Group Identities And What’s Going On In The Brain With Jay Van Bavel

When making decisions, do you rely on your group, your partner, or the opinions of others to do so? Today, Dr. Diane Hamilton talks to Jay Van Bavel, an Associate Professor of Psychology and Neural Science with an affiliation at the Stern School of Business in Management and Organizations at New York University. He is also an award-winning researcher in the area of group identities, moral values, and political beliefs. Understanding how genetics, the environment, or nature versus nurture play a role in our behaviors, Jay explains how our world view and political views are affected by these factors. Join Dr. Diane and Jay’s conversation as they tackle issues like vaccination, the Republicans versus Democrats, how people work together, how to get them to work together, and so much more!

TTL 708 | Group Identities


I’m glad you joined us because we have Jay Van Bavel here. Jay is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience. He’s given amazing TEDx Talks. He’s an award-winning researcher in the area of group identities, values, and how to shape the brain and behavior. We’re going to talk about many brain-related things. We’re going to get into COVID. We’re going to talk about vaccinations and the Republicans versus Democrats. You name it, we’re getting into it.

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Group Identities And What’s Going On In The Brain With Jay Van Bavel

I am here with Jay Van Bavel, who is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience with an affiliation at the Stern School of Business and Management Organizations at New York University. You’ve probably seen his award-winning research. He deals with group identities, moral values, and political beliefs. He’s got more academic papers than you could imagine on implicit bias, diversity, inclusion, group identity, team formation, and the list go on and on. I’ve seen his wonderful TEDx Talk. He’s spoken throughout the world, including at Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Oxford, Stanford, and so much more. I know this is a time of COVID and his kids will maybe make an appearance here and there. I’m looking forward to having Jay and his kids on the show. Welcome, Jay.

Thanks, Diane. Thanks for having me and my kids.

I’ve had cats, dogs, and a few kids, so there’s no problem with that because I know we’re all adapting in this difficult time. I appreciate you being on the show because what you talk about and write about is what fascinates me. I first got interested when I started to write my dissertation and I wanted to look at performance. Someone told me to check into emotional intelligence and that led me down the psychology realm of how much our brain impacts everything. I’m curious, what led to your interest to go to neuro leadership and all the stuff that you deal with?

I started with an interest in group dynamics, how groups get along, and what you can do to bring them together. I started getting interested in things that were going on underneath the hood. Starting with things that might be happening unconsciously that guide our interactions with others. As I start to dig into that, I start to realize, “How do you look at that? How do you start to study those things that are going on unconsciously in your mind and guiding you to all kinds of behaviors?” Naturally, that led me to the brain. There’s so much going on in our brain that we’re not aware of what’s happening while we’re not paying attention or while we’re focused on something else. One of the best tools for looking at that were ways of studying it using neuroscience. The fMRI and EEG are some of the tools that we’ve used to look underneath the hood at what’s going on while people are trying to make decisions.

Your degree is in business.

My basic degree is in psychology, although I do have a cross-appointment at the Stern School of Business Management.

What did you write your doctoral dissertation on? I’m curious.

My dissertation was on how you could bring mixed-race teens together in ways that reduce bias.

I’ve had Amy Edmondson on the show and we talked about how teams were able to get together in a sense of crisis situations like the Chilean miners’ disaster, for example. Are you dealing with teams in an everyday setting that fascinates you or under tough conditions or in general?

We’ve been studying it in the lab. As we’ve been doing in the lab, we’re starting to move as we get more data and better tools outside of the lab. We’ve even started measuring brain activation in an entire team of students in a classroom as they go through the semester. They’re coming back every week and putting the caps on their head, measuring brain activity, and seeing when they’re in sync. We’ve started to look at that in teams of four trying to problem solve and seeing when they cooperate in those types of situations as well. It isn’t comparable to the Chilean miners but it is relevant to small teams in learning and problem-solving situations. Not only it affects the world of science and education but, potentially, teams in businesses as well.

I’ve had a few experts that have used some of this for marketing to see what lights up the brain when they look at certain messages. Is it that thing where you’re looking at what’s lit up? Is it the prefrontal cortex or whatever it is? What are you looking at in the brain exactly?

It depends on what tool you use. When we’re studying people in the lab, we can use functional neuroimaging, which is where we slide somebody in a scanner. You can look at what parts of the brain are lit up as they’re making certain decisions and doing certain tasks. What we’re using that allows us to go into the real world into the wild a bit is these mobile EEG caps. These are simple caps you put on the head. You can’t tell precisely where in the brain something’s happening. What we’ve been looking at is when two people or a group are synced up. When your brain is firing at the same wavelength that mine is, we’d be synchrony. If we’re on different wavelengths, you’d see that we’re not. You can start to measure that in pairs, teams, or an entire room of people.

I’ve seen what you’re talking about. They put a little goop on your scalp and put a swim cap looking thing. I’ve always wanted to do that. Is there any risk involved in doing that? It’s nothing, it’s only reading. Is this not giving you any jolts of anything?

Yes. There is a risk if I were to bring you into my lab and put you in the scanner. We’d have to take all the metal off your body. We make sure that you don’t have any fillings that are magnetic or filings in your body. Let’s say, you used to be a welder. There’s a danger there and we have to take a lot of safety precautions. To go into the lab and put these little swim caps, they can be done easily, safely and brought into all kinds of situations that are relatively low risk, but also unobtrusive. You can be talking and interacting with somebody and we can still be measuring some brain activation. Whereas normally, when we bring them into the lab, in the scanner, you’ll be lying still for an hour. You can’t lose more than a couple of millimeters. It’s much better for real social interactions and seeing what’s going on underneath the hood as you’re doing that.

I’ve been in many MRIs in my life for different reasons. I’m thinking that when you’re in that setting, the stress from being in there is going to have some impact.

We find it funny too, but most people get comfortable with it, do well, and pay attention to the study. If you do have weird reactions, you tend to have one of two things. Either people get anxious, they can’t sit still and want to get out, or they get comfortable because they’re wrapped in a blanket and got headphones on that they fall asleep. It’s like being put into a womb or something. It’s like when you have a baby, swaddling them tight to calm them down. That’s basically what we’re doing to grown adults and some of them find it relaxing.

I would not be in that group of comfortable.

TTL 708 | Group Identities
Group Identities: The psychology of American politics is very much about ingroup and outgroup, your team or my team.


Neither was I during the first time I did it.

Especially when your head is all the way in it. It’s interesting to study some of what you study. I liked your TED Talk. I found that interesting because I studied perception in the workplace. If you want to open a business in certain parts of the world compared to being in the United States, how people get along? How often you’re perceived by others of your company of whether it’s this or that? There are many aspects to how much bias plays into things. I like the discussions you had because you touched on a lot of things that a lot of people don’t talk about. First of all, you get into politics, which you handled that well because you didn’t give any indication of your side. You showed things about Trump or different aspects of the partisan brain. I want to talk about how you said in that talk that when you look at a Democrat versus a Republican, their brain lights up differently. I wanted to know the nature versus nurture aspect of all of that. Can you go into the background of why there’s a difference and how that difference came to be if it’s nature versus nurture?

I’ll reveal my politics, which is that I’m Canadian. I can’t even vote or join a party in the United States. That explains why and that helps. I have no history of giving money to or voting for anybody in the US. That’s my political background. I moved to the United States in 2006, I believe and I was living in Ohio. It was before the presidential election of 2008, which was John McCain and Barack Obama. I lived in Columbus, Ohio and at the time, it was the biggest swing state in the country. All of these politicians were coming through all the time to try to get the Ohio vote. I became fascinated by American politics. I realized the psychology of American politics was much about ingroup and outgroup, your team or my team. I started to realize it fits into the other aspects of a group’s identity that I’d already been studying for four years before I got to the United States.

Since that point, I’ve been doing more work looking at politics. We’re in a hyperpolarized time so it leads to all kinds of interesting things to study and people are passionate about it. Politics is one of those things where people will go to a protest and put a sign on their lawn or sticker. They’re not scared of saying who they support. Whereas a lot of the other types of group dynamics are much more socially sensitive in issues of bias, racial bias, and national conflict. These are things people aren’t always comfortable talking about but politics is so you can get rich data. We’ve been looking at things brain structure differences between people on the left or the right. There was this great study that inspired us that came out of Britain, where they had some neuroscientists measure the brain structure of liberals and conservatives. They found that there were differences in the gray matter volume of different brain regions.

For example, conservatives had larger gray matter volumes of their amygdala. Liberals had larger gray matter volumes of their anterior cingulate cortex. They ran another study and found similar patterns. That inspired us to start looking at some of those things in an American context. I’ll say a great footnote of that study is it wasn’t neuroscientists who were involved. It was Academy Award-winning actor Colin Firth, that year, published that neuroscience paper because he helped come up with the idea on a TV show. He won his Academy Award for the King’s Speech that same year. It was a good year for him.

I have no idea that he was behind anything like that. Where did the moderates fall at their brain waves?

What they found is that it was almost a straight line that moderates fall somewhere in the middle. Conservatives fall on one end and the liberals on the other end in these 2 or 3 different brain regions. It wasn’t like the whole brains were radically different from the left and the right. It was a couple of specific regions where they found these differences. I’ll say that we ran a couple of versions of that study in New York and found similar patterns. What we found is the effects of liberal conservatism are a little bit different in Britain than the United States. We found what accounted for those same differences. It was the extent to which you defend the status quo and in general, the system that you’re in seems to be what helps explain those differences that you were saying.

Explain what you mean by that because I talk a lot about the status quo when it comes to curiosity. I’m curious about what you mean.

We have one of our collaborators created this theory, the scale, and system justification. He finds some people around the world, people in every country, some of them are resistant to change and want to defend the system that they’re in or go back to the ways that they used to be doing it before. That tends to correlate with conservatism in most places. There are other people who are progressive. They’re people who want change and to restructure the system. Those tend to be liberals in most countries. If you go to France, you find the opposite because it’s historically incredibly liberal. People who want to defend and protect the system tend to be liberals there. This is correlated with liberalism conservatism, but it seems a more basic orientation towards change, which probably maps on to your curiosity measure, potentially or creativity.

Can you determine causation?

We call it the chicken and egg problem of political neuroscience. You don’t know what came first because brains change over time slowly but they do. For example, there was a great famous neuroscience study in London with London taxi drivers. They found that London taxi drivers who’d been driving longer had bigger hippocampi. That’s part of the brain that’s involved in memory, especially spatial mapping. This was before Waze and these GPS maps, as you became amassed, to be a cab driver in old London, you needed to memorize this incredibly crazy ancient huge city and exercise that muscle of that mental map every day. One theory is, by exercising spatial mapping all day long, that part of the brain region, the neurons that are firing together, get all wired together, and you can measure that in the scanner.

Is Google Maps decreasing our hippocampi?

Yes. Technology probably doesn’t require us to do all kinds of mental things that we used to do because we know we can google it or ask Siri. I don’t know most of my friends’ phone numbers anymore, whereas when I was a kid, growing up as a teenager, you had to memorize everybody’s phone number.

You remember it probably from when you were a kid.

I remember some of my friend’s phone numbers. I bet I could go to an old rotary phone and enter them. With my iPhone, I hit a button, but I don’t know almost anybody’s phone number anymore. That means that part of the brain is not being exercised but maybe it’s being freed up to think about other things. If we harness it correctly, we know that technology allows us to be more productive and connected so on. We get some benefits from it but maybe we lose something in the process.

Is there any evidence to show that we’re born one way or the other? I thought I saw research in the past. For example, faith was something that could be genetic. I don’t know how good the research was. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it and it’s coming to me. Otherwise, I’d give you a bit more background on it, but things like faith, you either were born with the ability to have more of religious beliefs and things. Is that true? Have you looked into that?

There’s amazing and provocative research with twins. What they did to look at the biological origins of politics is they did twin studies. You can look at twins who are identical versus non-identical. Identical twins share 100% of the same genetic makeup. They’re like clones. Non-identical twins share 50% of the makeup. They’re born on the same day, raised by the same family, but only and often look alike, but only share 50% of the genes. What they found is that if you have an identical twin, you are radically and more likely to share their politics. From this, they can figure out that about 40% of your political beliefs are explained almost purely by genetics.

[bctt tweet=”Politics is when people go to a protest, put a sign on their lawn or a sticker, and they’re not scared of saying who they support.” username=””]

Even if you take identical twins, and raise them in different families, one a conservative family and one a liberal family, those twins will tend to have the same politics that they meet up 20 or 30 years later. Often, when we get raised by our parents, you get older and you think maybe all those dinnertime conversations with your parents shape your politics and all the arguments and ideas floating in the household. What the study suggests is a huge part of it is that you share your parents’ genes. Even if they never were to talk about politics, you would have a similar orientation to them because you share the same genetic orientation to the world.

Is there any epigenetic component like some catastrophe that happened to your grandparents that goes in your genes stuff that’s going on?

It’s possible. I see that there are interesting generational effects of situations that change our politics. Who knows what the pandemic will do to young people’s politics and how it affects their kids? There’s a lot there to still untangle. It’s an exciting, pretty new area. It’s interesting because we talk about politics about debates. We have political debates that tens of millions of people watch, billion-dollar presidential campaigns and we talk about a debate of ideas. When you see this data over and over again on brain differences or genetics, it gets you thinking. The way to understand this is, some people are going to be resistant to change because they have basic orientations towards the world that are going to attract them to certain parties and policies. The idea that we’re going to debate them on the internet all day until they come around to a reason is probably not going to work for most people for these reasons. It may change how we think about other people.

One possibility is, you could become a little bit more tolerant for somebody a bit different than you because you realize, it’s not that they’re denying some evidence or something. They have a different orientation and preferences. It’s almost like some people from a young age. I have two kids. From the moment they were born, they’ve had different little personalities. My daughter’s obsessed with fairness and has been since she was about eighteen months old. My son is obsessed with autonomy and does not like to be told what to do. That’s probably going to make their politics different when they’re 25. Part of it will be due to their makeup when they’re born. It’s going to be hard to argue with my daughter that fairness doesn’t matter as much as other things because that’s going to be part of the way she sees the world for a long time.

When you talk about this as siblings, you get 40% or whatever from your genetics, but siblings, whether their identical twins or not, shouldn’t they be somewhat similar if it’s genetic? I’ll let you answer that.

They’re their brother and sister, so they’ll share 50% of the same genetic makeup. They’re going to be more similar than any other average random pair of kids on the street but they’re still going to be different because there’s some random variation that happens. They’re both social and extroverted, like me and their mom. They’re friendly and bright little kids. They share a set of characteristics that are similar. When you see them all day long for a long time, the differences are more obvious to me. If I were to introduce them to you, you might say, “They seem quite a bit alike,” but I detect the differences.

When you talk about brain change being possible, it’s in my research of emotional intelligence and curiosity. We know that we can improve or change. Instead of improvement at this time, we’ll talk about change. Let’s say you are conservative and we force you to sit and watch CNN all day or vice versa. Will that make a difference? Will you change?

Yes. What happens is, because we live in a media environment that’s hyperpolarized, if you’re exposed to it for 5, 10, or 30 years, you’re probably going to be more polarized. In fact, a lot of times, we think of young undergraduate students protesting on campuses and they seem pretty radical. That’s how the media picks it up. If you look at the population, it’s older people who are the most polarized, in part because they’d been plugged into the same media for decades. They’d been donating or voting for one party the same way for decades and going to party events. It turns out that you see greater polarization as you age because they’re thinking about politics and have been tuned into whatever talk radio station, podcast, or TV station that they enjoy. It does have an effect on you over a long period of time, that exposure for sure.

We’ve seen the movies, Facebook, ads, and the things that could impact what you think, how you vote, and that type of thing. Do you think that we’re being manipulated? It’s like you said, 1984 is starting to come back. Are we living that time, the book, the famous Orwell?

There is a lot that’s Orwellian. I’ve been studying social media and how groups talk on social media. When people get all outraged, you can see echo chambers form and people stop talking or sharing stuff from the other side. That also becomes a ripe environment for fake news and conspiracy theories to spread. When you have hyperpolarization and all these different sources of news and you have fear because of COVID, it’s almost the perfect recipe for misinformation and conspiracy theories to spread. That’s bad but I’m an intrinsically optimistic person and also a scientist, so I tend to think that data, logic, and reasoning can help us. I do think that there are smart people around the world trying to solve it and get better. We’re trying to improve our standard scientifically all the time and figure out how we can communicate better. We’re reaching out to leaders, organizations, and politically how to figure out how they can communicate better. I do think it’s a dangerous time because of all this. I also think that technology could as easily be leveraged for good but people are trying to manipulate us.

How do you recognize that? Do people want to be manipulated?

I don’t know if people want to be manipulated, but people want to hear things that resonate with them that align with their identities. Those things will feel good and they’ll start to tune out things that don’t. There’s a lot of research on this. For example, political campaigns matter that much and there is some research suggesting they don’t matter at all. One reason might be that both campaigns are spending a lot of money. They cancel each other out. Also, we get so much advertising. Let’s say you spend an hour on Facebook today scrolling through your feed and research suggests that you scroll through about 300 feet of social media feed a day. Imagine that you’re holding your iPhone in front of you, and it’s six inches tall and you flip up with your thumb to scroll through your page on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

Every flip is six inches, so the average person who’s on social media is doing that 600 times a day. What that means is what’s called an attention economy because so much is coming at us but not a lot of it captures our attention anymore. A lot of people are trying to manipulate you all day long on that feedback paying for advertising and pushing whatever idea they have. I don’t think a lot of it is getting through because you see so much. The real race is to find stuff that breakthroughs and captures your attention. This is why companies are obsessed with going viral. Our politicians are always trying to create an ad, soundbite, or a hot take that will break through all the noise. That’s where the science is moving. How do you do that? If you do, you could be a breakthrough for a person, a business, or a politician.

Do you agree that perception is reality?

For individuals, how you see the world dramatically changes how you behave. Your perception becomes your reality.

If that’s the case and I don’t know what percentage is but I see black and gold and you’re seeing blue on the dress, how can we ever get along if our perception is reality? We got this genetic component, and we see things from completely different perspectives? Is it about developing empathy, emotional intelligence, and realizing we have more things alike than we are different and to try and understand that, you have a different perspective? What’s the key?

The key that we found in our research is, there are a couple of different buttons that can get pressed to how people work together. One is, you feel you’re on the same team for something. This is what happens during the Olympics. Suddenly, people feel a sense of national identity. That is something that happens or if you’re in an organization, all of a sudden, a hostile takeover comes and people stop arguing and try to figure out how to work together. This happens all the time and it’s a switch that gets flicked quickly for people. We’ve done studies on this. The moment you get people cooperating instead of competing, empathy increases, willingness to work together and make sacrifices for the group increase and attitudes quickly increase.

TTL 708 | Group Identities
Group Identities: We become more tolerant of somebody a bit different than us when they have a different orientation and preferences.


That’s one thing that leaders, political leaders, or any leader need to think a lot about. Once you get that there are all kinds of ways to benefit. In fact, there’s research on diversity in teams. It predicts better performance and more creativity. There’s one study that I found that suggests that only happens for teams that share a sense of identity. If the teams are diverse but don’t feel they’re on the same team and working together, that diversity can’t be harnessed. The term in the DNI space is inclusion. You also need to feel or what Amy would say, psychological safety. Diversity of perspectives can help you, but only insofar as everybody feels that they’re part of the same team and they’re a valued member.

Are we creating a common enemy, so we’re all together? If you watch CNN, it’s all against Trump. If you watch Fox, it’s all against China. Do we need to have something we’re against sometimes?

I will say this, if there’s something that you’re against, it’s one of the fastest ways to create a common purpose. You can see it from the Democrats. They have lots of conflicts, but they’re against Trump, so they’re quickly rallying around Joe Biden. This is what happens over and over again, politically. If there was a foreign invader like aliens landing on the earth, you would see that people from all over the world would rally together and nationalism wouldn’t matter so much. If you want that feeling, watch Independence Day, that alien invasion movie. Watch that movie or one like it.

Psychologically, what you’re doing is you’re suddenly cheering for all these other huge countries who are normally the enemy, at odds or in conflict. That happens to us at all kinds of levels and that can happen in our neighborhood. I had it happen at work where there’s a group of people who are in a bit of conflict. All of a sudden, there’s another group they’re in conflict with. All sudden, they tighten to support one another. This type of thing happens all the time. There’s a great term for leaders who are good at harnessing this and creating a sense of togetherness. It’s called Entrepreneurs of Identity. Good leaders are entrepreneurs. They’re constantly creatively thinking of new ways to frame situations to rally people as part of a common cause.

Will you give an example of that?

I’ll give you a great example. I’ll give you some data on it and maybe that will give you a hint. The data on it came from a study that was done in Australia. Where they analyze politicians’ speeches over many decades and look at which politicians won and lost. What they found is that politicians who won the election were more likely to use collective pronouns in their public speeches. Words like we, us, or them as opposed to, “I will do this for you. I’m going to accomplish X.” Politicians were able to frame up if you’re in the audience are watching at home on TV. You feel a connection to them that you might not be able to explain. You’re more willing to volunteer for them, vote for them, or send them money. Politicians who do that are masters. The term comes from Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher, who are both famous social identity researchers, and they call it Entrepreneurs of Identity.

If you look at it, there are many politicians around the world who are masters of it. One of my favorites is Nelson Mandela. After the apartheid period of South Africa, there is enormous conflict because there has been a history of oppression and racism. One thing he did was rally the country around the national rugby team. They ended up winning the World Cup. It was a moment of togetherness in a period of incredible potential for hostility, violence, and deaths. He realized that there was a need for something that people could feel. They could all get behind and brought them on the same team cheering for something of common purpose. His one example from historically someone who’s a great leader and had great instincts, but you can see that in all kinds of levels from sports coaches to business leaders to politicians.

The political speeches, should we be electing the speechwriter then? How much is it the speechwriter? How much is it the actual politician?

That’s where I don’t know. It might be that they have masterful speech writers and that’s a valuable skill. Knowing what psychological buttons to push in an audience is something that you can do or you can have someone on your team that gives you advice about how to do it. I don’t think there’s any shame in that.

What is interesting in your talks is how we can’t have conversations about certain things because we can agree that there’s even a problem, to begin with. You were talking about vaccinations or global warming and some of the things that are hot topics. How do you look at those situations? How can we talk about whether vaccinations are good or bad? How can we talk about if we have global warming and why are people so polarized on those?

I’ll do both those examples. Global warming is a big issue and there’s an enormous scientific consensus around it. It would be a fruitful conversation in society if we stopped denying global warming and instead said, “Here are different policy possibilities. There are trade-offs involved, maybe economically. Let’s have all the smart people sit around a table and put a bunch of proposals up and see what best manages those trade-offs.” That’s the type of conversation I would have as a scientist. Let’s acknowledge the science but I don’t know the solution. Most scientists don’t know the best solution to it. It’s going to require people from a broad variety of backgrounds like economists, different political, business leaders, and so forth.

That’s the conversation that I would like to hear rather than a subset of people denying it. I’ll say that the denial of climate science you see as a politically polarized issue in the US because it’s on the Republicans who deny it, but it’s not necessarily something conservatives intrinsically deny. If you look in other countries, the United Kingdom and other countries, the opposition or denial of climate change is not that different between the left and the right. It’s something about the specific history of politics, lobbying, and things like that in the US that have needed a political issue. It doesn’t have to be one.

There’s always something to gain by one party to deny something.

There is sometimes but on the other hand, it could be a bad move. Sometimes attitudes in the population change. An example of that is same-sex marriage. When I was in undergrad, attitudes towards same-sex marriage were firmly against in the US. I was doing research on it in Canada because they were starting to pass same-sex marriage laws. I remember the 2000 or 2004 election, Republican at the state level we’re putting ballots to get out the vote to add extra questions about same-sex marriage, whether or not the state should deny it and it would get people to the polls to vote for George Bush. You would never see that happen these days because attitudes towards same-sex marriage have gone exactly in the opposite direction. If you were a political candidate running on against same-sex marriage, it would be hard for you to get elected in the vast majority of the country. What seemed a politically convenient position to have in 2004 would be a devastating position to have.

People would not support you if you held those views or be hard in most parts of the country to get elected if you held anti-same-sex marriage views. The country’s evolved or changed a lot on that issue in a way that it has political consequences. We’re probably experiencing similar changes on issues of climate change. It could seem politically convenient for you to oppose or deny climate change but if you’re on the record as denying it, a few years from now, that could be a poison pill for your political career. Vaccines are a perfect example of it. When I gave that talk a few years ago, there were a lot of these small and growing anti-vaccination movements in the US. Now, we’re facing the worst pandemic probably in 100 years and the entire world the economy has ground to a halt, and people are dying.

We have over 50,000 deaths in the US, probably more. We have a million infections in the US. People are desperate for a vaccine. I wonder what will happen once we have a vaccine for COVID. Are the people who are anti-vaxxers going to get their kids vaccinated? Are they going to get vaccinated so they can go back to work and not worry about potentially dying or infecting their family? That’s going to be an issue. I suspect where this pandemic might be the end of this anti-vaccination movement. People were able to have anti-vaccination attitudes because they benefited from herd immunity of everybody else getting the vaccine. Maybe they weren’t old enough to remember how bad it was with polio and measles. They have lived through it and there won’t be such a stigma if you don’t get it and such an awareness of how dangerous it is not to have that vaccine. That might completely change attitudes on vaccines for another 25 years until there’s another group of people who are young to remember this. We’ll see about that.

It’s interesting because I worked for a pharmaceutical company for a long time. A lot of people get that anti-pharma. They’re trying to give you things that are financially beneficial. At this point, it’s not so much about financial as it is survival, but you still see people protesting because they’re weighing economy versus health. That’s an also interesting twist to this whole thing of how to make that decision. Are you surprised by how many people are picketing and getting upset with the nurses for what they’re doing every day? Every day there’s something and I’m like, “I don’t even know what to look at anymore.”

[bctt tweet=”People want to hear things that resonate with them and align with their identities. ” username=””]

There are legitimate debates about how quickly the open economy and how people are going broke, hungry, or losing their homes. There are issues in some countries of authoritarianism where their governments are peeling back civil liberties. I do appreciate that people have the right to protest. What they need to do if they’re going to protest is do it safely. I saw one in Israel where they were protesting and everybody was six feet apart in a giant square. It’s weird but it was also beautiful. They were expressing their civil liberties and standing up to what they thought were derailments of civil liberties. Protests can be well done and can be reasonable. Some people can protest inside cars. There’s that public safety issue, but people should not be in these crowds because this is incredibly dangerous.

You and I are at risk. Everybody who’s reading this is at risk when people take those health risks because they’re more likely to spread it to somebody else. Therefore, we’re all more likely to get in contact with it. In a pandemic, someone else’s dangerous behaviors can affect you. The next thing is, I will say this, there used to be a huge gap between Republicans and Democrats about the pandemic and how dangerous it was. At one point, I remember something, 30% more Democrats considered a major issue than Republicans but that gap has closed. Eighty-two percent of Republicans supported the lockdown and over 90% of Democrats did. It’s become an issue where there’s pretty broad bipartisan consensus that we need to be in the lockdown for public safety.

It has been an interesting time. You mentioned something before. I wanted to go back to because you talked about consensus and how people make their decisions based on that sometimes. You talk about being a scientist. The majority of the people in the world have a religious belief and yet the majority of scientists aren’t religious. How do you put those two together?

There’s always a challenge. There might be a distrust of science by people of faith because they don’t think that scientists represent them. That’s an issue of identity. If you don’t think someone’s representing you who’s coming forth to these ideas, it could be threatening or you create a sense of distrust like with the pharmaceutical companies. I do think that this might be something. There are some video clips in the media of people at religious gatherings, even though it’s dangerous for them to be there. Given that something around 85% to 90% of the public is in support of these health behaviors, what that suggests is, that’s also a vast majority of people of different faiths.

I haven’t seen the data broken down by different faiths but my hunch is, people from all different religions are in solidarity around all these safety measures because many of them do take public health guidelines and science seriously. Most of them do take their kids to doctors, trust medical research, and pharmaceutical interventions for all the types of illnesses they have. I will also bet the vast majority of them will get a vaccine for COVID when it comes out. I do think that there is sometimes tension between religion and faith but when it comes to big things like this, the vast majority of people are on the same page. That’s a good and healthy thing. It doesn’t need to be a conflict around these types of issues.

You had mentioned something in addition to your talk that I thought was interesting based on my sales experience. You talked about opening people’s minds and you said one of the best ways to do that was to listen to their perspective and affirm their belief to find a ground for convincing them. In sales, one of the first things you do is you ask a question, you listen, and you support what they said, even if you don’t agree, necessarily, you find something you can agree with in what they said. After that, you can give your point of view. You also talked about a backfire effect. I want to know what you mean by that.

There is this controversial research, where when we’re trying to fact check somebody that they might get more resistance or even more entrenched in their original views. There are some original studies on this that got a lot of attention. I’ve been studying this in part with Annie Duke, who was in your show before. We ran a study on this. In fact, we didn’t find a big backfire effect at all. Most people if they get a fact check, even if it’s from somebody of another political party, tend to update their things. However, I want to say that the effects of getting fact checks are small. People update their thinking when they get fact-checked, but not a lot. What we found overwhelmingly is, people tend to trust whatever they hear, whether it’s an original statement or fact check from whoever’s part of their political party.

What matters is when you’re trying to get information out there is to find someone who’s trusted by that audience is probably the most powerful thing you can do. Also, make sure that person has the best facts and information. For example, in the national media, I saw that Trump is going to cut back his press briefings after all the controversy about him talking about ingesting chemicals. I do think it’s important to get him in front of Republicans with good information because he has somebody that they trust or they need other Republican governors or something. I do think you still need to get that public health information out but you want to get it coming from trusted sources, so people believe it.

I do think in the polarized environment. It’s not enough to have one news source with that information coming out. You still need to think about what communities you’re trying to reach and get information in their hands. That might be religious leaders in communities or local community leaders. You need to get accurate information in their hands. Scientists need to work with those people at whatever level of leadership they are, whether it’s business leaders, faith leaders, or politicians to make sure that they’re still communicating because they are the people that are trusted in those communities. It turns out that our data suggest anyways that’s what matters the most for shaping people’s beliefs.

When you talk about your data, is that what you’re including in your book? You’re writing a book called The Social Brain, is that out yet? I couldn’t find it.

I’m working on a couple of books. The big one is on social identity and how we identify with groups and how that affects everything from economic decisions to teamwork and leadership to things like unconscious bias. It’s all about the issues in politics. All the issues we’ve been talking about here turns out to be a pretty good highlight of our table of contents for a book. I’m writing it with Dominic Packer, who is also an expert at groupthink and dissent. We’re not only going to talk about how you can harness groups for good but how you can avoid the downsides of groups like everybody starts thinking and pressuring each other to think the same way. It turns out that that’s part of what managing groups mean. It’s harnessing their strengths but also making sure that you minimize the potential downsides of them.

That’s great. I love how that ties into my work and curiosity and getting away from the status quo and groupthink stuff. You said a couple of books. What was the other?

I was working on a book. For that book, I don’t know what the working title is. The working title that I like is Social Chameleons because it talks about how humans are social animals. We mirror those around us that are part of our groups. That’s the working title of the book I have with Dominic Packer. I’m also working on the other book, which is about a social neurosciences textbook with Liz Phelps, who’s a neuroscientist at Harvard, and David Amodio, who’s also a social neuroscientist at New York University.

You’ve got some interesting stuff you work on. I was looking forward to this. I know a lot of people probably want to know more about how they can follow you and find out more about you. Is there something like a link or ways they can follow you?

If you type in my name, Jay Van Bavel, you can find me. You can also find me on LinkedIn. I’m pretty active also on Twitter, so my hashtag is @JayVanBavel. If you’re interested in learning more about the science behind these types of topics, I am active and usually share one or two things every day like stuff I’m reading and stuff that we’re doing in my lab. I’m happy to engage with people on those platforms.

You do interesting work. A lot of the things that you talked about are relevant to what everybody is talking about. Your TED Talk was several years old, but everything in it is relevant. I hope everybody checks it out. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Thanks for having me, Diane. I appreciate it.

TTL 708 | Group Identities
Group Identities: Good leaders are constantly creatively thinking of new ways to frame situations to rally people for a common cause.


It was fun.

I’d like to thank Jay for being my guest. We get many great guests on this show. If you’ve missed any past episodes, you can go to You can read it there. There’s also the radio version on the site. We’re on all the AM/FM shows that you can see at the bottom of the radio page as well as on iTunes, iHeart, Roku, Google Play, Echo, you name it. You can find us everywhere. We get so many interesting people and that’s what makes the show so unique. I love to go into the psychological components of business because they are wrapped into performance issues. I deal a lot with companies with behavioral performance in terms of their emotional intelligence, developing curiosity, recognizing their perception, and how they make decisions.

What Jay talked about ties into my work with perception. It’s key and we talked a little bit about what we can do in sales. We saw a lot of this. If somebody has a different perspective on something, if you initially jump in and say you disagree with them, it all goes downhill from there. In sales, initially, we find some way to support and tie in what had some value for them. They’re more receptive to listening to your point, even if it differs. A lot of people have difficulty doing that. It’s almost the sandwich technique we learned in education.

If you support, this was good for this reason, and you give a little corrective criticism possibly, but in a nice way with feedback in the middle and you end with a positive, “This is why this was great,” thing. We can use a lot of those techniques when we work together in working situations because a lot of times, it’s easy to get on opposing viewpoints, dig your heels in, and we get nowhere. We’re learning in the COVID situation that people are trying to come together more than ever. Hopefully, we’ll see more of that, in general. We are more alike than we have differences in many ways. In the working world, if we can focus on what we have alike, we can ask questions and that’s a lot on what my work with curiosity was focused on.

If we could feel comfortable to ask questions to pursue different avenues that we could get away from status-quo thinking, there’s so much status quo thinking where people are showing up as zombies. They’re not involved, engaged, and innovative. That’s what we’re trying to improve. Not only developing curiosity but by looking at perception so we can learn to have better empathy, critical thinking, and some of the things that make us better decision-makers. We can work in different areas of the world, not only in the United States, England, Africa, or wherever the company is, so we can work together. How others perceive you and how you recognize how they perceive you is important. All of this tied into a great conversation with Jay. I enjoyed having him on the show. I hope you enjoyed the episode and you join us for the next episode.

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About Jay Van Bavel

TTL 708 | Group IdentitiesJay Van Bavel is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Neural Science with an affiliation at the Stern School of Business in Management and Organizations at New York University. Jay completed his PhD at the University of Toronto. He is currently a Senior Scientist at the Neuroleadership Institute and Editor-in-Chief of the Neuroleadership Journal. Jay conducts award-winning research on how collective concerns—group identities, moral values, and political beliefs—shape the brain and behavior. He has published over 60 academic papers on implicit bias, diversity and inclusion, group identity, team formation, cooperation, motivation, and the social brain. Jay has written about his research for the public in the Harvard Business Review, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Scientific American. He has appeared on Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman and NBC News, been interviewed on WNYC, Bloomberg News, and NPR, had his work profiled in international media (e.g., Newsweek, TIME, The New Yorker, The Daily Telegraph, CBC News, Women’s Health, Atlantic, The Guardian, Salon) and been cited in the US Supreme Court. Jay has given a TEDx talk at the Skoll World Forum as well as invited talks at many of the top Psychology Departments and Business Schools in the world (Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Oxford, Stanford). He has also given featured talks at international conferences, the Neuroleadership Summit, and numerous organizations (e.g., Uber, Amazon, Reed Smith, Canadian Space Agency)

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