 20 or 30 parties, and they have to form coalitions to rule. So that’s the one big thing that’s different. 

And the second big thing that’s different in America is that, 40 years ago, it wasn’t polarized to the same degree. And so people could switch parties or feel comfortable in another party if they didn’t fully align with them ideologically. We’re at the point where very few people do that or feel comfortable doing that.

The crazy thing is, from a political-science and evolutionary perspective, some polarization might be a good thing.  

ROSE: Societies, to survive across millennial time, need groups of people who cooperate at home. They build houses. They raise children. They engage in all kinds of cooperative behavior. 

And society also needs people who defend those cooperators against outgroups: against animals, against climate, against other people. And those people often engage in combat. And those people are defenders of that society.

And I think of liberals and conservatives in a kind of—you can’t survive as a society unless you have both. If you get rid of all the defenders, you’re going to be completely annihilated by the outgroups. If you don’t have a self-defense, you’re going to get rolled over. You’re going to get steamrolled. 

POGUE: Mm hmm. 

ROSE: But by the same token, you have to have cooperators, or nobody is going to be growing the grain, nobody’s going to be raising the children. Nobody’s going to be building the houses. Nobody’s going to be housing the hospitals. So you can’t survive without both. 

Furthermore, after decades of studying political divides in America, Van Bavel has concluded that things really aren’t as bad as we’re led to believe.

JAY: There is this real polarization, but it’s exaggerated so much on TV, on news channels and on social media in particular, that often what happens, especially in social media, is you’ll find the craziest person on the other side and then act as if they’re representative of the whole group. And most people actually on that party don’t even agree with those people. And so if you do that, it creates a misperception in people’s mind of how different the other party is from you. 

POGUE: Yeah, TV news correspondents are the worst. Thanks a lot, Jay. But wait a minute. Is there some study or research that indicates what you just said? 

JAY: Yeah. So —one of my favorite studies asks: If you’re a Republican, what percentage of Democrats are lesbian, gay or trans? Okay? And I’ll ask a Democrat a question: What percent of Republicans make more than $200,000 a year?

  Most people, if you ask Republicans that, they think like 30 to 40% of Democrats are LGBTQ, but it turns out it’s more like 5%. And so they have this exaggerated view that, like, a huge proportion of Democrats are either lesbian, gay or trans. 

And if you ask Democrats how many Republicans are rich, they say like 30, 40% of them make like $200,000 a year. Well, of course, it’s more like 1%, right? You make $200,000 a year, you’re in the top 1%. 

And so we have these exaggerated, kind of cartoon images of the other party in our mind. And so once you— you can correct those for people to basically fact-check them, and they’re surprised. And but they’re being fed images of the other party as kind of representatives of either, you know, of this kind of caricature of their party. 

So now you know: Your genetics and your brain structure have predisposed you to believe what you believe. You can’t help it. That first 50 or 60 percent of your political views are not based on your careful consideration of the issues; you were born that way.

And so what are we supposed to do with this information? Take it home, Jay!

JAY: Once you understand that a lot of our political preferences are biological and driven by our brain and our traits, it changes how we think about approaching somebody who doesn’t agree with us politically, right? 

Instead of just arguing and throwing facts at them, we are probably not going to be as convincing as we hope to be, because that’s not what’s driving their political beliefs for much of it. And so there are some utility in trying to understand more where somebody is coming from and listen to them, rather than just kind of like, you know, debating them. Find ways to talk to them that are going to resonate with where they’re coming from. That might be more persuasive. 

ROSE: If people could become aware of their awareness—and I know I’m going to sound like a meditation teacher here for a moment, but if you can be aware of your awareness, and aware that it’s not the truth—like, to know that it’s part of the truth, but that it’s transient, it changes, there may be a different truth tomorrow from yesterday, and it may be a different truth than someone else has—and you don’t get so attached to your truth, it gives you a lot more room for compromise and agreement. Because I know, then, that you believe what you believe sincerely, not because you’re a bad person, but because that’s your reality. That’s where I think you can make some progress. 

And remember—this is not just a hunch; this is based on actual research. 

JAY: I was just part of this huge study. It was run out of Stanford, and they created a tournament, a worldwide competition, to figure out what could reduce polarization in the US, partisan animosity, you know, this hatred for other groups, as well as get people to support democracy. And so they got submissions from all these scientists around the world in different fields. 52 groups submitted proposals to them of an intervention that would reduce polarization. 

POGUE: What is meant by an intervention? 

JAY: So it’s a little messaging, like a five minute little messaging. They picked the top 25, and my lab submitted one. And then they took these 25 interventions and they ran 32,000 Americans from all different ages, ethnicities, genders, backgrounds, and income classes. And gave them these 25 interventions and found out what works. And then they also followed up these people two weeks later and see if: Does it stick around? One of them was based on a Heineken beer commercial. That was actually the best intervention, if you’ve seen it. Did you —have you seen that one, David? Oh, you got to go online and watch it. 

I did. It’s really wonderful. It’s called “Worlds Apart.” 

They bring in these random strangers. We meet them individually, and it’s clear that they have radically different political views.

GUY: Feminism today is man hating.

Person: It’s absolutely critical that trans people have their own voice.

Guy 2: I don’t believe that climate change exists.

But they don’t meet each other before the experiment begins. Two of these people at a time are sent in to a big sort of warehouse and given a sheet of printed instructions. They work together to build what looks like it’s going to be a big piece of Ikea furniture. 

Folks: Mind your hand. Goodness sake! You all right, mate? Fitter than I look! Perfecto. Ah, yeah. Basically, I think we’ve got a bar.

And indeed—they have built a bar. And they had fun. And they got to know each other a little.

Dude: You’ve really got a glow, do you know what I’m saying? Your aura is pretty cool.

At this point, they watch a video. It is, of course, the pre-interview, where the participants had talked about their political views. 

Voice: So transgender, it is very odd. We’re not set up to understand or see things like that.

They’ve suddenly figured out that they’ve been paired with their polar opposites. And now they’re asked: Would you like to leave, or stay and have a beer to discuss your differences?

JAY: And it was, you know, a commercial. Who knows how well they edited it? But everybody looked at the person they had built a relationship with, had to work together. And it was all the elements of what psychology calls contact theory. Working together as somebody and doing something together when you’re at equal status actually builds a connection with somebody and you become— start to humanize them. And people are willing to stay and have the beer. That was the end of the beer commercial, but they showed that to people and it dramatically reduced partisan animosity. And it lasted two weeks later.

In the Stanford competition, the one based on the Heineken ad was the grand prize winner. 

JAY: Ours was the third best intervention. And we talked about how each party— leaders from each party supported democracy. All these other things I told you about, these exaggerated stereotypes and caricatures we have of the other party, and we presented that, and ours worked nearly as well as a beer commercial. 

And in my view, this is the best study that’s ever been run on this topic. These things persisted for multiple weeks and they also increased support for democracy and democratic institutions. So I thought it was just something really promising. And it seems like there’s lots of pathways to get to somebody in a way that opens their mind and reduces their hostility towards you. 

POGUE: Wow. That is cool. I mean, that is…that is a droplet of hope in this ocean of hate. 

JAY: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that it is! I mean, how you scale that to society, I don’t know. 

POGUE: Yeah. 

JAY: But it’s something, it’s a start. Right?