Today’s remarkable guest is Geoffrey Cohen. He is a professor at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.

His research focuses on the processes that shape people’s sense of belonging and self and the implications of these feelings on social problems.

He studies the threats to belonging and self-integrity that people encounter in school, work, and health care settings.

His new book is called BELONGING: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides.

Geoff obtained his BA in Psychology from Cornell University and his Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University. He was a recipient of the Robert Cialdini Award in 2014 and 2015.

Our topics include:

  • The danger of the fundamental attribution error
  • How to make wise interventions
  • How to utilize situation crafting
  • Why we should not consider humans as information processors

If you enjoyed this episode of the Remarkable People podcast, please leave a rating, write a review, and subscribe. Thank you!

Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with Geoff Cohen:

Guy Kawasaki:
I'm Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. We are on a mission to make you remarkable. Today's remarkable guest is Geoffrey Cohen.
He is a professor at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.
His research focus is the factors that shape people's sense of belonging and self, and the implication of these feelings on social problems.
He studies the threats to belonging and self-integrity that people encounter in school, work, and healthcare settings. His new book is called, Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides.
Geoffrey obtained his BA in psychology from Cornell University, and his PhD in psychology from Stanford.
He was the recipient of the Robert Cialdini Award in 2014 and 2015.
Our topics today include the danger of the fundamental attribution error, how to make wise interventions, how to utilize situation crafting, and why we should not consider humans as information processors.
I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People.
Now, here's the remarkable Geoffrey Cohen.
I would like to start with an update on Hank, the college roommate that was so ideologically different.
Geoffrey Cohen:
Oh wow. What a great question. Hank was my college roommate while I was at Cornell.
He came from the south, and he was very conservative, deeply conservative. We were put together as roommates. I don't think I had ever engaged intellectually with a conservative the way I did with Hank. I generally lean liberal, and I did then, and Cornell at the time and still is a relatively liberal campus.
Hank told me that he didn't really feel at home at Cornell. At least during the year that we were roommates, I think, he continued to feel that way.
What was so formative to me, and I hope him, was that we just engaged in all these political issues. We debated. We talked.
We got into late night debates at our desks. We'd be sitting at our mutual desks, and I'd make a comment, "Are you going to the pro-choice rally?" He would just get inflamed, "How could you ask that?"
This happened on a pretty weekly basis. There would be some verbal eruption arising from some comment one of the two of us made, and the other one just could not just let it sit there. We would just start debating.
The thing about Hank is he was a member of the debate team in high school, and he was so fluent, so articulate, so deep in his thinking that I had the devil of a time making my argument come across to him, let alone be satisfactory to me.
I'd never had the need to justify my political beliefs, and found them so challenged as I did with Hank during that year we were together. We would just debate late into the night. Soon, crowds would form in our dorm room to listen in. As political debates can be, I felt... I don't know.
He was a very nice man, but I would get so angry that I felt this almost rage that I just could not only convince him, but I found that for my most cherished political beliefs, I had such a hard time articulating the reasons for them.
I think through this process, I just came to understand how difficult it is to really know the reasons underlying our beliefs and the intellectual foundations for them.
Much of the time, actually, the research and social psychology suggests the reasons for our political beliefs are more like post hoc rationalizations. We decide what we want to believe. Then we confabulate reasons for why we hold the positions we do.
How those beliefs are initially held is through group influence. We often want to belong to groups, our family, our community, our friendship networks, and the social pressures and social influences of our groups, both big and small, shape our beliefs, and also shape our outlook on the world.
So political beliefs often have this tribal component as many people have commented both for good and for ill. As a result, we often don't really reflect as deeply as I had to do with Hank on the intellectual basis for them.
So as a result of that conversation, how it relates to belonging is it really did drive home to me just how much of our beliefs stem from a desire to belong.
For Hank, as I said, he felt a lot of uncertainty about his place at Cornell. He felt uncertain as to whether he belonged.
For that reason, at least for the first couple years of college, he really didn't shift in his conservative views until much later when he found a group at Cornell to which he felt a sense of connection.
I have not seen Hank since graduating Cornell. We've lost touch. Not that I'm a cyber stalker, but I did try to track him down on Facebook.
I think I successfully did. I think, I successfully did. He's now an arborist working with trees in the south. I tried to say hi via Facebook, and he didn't respond. I don't know what that means, but I think, he might not have just gotten it.
Guy Kawasaki:
I thought we're going to have some great story about now he's working for plant parenthood or something or-
Geoffrey Cohen:
I would.
Guy Kawasaki:
He's Stacy Abrams' campaign manager.
Geoffrey Cohen:
You know what, you just inspired me to redouble my efforts to find out because who knows? That may be possible.
Guy Kawasaki:
Who knows? As an arborist, you would think he's concerned about climate change, right?
Geoffrey Cohen:
That's true. That's true. I do know he comes from a long chain of families, generation of families that did gardening and agriculture. I think it also runs in his family, but it is true. I don't know what became of Hank, but maybe someday, we will find out. Maybe he's listening right now.
Guy Kawasaki:
This is a good example and a personal example of the fundamental attribution error.
Geoffrey Cohen:
The fundamental attribution error, being the tendency to overemphasize the role of internal dispositions, personality, intrinsic features of the person, and trying to explain other people, and to underestimate the power of the situation as a driver of people's behavior, the term was coined by one of my colleagues recently passed away, a brilliant social psychologist named Lee Ross.
The fundamental attribution error is this systematic error we make when we're trying to understand other people, especially people who differ from us to attribute what they say and what they do to some underlying essence in who they are rather than to the circumstances that they're in, both real and as the other people perceive them.
I think in the case of Hank, my immediate reaction was, "This guy is so ignorant." That would've been my initial reaction, so ideological and so biased. That's what we usually do when we encounter people who disagree or differ from us.
At first, we think, "Oh, they must just be ill-informed." But then as I did with Hank, I found out pretty quick, "No, actually, he's very well informed." Then you go to think, "Maybe he's just stupid or unreasonable, lack some fundamental cognitive capacity."
Then as with Hank, we sometimes often realize that, "No, actually, the people with whom we disagree are often pretty smart, have pretty good reasoning capacities."
At least if we engage with them, we often discover that. Then we go to this attribution of biases as I do with Hank thinking, "Man, he must just be intrinsically biased, blind, willfully blind to the facts."
I think that this is an error that fuels so much conflict today. We are unaware of the role of situations in explaining people's behavior, including our own. Instead, we jump to conclusions about their character for their personality or their abilities in trying to understand them. That fuels a lot of divisiveness.
In the case of Hank, maybe I could have realized that both of us came from different communities, different worlds. It's those differences in our backgrounds, and our friendships, and our social networks that explain our differing perspectives.
I think, maybe understanding that, really appreciating that would've made me at least less rageful in the moment. Now with the benefits of distance, I can look back calmly, but at the time, I did feel quite challenged by him, and quite angry at my inability to persuade him.
Guy Kawasaki:
Wow. It's a very cathartic recording.
Geoffrey Cohen:
I was getting something off my chest here. I really appreciate it.
Guy Kawasaki:
I'm your podcaster, not your psychiatrist.
Geoffrey Cohen:
Oh, I swear to God. Sorry.
Guy Kawasaki:
Are you in effect saying, and I'm not saying to a great degree, but as a factor that this whole united part of United States that seems to be falling apart is because people need to feel like they belong to something? Is it that simple?
Geoffrey Cohen:
I wouldn't say it's all the problem by any means. I'm a social scientist. One of the things social scientists have contributed to an understanding of human behavior is just the sheer role of complexity.
Every problem is multifactorial. That just means there's many things contributing to it. That's probably, as I go into the book, one of the most undersold discoveries of social science is that human behavior unfolds in a complex system of influences.
I would never say it's the singular or only class, but I do feel as though it is a big contributor. It is a big contributor in two ways.
First off, the groups to which we feel a sense of belonging shape our beliefs.
A social psychologist named Stanley Schachter once said and showed in his research that “groups exert pressures to uniformity.”
That means when we're in a group, we have a desire to come to some cognitive common ground, a shared understanding of reality, and so groups exert pressures on us to see the world in a way aligned with our group. I think that's an important driver of the beliefs that we have, and perhaps explains why things are so divisive today, at least in part.
Increasingly, conservatives and liberals live in different worlds, different neighborhoods. I think, there was a recent study, I believe, in science, just showing the degree, the surprising degree of segregation between the left and the right down to the level of neighborhoods.
We just don't inhabit the same social world the way we used to, including also in Congress. It used to be the case that Democrats and Republicans would have lunch together, have dinner together across party lines. That doesn't really happen that much anymore.
So, I think as we're increasingly living and inhabiting different worlds, as our groups are inhabiting different worlds, we're becoming more polarized seeing the world in a different way. That's the first way in which belonging is really important for understanding our political divide.
The second role of belonging in understanding the political divide is the role of encounters across lines of difference in making us feel that our belonging is under threat.
Too many times in our conversations across political divides, also across racial divides, across national divides, the conversations go south, and they become, as my conversations with Hank had, battles in which both people are much more interested in vocalizing their position, and in persuading or controlling the other person's minds than they are in listening, and that comes across.
Some research that I did long ago with Claude Steele and Josh Aronson suggests that when people encounter information that's incongruent with their political views, it's threatening to their sense of self. It's threatening to their sense of belonging, and to the degree that so they'll often resist it, or try to refute it in order to negate that threat. Those are the two ways in which, I think, belonging plays out in some of the divides.
Of course, there's many other factors, including the media, including the algorithms that feed the news in our social media.
All that stuff matters, and we've investigated it, but I think those two ways, belonging is really a key driver of the political divide today, both in the sense of our attachment to groups and in the way that we otherize. I don't know if that could be used as a verb.
People who come from opposing groups who have different views from our own, and that just adds jet fuel to the fire.
Guy Kawasaki:
Does this cut both ways? Suppose you're a liberal, and you're saying, "That guy's so stupid. He's anti-vax. Whatever." I mean, is there also this force to conformity? Let's say you're a fan of AOC. You're in the AOC fan club. Is there just as much forced conformity in that group?
Geoffrey Cohen:
As in the non-AOC group or the anti-AOC group?
Guy Kawasaki:
Yeah. I don't know. If you're the AOC group, you better buy an electric car. I don't know what else.
Geoffrey Cohen:
It's a good question. Maybe. In the research that I've seen, in the research that I've done, I have not found that.
Years ago, we did a study on what came to be known as the party over policy effect in which we looked at how strong conformity pressures are as a determinant of political beliefs and attitudes. The studies were really simple, but ended up being a harbinger of much that came later in the nineties and early 2000s.
To make a long story short, what we did was we brought liberals and conservatives into our lab, and had them read a newspaper article about a new welfare policy that was going to be introduced throughout their state.
Now, in one case, that welfare policy was very generous with pretty lavish benefits, support for education, and job training, and children. In the other case, for another group of participants, the welfare policy was quite stringent, even draconian with very limited benefits, and a strict time limit on the benefits.
Now, without any other information, liberals like the generous policy more than the stringent one, and conservatives like the stringent policy more than the generous one.
The question we asked was, "What happens when we tell people through an experimental ruse that their group actually like the opposite, the ideologically opposite policy?"
What happens, for instance, when liberals discover that we're told in the context of our study that fellow Democrats actually prefer the stringent policy instead of the generous one? What we found was that people's views shift to align with those of their political group.
Democrats favor a stringent policy when it's supported by fellow Democrats, and conservatives too showed just as much conformity. We call this the party over policy effect, because party allegiances Trump policy content, at least in the context of this study, and later studies have replicated this.
We found that it's pretty much symmetrical across the political lines.
My colleague, Emily Pronin, has shown that this interesting phenomenon wherein we tend to think that it's the other side that is biased by conformity, not ourselves or our side. That's also, again, the fundamental attribution error in action, and it undercuts our sense of inclusion, sense of being part of a united community, these sorts of biases.
I think that's one of the lessons of the book is that these kinds of biases, as they unfold day to day, really introduce tears and strains into the connections and the sense of belonging that we could otherwise achieve.
Guy Kawasaki:
When you read that the Republican party of Texas wants to vote on secession, is the interpretation that the Republicans want to belong more to the Republican party than to the United States?
Geoffrey Cohen:
That could be party over country, party over country. I think that it's a good question. It's an empirical question. The degree to which allegiance is a pervasive bias among Texans. Texas is Republicans.
I don't know, but certainly, even my colleagues, David Sherman and Leaf Van Boven, have shown similar effects in the context of global warming and environmental policy, showing that both liberals and conservatives shift their views on environmental policies in light of the position of their political groups.
It's a party over planet effect that people will even oppose policies that are good for the environment, at least more so, if told that their political group opposes them.
Guy Kawasaki:
But every liberal is probably thinking, "The reason why I believe in climate change and all the green stuff is because it's science, and it's independently true. It's not because I'm influenced by conformity."
Geoffrey Cohen:
Every Republican is also thinking that their beliefs and their attitudes arise from a bottom-up consideration of the facts guided by their values, and would probably say the same thing, that it's not coming from group pressures.
These judgmental biases, these cognitive biases affect all of us.
Now, ironically, they're what unite us. While they undercut our belonging, we can find ways together to fight back against them, and promote a sense of belonging and connection even across these fault lines.
Guy Kawasaki:
Which leads us right back to your book, which is, let's talk about wise intervention and situation crafting.
Geoffrey Cohen:
I introduced the idea of situation crafting to capture this idea documented in social psychology of the power of the situation. It turns out that one of the most underappreciated influences on our behavior and our thoughts and feelings is the situation right here right now, how people are treating us.
What's happening around us in the social environment, or in the classroom, in the workplace, in political discussions? The situation turns out to be a great leaver for promoting belonging. There are many so-called...
The term is wise interventions, a term introduced by both Claude Steele and Greg Walton. That refer to these strategic interventions that we introduce into situations to make them more likely to bring out our best, and make them more likely to ease tensions, and bring people together, including across lines of difference. Wise interventions are these situational tweaks, often small that can have big effects.
Guy Kawasaki:
Can you give us some tactical examples of wise intervention situation crafting?
Geoffrey Cohen:
Sure. One of the examples of situation crafting that I go into is the example of values affirmations. Values affirmations are these activities that we can give to people in situations that help them to express their core values.
There's a lot of research that suggests that these little activities, when introduced, can have pretty powerful effects on people.
So for instance, in one study by David Creswell, he put people in a very stressful situation where they had to give an impromptu talk in front of a very, very judgmental audience that heckled at them, and they had to give this talk.
What he found is that people's stress response spiked in that situation. When you look at their cortisol level, which is a stress-related hormone, it jumped in that situation compared to a situation where they didn't have to give the talk.
Creswell also introduced a little wise intervention into that situation in which he first had people write about or reflect on core values that they had. So in this values affirmation activity, people will describe their values such as relationships with friends and family is a big value, or creativity, or even their career.
What these moments of reflection do is to ground us. They help us to give us perspective in an otherwise threatening situation. What often happens in these threatening situations is they engulf us. By reflecting on our core values, we remind ourselves of who we are and what we're committed to.
What Creswell found was that that values affirmation activity eliminated the spike in cortisol as a result of having to give this stressful talk. That little wise intervention buffered people against an otherwise stressful situation.
These values affirmations are one example of what's been called wise interventions, these small situational tweaks right here right now that we can do to ourselves or with one another, that help make a situation go a little bit better than it otherwise might, make it a little bit less stressful, would make it a little bit less threatening to belonging, but sometimes large and lasting effects.
With my colleagues, Julio Garcia and Valerie Purdie Greenaway, we actually looked at the effects of values affirmations in classrooms during the turbulent years of middle school.
This is ages twelve to thirteen.
It's like the sixties of development, just a lot of turbulence. There's a lot of stress. Children during this developmental era are very concerned with belonging and connection.
It's just at this moment where they're actually craving more connection with adults that in middle school, they often get less of these connections, less of these relationships, because they're being shifted from class to class with different teachers.
There's often policies in place, which divide the students such as honor rules. It's at this juncture when what we call belonging and uncertainty is especially acute.
What we did was to just ask the question, "Why does intervention help at this critical developmental juncture?"
So for half of the students, we had the teachers give them a values affirmation writing activity, in which the kids wrote about important value that they had. Many of the kids worried about really poignant topics in their lives. I remember I've read hundreds of these essays.
One of the children wrote about how his mother and his families is just so important to him. He works after school to help support the household. So much self comes out in these essays in which the children even at this age are asked to reflect on what's most important to them.
Anyhow, we do that a few times throughout the year. What we found is that the students who are experiencing the most belonging uncertainty benefit in terms of their grade.
At various schools at the first school we looked at, this was African American students who often contend with negative stereotypes about their group, and so they feel ostracized and excluded understandably in school, their grades, as a result of this intervention, went up.
Even though the total duration of the interventions was probably thirty or forty minutes across seventh grade, two years later, they were still performing better academically, getting higher grades.
Then to our surprise, when we checked back in on these kids, I think it was six years later, the children who had completed the values affirmation activity in seventh grade were now more likely, according to official records, to be in college.
That's an example of a wise intervention that can, at a key juncture, set people in a better course. Another example is one of the tasks that we have all the time is giving good feedback in education, in work settings, so a fundamental dilemma in education is how to provide good, critical feedback, including across racial or gender divides.
This is a challenge that we experience in so many situations as spouses, as coaches, as teachers, as mentors. How do you give good feedback that both instructs and motivates in which people learn from their mistakes, but also still feel a sense of belonging in school or at work or whatever the domain is?
The wise intervention that we tested was what we call wise criticism. With wise criticism, what you do is to make it very clear that the criticism that you're giving is coming from your high standards and your belief in the person's ability to reach them.
What we did is in research with Claude Steele and David Jaeger and others was to test the effects of wise criticism mainly in school context. We did this, for instance, in middle school and in high school, in which students submitted their work to their teacher.
Then they got whatever feedback their teacher normally gave them on their work. Then for one group of students, they got wise criticism, in which the teacher penned a note at the start of the essay saying, "Look, I'm giving you this criticism because I have high standards, and I believe in your potential to reach them."
What we found is that little note had whopping effects, especially, again, for the students who felt most ostracized and not included in this case, African American students getting feedback from their white teachers. The percentage of students who then later revise their essays jumped from 17 percent in a control condition to 72 percent among those receiving the wise feedback.
So a little shift in how criticism is provided has a big impact on people's receptiveness to it. That was an example of a non-obvious way to give criticism.
One of the things that we found is that typically when people give critical feedback, they often use this positive buffer strategy. They give a little bit of positive feedback, "Overall, nice work. Your enthusiasm really shows through."
That turns out to work a little bit, but not nearly as well as this wise intervention. There's many other interventions that we go into that range from interventions, in which we disclose one another through structured questions that help to increase a sense of connection.
Certain kinds of questions, Arthur Aron has this technique that he calls thirty-six questions, in which people ask one another questions of gradually increasing intimacy. By the end, they feel very connected, even though it's about a half hour intervention.
That little intervention has a big impact on people's sense of connection with one another. It has even been shown to help, for instance, ethnic minorities feel more included at school.
Guy Kawasaki:
This is a semi-facetious question, but if you're telling me that I should go to my teenage son, I say, "Son, I have really high standards. That's why you need to clean up your room."
Are you saying that make it more effective? I'll do that.
Geoffrey Cohen:
I don't know about that situation. All of this really depends on being authentic Guy, right? I mean, if you really believe that, then…
Guy Kawasaki:
I do have high standards.
Geoffrey Cohen:
That could work.
Guy Kawasaki:
I'll get back to you. So to be even more tactical, would you say that not that this was intentional or planned, but it happened to become a wise intervention that... Didn't you mention that Hank's desire and eventual joining of a frat, which provided him a different group to belong to, influenced a lot of his thinking? Was that a not planned, not intentional, but was that a wise situational intervention?
Geoffrey Cohen:
One of the things that happened with Hank many years later I bumped into him... After being away, studied abroad, and back on campus, I bumped into him, and discovered that he had big shift in his political views.
For example, one of the issues in which we disagreed so much at the time was the issue of gay rights. He was adamantly opposed to them at the time we first met. But three years later, he was very supportive, and even Hank found himself in a physical fight with another person in the dorm in which he was standing up for gay rights against another guy who was very violently opposed to them.
Hank, all of a sudden, had become an advocate for gay rights when before, he had been an adversary to them. What had happened to him? It wasn't arguments that changed him. My arguments with him, the reasoning, the debates I had with him, but they hadn't shifted him one bit. Instead, it was connecting with a new group. It was connecting with a new group many years later.
A few years, Hank told me what had happened. Many years later, he decided to rush a fraternity, and there was one that he particularly liked, and he was very motivated to become a member of this fraternity.
One night, he was there at dinner at the fraternity's house. While he was there, he started on one of his high reads against gay people at the dinner table, whereupon one of the fraternity members slammed down his silverware, and said, "You just condemned my whole life," and walked away.
It turned out that this fraternity member was gay. Also, to Hank's surprise, it turned out that many members of this fraternity were gay. It was that, identifying with a new group that started to crack open Hank's mind to an alternative point of view.
When he found himself in a new community, people with new ideas, new perspectives, that opened him up. That exerted pressures to uniformity of opinion that Stanley Schachter had described in some of his early research. But also, there was something else.
Hank started to feel like he belonged on campus. He had a group of people that he felt a strong connection to. It was that affirmation, I think, that also opened him up to a new way of thinking. To my surprise, Hank even said, "I thought a lot about those debates that we had a few years ago, and I've just been thinking a lot about them. Now, they're starting to resonate with me more."
First, it required a change in heart, openness in Hank's heart, as a result of this change in his situation. Then his head could change. It wasn't that rational arguments and reasoning and evidence were irrelevant.
They were, but he needed a secure base, a sense of affirmation before those arguments could take root in his mind. In later research that I did with some colleagues, we looked at this experimentally in which we brought political liberals and political conservatives into our lab, and presented them with evidence that contradicted their views on capital punishment.
For one group of participants, we just had them affirm themselves by writing about something that gave them a sense of meaning in their lives. They would write about values that they held, or a group that they identified with, something that gave them a sense of groundedness.
We found that people who did that, who affirmed their sense of self in a domain outside of politics, that's key, were subsequently more open to this new political information.
It wasn't that they agreed with it, though some did, they were less likely to attribute the author of the views of the source of the evidence to intellectual bias or to ideological bias, to ignorance. They were more open to the other side.
Guy Kawasaki:
Would you say that the case of Christian, is it Picciolini?
Geoffrey Cohen:
Guy Kawasaki:
He was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He goes to work for a music store, come to find out he has a lot of great interactions with black people, and that changed his ideology. Is this a similar story?
Geoffrey Cohen:
I think it is. In a lot of this research on working with extremist groups that DeLone discusses now, but also that another social psychologist by the name of Arie Kruglanski, who studied extremist groups has found is that one of the ways to bring people with extremist views back into the fold is to offer them a new port, a new place to belong.
Time and again, that's what's come across anecdotally, especially is that people do change. My mother says people never change. I actually disagree. People do change. It's just not often at the pace we want, or in the direction we want.
A lot of times, we get very frustrated because it's almost like we're applying the wrong keys to open a door. There are certain things that change people. If these things are introduced into the situation, they can open people up to change, but it has to be the right keys, the right things that are introduced into the situation.
So in the case of extremists who do change, it is often the case that they're not moved by evidence or arguments. What they're moved by is someone extending them regard, and believing in them, and having a connection with them who believes in their humanity, even though they hold these extreme views, and who sticks with them.
Time and again, it's that connection with someone on the other side, in another world that opens people up. I'm not saying that happens all the time.
Of course, it doesn't happen all the time, but when it does happen, it's often that ingredient, that sense of belonging and connection with someone who offers an alternative way of relating to the world.
That happened with Picciolini. It happens with a number of extremists who turn.
They are given a new source of belonging, new friendships, new people, new communities, and also in some cases, even a new life, a new kind of work, a household in which they feel they belong, a family, life that they can feel satisfied with, this combination of elements that helps to secure a sense of belonging and otherwise threatening situation.
Because a lot of these people come from fairly disadvantaged backgrounds, not all extremist people come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but a lot to. There's a crises, psychological crises that often serve as a precursor to it.
But when they do shift, it's that element of a secure base, a sense of connection with the new world, a sense of belonging.
Guy Kawasaki:
Let's take a hypothetical case. You're a California family, total liberal, greeny, anti-gun, pro-choice, just the whole shooting match. You go away to college at the University of Texas, and you want to join a frat. You really like this people in this frat, and then you find out, "Oh my God, all these people own guns. They really love guns." Could that person want to affiliate with this frat and all of sudden become a gun lover, and Second Amendment-open carry in California activist.
Geoffrey Cohen:
Yes. I think, it goes both ways. It goes both ways. It's not that we roll over or buckle under the group, though sometimes we do. Those group pressures can be strong, but at the very least leads us to look at the world and the issue from a different point of view. It's almost as though we can't help doing that.
When we're with a group of people that have a certain outlook with whom we identify, we can't help but look at the world from their point of view. It's not the case that we'll necessarily go there, but we're a bit more likely to perhaps, and a bit more likely at least to show compassion to people who disagree with us.
I'm not of course saying that there's... Without getting into any political positions, of course, I'm not saying that one position is better than another.
The only point I'm making is that the standard tools we use to reach across these lines of difference, to try to create connection, to try to reach the other side, do not work, and often do more harm than good.
What really seems to work is creating those connections, which requires a lot of patience, because people don't change at the pace we want.
There's some really brilliant research by two political scientists that show this. I think, it's one of the most inspiring examples of political change research that I've seen by David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, in which they show that a ten-minute conversation across political lines changes people.
What they do is they go to one of the most conservative areas in Florida, Miami-Dade. What they're trying to do is to open up the residents to the idea of transgender rights.
Guy Kawasaki:
Geoffrey Cohen:
In this area, if you're going to try to change people, that's a very challenging situation to do it in, but they do it successfully.
They do it with a very brief wise intervention, a ten-minute conversation. What happens in that ten-minute conversation? What they do is they have canvassers go door to door in Miami-Date, so there's a face-to-face contact.
They knock on the doors. The canvassers then introduce the issue of transgender rights to these residents, and they have a conversation about it.
What is it about these conversations that's so effective? First of all, there's a lot of rapport. These canvassers, they support transgender rights, and that's made clear over the course of the conversation, but they begin with interest.
First, they ask a lot of Socratic questions of the residents. What do you feel about this issue? First, they show a little video about the issue, and then they just have a conversation, which they're just talking about the issue. What do you think of it? What are your feelings about this topic? They listen. The canvassers listen.
It's very important because listening is one way in which we affirm other people. We communicate that we're taking their person seriously, and we think that their perspective matters. It gives people a sense of what's called voice.
There's that element of what they call culture participatory processes in which people are listening. That's an affirmation experience. Then on top, that's not the only thing. There's an intellectual challenge that the canvasser introduces, what's called the analogic perspective taking.
The canvasser, then after establishing this rapport, just ask people, "There's a lot of cases in which people experience the pain of being treated differently, just because they're different." Can you think of a time in your life when you had that experience?
So, they're gaining a thought experiment for the residents that got them to connect with the issue, not at a literal level, but at a psychological level. Almost all residents could think of a time. I mean, as we all can, where they felt treated differently, because they were different, treated unfairly because they were different.
As one resident said, he had been in the army, and had PTSD now as a result of his service in the military. Now, he was having trouble finding work, steady employment, because of his PTSD. He felt like he was judged unfairly.
This kind of analogic perspective taking, and the sharing of stories brings people together. It's a powerful bonding agent. Then at the end of this ten-minute conversation, there's another element or another ingredient called freezing. Now that I've opened you up, opened up your mind, created a secure environment for you to explore an area that might be intellectually challenging, emotionally challenging for you.
There's a moment that Kurt Lewin, the famous social psychologist, called freezing, which I just say, "Guy, given our conversation today, how has it affected your views of transgender rights? Has it changed you in any way? Do you think you'll support it more, support it less, or remain unchanged?"
What that does, it's a moment to consolidate all the thoughts that have been stirred up through the encounter into a singular new direction, a new attitude.
By the way, again, this is against the backdrop of, "To change political views, nearly nothing works," but these guys were applying a lot of psychological technology, affirmation, analogic perspective taking, freezing, sharing of stories, all compressed into ten minutes.
Six months later, they found that these people were much more sympathetic to transgender rights, and actually more likely to take a stand against anti-transgender hate propaganda. I think this is incredibly inspiring, and just goes against this wisdom that people don't change. People do change, but it takes the right kinds of keys.
Often, we're using the wrong keys. Often, the keys we're using are just driving people further apart from us, unfortunately.
There are so many examples of this, where the things that we do day to day, the mini interventions that we apply in our day-to-day lives, the interventions and the policies that schools use, workplaces use, often do more harm than good, because they're based on a fallacious view of human nature as an information processor.
We do process information, of course, but as a social species, what's most moving to us, what's most influential to us is that sense of connection. We are built as a species to go through life together with our groups. It's these groups that shape us. It's also these encounters with other groups, if they go well, that open us up to change. If we ignore that lesson...
Guy Kawasaki:
I think one of the important consequences is that, at least from my reading of the book, this is not something that Mitch McConnell, or Nancy Pelosi, or Joe Biden himself or herself implements. This is something that, it's your interaction with a waiter going to the music store, it's how you pledge for a frat.
Would you say that the efficacy of freezing is in line with the Bob Cialdini concept of consistency, which is six months ago, I told that guy that this has changed me? If I go backwards, that makes me inconsistent with what I said, and so I need to...
Geoffrey Cohen:
Cialdini is one of my favorite social psychologists. Bob Cialdini, an amazing situation crafter, an amazing social psychologist, brilliant, brilliant experiments showing the power of the situation and the power of crafting situation.
Guy Kawasaki:
He's one of the handful of people who have been on this podcast twice.
Geoffrey Cohen:
Guy Kawasaki:
Let's say you're belonging to some group, Republican party, Democratic party, whatever, Ku Klux Klan, planned parenthood, whatever it is. What are the danger signs that tell you, "Maybe this is not something I should belong to?"
Geoffrey Cohen:
That is a really deep question. I think that in some ways, a lot of times, we know that what our group allegiances are leading us to do contradict our values.
There is a sense of what Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonance. As Festinger put it, it's this this arousal that we experience when our cognitions clash, so when our behavior contradicts our values or long-held attitudes.
If we can notice that feeling, that dissonance, that psychological dissonance, that's an alarm. I don't know of any research demonstrating that people can become sensitized to that state, but I feel like I have been, and I do feel...
I, like everyone else, have fallen short of my values in certain situations where I just regretted it later, but I do feel like even in those moments, I had that feeling inside of me that this just isn't right.
I think in a lot of cases, if we can recognize that, and pull back, take what I call or what Sonja Lyubomirsky calls a psychological timeout, a psychological timeout, where you pull back from the situation, take a pause.
That can really help us to get perspective. I go into a lot of examples of these wise interventions that help us to achieve this psychological timeout, in which we hold back from the situation and get perspective.
Again, those include one of my favorites, these values affirmations, which is crosscut as an example of a powerful intervention. Reflecting on our values at times of stress can help us to return to what's most important to us.
We've shown in a few studies, this is with Kevin Binning and David Sherman, that when people reflect on their core values, they're less likely to just go along with their group for the sake of going along. It anchors people in who they are and what they believe in.
Guy Kawasaki:
But when you say reflecting on your core values, there's an inherent assumption there that your core values are good. What if your core values are bad, or are you saying that most people are good?
Geoffrey Cohen:
I'm saying most people are good. Of course, people do bad things, of course. Of course, I would say, there are some... I don't know if I would say bad people, but people who have been sufficiently distorted or damaged, that there's something broken inside of them, of course.
However, having done this research for decades now, I don't think I've ever read an essay that people have written about their values, where it's something sinister. Almost all the time, everyone cares about their friends, and cares about their family, and values compassion, values kindness.
These are basic values that, I think, most people embrace. Of course, people can become cynical, and jaded, and inure to these, but I believe that most people, when you ask them about what their core values are, return to these basic human values of compassion, consideration, family, and-
Guy Kawasaki:
I have a thought for you to answer the question that I asked. I think based on reading your book that if you are belonging to a group that excessively demands conformity, I think the alarm bell should go off.
Geoffrey Cohen:
Great point. Great point.
Guy Kawasaki:
Geoffrey Cohen:
Yeah. Do you feel like your belonging is contingent on subscribing to the views and attitudes of this group?
I call that full belonging, and for a lot of the extremists that turn, they often have that realization that, "My belonging here is not unconditional in the least. If I start to deviate from the party line, I'm ostracized."
I think that's one of the self-destructive elements in a lot of hate groups is that they often have this conditional belonging where you really do need to subscribe to the ideology of the group in order to truly belong. It is contingent or conditional.
When they change, it's relieving when they have these interactions with people who are more understanding across party lines. It's, "Oh, I'm still accepted. I'm still seen as a human being in spite of these views that I have that are disagreeable."
Guy Kawasaki:
There's a place in the book where you mention some work you did for Google to help them reduce the belonging uncertainty of women. Unless you're under an NDA, can you just tell me what you did for Google?
Geoffrey Cohen:
I don't recall signing anything, but the intervention that we did was based on a research that my close colleague, Greg Walton, also at Stanford, and I did many years ago on what we call the social belonging intervention as another wise intervention.
To take a step back, what this intervention was designed to do was to alleviate what we call belonging uncertainty. What is belonging uncertainty? Belonging uncertainty is pretty much what the term suggests is. It's a state of mind in which we're uncertain of our belonging, and we all experience it in one situation or another.
It could be going to a party where you don't know people, or meeting a stranger, or starting a new job, or going to college. In those situations, we may be uncertain of our belonging in the sense of just not knowing if this is a place where I can or even want to belong.
Greg and I called this belonging uncertainty. It's a basic statement. I remember experiencing it as a assistant professor years and years ago, just feeling like I was the most inadequate professor on campus. In the state of mind, all of a sudden, little things start to look very large.
For example, my chair came up to me one day, patted me on the shoulder, and said, "How's that class going?" I'm like, "Did he hear something about my class? Does he think something that's not going too well?"
So when you're in this uncertain state of mind, you're always hypothesis testing. Do I belong? Do I not?
So even little facial expressions with the people we're with start to tilt the scale in one direction or another, but belonging uncertainty, and we all experience it, but certain of us experience it more so than others in certain situations.
For members of historically excluded groups, such as women in science, minorities in school, and men in many workplaces, and for that matter men in certain professions, the service industry, for instance, that belonging uncertainty is often chronic because of widely known stereotypes that cast people as not belonging.
So if I'm in a school or in a workplace where I'm subjected to these negative stereotypes about me or my group, it can prolong and deepen the experience of belonging uncertainty.
What Greg and I did was a study... to design this intervention that we worked really hard at to conquer belonging uncertainty, or at least turn down the volume on it for first year college students.
What we did to make a long story short is first, we identified people at this liminal space as they're entering a new world. This was college freshmen. What we did with these college freshmen who often experience acute belonging uncertainty, especially if they belong to a ethnic minority group, is to share with them some information.
We gave them the results of a survey that we had done with upperclassmen or senior students at their school. The survey revealed to them two things, first that most of these senior students reported that at the time they entered college, they felt like they didn't belong, that this was something that was very normal.
Then the second thing that the survey conveyed is that for most of these individuals, that sense of belonging uncertainty diminished with time, that with time, people started to feel at home.
What those messages convey are two very powerful sources of resilience. One is it's normal. You're not alone. That's a very psychologically powerful message.
Then the second message is this too will pass. This too will pass, so there's optimistic or hopeful message. We buttress those statistics from an actual survey with stories that the seniors told about the adjustment process, what they went through, and how they came to build connections at school, but it took time in how they did it.
Then we found that as a result of this intervention, so, again, what we call the social belonging intervention, the minority students who received it, in this case, the first study we did was with African American students, ended up with higher grades not only at the end of the semester, but during their entire tenure at college.
So even four years later, as a result of this one-hour experience, they were getting better grades. It even closed the racial achievement gap in grades by roughly 50 percent.
Not only that, but years later, when these students went off to work to start new jobs, they were more satisfied and had a higher sense of purpose at their jobs.
Something about this early experience that we gave them was embryonic. It planted a seed of belonging that grew with time.
Since then, this intervention, the social belonging intervention has been applied nationwide to many different groups.
Geoffrey Borman did a study with students in middle school, and found that it benefited their grades and discipline rates across ethnicity and across gender, because, again, middle school is this time of acute belonging uncertainty, where these kinds of interventions should apply to everyone going through that difficult transition.
Then to circle back to your question, many years later, we help Google to develop a similar intervention for Googlers.
Just making clear that becoming a Googler, I think that's what they call it, is hard at first. A lot of times, people feel really burnt out and like an imposter, but that's pretty normal. With time and with strategy, things get better.
What they found as they reported to us is that this eliminated the drop in job morale among new female employees over nine months. All this is to show that the stories we share disclosures that the sharing vulnerabilities through stories can often have a very powerful and long range effect. Little things can go a long way.
One thing I do want to make clear, of course, none of these things are panaceas or cure-alls. People have to be in a nurturing environment for this intervention or any intervention to work. If you start to feel optimistic, and I put myself out there, and then I'm slammed down rejected, or my advisor doesn't write me back, or professor doesn't open the door when I knock, these things will counteract the effect of any wise intervention.
These wise interventions are catalysts to open the psychological door to growth.
Guy Kawasaki:
So as a parent, what should a parent do if your kid joins clearly a destructive group?
Geoffrey Cohen:
Well, teenagers, that is a difficult life stage. What to do in that situation? I think a lot of things. I think, it's hard to say. I think, it's hard to say. I think that conversation really works well.
Let me back up to some of the research, the stuff that I do know, and maybe parents can think about how well this applies to the situation you raised.
The body of research in this area suggests that one of the most important things we can do with teenagers is to talk with them, not at them.
There's actually a research on this showing that when you bring teens into the lab, and put them in an MRI scanner, and have them listen to audio clips of their mother complaining about that, their brains shut off.
Not really, not shut off, but the regions associated with attention are less active when they experience that situation. So being lectured at, as Kurt Lewin forecasted, really is not a powerful persuasive device. What does work well is conversation.
I'll tell you about one study by Judith Harackiewicz at University of Wisconsin, where she wasn't trying to stop disciplinary problems, though this could potentially be applied to that. She was trying to encourage students' interest in STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math.
What she did was just to send some information home to the parents, workshop home to parents that guided them to have conversations with their kids about science. Let's talk about your cell phone and all the science that goes into that. What do you think of that? Gave them Socratic questions.
Just have a conversation, rather than lecture the kids about, "Oh, this is... You should really go into science. This is an important career decision."
Instead, it was conversation turning over a topic together. What she found is that this wise intervention actually increased the percentage of students who took courses in STEM, and then years later majored in STEM in college.
That's just an example. So talking with teens reaches them more than talking at them.
Another study by Chris Bryan offers a somewhat different technique, but related in which he was trying to encourage teenagers to eat more healthfully.
Rather than lecture at the kids about the importance of eating healthfully, what he did was something a bit more devious. What he did was to connect the issue of healthy food to teenagers' values.
He did this by telling the kids that the fast-food industry was very interested in manipulating them to make a profit, and that advertising for McDonald's and Coca-Cola that seeks to make it cool to eat their foods, or drink their drinks was actually the result of these profiteers in these companies trying to manipulate them in ways that were not good for their self-interest.
This actually brilliantly appealed to the teenager's interest in rebellion, and challenging authority. What he found is that this intervention, where he connected the topic of healthy food to resisting evil influences, he also connected it to the kid's sense of purpose.
Bill Damon does this research. Most of his research suggests have a sense of purpose. They want to make the world a better place. They just don't know how to realize those values, so what Chris also did was to connect this topic of healthful eating to these values of making the world a better place through the food choices that we make.
He found that that intervention had lasting effects on kids' consumption of healthy food. They were less likely to buy chips in the cafeteria, more likely to buy fruit, less likely to buy soda. That's another example. I think what this, circling back to your question, all converges on is the value of conversation, and not underestimating teenagers' desire to do good and to be good.
But many times, they need help connecting those values to concrete behaviors, as we all do.
We all can get a little bit lost drifting away from our values, but through conversations and through these participatory interventions, we can help people to better align their behaviors with who they are and what they believe. Oftentimes, that does lead to better decision making.
Guy Kawasaki:
I have one last question for you.
Geoffrey Cohen:
Guy Kawasaki:
By the way, I just thought I'd mention this too, that on this podcast, I have interviewed Bob Cialdini twice, David Acker, David Acker's daughter-
Geoffrey Cohen:
Oh, wow.
Guy Kawasaki:
... Katy Milkman, Scott Galloway, Angela Duckworth, John List.
I'm in the social psychology behavioral economics. That's my vein. I'll tell you that no one has cited as many studies as you. I think, you've cited more studies than all those people combined.
There's an assistant producer who works on this podcast, who double checks that the transcript is accurate. One of the things she has to do is when you rip off some name of some psychologists, she has to go figure out who was that? How do you spell that? What's the right person's name for the transcript?
Guy Kawasaki:
This is going to be a nightmare for her.
Geoffrey Cohen:
Oh no.
Guy Kawasaki:
Because you cite so many things, you're the Wikipedia of psychology.
So, let's suppose that Joe Biden calls you up. This is Geoff. This is not about me getting reelected. This is not about me maintaining democratic majority in Congress. This is just as one American to another American about uniting America.
Geoff, what should we do? He wants to bring you on as the secretary of belonging. What do you do?
Geoffrey Cohen:
I'm a big fan of these town hall meetings and these organizations that promote conversations between citizens of different political stripes, deliberative democracy, being one, better angels, being another.
These experiences in which people of different political stripes sit down with one another, break bread together are often revealing and can change people.
There's a lot of research showing that this kind of experience where you're sitting down face to face in interaction with individuals from an outgroup can be highly beneficial in terms of breaking down prejudice, for instance, but the interactions need to be highly structured.
What's often good is if the conversations are made cooperative, like there's some cooperative goal, and there's structures so that there's turn taking, and especially the face-to-face contact seems to be really key.
There's a good facilitator, what's called the democratic leader, to prevent the conversations from going off the rails while also helping each party to feel that they're expressing their views. These kinds of conversations actually really work wonders and have very positive effects.
I think, funding and making those conversational forums throughout the country more available, more easy to participate in would be a great step as well as door-to-door canvasing. Door-to-door canvasing actually played a big role in the abolitionist movement before the civil war.
Guy Kawasaki:
Geoffrey Cohen:
That people go in door-to-door canvasing, face-to-face interactions, talking to people across political lines as the Broockman and Kalla research shows is another great way to bridge divides. The conversations, of course, have to be structured, and they have to be participatory.
They can't be lecture style, and they need to be affirming. But if they are, they can have remarkable effects. Now, there's just not enough resources. There's not enough funding. There's not enough infrastructure to provide those kinds of experiences throughout the nation, but I think we could do that.
We could start to do that, create these forums. The people I've talked to often do crave these kinds of interactions, getting to know people even across party lines. But increasingly, it's becoming harder to do that, because we're so segregated, and there's so much division.
But I do think that these small-scale interventions, if we can scale them up, and make them more available and accessible to citizens throughout the country, those are our best bet, because they humanize us to each other, and we see our common humanity.
Guy Kawasaki:
There you have it. How to build connections, and bridge divides coming to you from the graduate school of education, Stanford University, the remarkable Geoffrey Cohen.
I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People.
My thanks to my remarkable staff, Peg Fitzpatrick, Jeff Sieh, Shannon Hernandez, the drop-in queen of Santa Cruz, Madisun Nuismer, Alexis "I'm applying to college now" Nishimura, and Luis Magana.
Until next time. Mahalo and aloha.