In this tenth installment of our series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of academic outreach at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, sits down with Juliana Schroeder to discuss the psychology underlying how trust and distrust are generated as well as practical ways to better facilitate productive interactions, even across severe cultural, ideological or other divides. Schroeder is a professor in the Management of Organizations Group at the Haas School of Business and a faculty affiliate in the Social Psychology Department, the Cognition Department, and the Center for Human-Compatible AI at UC Berkeley. She also co-founded and directs the Psychology of Technology Institute, which supports and advances scientific research studying the psychological consequences and antecedents of technological advancements.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: It’s great to have you here today, Professor Schroeder. Our series is focused on the values that are embedded within a liberal democracy that include toleration, civil discourse, mutual forbearance, pluralism and the like. We’ve learned over the past several weeks that we’re a more polarized society, with a precipitous decline in social and political trust over the past several years.
These trends make it difficult to foster a broader commitment towards the values that are within a liberal democracy. My sense is that psychology can inform our thinking about these trends and perhaps ways in which we might make some marginal improvements towards civil discourse and depolarization. So I’m really glad that we have the chance to talk to a psychologist today.
Now, just to kick things off, one of the things that you look at in your research is how people across groups interact and form relationships. Your paper “When ‘Enemies’ Become Close” studies what happens when you place people from different backgrounds within close proximity, physically and psychologically. Before we get into some of the details of that work, can you talk about the impetus for this research project?
Seeds of Peace
JULIANA SCHROEDER: Sure. Thank you so much for having me on this podcast. It’s great to be here. I completely agree that psychology, I think, is an important part of some of the questions that you’re thinking about. I’m a social psychologist by training. This particular project has been going on for 10 years, probably a little more than that now, actually. It’s with an organization called Seeds of Peace, which is one of the largest Middle East coexistence programs in the world right now.
The flagship part of this program—there’s lots of different pieces of it—is that they have a summer camp every single year in which they bring teenagers from these countries that have deeply entrenched historical conflict, such as in the Middle East, Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. They bring these teenagers over to what’s considered a relatively neutral location, which is in the woods of Maine in the United States, and then they give them a three-week summer camp experience. They get to meet people from the other side of their conflict.
Many of these teenagers have never engaged with people from the other side of the conflict before, or if they have, it’s just been within really contentious circumstances, like meeting a soldier at a checkpoint. So they’re thrown into this experience, and they have these three weeks to get to know each other and to talk about the conflict and to digest it, and they come out completely transformed. As a psychologist, thinking about the mechanisms by which this happens, these people come in, they have deep, deep conflict with one another, and then by the end, they’re actually forming relationships with people from the other side. Some of them become friends. There’s even budding romances that happen.
Then, what happens when they go back to their respective countries after having had this almost surreal three-week experience—and then they have to reintegrate into their country with their peers and their family, and how do they talk about those experiences and digest them psychologically? It just brings up so many fascinating questions to think about. So there’s a lot we pursued.
In one of the initial papers that we published, where we were doing research with this camp, we looked at the extent to which attitudes changed over the course of the camp, including when they went back to their countries. We found that participants come in and their whole goal is basically to explain to the other side why they’re wrong. They basically are feeling very, very negatively towards the other side. There’s a lot of what we call dehumanization, which is thinking of the other side of the conflict as being completely mindless and just being completely wrong about everything.
The first week of the camp is basically them telling the other side about how they’re wrong. It’s not until the second week that they start listening to one another. There’s this process that they go through. By the third week, they’re actually forming these relationships and actually starting to change their attitudes and their beliefs. By the end of the camp, what you see is this huge change in their attitudes, from starting super negative to basically getting to midpoint or higher on the scales that we use. Then there’s some regression when they go back to their respective countries.
The interesting thing psychologically is, can we predict how the attitudes maintain and which campers are maintaining positive attitudes and how they’re doing that? One of the key things that we found in an early paper was that the relationships that the campers ended up forming were very predictive of how their attitude trajectory looked over the next year after their experience.
In particular, if they were able to create what they considered a close friend with someone from the other side of the conflict and then maintain that and keep that—which is challenging—over the course of a year, those were the campers that we saw the least reduction in attitudes. They were able to maintain their attitude change over the course of that year.
Homophily and Propinquity
KLUTSEY: Very interesting. You said a number of things there that we’re going to try to unpack through the conversation. In your research, and I guess the thrust of your finding, is that if you put people from different backgrounds together within close proximity, they have the tendency to form relationships. What are the mechanisms there? How does this happen?
SCHROEDER: It’s a good question. The follow-up paper that we wrote was really looking more at that. How do those relationships actually form in the camp? There’s these two key mechanisms that a lot of prior research has looked at, one of which is homophily. The phrase that people use is, birds of a feather flock together. People form relationships with those who are similar to them in some way.
Particularly when there’s a line of stark ideological difference, people are going to try to form relationships with those who are more ideologically similar to them. So, in the context of this camp, it means that probably same-gender pairs are going to be more likely to form, kids of more of the same age, but, in particular, kids that are coming from the same geographic regions and that are coming from the same nationalities. So that’s homophily; the other is heterophily.
And then the other one, as you mentioned, Ben, is propinquity, which is essentially proximity in physical space. The work on this has shown that people that get randomly assigned to be roommates in college are more likely to end up becoming friends than people who are across the hall from each other. Of course, sometimes those things backfire, right? You can imagine that being randomly assigned to be a roommate with someone that you are really different from might end up backfiring.
Actually, that was the question that we did look at in that paper, which is, how do these things interact? How does homophily and propinquity interact in this context of extreme conflict? There’s three different hypotheses that you could have about that, which we explicate in the paper.
One is that it would backfire. This is the amplification hypothesis, which is that homophily becomes worse when people are in tight proximity to one another, that putting people who have strong disagreement or strong divides and differences into a space together and forcing them to do 90-minute dialogue groups every single day, which is what they do in this camp, would then lead to out-group members. The out-group is just what we call people from these different groups, these different sides of the conflict, being less likely to form a friendship.
Another hypothesis you could have is that there would be mitigation of homophily, which is that putting people in close proximity who are different will actually then lead them to be more likely to engage with those who are different in a way that they wouldn’t have necessarily done so otherwise. It creates this impetus to actually force them to engage with one another in a way that could end up leading to relationships and friendships being formed.
Then the third is just, of course, that there’s no interaction between the variables at all. It doesn’t really matter whether or not people are in close proximity or not. They’re just going to always show the same level of homophily.
What we find is evidence for the mitigation hypothesis, that when you put people into close proximity, they’re more likely to connect with an out-group member—someone who’s different from them—than they would with an in-group member. Actually, what we found in the paper was that two in-group participants—these are from the same nationality—they were 4 times more likely to become close if they were in closer proximity with one another. But for two out-group participants, like a Jewish Israeli and a Palestinian, they were 12 times more likely to become close when they were put into closer proximity.
So it has a much bigger impact on them. Basically, we theorize that it’s because they never would have connected otherwise. If they’re not really forced to be in proximity with one another, engaging with one another in intimate ways, they’re just not naturally going to do that. They have no reason to want to do that, or to engage at all. You need that structural nudge to get them to form a relationship.
Promoting Intergroup Trust
KLUTSEY: Does the facilitation play a role? I imagine that there is a mediator who is skilled and trained in bringing people together, and so that perhaps plays a role.
SCHROEDER: Absolutely. I absolutely think that is true. We think a lot about that. Seeds of Peace was really good at doing this. They created these, what we would call, ideal circumstances to promote intergroup trust. These come from Gordon Allport’s four requirements of intergroup contact, and those requirements are that:
- It needs to have equal status between the groups.
- There needs to be some form of cooperation. Sometimes that’s considered a superordinate goal that exists.
- There needs to be some set of common values or goals that are introduced.
- And then, there needs to be clear support from the authorities in the space.
Those things are hard to satisfy. It’s not always possible. Groups like Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, where there’s deep, perpetuated feelings of inequality between those groups, and one of them potentially has more resources than the other, it’s hard to make them feel equal status. But the way that the camp is set up is to try to satisfy each of those conditions as much as possible. A way to summarize it is that the interaction should be structured and meaningful. It needs to have meaning to both of the groups in a way to get them to engage.
I think it’s absolutely probably the case, Ben, that without some of these elements, it could actually backfire. Then you might get something very different. So you do need to really think carefully about the way in which the proximity is structured, that it would create the relationships between the out-group members.
KLUTSEY: Right. They’re aware coming in, too, that the goal of this is to bring them together, foster interaction and things like that.
SCHROEDER: Well, there’s the question of selection into camp. Who’s selected to go to this camp? What does that mean about the results? That’s a whole other can of worms. I can tell you—we’ve thought about this quite a bit—that the campers are essentially selected on two criteria. One is their ability to speak English. That’s really important because if they can’t communicate in the same language, you’re from the start doomed. There’s that. So they have common ground in that sense.
Then the other thing is that they’re selected based on their leadership potential because the model of this camp, the whole idea of the seeds, is that they leave the camp and become these seeds going out into the world to spread the message and become leaders in their communities. Then they transform the topography of the conflict in these myriad ways. We’re actually looking at the spread of their attitudes right now, empirically, which is interesting.
Those are the ways that they’re selected into the camp. Of course, it tends to be more the case that these are kids whose parents are somewhat more liberal—at least they’re open to this idea. Although, again, when we ask them at the preset before they even get to camp: What are their reasons for being there? Why are they going? The kids are not saying things like, “Oh, I want to get to know the other side.” They’re saying, “I’m there to express to them why they’re wrong.”
I think that helps to alleviate some of the most pressing concerns, which would be that only kids are coming to this camp that are already ready to form relationships with out-group members, and so that’s particularly why we see these results. I think it’s a bit more generalizable than that. They’re really coming just based on their leadership abilities. So it’s a relatively random subset in that sense.
Fostering Civil Discourse in the U.S.
KLUTSEY: Bringing this into the U.S. context, where it seems as though there’s a lot of sorting going on. People are living in geographic areas with similar people with the same mindsets and backgrounds and also placing themselves in the same echo chambers virtually, online and so on. It seems like something like this could be helpful in fostering discourse. I wonder if some of the work that groups like Braver Angels and Living Room Conversations are doing, to name just a few, would be instrumental. I’m basically thinking whether this work that you’ve done is scalable within the U.S.
SCHROEDER: It’s such a great question. I mentioned Gordon Allport and his four necessary conditions. That entire theory is called intergroup contact theory. A lot of these organizations—Living Room Conversations is one of the ones that I know that you mentioned—they are based on essentially intergroup contact theory, which is that people that have disagreement, what you want to do is you want to get them to engage with one another, to interact with one another. They have to connect in some way. That’s the first step to reducing the conflict and starting to solve it and overcome it.
On average, the research has really shown that over and over. There have been meta-analyses of thousands, of thousands of studies across lots of different contexts. Now, the different necessary conditions matter. Having those are important, but just creating contact with someone from the other group has been shown to reliably lead to more openness in attitudes, less feelings of conflict and so on.
Now, some of the mechanisms in the way these things are run are very interesting to think through. One that we’ve been investigating is the medium of communication by which the interaction happens and how that can influence the outcomes of interaction among people that disagree with one another.
In particular, the finding that comes out of that work is that having a spoken conversation—it can involve the video; it doesn’t have to involve video, but it needs to involve speech as compared to, let’s say, a written conversation—is really important for creating humanization, in the sense that each of the individuals who are participating in the conversation feels by the end of the conversation that the other one is a thinking, feeling human. And they actually have deep understanding of the other person’s opinions, and they actually report more openness to the other person’s opinions.
We actually have a whole theory on what we call the humanizing voice. Speech is a very humanizing medium, or another way to think about it is that text is a dehumanizing medium. Taking that into account as these types of interventions are being designed is a really smart idea. I’m happy to get into any of the details about the psychology behind why we think that is.
Spoken vs. Written Communication
KLUTSEY: That’s a perfect segue to my next question related to the humanization concept that you mentioned earlier because—you note this in your research as well—that for most of human history, we’ve only communicated in person, and in just the past 50 years, we’ve started communicating online. In your article “Two Social Lives,” you talk about this quite a bit. Now, reading versus hearing an opinion isn’t the same. You touch on some of the nonverbal cues that are lacking in text-based communication that might affect how we interpret text-based communication. Can you unpack that a little bit?
SCHROEDER: I’ve just become really fascinated lately in how the structure of a conversation changes the outcomes and the impressions that people form of one another. You mentioned very briefly, dehumanization is a very loaded term, and there’s a lot of research I’ve done around that construct and what it means. I’ll just say very briefly that in this case, we basically operationalize it as perceptions of the other person’s mental capacities: their capacity to have cognitive, rational thought and also their capacity to have warmth and to basically feel emotions. Those are markers of perceived humanness that we see over and over again in the research. That’s one of the outcomes that we look at here.
Going back to your question about the structure of conversation, we basically think there are three different means by which communication changes when it’s verbal versus when it’s written. One important piece is on the consumption side, how the message is consumed differently. We run experiments where we keep the words—the semantic content—exactly the same.
You would say, “Hi, I’m Ben. Nice to meet you.” Or I would just see those words. The words are the same, but the message is interpreted differently because of what we call the paralinguistic cues. Those are all the nonverbal cues in terms of how you’re saying the message. You can imagine visual cues could be part of this as well. So, if you say, “Nice to meet you,” in sort of an aggressive or sarcastic way versus you say, “Nice to meet you,” in a friendly way, that will be interpreted quite differently. There’s the tone of voice. There’s the pace of your speech. There’s your volume in the voice. And then there’s the facial cues as well that could play into this.
There’s a lot more richness in the message when we can hear it or when we can see it than when we read it. That changes a lot. That’s the consumption side, but then there’s the construction of the message. If I know I’m going to be speaking with someone versus I think I’m going to be writing with them, I’m actually going to phrase my message differently. In particular, speaking tends to be more spontaneous; it’s off the cuff. I might not be the most articulate when I speak. With writing, I might be much more formal. I might polish. I might edit my speech quite a bit. It also happens a lot more slowly because I take all that time to work on the message.
The third way in which these things are different is the exchange of the information. There you can think about speaking is highly synchronous, in the sense that I will say something and then you can immediately respond, or you can argue with me, you can interrupt. You can give me cues of responsiveness, which is what you’re doing right now when you’re saying, “Right, yes, uh-huh,” which indicates that you get it. And those cues can also be negatives. You can say, “What?” So, you can have these brief interjections that give me these insights into how you’re reacting to the message that I’m giving to you.
Those things happen via writing as well. Of course, I’m going to interject, and there are emojis you can send, and emoticons. You can indicate your short reactions via writing as well, but they happen far less in writing. It’s about eight times more common for these responsiveness cues to show up in speech than it is in text. Of course, the synchronicity levels are completely different. Across those three different mechanisms, what we find over and over again is that, basically on every level, speaking is a more humanizing medium than writing.
It has the paralinguistics, which adds the richness. That seems to be quite important. We’ve literally shown that if you have—let’s take a person making a pitch about why they should be hired for a job, just because it’s easy to think about perceptions of competence in that space. If they make the pitch to the employer and the person hears it, versus if they write a pitch to the employer, or if you take a transcript so you get the content the same, the employer thinks of them as being more intellectually capable and more competent if they can hear it compared to if they read it. So those nonverbal cues alone have a lot to do with it.
Being in the spoken medium makes people feel more comfortable with expressing their true opinions and their true feelings. They’re going to be more spontaneous in what they say. There’s deeper-level understanding that occurs there. And then the synchronicity is really important. We’ve actually found in some studies now that if you take a spoken conversation but make it asynchronous, more like what a written conversation is—and the way that you could do this is, you could have people sending each other voice messages. I send you a message, Ben, and then you listen to it, and then you send me one back.
We’re communicating via speech, I suppose, but it’s now asynchronous. Then, in that circumstance, actually, we see similar effects as if they were just writing to one another. It turns off a lot of the benefits of speaking. So the synchronicity is really important as well.
Communication on Social Media
KLUTSEY: It’s interesting. I’ve heard from a number of people who interact a lot more on Twitter or on other social media platforms. They’ve indicated that where they haven’t met the people they’re interacting with, the interactions can be very, very aggressive until they actually meet in person and they talk. Now with all the cues, things are toned down substantially, which certainly attests to what you’re talking about.
SCHROEDER: Whenever I do this research, I think about the implications for social media and how a lot of social media platforms . . . although not all, because it’s changing, and conversation is updating, and platforms are updating in really fascinating ways, but a lot of them are via text. In fact, it’s funny, because sometimes when I present this research to older audiences, I have to make the case that people write to each other. They’re like, “What does it even mean to have . . .” I’m like, “People actually go online and they have full conversations where they write to one another now.” They’re like, “This research question makes no sense.”
But it does because that is the way a lot of people are having communication these days. In fact, I saw some statistics recently saying that younger generations are communicating more with other people via writing than they are via speaking. It’s certainly concerning. And then you have other things going on in social media as well, the way that a lot of these platforms are set up. There’s been other really important research that’s been done on problematic ways in which the platforms are set up that actually exacerbate conflict and misinformation as well, as opposed to reducing it.
One thing is, there’s a presence of an audience. If I’m writing to you or responding to you, Ben, I might not be really trying to appeal to you or understand you. My goal might be to simply appeal to my base and get a lot of “likes” from my supporters. So, it becomes competitive in that way, and people have to think about the audience. The “like” button, in and of itself, has been shown to be really problematic for civil discourse, which is kind of funny. It changes the goals, again. I’m not interacting with you just to understand and get to know you. It’s like I’m interacting with you to get “likes.”
In a way, that can be really problematic in terms of debate or when we have differences of opinions. Then as you noted, of course, there’s a lot of anonymity. You might not really know anything about the person that you’re engaging with. There are no barriers to anyone posting almost anything that they want on all of these platforms. I guess some of that’s updating, but that creates issues too.
KLUTSEY: I guess when the issue is also polarizing, you want to pick the right venue. I’m thinking about the research that you did in your paper “The Humanizing Voice,” where you did some experiments looking at polarizing issues, where you first videotaped people explaining their attitude on a polarizing matter, and you asked evaluators to watch, listen to or read the transcripts. I imagine that you found that there were three different perceptions in how they interacted with that information.
SCHROEDER: Yeah. Well, it turns out the video and the audio, you don’t get different perceptions for those. This has been something that has been a little bit surprising, and people sometimes find this interesting, which is that the visual cues don’t seem to matter very much. In fact, we’ve had experiments where we’ve had a subtitled video, so you can see the person, the communicator, speaking, but you can’t hear them. You just read what they have to say with the subtitles, compared to just reading it, so with no video.
You might expect that seeing the video would be somewhat humanizing. It’s not. It doesn’t really do anything. But then if you hear them, so if you add the voice in, that makes a huge difference. It’s really the voice that seems to be the humanizing element there. The video doesn’t really seem to do that much.
KLUTSEY: I think you can see that entrepreneurs are innovating to overcome some of these challenges. Platforms like Clubhouse are emerging. It’s primarily voice based. There’s no text involved. People get on and they have conversations. It’s almost like a conference call. At least from what I’ve experienced with Clubhouse so far, the interactions are quite civil, generally. I don’t know. It’s very early stage.
SCHROEDER: I’m glad you haven’t experienced any bad interactions on Clubhouse yet.
KLUTSEY: Not yet, but I imagine there are some, right?
SCHROEDER: Yeah. Actually, many, many people have been asking me about Clubhouse, and what does the research say about Clubhouse? I find it a really fascinating platform. I think it is. It’s much more humanizing. It’s more synchronous. You can get into a lot more depth in what’s covered than on something like Twitter. You’re not really going to get into that level of depth in any sort of written platform. It does bring up some new questions that are potentially concerning, like who gets a voice and who doesn’t, and who gets into the room.
They create exclusivity by capping the size of the rooms, and things like that. I think it’s a step in the right direction, if the goal is to promote better understanding and more civil discourse. That’s a big if because that’s not necessarily everyone’s goal, right?
Forging Connections Through Technology
KLUTSEY: That’s right. I wanted to highlight the positive aspects of the new technologies that have emerged to help us interact and stay connected. In addition to fostering networks of friends, advancing collaborations, you share a finding in your article “Two Social Lives” that patients who text messaged during surgery felt more socially supported and required less pain medication than patients who did not. That seemed to me like a very strong insight. When it comes to deepening connections through platforms and technologies that help us interact, are we underrating them or overrating them?
SCHROEDER: That’s a good question. Let me tell you about that paper. It came out of Jeff Hancock’s lab. He’s over at Stanford. He’s actually very involved in the Psychology of Technology Institute that I direct, and I loved the finding as well. I’ve actually talked to him about it. I was like, “Why didn’t you have them hop on a phone call with their mother or their friend?” He was like, “Juliana, that just was not feasible in this situation. The text message is the best thing that we can do in this type of situation.” I’m thinking like a scientist, not like an actual human who had to think about what it would be like to actually be in that situation.
But yeah, it fits with a whole broad set of findings that even minimal means of social support can really be powerful. Jim Coan has a work where he looked at people who had cancer or were going through other really serious diseases in the hospital, and their trajectory of outcomes when they were being consistently visited by a close friend or relationship partner or not. Even just looking at minimal things like whether or not they held hands with the person.
We had one experiment where you held hands with a close relationship partner while you’re getting negative news, or you hold hands with a stranger, or you don’t hold hands with anyone, and just seeing how people coped with it, and their experience, and even their physical experience. You see big differences emerging between the conditions. Holding hands with a close relationship partner while you’re having to undergo something physically painful or stressful or something emotionally stressful makes a difference.
I think of the text messaging as another way of creating the support. You’re right. It highlights how even these minimal forms of technology, I think, can be powerful. Even going back to your point about scalability, which I kind of glossed over. I don’t even know if I answered that question.
Video technology is more scalable than in-person. We’re seeing good results that actually a video conversation or even just a voice conversation can have a lot of the same outcomes as an in-person conversation, in terms of humanization and impressions that people form of each other, and understanding and conflict. It’s really the writing that’s the problem.
It’s also interesting to compare writing to doing nothing. It all depends on what the comparison condition is. You could ask, “In your study, you’ve been showing that spoken conversation leads to these better outcomes than written conversation, but what about nothing? What about written conversation compared to nothing at all?” There I would say, yeah, it’s actually fairly promising. We find in our studies that, on average, people’s attitudes move in the direction of their partner in the spoken conversation, like a half a point on a 1-to-10 scale over a 15-minute conversation. And we’ve looked at all sorts of different divisive issues.
It’s mostly among college students. There are pros and cons to using college students’ sample. They can be passionate about issues and have a lot of disagreement, and so I think it’s promising that they’re moving. That’s a half a point for the spoken conversation, but what about the written conversation? It’s like 0.1, but it’s positive. It’s better than nothing. Even there, we actually do see movement that you could think of as being encouraging. Even there, you would think written conversation is better than nothing. And then seeing these results, like Jeff Hancock’s result about text messaging making people feel more socially supported when they’re undergoing surgery, I think that’s promising as well.
I think technology, in general, has the power to be extremely beneficial for us. It’s just a matter of leveraging it in the right way and really thinking carefully through the psychological mechanisms and what are the consequences of these different technologies. So you can have a communication platform that’s built in a way that’ll be more effective for promoting understanding and one that might be less effective.
Pros and Cons of Tech-Based Communication
KLUTSEY: Right. As we can all observe, we’re going through a pandemic. I try to think about what it must have felt like in, say, 1918, during that pandemic versus now because—having the tools to interact and have conversations. It was difficult when we couldn’t attend funerals of loved ones in person, hold them, hug them, but we could see them on Zoom or some other platform. It’s not a perfect substitute, but in terms of marginal improvements, it’s better.
SCHROEDER: Yeah, I completely agree. It’s been life-changing to have technology during the pandemic. It’s funny how quickly people complain, “Oh, I’m getting video interference.” You’re talking via video to someone who is millions of miles away. That’s incredible. This actually gets into the work I’ve been doing with the Psychology of Technology Institute, where we basically look at the conversation happening in the world about how technology is changing so many aspects of the human experience.
You see people that have the utopian view, which is that “Okay, technology is going to fix everything in the world, and it has such incredible potential.” Then you’ve got the people that have the dystopian view, which is that “Technology is really hurting us.” I don’t know if you’ve watched The Social Dilemma.
KLUTSEY: Right. Right. Right.
SCHROEDER: That really exemplifies the dystopian view of like, we’re addicted to technology. It doesn’t have our best interests in mind. It’s really harming the human experience. Suicide rates have gone up. The Generation I’s, or I think she calls it Generation Me—narcissism is on the rise. You can think about all these different societal problems that people point to technology and social media.
The Psych of Tech Institute—basically our platform is that we need to be objective and be evidenced-based, and there’s a middle ground here between these extremes. Really, the big problem is that there’s too big of a gap between when technologies emerge and become deeply entrenched in society, and when we really understand and know well what are the psychological consequences of those technologies.
Facebook is a great example. It came out 2004. It was already pretty quickly entrenched in society. And then 10 years later, we’re starting to see these research studies on, “Oh, it turns out misinformation spreads really quickly on this platform,” or that the “like” button did these things. It was very post hoc. Scientists were very, very reactive and slow, and I think then that gap between when the technology comes out and when we know about it needs to be much, much shorter.
KLUTSEY: Right. It’s interesting. I think innovation does this too, where something is created, there are challenges, and then new innovation is generated out of that to address those challenges. With misinformation, now I’ve seen a number of platforms emerge as a result of this, right? There’s something called The Flip Side, and there’s something called The Factual, and they’re trying to present the different perspectives out there that are legitimate. They try to rank the level of accuracy and things like that. It’s interesting to see how all these things evolve over time.
SCHROEDER: Yeah, AllSides.org is another one that’s pretty good. No, it is interesting. I hope it continues to be informed by the research and the science. I think there’s more room for scientists to have a seat at the table in terms of being part of the conversation, I think. A lot of things are not super evidence-based. It’s the understatement of the year.
The Evolution of Rituals
KLUTSEY: Right. I wanted to get into your work on rituals a little bit. It’s quite fascinating, and I’m thinking of your paper “When Alterations Are Violations,” from 2020. It seems to me that we’re in a national moment where we’re creating new rituals and altering existing ones, which I guess generates the notions of violations—whether it’s taking the knee when the national anthem is being sung or expressing outrage over something that would previously not be considered an issue. Are we seeing an evolution of rituals, or this is just no different from previous eras?
SCHROEDER: No, we absolutely are seeing an evolution of rituals. In a way, rituals are always evolving and changing, but the fact that we have been in the pandemic has caused the changes to be a lot more stark. I think people have been a lot more creative in the way that they’re starting to think about rituals. I guess I can just take a little step back and say that I’ve been studying rituals for a long time, so I see everything in the world as being a ritual in a way.
The way that we define it formally is that . . . some people, when they think of ritual, they think of, “Oh, okay, you’re talking about Catholic Mass,” a very religious, extremely elaborate—I’m like, “No, no, rituals are things you do all the time.” You would drink your morning coffee in a particular way—that’s a ritual. You’re actually engaging in rituals all of the time.
Yeah, it has these two elements. It’s a sequence of behaviors that someone engages in, and there’s the physical elements, which is that it tends to be characterized by rigidity, repetition, formality sometimes. Going back to the coffee example, is there a particular way in which you always get the coffee? You’re drinking coffee right now, so I can see that you’re illustrating this.
KLUTSEY: Exactly. I’m demonstrating.
SCHROEDER: Exactly. There are different levels of ritualism. If you always have to hold it with the right hand in a particular way, that’s going to be a little more ritualistic. But even just a single thing, like just getting it done in the same way every morning, that would be enough to satisfy the physical requirements. Then there has to be some sort of psychological element as well, which is that it has some sort of meaning to you. This is how you distinguish a habit from a ritual. For example, there are things that you might engage in every day, but they don’t really have much meaning. They’re just habits.
If you were to change them, maybe the way you brush your teeth in the morning, if you were to change that in a way, you did it a different way, it wouldn’t really bother you that much. It’s okay. But if it bothers you, then now it’s more of a ritual. It has some meaning attached to it. It might not even be really explicit in your mind. You might not be like, “I don’t really think of this coffee as symbolizing anything, but at the same time it sets me up for my morning work, and it kind of gets me going.” Those things are subtle, but those are symbolic elements. It does have some meaning to you, so then we would call that a ritual.
People’s rituals are being really altered quite a bit these days, just because of circumstances. That paper that you mentioned, the altering rituals paper, that one actually looks at group rituals. Those are things that do tend to be more ingrained, and they explicitly codify and represent the group’s values. You can think of them as both being secular and religious. The Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, that’s a ritual. Kneeling for the anthem, that’s a ritual. Putting your hand over your heart when you sing the anthem, the 21-gun salute for funerals.
Handshakes and Elbow Taps
KLUTSEY: Handshakes, is that a ritual?
SCHROEDER: A handshake is a ritual. Yes. That’s a greeting ritual. Very different. I guess it is at the group level in a way. It’s done at the dyad level, so you’re doing it with one other person. But it counts as a ritual because you put out your hand, you touch hands, you move them up and down, so it’s got these physical elements to qualify as a handshake. But then it also has some sort of meaning, which is that it indicates that you trust the other person, or that you’re willing to be open to them.
KLUTSEY: But we’re not doing that anymore these days.
SCHROEDER: I actually have an entire paper on handshaking, which might be the reason you brought that up. I spent a big chunk of my life just studying handshakes. What we find in that paper is that handshaking has cooperative value for these situations in which—we call them mixed-motive situations, where you don’t quite know if the other person wants to cooperate with you or compete with you—like, it’s a stranger.
A lot of times we looked at negotiation contexts, so you’re about to start a negotiation with someone. Then what we find is that the person that proffers their hand, they’re sending this pretty strong signal right at the very start of the interaction that they’re willing to cooperate, that they’re willing to be open. Then the other person then shaking that hand, that cements that signal.
We have experiments where we take pairs, and we randomly assign them to shake hands or not, and then the pairs that shake hands actually have more cooperative outcomes, where in integrative negotiations they can create more value together than the pairs that don’t shake hands, even though this is just totally randomly assigned.
Yeah, we’re not engaging in handshaking anymore. I’m seeing a lot of articles coming out about the end of handshaking, what that means. It’s one of many different rituals that I think are these subtle things that we do socially to set up a positive social environment, like ways to create trust among strangers. And they’re subtle, convey good intentions or friendliness. Those things are needing to adapt. We’re in a weird in-between state now, where people don’t really know how to greet each other. I’ve seen the elbow taps. How does it evolve?
KLUTSEY: There’s the foot tap also.
SCHROEDER: Oh, I’ve never done that one. I’ll have to try that. Good to know. The research, I think, would suggest that they’re going to need to have these elements. They have to be codified with some sort of symbolism, and that might be easy because then it can adapt the symbolism of a handshake. If it is the elbow tap, now people understand that represents a similar thing that a handshake represented. And it’s even more important when there’s two parties engaging it, the actions need to be clear. What needs to be done? Where do you put your elbow? How far up? There has to be coordination at a really low level.
KLUTSEY: That has created so much confusion of late. You’re trying to give someone a fist bump, and they come with their elbow, and it’s very confusing.
SCHROEDER: Right. Having a ritual that fails between two people is a really bad experience. It’s actually worse than not doing it at all, we’ve found in our research. It’s going to need to have those elements, and then it needs to become normative. Lots of people need to be doing it. I actually do not think that handshakes are gone forever. I think they might come back because it’s so intuitive, and humans have been doing it for so long.
KLUTSEY: It is.
SCHROEDER: We’ll see.
Rituals and Liberalism
KLUTSEY: In the broader context of fostering civility and toleration, and all the values that we appreciate within a liberal democracy, do you think there are some rituals that we can develop to enhance these values?
SCHROEDER: It’s interesting. There have been studies that show that pairs that are about to engage in a negotiation with one another—they don’t know each other—if they have some time in the beginning to exchange information in a structured way, like talk a little bit about their family and other things, that actually leads them to then feel more liking for one another and have better outcomes in the negotiation.
You can think of it as an icebreaker, but it’s more than that because in a way it’s a bit of a ritual. It’s like a civility ritual. It’s like, “Let’s be civil to one another before we engage in the complex.” I don’t know what those could look like, but it’d be interesting to think about having clear civility rituals at the start of some of these conversations. You can imagine the Senate; they do something before they get into that. I don’t know.
SCHROEDER: I don’t test anything in that space, but that would be really fun to think about.
KLUTSEY: I’ve talked to some guests in the past—Robert Talisse, for instance, and Danielle Allen, as well—and they’ve talked about fostering civic friendships around the country. One of the things that Robert Talisse talks about is that we do things with other people that have nothing to do with politics—in fact, you will not be able to determine what someone’s politics is—because we’re so polarized along political lines, and politics has saturated every aspect of our lives.
If we can get back to that, where we’re talking to people and engaging in certain activities, we would be better off, perhaps. But we have to first recognize, as he says, that we ourselves have been subjected to polarization, maybe in ways that we have not been aware of. We have to begin to think about people with different views differently. It’s in that spirit that I asked that question because I think that we could use some insights to help us move things forward a little bit.
SCHROEDER: Yeah, I love that anecdote. I think that’s really important. There’s work in the field of psychology on coordination with sharing food together and how that actually can lead to cooperation. You can imagine even having a conversation over a shared meal. Now, this is going to be post-vaccine, COVID. The conversation in that particular context would be very different from a conversation in another context, and so really thinking carefully through the way in which the meeting starts, whether there are rituals that can promote shared understanding or set norms for the conversation moving forward.
I think just norm-setting in general, so having expectations of civility and so on, makes a huge difference. There’s been some interesting research. Whether those norms are more or less salient on different platforms leads to very different outcomes in terms of the conversations that happen on the different platforms. So setting those norms and then thinking about the way the conversation is structured and whether there’s shared experiences that are happening, like the sharing of food and other things. We plot out what an ideal space would look like for a conversation in which two people disagree, to produce the best outcomes.
SCHROEDER: Yeah. Food for thought.
KLUTSEY: Food for thought. Exactly. We’re nearing the end here, and the question that I have asked pretty much every guest that we’ve had on this series is about optimism. Are you optimistic about the nature of our civil discourse and our ability to overcome some of the deep divisions we’re experiencing?
SCHROEDER: I am cautiously optimistic.
SCHROEDER: If you look at the trends for the last 50 years in terms of the levels of polarization, and just general feelings of opposition and antagonism against the other side, they don’t look good. Those trends are not going in the right direction. But I think that if we really are paying attention to the research, I think there’s a lot of potential to turn things around. I’m optimistic about that. Absolutely.
KLUTSEY: Wonderful. So far we’ve had one pessimist.
SCHROEDER: And you’ve had a lot of optimists?
KLUTSEY: Yeah, mostly cautiously optimistic.
SCHROEDER: Right. Nobody wants to make the strong prediction.
KLUTSEY: No, but I still think that’s a very good sign. If the experts are telling us that they’re optimistic, then I think that’s a good thing.
SCHROEDER: Right. It’s optimistic under the condition that you listen to the experts.
KLUTSEY: Right, exactly. All right. Well, Professor Schroeder, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I really appreciate it.
SCHROEDER: It was so great. Thanks for having me.