with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 198: Academic group think, free speech norms, and the psychology of time (with Anne Wilson)

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February 22, 2024

How does psychological time differ from clock time? How does a person's perception of time relate to their personal identity? How does a person's view of their past shape how they view their future? To what extent do people differ in the degree to which they feel like a single, continuous person across time? What effects does a person's perception of time have on their assessment of injustices? Why aren't there more adversarial collaborations in academia? Is academia generally politically left-leaning? How does lack of political diversity in academia compare to (e.g.) lack of gender or economic diversity? Are liberal or progressive academics openly willing to discriminate against conservative academics when, for example, the latter have opportunities for career advancement? Is anyone in the US actually calling for legal changes around free speech laws, or are they only discussing how people ought to be socially ostracized or punished for expressing certain viewpoints? And is there a meaningful difference between legal and social punishments for those who make illegal or taboo statements? Are we in the midst of an ideological war right now? And if so, ought we to quash in-group criticism to avoid giving ammunition to our ideological enemies? Academia seems to have hemorrhaged public trust over the last few decades; so what can be done to begin restoring that trust?

Anne Wilson is a professor of social psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University. Much of her research focuses on self and identity over time both for individual self and collective identities like nation, race, and gender. Her work illuminates the often-motivated malleability of our reconstructions of the past, forecasts of the future, and subjective perceptions of time itself. Her broad focus on motivated reasoning and cognitive bias has also led to more recent research on intergroup misperception, political polarization, and how speech suppression and censorship can inhibit collective bias correction. Follow her on Twitter / X at @awilson_WLU, email her at, or learn more about her work at her labe website:

Further reading:

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Anne Wilson about the psychological experience of time, and free speech and the political spectrum.

SPENCER: Anne, welcome.

ANNE: Hi, it's really nice to be here.

SPENCER: Nice to have you. Today I want to start talking to you about the psychology of time. When we think about time, we usually think of it as flowing at a constant rate. Obviously, there's ideas in physics like relativity that says, well, okay, maybe that's not the complete story, and maybe gravity can affect time, things like that. But there's also this really fascinating way in which psychological time doesn't always flow at a constant rate. So why don't we start there? How does time differ psychologically from clock time?

ANNE: Yeah, this is a topic I've been interested in for a really long time. I call it subjective time or psychological time. And if you compare objective time — and when I say objective, I mean chronological time, calendar time, there's probably nothing perfectly objective about it, but it's the socially shared understanding of what we mean when we're talking about clocks and calendars — that can be correlated to people's psychological experience of time but, in a lot of cases, they're pretty independent of each other. The psychological experience of time, it turns out, actually ends up mattering a lot for how we experience events that are placed in time. We often react to them as though the subjective sense of time is actually where it really was in our personal history. So if something feels a lot closer, then it's going to be a lot more relevant to us, even if it was actually quite a long time ago, and so on.

SPENCER: I've heard that there is this idea of telescoping, where things that happened really long ago feel closer in time than they really are and things that happened recently feel further in time than they actually are. Is that true? Is that really a real phenomenon?

ANNE: Yeah, it's something that's a little bit outside of my main field. But the idea is that we don't really have a linear sense of time. Things start to get shortened as we get further and further away. And this can be true if we're trying to generate ideas about when something happened. If we're trying to put a date to something that happened a really long time ago, there tends to be a systematic way that we get some dating memories wrong. And part of that has to do with the memory cues that we use to put a date on things. We don't actually store dates in our memory most of the time, unless it's a really important date, like (say) September 11. But the way that we reconstruct the approximate dates tend to do with the way our memories feel. Memories tend to fade over time, our emotions dampen, we change, and so on. So we use all of those cues and try to place our memories with a date based on those cues, as well as whatever actual events that we know happened around that time. So we might use temporal landmarks to try to place things. That's a really imperfect process so we get it wrong in a lot of cases.

SPENCER: Yeah. If I think about how I know how long ago something happened, I think I start with a sort of intuition, just this gut feeling like that was a long time ago, or that wasn't a long time ago. And that's usually my first pass. And that feels like it's dependent on the subtle cues you're talking about — like how faded does it feel, how distant — which is very subjective. And then I think if I want to hone down and get a more accurate impression, I start thinking, well, what was happening around that? Can I link that to some event that I know has a certain date? And then I'll try to look up that date and kind of triangulate it? Do you think that that describes how most people look at things in time?

ANNE: Yeah, I think that, especially if we're actually trying to figure out the date, then we'll use these triangulation kinds of techniques and try to figure out as much as possible. We might also use repeated events, so we might imagine the last time we had a holiday, or maybe that the Olympics happens every four years or something like that, and then try to place it near some kind of a landmark that we actually know the date for. Because we actually don't know the date for a lot of things so we have to figure things out in that reconstructive way for a lot of time judgments.

SPENCER: I think I have a particularly bad memory with when things occurred or trying to locate them in time. So something I started doing a number of years ago is keeping a timeline in my life where I have a cell for every month of my life. And then I'll put in that cell on the spreadsheet, the most notable thing that happened that month. And it gives me this history of my life which I find fascinating. And I think some people, maybe they do that intuitively, maybe they don't need it written down like that. But I think, for me, seeing it all laid out like that gives me a very different experience than what I get in my own memory. And I'm wondering if you do anything like that, or if you've seen people do things like that.

ANNE: I think it's really fascinating that you do that. I don't do it. But I could imagine, actually, that having that kind of timeline laid out might actually change your experience of time, to some extent, because you actually have a little bit more of an objective check on some of the events that happened and where they are. One of the ways that I think that this happens for a lot of people a little bit more spontaneously is just if we use social media, for example, we might have pictures that pop up. On Facebook, you have like, 'seven years ago today, this was happening' and that sort of thing. So that's another way that we have other external sources that might help us to keep our memories in check and to recognize when they actually happened.

SPENCER: How does time relate to our sense of personal identity?

ANNE: This is something that I've been interested in for a long time. And if it's okay, I'll actually start with just a little bit about how memory works more generally for humans, for identity. This isn't so much my research, but I think it's really a cool theory about how memory is really pretty malleable. We sometimes think about memory as though it's just a record of our lives — we could just replay it like a video recording — but memory really doesn't work that way. You might think of it a lot closer to (say) a detective piecing little clues together or a paleontologist putting remnants or bones together to try to come up with some kind of an understanding of a full story. And so some theories of memory suggest that all of this flexibility and error proneness of memory is possibly not a bug, but a feature. So episodic memory — this is the kind of memory where we tell stories about our own past — it might actually be so error prone in part because it forms a foundation for thinking about the future, for planning and prospection. And because we want the future — the way that we think about the future — to be flexible, that might actually be part of how we manage to be so creative in mapping out different kinds of futures and simulating different futures, because our past is actually so elastic as well.

SPENCER: I'm not sure I understand that connection. Maybe you could expand on it. How is it that having a flexible view of the past enables a flexible view of the future?

ANNE: One of the ways that theorists think that human memory and future thinking is different from other animals, is that we do have this storytelling capacity. So we can actually simulate pretty detailed futures and imagine different pathways and think about counterfactuals, and all of these kinds of things. And at least one of the ways that we might be able to derive all of that information and have a pretty good sense of that is by drawing on all of the experiences that we've had in the past. So we're taking pieces of our past, and we're mixing and matching, and then we're mapping out different possible futures on the basis of the things that we remember from the past. And if you could imagine only having one really, really rigid sense of how things went in the past, it could be that that actually makes the way that we think about the future also less flexible, that we would imagine that the future is always going to follow the same path that the past did. This isn't something that is my research; I'm not an expert on all of it. But I'll give you just a couple of pieces of evidence for this connection between past and future. In neuroimaging studies, if you ask people in fMRI, that sort of thing, to think about something in the past, a memory, or to envision something in the future, there's a really striking degree of overlap in the brain regions that are activated. That's one piece of evidence that these two things are represented in our brains in the same way. Another piece of evidence comes from work with amnesiacs. People who can't recall their personal past have really major difficulty envisioning their personal future as well. The main point that I want to make — and this is the jumping-off point for some of my work — is just that it seems like the ways that our memories and our experiences of time are malleable, might be really built-in at a pretty deep level to our brains and the way that we process information.

SPENCER: Before we get back to talking more about identity, this makes me think about self-help and how a significant amount of self-help is about the stories we tell ourselves, like self-limiting beliefs, a story that you're not good enough. Or perfectionism, a story that no matter what you do, you'll never be enough. And it just makes me think it seems related, what you're saying, because you're saying we have these stories about our past that are flexible, and then we're using them to tell stories about our future. But then you can imagine that some of those stories might be more functional and help us achieve better futures; whereas, other stories might be more self-limiting.

ANNE: Yeah, I think that there is a connection there. Those are some of the ways that maybe we can harness that tendency to tell different stories. This can happen just naturally, but we might also recognize some of the ways that our stories are actually messing us up or causing us to maybe make the same mistakes over and over again. By learning a different technique, a different way of telling stories, or explaining the things that have happened in our lives, that can also help us to imagine a different future. In social psychology — I am a social psych person — we talk about self-fulfilling prophecies and how we sometimes tell a certain story about why something happened that can lock us into a pattern. So we behave in a way that then actually creates that same outcome over and over again, because we expect that that's the outcome that we're going to get. By actually expecting something, we are more likely to behave in a way that produces that outcome, even if it's an outcome that we don't want.

SPENCER: It reminds me of placebos. Whether you believe a placebo will work for you or not, you're right. And the other thing that that makes me think about is compression and the way that (let's say) a neural net, if you implement it on a computer, will compress information and the brain's doing the same thing. It's like, why don't we just remember things as a sequence of everything that's ever happened to us? Well, that would be an incredibly inefficient representation, right? Our brain is a finite thing; it only has so much storage capacity, presumably. And so it's doing this incredible amount of compression, and it seems like human compression of the past is in stories. You have stories about what happened to you. You don't have every single detail. You certainly don't have every single pixel of light that ever hit your eye. And so it seems like there's something fundamental... If you have an algorithm that has to work with the past, it makes sense to do something that's story-like, because it's chunking it in relevant and salient ways.

ANNE: Yeah, that's right. I think that we're always bombarded with just so much information, there's no possible way that we can encode it all. So some of that condensing is going to happen at the time of just what we actually put in our brains in the first place — what do we pay attention to? — and then what we can retrieve later is also going to be limited in a lot of cases. There are a lot of ways that we use those mental shortcuts and I think that storytelling is probably one of the ones that helps us to connect a lot of pieces together in ways that just make it easier to remember the gist of a whole story. I can think of it as a little bit similar to how there are memory techniques to recall things better by chunking them. So if you can put things together with something really memorable — maybe remembering a list of words and you imagine them in places in your house and stuff like that — anything that we can do to just help it be more memorable because it's got some meaning to us, that would probably end up being one of those tricks that we use for memory.

SPENCER: I've heard about professional memorizers, that they'll memorize decks of cards. And rather than memorizing a random sequence of cards, they give each card (let's say) a personality or a character. And so instead of thinking it was this card and this card and this card, they can think, well, Elvis was getting in a fight with John Travolta in the attic, and that actually tells the story of the cards. And that's way easier to remember because our brains are such good storytellers that remembering that story is way easier than remembering this random sequence of cards.

ANNE: Yeah, that's right. And at the same time, storytelling is one of the reasons why our memories are so malleable because, sometimes if we tell a story more than once, we add a few details, we elaborate a little bit, we cut something out because it wasn't that interesting, and so on. So what we actually remember about our stories over time ends up being closer to the last few stories that we've told rather than the original memory. That's just another way that things shift around over time.

SPENCER: Let's go back connecting this to identity. You want to tell us the next next step of how that connects?

ANNE: Yeah. When I think about identity, identity comes from lots of different places. It can come from our skills, our attributes, our relationships, all of that kind of stuff. But what I focus on especially is our temporally extended self: how do we get part of our identity from our personal past, from our memories, and from our imagining the future? And one of the reasons that recognizing the malleability of memory is important is because it explains how we have so much poetic license for building different versions of ourselves as well. If we think about ourselves in the past, we aren't just randomly making errors, but we're making errors that help us to construct a sense of identity that's consistent with our current beliefs or current goals or our motivations. A lot of times, people are motivated to feel good about themselves, for example, and we can do that in a lot of ways. I'm just going to highlight two examples. One is that sometimes people actually retrospectively downgrade the past so they recall a worse version of themselves in the past than they really were at the time. And by doing that — by revising the past downward like that — it creates this steady sense of personal improvement, even where improvement might not have happened. The second way that people can construct a sense of identity in the present by piecing together the past in this elastic way, is by connecting things to the present with different temporal distances than what might have actually been the case. We were talking about the psychology of time before. I think a lot about how our experiences in the past may have happened at a certain point in time. But the way that we personally experience those memories doesn't necessarily always align with when they really happened. So you might think of an event that happened a year ago and, if it was really disappointing, it might feel like ancient history. But if it was a big success, then it might feel like yesterday. And by doing that, you get to keep taking credit for that success from a year ago; it still feels like yourself today. But maybe the failure from a year ago feels so far away that you think, 'Well, that's no longer me. What doesn't kill me makes me stronger. Look at how much better I am now than I was then.' We can move around these things in time in ways that construct this positive sense of self. And this is especially true for psychologically healthy people. Not everybody does this but people, when they're doing that, they often develop a sense of a positive identity in the present.

SPENCER: Do you think that people do this consciously or do you think this is something we just do without realizing it because we're getting these micro-rewards and punishments as we adjust how distant we make something seem relative to others?

ANNE: That's a really good question. [laughs] I think that it's not completely established in the research literature — what we know for sure — and I think there's probably some of both. Certainly, all of the things that are the phenomenological features of memory — just like the experiences of memory that we were talking about: its vividness, emotional intensity, how easy it is to recall, all those kinds of things — those things are going to shape our sense of time and the connections between past and present in ways that we're probably not aware of. A lot of that stuff just comes to mind very naturally without us really thinking about it. But there are times, I think, where people also do it a little bit more intentionally. For example, if you're doing it as an impression formation kind of strategy, you might try to escape blame for something by saying, "Oh, that happened a really long time ago," and that might be something that is more conscious and intentional.

SPENCER: You can use ambiguity to your advantage when you're talking about something, like you can make it seem like a really long time ago, or you can make it seem like maybe it was closer in time than it really was but without actually lying, just the way we talk about things. One thing that stands out to me is the way people talk about exes. Even if they broke up with them last week, they'll make it sound like it was something a really long time ago.

ANNE: Yeah, that's right. And I think that that's one of the ways that this sense of time can lead people to misunderstand each other, or even talk past each other, if they're talking about things that happened in the past. Because (say) two people agree that something happened; they're both stipulating that the same event happened in the past. But for one person, they've already put that away. It's water under the bridge; they're not thinking about it anymore. And for the other person, it's still in their mind, and they're dwelling on it every day. And the next time something bad happens, they blow up because it feels like it's just, "Oh, this is always happening over and over again." So this can lead to a lot of misunderstanding and hurt feelings sometimes if people are not on the same page. And one of the reasons that I think that can happen pretty frequently is because nobody really stops and asks that question. You don't say, "Oh, how close or far away does this feel to you? And what does that mean about the relevance of this memory?" That's all in the background and can lead to these different conclusions about the present that people don't quite recognize where they're coming from.

SPENCER: Yeah, that makes me think about cases where (let's say) someone does something that really annoys their romantic partner. And then they apologize, and they feel like, "Okay, that's over now. That's in the past." But then the partner is still annoyed about it and might still hold it against them, and they're like, "That was in the past. Why are you still holding that against me?" They're like, "It was yesterday! It wasn't that long ago." It's a debate over how past is the event.

ANNE: Yeah, and that can often happen where perpetrators of whatever it was, feel like it's a lot further away, and victims feel like it's still pretty close. But it can also happen with other sorts of variables. People who are happier in their relationships tend to put away those negatives a lot faster and keep the positive memories really close. People who are insecurely attached tend to really hang on to those negative memories as well. It's like they keep a running list of them so the next time something bad happens, all of the past ones come to mind right away. That can just make every new event feel worse and worse and worse.

SPENCER: Another example I've seen of this is with favors where someone will do a favor... Actually, this happened to me recently. [laughs] I did a favor for someone. I don't usually think of favors as a tit-for-tat thing; I do favors because I like someone or want to help them or believe in what they're doing. But I happened to do a favor for someone and it happened that I had the opportunity to ask them for a favor, and so I asked them for a favor. I think it was salient to me that they had done a favor for me, but you could easily see a mismatch where you feel like it's still very salient, this favor that you did for this person, and therefore they should reciprocate; whereas, they think, "Oh, that was a long time ago. It's not so relevant today."

ANNE: Yeah, I think that's a really interesting example. And it could even be that that favor wouldn't have always been salient to you but, maybe when you needed a favor, it comes to mind. Suddenly, that thing that you did for a friend is more salient so it feels a lot closer in that moment, where the friend hasn't been thinking about it at all so it feels really distant and like, "Where's this coming from?" And so you're putting different things in different buckets of the past, how far away it was.

SPENCER: It seems like this idea of things being distant or near in time also relates to construal theory, this idea that sometimes when we're thinking about things, we're in near mode: they're concrete, they're right in front of us, we're reacting to them directly. Sometimes they're in far mode: they're abstract or they're at a distance. And there's been a bunch of research suggesting that, when we're in these different modes thinking about things, we might actually think about them in quite different ways.

ANNE: Yeah, so that theory, it's not exactly the same as the approach that I take but there's a lot of similarities. When something is really close, the way that you represent that is basically like it's right in front of you; you're experiencing it almost in real time. And so when we're thinking about something like that, we tend to focus on those concrete, little details. One example that I often use is, if you're thinking about agreeing to give a talk or something like that, you're often agreeing to it a year in advance. And so you're thinking about all the abstract reasons why it would be really nice, and it would contribute to knowledge, and it would be fun. But if you're thinking about it the day before you're giving the talk, then you're thinking about all of the feasibility things and the stuff that you have left to do and the hassles that are involved. That's true for future thinking — that's actually where a lot of the construal level theory is focused, is how we think about and simulate the future — but it can also be true for the past. So if you think about recent or distant past events, I think that some of the same sorts of abstractions happened. If you're thinking about the more distant past, you start to think about the big picture a lot more.

SPENCER: I've heard a trick which is that, if someone asks you to do something, you should always imagine that they're asking you to do it tomorrow to help put it in the near mode, so that you don't end up agreeing to things just because you're in this distant far mode and you're like, "Oh, that's six months from now. Sure, I'll do that."

ANNE: Yeah, I try to do that for sure. I think that it's a very good trick. [laughs]

SPENCER: Another thing I wonder about is how this relates to connecting to your future self because I've heard that some people feel much more connected to themselves over time than others. I've always found for myself that I view my young self and my five-years-ago self and my current self as very much the same person; there's this continuity. But I've talked to other people who really don't feel that way. They feel like they're quite a different person than when they were a child. And I wonder if that is something that has connected to your research.

ANNE: Yeah, it has connected to my research, actually, for both the past and for the future. Some people have more of a sense of self-continuity over time than others. And for a while, I was really interested in how that experience of psychological time might play out for the future. I'll tell you a little bit about that because it's something that I've changed my mind on a little bit. I think that it might matter less than I originally thought that it did. But basically, your basic insight is certainly true. Some people, if they think about their future self, (say) in five or ten years, it might feel like a total stranger. And for someone else, it feels like pretty much the same self; just a little bit older or whatever. So if you think about making sacrifices today for some future outcome — which is what we have to do if we're planning and delaying gratification and that sort of thing — then it's at least theoretically going to be easier to do if we feel connected to that future self, at least as close as a friend, than if it feels like we're just doing all of this stuff now, we're suffering now, for some stranger that might occur in the future. At least theoretically, I think that that makes good sense and there's certainly some evidence that that's true. Hal Hershfield has done some of the funnest studies on that where he actually takes people's picture and ages them using a Photoshop-py kind of thing to make them look older. And when people are faced with older versions of themselves, they're more likely in these online games to save more money for the future compared to spending money now. So there does seem to be some evidence that this is true. I've done some research on how people think about the future and I'd say that the big conclusion that I come to is that, if you can keep that future self in mind, in focus, long enough, then it can have an impact on how you're behaving today. But it can be really hard for people to keep future selves in focus. A lot of times, as we're muddling through day by day, that future self just does fall out of focus. I wouldn't necessarily consider it the best strategy for accomplishing your future goals. I think that we're better off setting habits and short-term rewards and that sort of thing so that what we want to do for the future is also the easiest thing to do today rather than always focusing on doing something for our long-term future self.

SPENCER: It seems to me like those two strategies can complement each other, setting the daily habits and making it easy to do the thing that is good for you today, and it's rewarding to do it, that seems obviously really beneficial. But it also seems to me that, if you have a vision of the future you're striving towards, it can sometimes make willpower a bit easier. Whenever you're going to do your daily exercise, if you just have a moment of thinking, "If I do this every day, I'm more likely to be able to spend a great time with my grandkids that I want." Simultaneously giving the near-term and long-term seems to me better than just focusing on one or the other.

ANNE: Yeah, I think it could be, at least for some people. Some people put a picture on their fridge that maybe represents what they want to look like in the future or something like that to motivate their diet. I think that another way that that long-term future focus can really help is when you're designing your daily plan. We can't always have the self-regulation in every moment that will keep us with our eyes on the prize and that sort of thing. But if we think about those long-term future selves, when we're making decisions, or setting habits, or maybe getting groceries for the next week, or other things like that, then those are moments where we can actually use enough self-control to design our lives in ways that will end up being better for the future as well.

SPENCER: Let's switch to a slightly different topic, a little weightier one here. How does time relate to how we think about injustice, especially big, historical injustices?

ANNE: Some of the same things that we were talking about — the flexibility and ambiguity of how time informs the ways that we connect the past and the future — can really end up playing out when we're thinking about really serious and terrible past events, things like the Holocaust, or slavery, or Jim Crow. What we find in some research is that people also have really different representations of the temporal distance of those kinds of things. Germans, for example, feel like the Holocaust happened longer ago than Canadians in one study. Black Americans feel like slavery and Jim Crow happened more recently than White Americans. You get differences, too, by political orientation and so on.

SPENCER: Just to clarify those findings, are they asking people to give dates for when they happened or are they giving it more subjective judgments of how long ago they were?

ANNE: Oh, great question. No, at least in the work that I'm aware of, it's not the dates. In fact, most of the time, the dates are established so that you control for objective time or for the calendar time. And then you ask people how close or far away these things feel, sometimes in really basic ways: does it feel more like yesterday or does it feel like ancient history? Does it feel long ago or does it feel pretty recent? And so just on the basis of those kinds of questions, people perceive these things as really far away or really close and then that ends up having implications. People who feel like these negative past events and serious injustices are really close, tend to vividly recognize the continued implications of those things in the present, where people who feel like these things are ancient history might recognize that they happened — they're not necessarily disputing the fact of them — but they're disputing the fact that we should continue to care about them today. This is a quote from the reparations hearing in Congress, McConnell said, for example, "I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea." And if you remember that Ta-Nehisi Coates was basically very eloquently talking about how, yes, it was 150 years ago, but it's also right now. For many people, it's very recent, it's very present. And you can talk about ways in which the legacy of slavery has this continuing effect on the present through all kinds of different strands.


SPENCER: Have time-based interventions been explored, where they will actually manipulate someone's perception of time and see the effects of that?

ANNE: There's been a little bit of that for... Do you mean for history? For those kinds of things?

SPENCER: Yeah, like to see if you... Because one thing that always strikes me is, something might seem a really long time ago, but then you do think, "Wait, that's only my great grandparents! It's not that long ago." And then it's like, "Oh, wow, maybe that's closer than I thought." You could see ways that you could change someone's sense of how long ago something was.

ANNE: There is some work that looks at that sort of thing. And in some cases, you can make people recognize that these things are actually not so distant that they're no longer relevant. But it's also a little bit tricky because part of the reason that people push time around in these ways is motivational. It's to protect the current sense of self and identity. We have a social identity as well as a personal identity. And our social identity does come from things like the groups that we're proud to belong to, and that sort of thing. So if somebody really cares about their national identity, then they're forced to start thinking about all of the ways in which the past might feel like it taints that identity. They might end up getting defensive in different ways. You can do it in careful ways but I think that it is something that, both rhetorically and in research, can be done to try to persuade people to take it a little bit more seriously and to recognize the ways that there are connections between the past and the present.

SPENCER: Are there any other ways that our sense of time influences these big, weighty political questions of historical injustice and how much we should be dealing with them today, how much we should be paying reparations on these kinds of issues?

ANNE: Yeah, I think that the way that we situate things in time and whether or not we take a narrow temporal perspective or a wide temporal perspective, can really end up mattering for how we see events that are happening, or (say) injustices, inequalities that are happening in the present. Let's take for example, the wealth gap between Black people and White people in the US. We see similar things with indigenous people, especially in Canada, or incarceration differences and that sort of thing. If we look at those kinds of things from a totally ahistorical perspective — we just look at what's happening today — then the conclusions people draw are missing a lot of information. And I think it actually leads to two types of error that go in opposite directions. Some people — I'll say often Conservatives but not always — might view these different outcomes and attribute them to the people themselves. So there's something deficient about people: it's their ability, maybe their actions, their culture, that explains the differences, the inequalities that we see. And that's basically just the fundamental attribution error in social psychology, the idea that we look for the cause of something inside the person instead of the context. But not everybody does that. And I actually think that there's another error that comes from this narrow, present focus and it's one that I see happening more among Liberals and Progressives, where they see a gap or an inequity today, and they assume that it's all present-day racism. So everything is about bias and discrimination today. And that's not quite right either because, if you trace these kinds of inequities through a historical lens, and think about how injustices or policies that were committed in sometimes the pretty distant past, can continue to have these intergenerational effects, you could potentially see these gaps today, even if there's nobody actually doing anything particularly biased today. And that doesn't mean nobody is doing anything biased but a lot of this, if you trace the mechanisms through time, then you end up with a different understanding and potentially also different ideas about what sorts of solutions you should propose to that.

SPENCER: Just to clarify that, is the idea there, let's suppose that, at time zero, you have two different groups, and one is much poorer than the other, that even if you somehow were able to remove all other barriers, you might still expect 100 years later that the poorer group is still poorer — maybe the gap would have closed — but even just due to the fact they started poorer, they'd end up poorer by the end? Is that the idea?

ANNE: Yeah, that's the idea behind at least one representation of systemic or structural racism, that even if you were to get rid of all bias or all racism happening today in terms of (say) interpersonal discrimination, that sort of thing, the fact that these inequities were put in place in the past, and we live in a society where the amount you have ends up really determining your opportunities — to be socially mobile, to accumulate more, to get an education, all of those kinds of things — it ends up meaning that these things just self-reinforce and perpetuate over time, even if they aren't currently explained by anything that's happening in the present.

SPENCER: I think when people talk about systemic racism, that's one element. But there seems to also be another important element, which is that certain policies — even if it's true that they weren't made in a racist way — might have disparate effects on different racial groups. Like there can be a policy that was made by a non-racist, yet it harms Black people more than White people or something like that.

ANNE: Yeah, and I think that's one of the kinds of discussions that we have about current-day policies. There are some policies that might exist today that weren't designed specifically to be racist or to produce inequalities. But if they do produce those inequalities, then we might want to scrutinize them and see why that's happening and what we need to do to make sure that that's not causing unfair disadvantages still today. So I think there's two different ways of thinking about that and sometimes, when people talk about them, they don't necessarily distinguish the sorts of intentional policymaking where the racism is actually designed right in, and the kind that's more unintentional but that we still need to pay attention to.

SPENCER: So it seems like we have these different layers of effects. We have this starting line effect where, if you start poorer, you're gonna probably still be poorer 100 years later, because many different things are going to advantage people who are wealthier; people who are poorer have to work that much harder to catch up, etc. That's one effect. Then you have the systemic racism effects where maybe certain policies disadvantage some groups; whether or not they were intended to, they might actually do that. Then you have individual bias; individual people might be biased against group members, and might be hiring them at a lower rate, and so on. And so you stack these three effects and then you can debate how much of these three effects is causing something like the wealth gap between White people and Black people today. Does that seem like a fair summary?

ANNE: Yeah, I think so. And I think that people are really bad at estimating effect sizes for those different components. Sometimes we focus on the things that we can study the most easily and they may actually only account for a pretty small amount of the overall equity. But it's a really big set of things to try to think about. I think that we sometimes calibrate how those different causes actually produce the effects that we see pretty inconsistently, and we're probably wrong a lot of the time.

SPENCER: Well, it seems obvious to me that they're all factors. They all are probably playing some role. Also, it seems obvious to me that it's really, really hard to figure out exactly how much each is going to contribute. It's very complex. There's probably nonlinear effects. There may be interactions between them. There may even be other effects not in the list. But it sounds like you're suggesting that Conservatives may be underestimating certain effects and overestimating others and Liberals might be doing the reverse. Is that right?

ANNE: Yeah, I think that that's basically what I'm suggesting and that that's probably especially true if you evaluate these kinds of things, just in a narrow present kind of sense, where the only information that you have is the stuff that you're seeing happening today.

SPENCER: Now I could see two different ways to interpret that claim. One way to interpret it is, we actually know what's true and both groups are wrong. They're both estimating wrong in different directions from each other. Another way to make that claim would be to say, actually, we don't know — nobody knows; it's too hard to figure it out — but both groups confidently assert things that we can't actually know because it's too hard to figure out.

ANNE: Yeah, I think I would go with option B for the most part, and the ways that we each tell stories about what happened, meaning that we disagree a lot of times on what sorts of solutions there should be... Sometimes I think we misinterpret each other's motives and assume that maybe the other side doesn't even want to address racism at all or doesn't care about fairness. But I think in a lot of cases, it's because we interpret these sorts of things differently so we see the solutions in different places.

SPENCER: That's interesting because I guess I would say that I agree in part, but I think I would also say that the different groups also just value different things. I think Liberals tend to value justice and fairness more, and Conservative values tend to be somewhat different. They will be more likely to value things like purity and living a good family life and focusing on your community. Just curious to hear what you think of that.

ANNE: You're referring in part to the moral foundations idea that we have different weights for different kinds of moral values. I think that's likely true. But I would say that we might overestimate how much people care about those kinds of things. Fairness and harm, I think, are generally endorsed; they're valued by both Liberals and Conservatives quite a bit. Liberals tend to value those two foundations more exclusively, and less the other foundations. So it might be that what you're talking about is that Conservatives, because they care about a lot of other moral values as well, that harm or fairness just don't matter as much, relatively speaking. One way to think about something that both Liberals and Conservatives would agree on for the most part there, is around something like equality of opportunity. If you frame racial injustice in terms of unfair equality of opportunity, that's something that's really consistent with Conservative values as well. And a lot of Conservatives will recognize that, if that's the reason for the inequity, then it's something that we should be trying to address.

SPENCER: Would you say both Liberals and Conservatives agree on that point, that we should have equality of opportunity, and that where they start to diverge is on other things, like Liberals might say, "Well, equality of opportunity is not enough because there's many ways in which people might be disadvantaged. Even if you think they're given the same opportunity, they're not. And there might be structural things that actually make it harder for them to achieve, even with the same opportunities," and so on?

ANNE: I think that's true for probably the majority of Liberals and Conservatives. Now, if you ask some Conservatives, they'll say that Liberals don't care about equality of opportunity; they care about equality of outcome. I think that that's sometimes a misunderstanding or a misconstrual. What I would say, I'd probably reframe that somewhat and say that Liberals and Conservatives both care about equality of opportunity, but they may have a different understanding of how close we are to actually having that in society now. And if you have a different understanding of that — is the status quo that we have currently pretty close to equality of opportunity? — that's going to suggest different actions in the present. Liberals generally think that we're a lot further away from having it than Conservatives so they may see a lot more adjustment to the playing field that's necessary than Conservatives do.

SPENCER: And going back to your previous thought around what they are attributing it to, you can imagine that could also lead to support for very different policies. If you believe that, right now, there are tons of people who are either explicitly or implicitly racist, that's going to have big policy implications relative to someone who believes that, 'Oh, no, actually, very few people are racist. It's a really rare thing, so that's not what is driving problems today.'

ANNE: Yeah, absolutely. I think that interventions and policies really end up coming out of whatever the stories that we tell about those things are. It's one reason why, even though it's really hard to figure out what the effect sizes are and how much is caused by each of these different sources, it's still a really important question to try to understand better than we do currently.

SPENCER: One thing that I find frustrating in these kinds of conversations is that people seem to so rarely make their assumptions explicit. These ideas are lurking in the background, but they're actually not usually talked about. And so what you're talking about is at the downstream level — well, should we do X or Y — and there's endless fights over that. Not at the upstream level of, well, how much of the problem is coming from this versus that? And without actually agreeing on that, of course, you're not gonna agree on policies.

ANNE: Yeah. I think you've got to get the diagnosis right to get the cure right. And we sometimes just end up missing each other when we're talking about those two things. One person might be talking about one level and the other is talking at a different level and you just don't end up really starting at a place where you can say, "Okay, well, what do we agree on here?" and then really define what part we are talking about. Are we talking about the problem? Are we talking about possible solutions? Have we thought about the mechanisms? Understanding the mechanisms that lead to inequality are really important to be able to disrupt them in the right way, and that kind of thing.

SPENCER: This also, of course, comes up in other areas like how do we get more women into STEM fields where there's a huge debate over, well, what are actually the causes of this? And from what I see, it seems like Conservatives often will say, "Well, it's really about interest. Women are less interested in it," and Liberals will say, "No, it's really about social conditioning. Women are told that they're not good at science or they shouldn't go into science, etc." Of course, even if the values were shared, then you would have disagreements if you disagree on the underlying causes. And to make matters worse, the values aren't shared, or at least they're not fully shared; there's some overlap in values, but there's some divergence of values as well.

ANNE: Thinking about this topic of sexism and women in STEM also just raises another question that I've been thinking about a lot, which is whether or not the way that we are producing knowledge in our field might get those different viewpoints effectively enough. You suggested the way that Conservatives might explain the differences in gender representation in STEM and the way that Liberals might explain it. And the same sort of disagreement happens in academia because a lot of social science is populated by people who are pretty firmly on the Left so you're gonna have a lot more people talking about how it's due to sexism and it's due to discrimination and those kinds of factors, and fewer people looking at or talking about the ways that it might have to do with interest or the things that Conservatives are talking about. And one argument, at least, is that you need to have both of those viewpoints at the table, even if the Conservatives are wrong, because the more you can test these things, the better. Have you talked about adversarial collaborations and that approach in science, the idea of actually having these different perspectives and trying to test them against each other?

SPENCER: I think we mentioned it on one other episode, if I recall, but I love adversarial collaborations. Why don't you just explain what they are for the listener?

ANNE: Yeah, for sure. It doesn't always have to do with (say) Conservative versus Liberal but, generally, an adversarial collaboration would take place if people in some kind of scientific field — I've been paying attention to it in social sciences — if people who start off on pretty firmly different perspectives get together and design some way of testing whatever it is — it could be by doing new research, or it could be by establishing an approach for (say) a systematic literature review or whatever else — that they agree on in advance that: these are the questions we're asking, and this is the kind of evidence that they would find compelling. Just recently, actually in the last year, there has been an adversarial collaboration on gender bias in academic science, so not just in STEM, but more generally in academic science. And interestingly, they found that there are still some biases in a couple of areas but, in a lot of domains, the gender bias is pretty minimal or has gone away almost entirely. I see this as, it's at least one piece of good news, that maybe some of the things that we've seen in the past are starting to be less prevalent. But it's a good example, I think, of how different perspectives might actually help us to learn how to solve problems so that we're not continuing to try to solve a problem that maybe isn't so much of a big deal, and that we can focus on problems where they actually exist, rather than where we're still assuming they exist.

SPENCER: How do they operationalize gender bias? Because it just seems really tricky to me to actually measure that.

ANNE: This collaboration was done as more of a lit review — it's a systematic review of past research — and they operationalized it in a bunch of ways. They looked at hiring, grant funding, teacher ratings, journal acceptances (like publications), salaries, and letters of recommendation. These are all things where you can actually operationalize, like what did these things look like and how did they differ between the way that the outcomes look for both women and men. There were four domains where there were no differences or there was no detectable difference. But the two domains where there were were in salary — the salary difference was smaller than often people claim, but there was still a meaningful salary difference — and in teaching ratings; generally women get lower teaching ratings than men do. And this has been looked at in a number of ways controlling for a bunch of factors, including in some cases, people just think that the teacher is a woman or a man and give the exact same lecture, a lower rating if it's a woman than if it's a man. That can actually also have implications down the road for professional promotion and for salary and other things like that if it's tied to teaching success.

SPENCER: One thing that seems really thorny here is, let's suppose that you find in the pipeline of people going into a scientific field, there's just many fewer women going into it. And let's suppose you look at the studies, you're like, "Yeah, it just doesn't seem like there's that much discrimination going on." Okay, let's suppose that's true. But then you could still have this debate at an earlier level saying, well, but why aren't more women going into it? Even if they say they're less interested, is that really a fundamental lower interest in some sense, or is it just because they're culturally conditioned to not be interested, or they're told that they're not gonna be good at it? This similar thing comes up with (let's say) women wearing hijabs. You get this debate where you'll have interviews with these women, they say, "No, I want to wear a hijab." And then other people will say, "Well, sure, they say they want to wear it, but then that's because they've been culturally conditioned to want to wear it, but it doesn't mean that they're really choosing freely, even though they say that they do want to wear it."

ANNE: Yeah, it's such a fraught issue, isn't it? Because on one hand, I totally agree with you that, just because someone says, "Oh, this is my choice here now in the moment," doesn't necessarily mean that a lifetime of conditioning didn't lead them to that choice. Or people sometimes say that it's a choice, but they perceive limited options in the first place so then they're choosing from among a narrower set of options that they think are really available to them. This actually ties in some ways back to what we were talking about before. If you just look at a decision in the moment, you say, "Oh, well, they said lower interest so I guess it's that," if you increase the temporal scope and look at the kinds of messages (say) that girls are getting all the way through school, the things that they're encouraged to do, the things that they're discouraged about and so on, maybe in elementary school and high school and so on, then you might find different sticking points, different places where they may be making one decision where boys are making a different decision. If you were to look at it that way, you might find, well, the reason that they're not interested by the time they're getting to a professional stage is because they didn't take certain sciences in grade nine or ten. And maybe that's where we really need to be addressing the problem rather than later on. Because if you make that decision at an early stage, there's just a lot of different kinds of messages that are going out to girls and boys at that early stage. If that decision is made then, then that's going to end up following them through a bunch of later decisions as well.

SPENCER: There's also the role model question. If we believe that people like to follow in the footsteps of people that they identify with, if you have a problem in the past of (let's say) fewer women in science, then that's gonna perpetuate into the future, because there are gonna be fewer role models for the younger women as they grew up.

ANNE: Yeah. And I think that's a really good argument for paying attention to those sorts of things, just representation and whether or not people are exposed to those kinds of role models. Now, I think there's some research that suggests that you don't necessarily have to match a role model all the time to every feature of a person. People can be inspired by role models who open these different kinds of paths to them, even if they're not necessarily the same demographically in all kinds of ways. But it's something to pay attention to just to make sure that everybody's getting the message that these future pathways are available to them just as much as they're available to everyone else.

SPENCER: Going back to the question we started to touch on before, of representation in science of different political ideologies, it seems really clear that most academics are on the Liberal side and there's a big debate raging about how much of a problem this is. As you pointed out, some people say, "Well, we just are more right so we don't want to represent incorrect views." And other people say, "No, actually, you're missing out on really important viewpoints, and you're overestimating certain hypotheses and underestimating other ones." Every political group has blind spots. And so if people are coming from one side of the political spectrum, then you're going to have blind spots that aren't being corrected. I'm curious where you land on this. Do you feel like a lot of information really is being missed out on?

ANNE: The way I think about it is diversity of thought in knowledge production more generally. I'm not so concerned about just the Liberal-Conservative divide, although I think it's one of many that we should be paying attention to. But it's also true for lots of other kinds of inclusion factors. We've talked about how academics and researchers and scholars in general often come from upper classes. They're disproportionately White in a lot of fields. Some fields are disproportionately male, and that sort of thing. There's all kinds of other ways that you can also think about diversity of thought and the kinds of perspectives that you might need in order to really test hypotheses well, and to be getting all these different viewpoints. I think that intellectual differences and political diversity is actually part of that, too. I don't really see them as separate or as conflicting with one another. I think that all of those different perspectives — there's a common cause there — is to try to get closer to the truth. And so the way to think about this, or the way I think about it — and some philosophers of science have argued this — is that, when you think about the validity of the scientific process, that's really just never going to be achievable by any one scientist because we all have biases. You need a community of scientists who vet each other's work and all of that kind of stuff — that's pretty standard — and become closer and closer to consensus and to truth over time if we do that. That works reasonably well in ideal circumstances, when there are all kinds of perspectives present, and when everybody feels free to speak their mind. But as soon as either of those conditions is not present, then things can really go off the rails a little bit. If viewpoints get too homogenous, or if dissenting views are less free to be aired, or if they're pushed off the table a little bit too much, then this process isn't going to produce random error anymore; it's going to produce more of a systematic bias and we might not be as equipped to get to something closer to truth.

SPENCER: I've seen at least two different arguments made of why diversity is good. One is that diversity helps us avoid groupthink and blind spots, and that's what you're talking about here. Another is that diversity is valuable for its own sake. It's fundamentally valuable to have a diverse set of people in a diverse range of activities. We should want that even if it doesn't actually lead to truer conclusions. And I'm wondering, do you put any stock in the second of those, that it's just a fundamental value, an intrinsic value?

ANNE: That's a great question. I am thinking about it from a couple of perspectives. One criticism of that first perspective is that it's tying diversity to some kind of an outcome like, hey, we're going to be more productive as an organization, or we're going to end up with better science if we're more diverse. And so that's an extrinsic reason for diversity; there's some kind of a utilitarian purpose to it. A good argument for the second is something closer to a justice rationale, that if the reason that diversity wasn't happening is because of injustice and unfairness, then it's good just on its face to try to increase diversity because it means that people who had previously been excluded are not going to be excluded. And I definitely buy that kind of perspective. The other way that sometimes that perspective is discussed is a little bit more surface level, where it's like, well, it's nice when it looks like we're really diverse; you get a nice smattering of different faces and different kinds. And I don't think that that's so much what you were meaning or what I would want to be going for, but I do think that that argument in terms of justice and just the ethical reasons to try to make sure that you're being inclusive, I think that there's something really to that one.

SPENCER: It's interesting because, if we think about political diversification in academia, I don't really see anyone making the second kind of argument where they're saying, "No, it's a justice thing, it's unjust that there aren't many Conservatives who are academics." It really seems like the people who make this argument, it's more of a pragmatic argument of the first type where we might actually be missing out on important hypotheses. Do you agree with that, that that seems to be what people are claiming?

ANNE: I'm not totally sure. There was a study that came out early in this debate that showed that a lot of academics reported being quite willing to discriminate against Conservatives just for their perspectives. 'If you learned that a Conservative was up for a job, would you be willing to discriminate against them?" And the answer was yes. That, I think, did give a lot of people pause, that to the extent that we're anti-discrimination, this is an important thing to consider from a justice perspective as well. I've never actually thought about the connection in the way that you just framed it. But I think that you could make that same parallel to say that you may want to encourage political diversity, both because it could improve the validity of the conclusions over time, or because it's simply fair to do that. I think a third reason, especially for people in science and in knowledge production more generally, is that the more you are trying to convey knowledge to the public — you want people to believe the things that you're discovering and that you're telling them — if it's clear that you've excluded a whole class of people, then why would those people believe you? Why would they trust the science that is being conveyed to them? And I think this has been true in terms of things like racial exclusion. Why should Black people believe scientists? Black people have been both excluded and mistreated by scientists over time. And I think that currently it's becoming more and more true of Conservatives: trust in science and other institutions is really, really tanking, especially among Conservatives. And I think that that might be something that scholars should be thinking about as well.

SPENCER: Just to put some numbers into this conversation, there was one survey done in 2007; it was of American professors — I think it was 1400 American professors — they found 44% were Liberal, 46% Moderate and 9% Conservative. My understanding, actually, is it's gotten more intensely polarized since then. Is that your understanding as well?

ANNE: Absolutely. I think it's gotten a lot more polarized and it's more polarized in more social science-y and humanities kinds of disciplines. Do you know the name Jonathan Hite?

SPENCER: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I'm familiar with his work.

ANNE: He's been talking about this issue in our field for a long time, and I was actually at the conference talk where he introduced it for the first time. He simply asked people in the audience — it was a really large audience, lots of people in the crowd — and he said, "Raise your hand if you identify as Liberal," and then as Conservative, as Libertarian, and it was really profound. Almost everybody raised their hand when he said Liberal. I don't know if anyone did...maybe one person for Conservative and a few for Libertarian. That's obviously more of an anecdote, but I think that it's a really strong effect, and it is worth thinking about for all the reasons we were talking about.

SPENCER: One thing I wonder about, do you think that a lot of academics today think it's okay to discriminate against Conservatives? Would they openly say, "Yeah, if someone makes it clear they're Conservative on their resume, it should be fine to discriminate against them for academic jobs"?

ANNE: I think that there are a lot of people who report saying that they would be willing to discriminate in that way. And yeah, I think that actually over the last number of years, I think that academics, not only are they pretty Liberal, but especially in the North American context and in the US, I think they've become more and more willing to stereotype, maybe even dehumanize Conservatives, paint them all with the same brush and think about them in pretty narrow and one-dimensional ways. Sometimes you see this even in the way that research is done. You're talking about a problem and the way that you explain it often starts off by pathologizing Conservatives in various ways. To the extent that that's happening, and it's making its way into our research into the literature, it wouldn't be all that surprising to think that it's also happening if we're talking about judging people for jobs and that kind of thing. I think one of the ways that it would get argued is to say, "Well, if a Conservative is actually racist and sexist and so on, these are not things that ought to be protected as job characteristics. These are things that would not make it possible for you to do your job in an effective way." If you are a teacher, your bias would be problematic in a bunch of ways, maybe in the way that you do your research and so on. To the extent that that is true, then there might be an argument for it. But I don't think that we can make that claim that that's just true on its face simply because somebody is Conservative.

SPENCER: I imagine that when you talk about these issues, people make all kinds of judgments about your own political views because it's a bit of a hot-button topic. If you were forced to place yourself on the political spectrum, where would you put yourself?

ANNE: I would put myself really firmly on the Left. I've always considered myself both a Liberal and also a Progressive in terms of the kinds of goals I have for society and that sort of thing. But I've stumbled into this at least in a couple of areas where I think that I am a bit contrarian; I'm not necessarily looking at things quite the same way as others in the field. One of the big ones has been around the principle of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This is something that I've always thought of as pretty firmly a Left kind of view or a Liberal principle. But it's also something that a lot of people on the Left have started to reject as either being impossible, not really being the right balance between freedom and (say) care and harm and that sort of thing, so maintaining the value of not harming people and maintaining dignity and how we talk about people as well. And I think that there's actually been a lot of cynicism around whether anybody actually believes in free speech. There's some research that shows that people who claim that they care about free speech actually claim that they care about it more if, really, they just want to say something racist or they support a racist view. That's definitely true that sometimes these things are claimed; somebody might use free speech as an excuse or they'll wrap themselves in that particular flag as a way of excusing some pretty heinous views. But I think that one of the places where I really do disagree with some people on my side is that we should not reject the principle just because some people use it for bad reasons. We should reject the people who are using it in bad ways so we can still certainly dissent and disagree with them and establish social norms around what's acceptable. But I don't think that that's necessarily a good reason to reject the principle of free speech and free expression in itself.


SPENCER: I guess my view is that groups in power tend to want to suppress free speech unless they come from a worldview that is very much about free speech. So maybe Libertarians in power wouldn't try to suppress free speech because it's such a core part of their worldview. But almost all other groups will do some free speech suppression when they're in power. And insofar as this is true, I suspect it comes from, well, when you're in power, you want to promote good things and fight against bad things, and you want to promote true things and fight against falsehoods. But then any group in power is likely to overestimate the extent to which the things they think are good are good and the extent to which the things they think are bad are bad, and also overestimate the extent to which what they think is true is actually true, and underestimate the extent to which their political opponents have truths as well. It seems to me kind of a natural thing to happen. What do you think about that?

ANNE: Yeah, I think that that's certainly true, although I'll add one more twist to it, which is that a lot of people on the Left, so Progressives, often don't perceive themselves to be in power, but they do have a fair bit of cultural power in a number of domains, not necessarily always political domains. They sometimes promote this idea of restricting free speech. And one of the things I find so puzzling about it is that free speech is often extremely important, and perhaps especially important to people who are fighting against power and against the status quo. Because the people in power are going to be really motivated to squash those views. So it's been a tool of Progressives through the ages. It would be a really bad idea to give that up because you really never know who's going to be the person with the power so, even if you put some kind of a speech code in place or restrictions on speech in place, it may not be very long before it is used against you instead of in support of whatever your principles are.

SPENCER: One thing I find frustrating when discussing free speech is that people talk about it as though it's an abstract ideal, rather than talking about what concretely we're actually proposing allowing or not allowing or changing or not changing, because I think there's very, very few people that think you should be allowed to go around calling for the murder of different groups. I think that that would be like a really rare, pure free speech advocate. Very few people are like, "Yeah, you should be able to call for the murder of groups now." On the other hand, almost everyone thinks that certain kinds of free speech should be allowed. You should be allowed to express your opinions on relatively benign things. Nobody's saying you shouldn't. And so what concretely do you see up in the air? People who are fighting for free speech versus people who are more skeptical of it, what concretely are they disagreeing about?

ANNE: That's a question you could answer in a bunch of ways. And one thing I haven't really defined all that clearly is, are we talking about free speech (say) at a government level, so what's instantiated in law? What's a policy at a particular university, an institution, that sort of thing? Because you can have speech codes in various places as well. I think that it depends a little bit, if you're talking about free speech at a national level. Canada and the US are different. Canada has rules around hate speech, but they are pretty constrained. You do have to be calling for the murder of a group or even talking about things in pretty broad and heinous ways for it to fall into that category. And I think that a lot of people would agree, of course, that those kinds of things are not acceptable and they're really not adding to or advancing anything about our public dialogue. One of the places where I think those definitions get dicier is in how people define what is considered harmful, violent, or hate speech. Those terms themselves can end up being represented really differently by different groups. And in some cases, the definitions are really expansive in ways that might shut down a lot more speech than we would want. And if everybody has a different understanding of what it means, then we can end up stepping into something that we weren't expecting because we think that it's fine and somebody else thinks that it's not and that it falls into the category of what's not really allowable. The other way of thinking about speech in the ways that I'm concerned about are more socially normative. There's always, of course, going to be norms around bigoted speech and we're going to self-censor about certain kinds of things. But if that gets too heavy, and people are feeling like they need to self-censor about too many things, then that can also produce some of the sorts of problems I think that we're talking about.

SPENCER: In the US at least, I hear very little discussion, if any, about making speech illegal. I think that's pretty strongly rooted in US tradition that it's not illegal to say almost anything with a few exceptions, like you can't call for the murder of people and so on. Other countries tend to have much more restrictive speech than the US. For example, in Germany, they're much, much less willing to let people say things about the Holocaust that aren't true; in the US, you can go around denying the Holocaust, nobody's going to arrest you. So it seems to me, in the US at least, much more of the debate seems to be around something like how much we should socially punish people or ostracize people based on their speech. Does that seem right to you?

ANNE: Yeah, I think that that's quite true, especially in the US. Just how harsh are those speech norms and what kinds of sanctions are considered appropriate for things that people find offensive? And then you've got more ambiguity on both sides. How serious is the infraction and how extreme is the punishment? And sometimes those things don't get calibrated at all that well, so somebody says something a little bit offensive, and people call for their job or other things like that. And in other cases, I think that it's just a normal process of establishing group norms and conveying to people what we approve of, what we don't approve of, and causes people to think twice before saying things that are going to get a lot of disapproval if they don't want to face that as a consequence,

SPENCER: One principle that I think about is that it seems dangerous to have norms that almost everyone would be caught up in if they just spoke their mind freely. If you could somehow hear everyone's thoughts, you don't want a norm where everyone would be kicked out because, if you have such a norm, then it basically means that everyone has to not say things that they actually think and believe.

ANNE: I think that that's a good way of thinking about it and at least a good chunk of society might say that that's where we are right now. There have been some polls looking at how free people feel to speak their minds, how much they self-censor, and that sort of thing. And a number of them have suggested that that kind of self-censorship, the worry about whether or not they can speak freely, has gone up, especially for Conservatives in some of these surveys, but it's gone up across the board. So it may be that a lot of people feel like they can't speak freely, or they're not quite sure if something that they're going to say will step in a trap that they're not aware of, that they're going to end up crossing some sort of line that they didn't realize was a line.

SPENCER: Sometimes people will make arguments that... Let's say they'll look at polls, and they'll say, look, 60% of people (or 50% of people, or 40% of people) in our country believe X. If you socially sanction it, and you say someone who believes X is a bad person, or it's okay to push them out, or it's okay to publicly criticize them, then you're basically making a norm that basically says it's not okay to be a reasonably ordinary person and that's taking a step too far; whereas, other people might say, well, but maybe 40% of the population has really heinous beliefs that are really harmful. Are you saying you shouldn't sanction... Like if you lived in Nazi Germany, shouldn't you sanction being a Nazi, even if 40% of people are Nazis?

ANNE: Yeah, and I think what the right move is may matter what the issue is. But I think that that is happening with a number of issues where a pretty large percentage of people have at least some misgivings about something, some new social thing or whatever. And if it becomes not possible to speak about it publicly, some people would say that that's simply establishing what the new norm is. And that new norm is going to take hold more quickly because people aren't speaking these terrible things. And other people would say that, even if some of the views are not so great — some of them might even be heinous — that you almost have to have it out in order for moral progress to be made. One of the books that I found really interesting in thinking about this was Jonathan Rauch's "Kindly Inquisitors" and he was talking in this book about the ways that speech in various places in society was being suppressed, not necessarily legally, but in all of these social ways, and some of the problems around that. And the chapter I found really the most profound and interesting to hear about was when he was talking about the debates that happened around gay rights and gay marriage in particular. Those debates, at least according to his story, happened pretty publicly and there was a lot of back and forth. And a lot of people who were on the side of gay marriage had to hear a lot of views about gay people that they would have considered really hurtful, really discriminatory, and that wouldn't have been pleasant. But by hearing both sides of the story, and actually hearing people really have out some of those kinds of moral arguments, it allowed people to really think through what the issues were. And it is one of the success stories of our generation, the amount that people have changed their views in favor of, and being more accepting of, gay rights and gay marriage. And that sort of thing is something that's really quite a fast trajectory compared to a lot of other attitudes that have changed. And at least one of the arguments is that that's because those debates happened very publicly and people were persuaded. They heard both sides, and they came to the conclusion that one side had better arguments.

SPENCER: Yeah, it seems like such an incredible win for humanity, at least based on my value system, the incredible change of views on homosexuality. You have politicians today that are thought of as extremely liberal representatives of Progressivism who, not that long ago, were saying,"I don't know about gay marriage," and then society just completely shifted. It's really, really incredible and I think a huge, huge win for the wellbeing of humanity. It's interesting to think about how we can replicate that with other issues. One thing I wonder about here is, do you find it difficult talking about these topics? Because, based on the way you talk about it, my assumption is that other people are going to think that you're supporting Right-wing views, or you're feeding Conservative values in a way that they might not appreciate.

ANNE: Yeah, I do worry about that. Maybe I do that sometimes, and I don't mean to, if that's what ends up happening. But I am a real fan of in-group dissent. Basically, how do you keep your own house in order? What sorts of ways do we poke and prod at some of the directions that our own group is going in that might help us to course-correct at times? And I have gotten some flack for some of these views. At one point, I was supporting free speech on a task force and got called a White supremacist because of it. That's actually one of those terms, where 'White supremacist' can mean lots of different things. In this case, it is basically talking about White supremacist structures and logic and all those kinds of things, which is associated with free speech in some perspectives. So yeah, I do think that it's a little scary to talk about things like this sometimes because of the mistrust that people have about in-group dissent. I might be wrong in doing it some of the time. One of the perspectives is that publicly dissenting from your in-group can give the out-group fodder; it can give points to the other side and that sort of thing. And some of the time that people are most distrusting of in-group dissent is when you really feel polarized. People are more suspicious of dissenters when they feel like there's a big threat from the other side. So I could be stumbling into things without taking that into account enough. But I do think that, in current society, there's not much of a way around that, because so much discourse happens in public and it's very rare that you have a chance to talk to the people in your own in-group without potentially also reaching the out-group. And so I think that norms where we actually are willing to talk about some of these kinds of things in ways that go against some of the standard party line is important, even if the reason for doing it is so that other people can prove me wrong. So just even making a better case for why I'm wrong is still a useful part of the discourse that isn't going to happen if I'm not saying something that they then have to counter-argue.

SPENCER: Right, this idea of wartime versus peacetime seems really relevant here. Imagine you're part of a tribe and your tribe is at war with another tribe, and they're literally coming to try to kill you all and you're like, "Well, but are we really that good? And maybe we're making these mistakes." That would be treason. It would be very understandable if the rest of the tribe is like, "What are you talking about? Why are you criticizing us? We're gonna get killed by these people." Whereas, in peacetime, there's lots of extra food and nobody's really in jeopardy and then it seems like a really good time to be like, "Hey, maybe we're not that great. Maybe we need to improve in certain ways." And so I think people have a different sense of how much things are in wartime versus peacetime. If things feel really like wartime, maybe they're very resistant to any kind of internal dissent.

ANNE: Yeah, I think that's absolutely true and that's really consistent with the research on dissent. And one of the perspectives that I have... I do some research on political polarization and especially on false polarization, the idea that people have misconceptions about what the other side is all about, and how prevalent some of the noxious views are on the other side, and at least part of that comes from social media. This isn't just my ideas; it's pretty established, I think, at this point, that a lot of the loudest voices that we encounter tend to also be the most extreme voices, so you get a much more toxic kind of discourse in public than we might have if we're talking about these sorts of things behind the scenes or with people that we trust. But because of that, it also means that people are going around feeling like they're in wartime all the time because it feels really radicalizing. And it feels like everybody's an extreme when, in fact, we're really paying attention to five or ten percent of people on both sides. And a lot of the people in the middle, who might want to hear some of these topics be discussed in more nuanced ways, are keeping quiet. They're just not really engaging; they're not getting into the public fray, at least. Chris Bail has written a really interesting book called "The Social Media Prism" — I just want to give him credit for the term — but he talks about 'muting the moderates,' the idea that the social media space has a bunch of mechanisms that tend to mute the voices of people who are more moderate. And so you end up with this idea that everybody's in wartime and this is an existential threat so, of course, you can't be dissenting from your in-group. But that might not actually be the world that we're living in, and so there might be more reason to do a little bit of in-group critique than it feels like sometimes.

SPENCER: One thing that I think about when it comes to different political groups — Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and so on — is that they each bring with them a set of values, things that they fundamentally care about. They also come with a set of assumptions about the way that things work, like how you produce good things in the world. A classic example might be, Liberals tend to think that regulation is a good way to achieve good ends in the world. They also value things somewhat differently. A Libertarian might think free markets are a good way to achieve things in the world. One question is, which values best align with yours in different political groups? Some people, their values might be perfectly aligned with one political group, but maybe their values will be mixed across multiple ones. But another question is about these mechanisms of action, these actually empirical questions of when is regulation actually effective at achieving certain goals, and when are free markets actually effective? And I find that, when I think about the mechanisms of action, that makes me somewhat more sympathetic to the view that it's important to listen to different viewpoints because there are different mechanisms of actions, I think, that work at different times. And if we over-anchor on certain mechanisms of action, that can miss big opportunities to use other ones, other preferred approaches. For example, I think there really are times when regulation is really, really important, and I think there are other times when free markets are really, really important, and there are times when you actually need a hybrid between the two, and being rooted in one of those is problematic just because these are powerful tools that can be used to achieve different things in different situations.

ANNE: Yeah, I agree completely with that, and I think that the values that we have might sometimes not even be that different, but it's those mechanisms of action and the ways that we want to get to whatever the solution is, that tend to be so affiliated with a particular political perspective. I think we are doing less of that paying attention to the other side and actually hearing the best case version of what the other side's policy proposal would be. Instead, what we end up hearing is what our policy proposal is, and a straw man version of the other policy, construed in the worst possible terms by whoever our political folks are or our activists are, talking about what the other side's perspective is. And I don't think that does us any favors from both sides because sometimes you really do need to kick the tires on your own ideas. And even if you aren't going to change your mind about what the right approach is — maybe regulation is a better approach than something else — the unintended consequences of that are more likely to be elucidated by listening to people on the other side, and it might be that you don't change your mind and say, "Okay, we're gonna go with your policy instead," but you can work in more ways to avoid some of those unintended consequences or to at least track those unintended consequences if you've had that conversation across political lines than if you haven't.

SPENCER: Before we wrap up, I'm curious, you mentioned that you were called a White supremacist; that's a very intense thing to be called. What was your internal response to that, when someone called you that?

ANNE: It was in a public setting so it was pretty jarring. And the biggest response that I had — it was hurtful in the moment and it felt bad — but what it ended up making me do was really become more curious about what they meant. That's often my response to these things is, "Okay, I don't understand where that accusation would come from. Let me try to get into that and dig into the literature on these sorts of things." It led me to do more reading about these kinds of perspectives and to understand it better, and to think about where I agreed or disagreed with some of the arguments. But I think it's important so, if somebody perceives that in you, then it's something that I think is important to take seriously and to try to understand better. And it is something that has led me to think more about these different ways that people use terms and how they often have different definitions for these kinds of terms. 'White supremacy' is certainly one of them that people might throw around in various ways. I was on a task force when that accusation came to us, so it wasn't just to me, but to the task force more generally. And I know that some of my colleagues on the task force felt really, really insulted, like they were being accused of being KKK-adjacent. And I don't think that's what the intention was at all; it was much more of a critique about institutional processes and how sometimes too much free speech upholds some of the people in power and the status quo and so on. It's an argument that, by and large, I disagree with, but nobody was really being called a Nazi with that term. Those ways that sometimes we end up understanding these terms differently can really cause a lot of miscommunication. And I think that this is a place where Liberal intellectual elites have a lot of responsibility because we're almost like a definition factory; we keep making more esoteric, more nuanced, more multi-layered definitions of some of these kinds of terms, as we come to understand them in different ways. This is true of a lot of things, certainly about the term 'racism' and how it's used. But when we start to use these terms in these new, more nuanced ways, and maybe send that accusation to someone, it can land for the other person with the old definition. So then you're really feeling like somebody has just called you a Nazi when really, that's not the case. And part of the reason for this, I think, is something called 'the curse of knowledge,' the idea that, once you have a more complex or nuanced understanding, if you have a bunch of background knowledge that other people don't have, it can be really easy to forget that other people don't have that knowledge that you do have. And so I think a lot of times, academics will have just so much more of this rich knowledge, and use these terms in ways that reflect these new understandings. And much of the world [laughs] doesn't have a sociology PhD so a lot of people are still going to be hearing these things in the old way rather than in the way that it's actually meant.

SPENCER: Yeah, I think that is such a problem that people debate things when they're using different definitions of words and, of course, they can't make progress; they're literally not even talking about the same thing. Imagine one person is looking at a dog and one person is looking at a cat, and they're arguing about what attributes it has; of course, they're not gonna agree, but they don't identify that. I wrote an essay where I looked at different definitions of racism used in modern times and it was really amazing to me how many different definitions there are that really lead to a ton of confusion. And if someone says that person's racist, they could mean that person has explicit beliefs that their group is superior to other racial groups. They could be talking about implicit biases, that that person has subtle, intuitive ways where they favor one group over another. It could be that they're talking about ways that person's actions lead to systemic racism, like they're contributing to institutions that have caused bad outcomes for certain groups. They could mean that the person has certain beliefs that they think are inherently racist beliefs, beliefs that (let's say) they think support White supremacy. But on the other hand, if the person is called racist, if their definition is not the same, just as you're saying, they might come to a completely different conclusion about what they're being accused of.

ANNE: Yeah, I remember a number of years ago, in a debate, Hillary Clinton was asked about policing. And her response was something around how all of us have implicit racial biases, we need to be reckoning with this as a society. And headlines were running after that saying, "Clinton calls all Americans racist," and not surprisingly, it goes downhill from there. That adds another layer where there can also be different spins on the same thing to make people feel even more angry. But a lot of people are going to take that as an unwarranted character assassination and it's probably not a good starting place for persuasion, if you're really trying to get them to see your side, if they start off feeling like they're being accused of something that doesn't actually resonate with how they see themselves.

SPENCER: My last question for you before we end, you mentioned earlier about trust in academia, and it seems to me really concerning that a lot of people don't trust academia because, for many things, academia is the only game in town that's making progress on topics. It's the only place that systematically studies a bunch of things that are important to study. Obviously, it's not true in every field, like in biology, you've got drug companies and so on. But there are many areas where academia is the only group that studies something. And so if people don't trust it, that seems to me like a really bad place to be. And so I'm wondering, what do you think we can do to help increase trust in academia, hopefully justified trust; we don't want more trust in academia than it deserves.

ANNE: Yeah, I think that's a really great question. You could approach it from lots of angles. I think that you've talked on your show before about the replication crisis. So at least one of the reasons that maybe people trust academia less is because it turns out that some of the knowledge that we've published and talked about and so on, doesn't really replicate all that well. That's a separate issue. What we've been talking about mostly today is more about the ways in which people might feel like there are ideological motives or ways in which not everybody has a seat at the table that could lead people to be producing really biased — systematically biased — kinds of knowledge or at least that's what gets published, what you hear about. Any of those sorts of things can really undermine people's sense of trust in that institution. If they feel like the institution is no longer being unbiased and fair, then there's lots of reason to be suspicious about whether or not you're hearing the whole story, or if there might be some ulterior motive. What do we do about it? I think in some cases, what we do about the quality of science, like for replication, and what we do about these things, might share some space. I think the more we can be transparent and really open in what we're doing, the better. But the kind of transparency that might help for things like ideology may be a little bit different than the kind of transparency that would help for other things. So making sure that people can see, for example, journal reviews, and whether or not certain kinds of of articles are getting rejected more than others, or auditing the kinds of decisions that people are making to determine that there really isn't a bias here against more conservative viewpoints or against any particular kind of viewpoint. The more we can maybe just be aware of these sorts of things, scrutinize them a little bit more and try to be as transparent as possible, that we recognize that this can be a problem and we're doing our best to really document that we are fighting against it internally, that might be at least a starting place. I don't know exactly how you would do that, but that's the best I've got for the time being, I think.

SPENCER: Anne, thanks for coming on.

ANNE: Thank you so much. It was a great conversation.


JOSH: A listener asks: "What are some memorable events or gatherings you've attended or helped organize?"

SPENCER: So some events that I've organized for my social experiments group, Ergo, that were memorable for me: one was on social status; and the way it worked is when you arrived, you were assigned a social status, which was a number written on your lapel, and it was just a random number. And so, you know, let's say you were a 10 and I was a 1. I would have to act like you were the most important person on earth, and you would have to act like I'm the least important person on earth. And then people got to rotate throughout the night, so they got to experience what it's like to be treated as different social statuses. And I think that people had a really interesting experience. And some people find that pretty mind-blowing because they normally act a certain way or they normally get treated a certain way, and this really allowed them to experience something different. Another memorable one for me was an event that we did on game theory where we had people play a whole bunch of different game theory games throughout the night, and the rules kept changing. And the idea was to kind of explore how slight variations in the rules can really change your incentives a great deal. And some of these kinds of games were games where you could either defect or cooperate with your partner, whoever you're partnered up with. And one of the really interesting things that happened from my point of view is that people started incorporating a lot of things outside of the game into the game. So for example, when someone was defected on, some people would start shouting, saying, "This person defected on me!" and kind of trying to make a public awareness that this was a defector so other people wouldn't want to play the game with them, which created a sort of incentive not to defect, just out of kind of embarrassment. Another interesting thing that happened is that people who had the rule of always cooperating no matter what, they kind of clumped themselves in the corner and tried to all play with each other so they could prevent themselves from playing with people that would sometimes defect. So those are some interesting effects that came as a result.




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