Heard from the Herd: Psychology and Partisanship, featuring Dr. Abigail Marsh, author of The Fear Factor; Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience, Georgetown University

Show Notes, Sources and Transcript

July 23, 2020

Episode 4: Heard from the Herd: Psychology and Partisanship, featuring Dr. Abigail Marsh, author of The Fear Factor; Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience, Georgetown University. 

Are we all getting a little too musk ox these days? 

In this interview-based episode, Dr. Abigail Marsh explains the centrality of fear in human behavior, motivating any social species (whether musk ox or Democrat or Republican) to cluster together against perceived threats. The unfortunate result is the formation of tribes, the demonization of others, and the filtering of all incoming information in support of stark, unhealthy divisions. In essence, then, what we all see and hear in U.S. politics and society today.  

In Part I of this interview, staff reporter Emily Crocetti queries our guest on how the U.S. became so partisan in the first place. In response, Dr. Marsh emphasizes the importance of social situations in determining emotions and behavior. And she points to the substantial sorting of U.S. citizens along political lines in recent decades as a major factor. In fact, Marsh points out, Americans today are more comfortable having dinner with people of different races or religions than those from different political backgrounds. 

In Part II, Dr. Marsh discusses methods by which Americans might become less partisan, including those used in her own classes to promote effective communication. Here, students with opposing viewpoints are guided through civil discussions on hot topics of the day using trust and empathy to overcome “fight or flight” inclinations. She also details seminal psychology studies on this topic, such as the tribalized groups of British boys in the 1960s who overcame their differences working toward a common goal – getting their camp bus out of the mud. With both humor and a bit of envy, Dr. Marsh observes, “You couldn’t do that sort of experiment today.”

In Part III, Dr. Marsh emphasizes she is not a political scientist, yet offers important insights into whether independent-minded Americans can help bridge the political divide. She proposes that independents are better able to deal with the cognitive complexity of different life experiences and viewpoints. And as a result, independents may be able to have the sensitive, trust-based conversations on political issues sorely lacking in the U.S. today. 

Also in Episode 4, Heard from the Herd, we take a quick look back at an important observation from featured Episode 2 guest, Charles Wheelan, on the lack of camaraderie in the U.S. Congress today. And we look ahead to upcoming episodes on Polarizing Algorithms (featured guest: Dr. Robert E. Smith) and Transcendent Comedy (Myq Kaplan).  

If you promised to completely tune out partisan politics this election year, then The Purple Principle is the perfect non-partisan podcast for you. On all major podcast streaming services including Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, Google and many others. 


Abigail Marsh Professor Psychology and Neuroscience, Georgetown University, 

Guest Books

Abigail Marsh, The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, & Everyone In-Between, Basic Books. 

Original music composed by Ryan Adair Rooney.

Electronic Sources

Abigail Marsh. Georgetown University. 

Across the Table. Pew Research Center. 

Methods: Questionnaire Design. Pew Research Center. 

Political Polarization in the American Public. Pew Research Center. 

Research looks at the physical facts behind fiction’s fascination. University of Oxford

Periodicals, books, and peer-reviewed articles

Cameron, C. D. et al. (2019). “Empathy Is Hard Work: People Choose to Avoid Empathy Because of Its Cognitive Costs.” Journal of Experimental Psychology. 

Cohn, Nate (6/12/14). “Polarization Is Dividing American Society, Not Just Politics.” The New York Times. 

Coppins, M. (Nov. 2018). “The Man Who Broke Politics.” The Atlantic

DeAngelis, T. (2001). “All you need is contact.” American Psychological Association 32:10. 

Dunbar, R. I. M., et al. (2016). “Emotional arousal when watching drama increases pain threshold and social bonding.” Royal Society open science 3.9. 

Hasson, Y., et al (2018). “Are Liberals and Conservatives Equally Motivated to Feel Empathy Toward Others?” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 44:10.

Kelly, C. (1989). “Political identity and perceived intragroup homogeneity.” British Journal of Social Psychology 28.3: 239-250.

Konnikova, M. (9/5/12). “Revisiting Robbers Cave: The easy spontaneity of intergroup conflict.” Scientific American. 

Madson, G.J. & D. Sunshine Hillyhus (2019). “All the Best Polls Agree with Me: Bias in Evaluations of Political Polling.” Political Behavior.

Paluck, E.L. et al. (2019). “The contact hypothesis re-evaluated.” Behavioural Public Policy 3.2: 129-158.

Rubin, M. & C. Badea (2007). “Why Do People Perceive Ingroup Homogeneity on Ingroup Traits and Outgroup Homogeneity on Outgroup Traits?” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 33:1.

Sherif, M., et al. (1954/1961). “Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment.” 

“The Big Sort” (6/19/08). The Economist. 

Wang, A. (6/26/18). “Can Your Politics Predict How Empathetic You Are?” Greater Good Science Center


Abigail Marsh (00:02):

You think, like a herd of muskox, when they believe they’re being threatened by wolves, they cluster themselves together in a very tight way. Threat does that to any social species that you cluster together with those who are like you in an attempt to ward off the threat.

Robert Pease (narrator) (00:22):

You’re listening to the Purple Principle and our featured guest today, Dr. Abigail Marsh of Georgetown University.

Abigail Marsh (00:30):

When communities believe they’re being threatened by others who they perceive as a threat to their values, or to their livelihood, or to their welfare, you tend to get a more black and white sort of thinking, which is another strong promoter of ideology. A lack of trust – a tendency to be mistrustful – and hostile and prone to conspiratorial thinking are all sort of bound up together.

Robert Pease (narrator) (01:02):

Dr. Marsh is not a certified muskox-ologist. She is however, a highly respected professor of psychology and neuroscience at Georgetown University and the author of The Fear Factor: How one emotion connects altruists, psychopaths, and everyone in between.1 This is Robert Pease, host of the Purple Principle, here today with staff reporter, Emily Crocetti, who interviewed Dr. Marsh on the psychology of partisanship. Welcome Emily.

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (01:30):

Good to be here, even if remotely.

Robert Pease (reporter) (01:32):

Yes. That’s what we mean by “here” these days: just technically here. So let’s get into the interview Can Dr. Marsh help us out?

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (01:39):

Her neuro and psych angles definitely make for a really interesting take on viewing partisanship through that lens. Plus, she lives in D.C. So like it or not, she’s informed on politics as well. 

Robert Pease (reporter)

And she’s around a lot of college students. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter)

And that definitely helps her see firsthand how social media can divide us.

Robert Pease (reporter) (02:02):

Great. And the interview is in three parts.

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (02:04):

Exactly. Based on our three questions: How did we get so partisan? How do we get less partisan? Can independents help in the process? 

Robert Pease (narrator) (02:20):

Let’s get into our interview with Dr. Abigail Marsh, Georgetown professor and author of The Fear Factor.

Emily Crocetti (reporter)

So we’ve been looking at data that shows increased polarization since the 1980s between political parties, but obviously our brain structure has not changed since then. So what do you think is going on here? 

Abigail Marsh (02:32):

Anybody trained in social psychology, as I have, knows  how powerful situations are in determining how we treat one another. The entire field of social psychology started in part to answer basic questions. Like how did the travesties of Nazi Germany happen? Or is it that Germans are just evil people? And obviously the answer is no, but certain kinds of situations can predispose people who are fundamentally normal and good to do terrible things, including think very poorly of and mistrust people who think differently than themselves.2 

Emily Crocetti (interviewer):

And so what kinds of situations have made Americans more polarized in the last 40 years? 

Abigail Marsh:

Americans actually have very moderate opinions, especially if you can ask them outside of the context of a survey that sparks their ideological identity.3

We certainly hear a lot more from the people on the extremes for a variety of reasons. And what’s interesting is that you see a lot more melding of groups as a function of things like race and religion than you did 50 years ago, but we’ve sorted a lot more along political lines. It used to be the case that people would be less comfortable having dinner with people of other races.4 And now people say they’re less comfortable having dinner with people from different political backgrounds. 

Emily Crocetti (interviewer):

That is sad, but definitely true. Let’s turn to the main theme of your well-received book, The Fear Factor. Could you tell us how fear could potentially relate to partisanship and perhaps why some people are more susceptible to partisanship than others? 

Abigail Marsh (04:46):

You will be shocked to learn that as a person who is a professor living in Washington, D.C., I know many, many people who are politically liberal. Although I should emphasize my husband is a veteran and I come from a part of the country that had a heavy military presence. And so I also know plenty of people who are politically conservative. It is very common for politically progressive people I know that assume that people who are Trump supporters, for example, are psychopaths. I hear that comment and I know that people on the other side believe the same thing. But what people often fail to appreciate is that people who are good people can often fail to experience empathy and compassion for others. Not because of a fundamental inability to experience empathy and compassion, but because nobody experiences compassion for people whom they view as a threat to themselves or to other people that they love.5

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (05:39):

So that was Abigail Marsh on our first question, how did we get so partisan? And as her book suggests, fear is a huge factor. 

Robert Pease (narrator):

Which must be why partisan media is so fear-based. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

And unfortunately so effective, but also she stressed true social interaction and the dangerous lack of it in Congress.

Robert Pease (narrator) (06:00):

And that reminds us of what Charles Wheelan said in our second episode.

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (06:04):

About senators not knowing each other’s dogs.

Robert Pease (narrator) (06:06):

Exactly. Can’t have civil society without tail wagging. Why don’t we play that Wheelan clip again. 

For those who’ve not heard it, Dr. Charles Wheelan, founder of Unite America. 

Charles Wheelan (previously recorded):

One thing we haven’t talked about is how the climate in Washington is different. There is not the spirit of camaraderie, and it’s amazing how these things are connected. So, what I’ve been told is that before you had to raise as much money as you do now – campaigns are so much more expensive – members of Congress typically lived in D.C., which meant that their families socialized. They had a personal relationship, which meant that they could argue by day, but they just couldn’t be as mean to each other. Their spouses knew each other. They knew their dogs! 

Robert Pease (narrator):

If only Congress legislated pet sharing across the aisle…

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (06:54):

That has potential. But Dr. Marsh had some other ideas around our second question: how to get less partisan. 

Robert Pease (narrator):

Are there any grounds for hope? 

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

I think so. I mean, we all have the same emotions and they can divide us for sure, but they also allow us to empathize and cooperate, even at 30,000 feet in the air. 

Robert Pease (narrator) (07:20):

So let’s hear from Dr. Marsh at high altitude…

Abigail Marsh (07:28):

We’re a tremendously social and prosocial species. It’s easy to forget that. My favorite example is air travel. You know, if you tried to take 400 strangers of any other species on earth and stick them in a little uncomfortable metal tube and rattle them around in the sky for six hours, it would be bloodshed by 20 minutes in. Even domestic dogs would probably be at each other’s throats. And the fact that you can usually assume with perfect certainty that on an average flight, all of these strangers will behave very civilly towards one another is a nice reminder of just how willing to get along our species is under the right circumstances. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

So then is that just empathy? The ability to recognize that those around you are stuck in the same metal tube? 

Abigail Marsh: 

There’s some debate on exactly what empathizing means among scholars, but the basic idea is that you’re able to model a phenomena in the minds of others. So if somebody is in pain, you understand what that feels like.6 

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

So it seems like people have no problem empathizing within their own parties, but empathizing with the other side seems to be what’s missing. 

Abigail Marsh: 

There’s an interesting phenomenon known as the outgroup homogeneity phenomenon, by which we tend to view members of out-groups as abstractions.7 This is a topic I bring up in my classes sometimes: the fundamental tension between diversity and empathy, and I mean any kind of diversity. And I think that’s what happens across the ideological divide. For somebody who hates Donald Trump, it is impossible for them to imagine the mind that would lead to loving Donald Trump. When that happens, you give up on coming up with an empathic portrait of the inner life of this other person and you just resort to stereotypes.

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (09:31):

So then if this plane is a metaphor for say, our democracy, how do you get that going in your classroom between your students, that level of cooperation?

Abigail Marsh (09:44):

I am teaching an undergraduate seminar now called “Empathy and Communication”. One of the things I do is have them come up with controversial topics here on campus. And then I ask them to sit down and have a conversation with another classmate who disagrees with their view on that. Actually this came up in class the other day. A student was talking about feeling like there were two choices in a situation that caused a disagreement: to either just avoid talking about it directly or to have a confrontation. And I thought, but there’s a whole option that is neither fight or flight. It’s assuming and trusting that this person will be a reasonable person. And maybe you can reach some sort of an agreement if you just talked to them.

Emily Crocetti (interviewer) (10:28):

Do you find it difficult working with them on conversations like that, where they’re trying, but maybe failing, to reach some kind of compromise?

Abigail Marsh (10:38):

Cynically, I think it’s probably the case that there are large institutions whose interest is in ginning up people’s resentments toward one another. And so unfortunately, the way that we get information in the world right now makes us very susceptible to messaging from big organizations that don’t care at all how well people get along. All they care about is their own interest.

Emily Crocetti (interviewer) (11:00):

It definitely seems like that. At least in my generation, the sentiment is that if you have a friend that disagrees with you politically, you either have to end the friendship or literally stop talking politics at all costs.

Abigail Marsh (11:15):

At the root of this belief is that when there’s a disagreement, the two choices are to avoid talking about it or have a confrontation is mistrust, right? Because if the confrontation is what we have to have a fight about this, where there’s a winner. If I were to bring this topic up, then this person would attack me. They both reveal a lack of trust and the possibility that the other person thinks that they’re making the right choice. Being attacked by somebody who disagrees with them has never changed anyone’s mind in the history of the world. 

Emily Crocetti (interviewer) (11:48):

I totally agree. I don’t think we even need to fact check that statement! But it seems like this kind of communication could really benefit students. Do you know of any other programs out there that are working to promote effective communication?

Abigail Marsh (12:07):

I know there’s a whole industry of educational consultants out there who are willing to sell programs that don’t always work that well. But these principles work and we know they work. They’re based on some of the most rock-solid psychology. 

Actually, one of my questions for you is, what was the age at which you first spent time with friends alone, either outside or somewhere public, like a mall, with no grownups you knew anywhere nearby?

Emily Crocetti (interviewer) (12:40):

I would say probably 10 or 11 years old. 

Abigail Marsh (12:44):

And that’s really historically strange. Certainly my mom’s generation, when she was growing up, would walk to school alone when they were six. There’s been a real change in the age at which adolescents reach milestones related to independence. And it’s interesting to consider whether this means that adolescents are spending less time having unmediated disagreements with peers. No adult is there to referee. If you have a disagreement, it’s just you and your friends off playing in the woods.

Emily Crocetti (interviewer) (13:22):

You mentioned before how seeing others as an abstraction is when you can’t empathize with them. It seems like that is going on in this case with having no referee, in addition to all the kids just being on their iPads all the time instead of being outside actually interacting.

Abigail Marsh (13:42):

I think it’s interesting seeing the disagreements among psychologists about how disruptive the switch to heavily technologically mediated communication is going to be. We’re animals! The way that the people around us smell and sound and feel… those are all things that moderate our brain activity at a really primitive level that we are only beginning to understand. There’s cool research by Robin Dunbar in England showing that if you get people physically together in a group and have them all watch a very emotional movie or sing together, it has an effect on their experience of pain.8 Their pain tolerance goes up. It’s amazing stuff. And so the physical presence of other people, the touch of other people, it’s so important. And I do think we’re losing that and it bums me out.

Emily Crocetti (interviewer) (14:38):

Trust and empathy could bridge the political divide, but is the problem that we just don’t know how to overcome our initial fear?

Abigail Marsh (14:48):

I really think that contact hypothesis is what it all comes down to. That’s one of the oldest theories in psychology, which is that contact with people who are different from yourself, especially in a non-antagonistic setting, is a great way to heal those divides.9 One of the reasons for the current political divide relates to changes that Newt Gingrich made to the way Congress works decades ago. He changed the length of the congressional workweek so that it is much shorter.10 So the Congressional representatives could go back to their home districts over the weekends, but then their families didn’t move to D.C. They didn’t socialize together in D.C. anymore. So they used to have these friendships across political differences but then stopped having those friendships. 

Emily Crocetti (interviewer)

Do you know about the studies or evidence that shows that when you put people who are initially divided in contact with each other, they get along more over time? 

Abigail Marsh:

The canonical psychology study is the Robbers Cave study that was done by Sherif back in the 1960s.11 You could never do this study today! He got this camp full of boys to do this experiment for him. He divided the boys into two groups called the Eagles and the Rattlers and did all sorts of things to get them to view the other team as the opposition. And then he engineered it one day to say that the bus that was taking the Eagles and the Rattlers to wherever they were going broke down in the mud, and so then they had to work together to get it out. And it turned out that this healed those divisions. 

Emily Crocetti (interviewer):

So how could we apply that to partisanship in the U.S.? Is there a way to do this proactively so that it doesn’t take some terrible, terrible thing that finally causes Americans to come together?

Abigail Marsh:

I don’t think what I’m saying is particularly novel, but I don’t think it’s an accident that in the same states where it turned out that the most recent presidential election hinged, that there was this unbelievable amount of suffering going on beneath the surface due to the opioid crisis and some of the other factors that precipitated it. People who are happy are and feel like they’re flourishing and that their lives are going well are not generally hateful. But I think that the gross income inequality and wealth inequality that we see across communities is a huge part of the problem. It creates worse outcomes for everybody.

Emily Crocetti (interviewer) (17:24): 

So that was Dr. Abigail Marsh on how we might get less partisan and such an important connection between economic suffering and partisanship. 

Robert Pease (narrator) (17:34):

It could really be an entire episode, but what about our third and final question? Emily, can independent-minded Americans find common purple ground? Was Dr. Marsh willing to take that one on? 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Yes, she did offer some insights, definitely. But first to the independents out there: a renowned psychologist thinks that you probably have higher cognitive ability.

Robert Pease (narrator) (17:57):

Well, we knew that, but it’s always good to hear it again, this time from Dr. Abigail Marsh.

Abigail Marsh (18:06):

Well, I should emphasize that I’m not a political scientist. That said, yes, absolutely. Somebody who doesn’t strongly identify with one political party or the other to a degree that they view political life as a black or white thing? Yes, they should have a very different way of thinking about people on either side of the political gap. Although they might also have trouble empathizing with people who have very extreme political views. That might be very hard for them to imagine.

Emily Crocetti (interviewer):

So then what about people who are political independents? Are they somehow more or less equipped to empathize in this tough political climate? 

Abigail Marsh:

You know, I haven’t seen anything along those lines myself. I do know that, again, the sort of person who’s less likely to gravitate toward the extreme of either end of the political spectrum is more likely to be comfortable and able to grasp cognitive complexity.

So people who are ideological extremists tend to have a more simplified view of others and of the world in general, partly due to lower cognitive ability. You would expect that people who are more in the middle of the political spectrum to be able to view the world as more complex, and so not automatically assume that people whose views are different from them are a threat. They’d be able to consider the possibility that there are people who think differently from themselves, but who might have reasons to think the way they do other than just being fundamentally bad people. Things are complicated. You don’t always understand other people’s interior lives that well. Somebody might believe something totally different from me, but they might have a reason that even if I don’t agree with it, I would at least understand how they got there if I had a conversation with them.

Robert Pease (narrator) (20:03):

At least have a conversation in today’s polarized society. That’s great advice from our featured guest, Dr. Abigail Marsh, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Georgetown University and author of The Fear Factor. She was interviewed by staff reporter, Emily Crocetti. 

In this episode, you heard Dr. Marsh stress the importance of seeing complexity in people, such as the Twitter troll who suffers back pain or economic stress. We have two upcoming guests who have more to say about one of the great ironies of our time: social media often makes human communication much more difficult. First, Dr. Robert Elliott Smith, author of Rage Inside the Machine, will highlight the dangers of polarizing algorithms.

Robert Elliott Smith (20:48):

The further you get from face-to-face communication with another person, the more dangerous the communication becomes. We all know this. And the reason is because there’s a lot more to communication than simply symbolic communication through the written word or through the abbreviated written word and Twitter. And that’s because human communication is extremely complex, as is all human interaction.

Robert Pease (narrator) (21:11):

Also coming soon, comedian and podcaster Myq Kaplan will push back in interesting ways against our hypothesis of growing partisanship.

Myq Kaplan (21:19):

I guess it’s hard to say definitely if it is more polarized, or perhaps part of it is that we have so much more data. We have more people talking… like it might’ve been a lot of people, you know, 50 years ago before Twitter who had all these thoughts and would have been tweeting, but in their own head. There’s just more chatter. There’s more talking. There’s more people expressing views across the spectrum.

Robert Pease (narrator) (21:48):

Please join us for these and other episodes as we explore these questions. How did we get so partisan? How could we get less partisan? And can independent-minded Americans help bridge the partisan divide? This is Robert Pease for the Purple Principle team; Sarah Holtz, associate producer; Janice Murphy, senior editor; Emily Crocetti, staff reporter; Kevin A. Kline, audio engineer; Emily Holloway, research and fact checking. Our original music playing right now is by Ryan Adair Rooney. No muskox or congressional pets were harmed in this production. Last but not least, please have a conversation with us! We’d love to hear your purple tale or comment or suggestion on social media or through our website, purpleprinciple.com.


In 1986, 34 Democratic and 29 Republican Senators signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, creating a citizenship path for illegal immigrants while making it a Federal crime to employ illegal workers. The House also voted in favor, 238 to 173. The bill was signed into law on November 6, 1986. 


In 1972, 17 Republican Senators joined 35 Democratic Senators to override the Nixon Administration veto of the Clean Water Act, a landmark piece of environmental legislation. The House override vote was 247 to 23, including 96 Republicans and 151 Democrats in the majority.


  • Question for Team Purple?
  • Want to offer Feedback on our Podcast?