What Happened When I Interviewed Roger Stone: A Case Study in Confirmation Bias

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Roger Stone. I knew it would be a controversial episode. Given Stone’s outsized and unsettling role in American politics, I expected our audience to have a range of opinions about the interview, most of them, I imagined, quite critical. After all, Stone is one of the key people responsible for the tenor and controversy of the 2016 presidential election, and he continues to embody a certain kind of power and relationship to (dis)information that makes our political system so complicated and divisive.

“People are going to cry because I had someone on the show they may dislike,” I said in the introduction to the episode, anticipating the criticism. “I don’t care; we’re not here to debate politics … Lots of people don’t like Roger Stone. In fact,” I told Jason as we kicked off, “we can call this episode ‘Everyone Hates Roger Stone.'”

And we did. Not because we wanted to tell our audience how to feel, but because we know that so many of them already feel that way — and, more important, because Stone himself knows that’s how they feel, and he’s more than fine with it. In fact, the antipathy Stone ignites is literally part of his playbook — he’s a lifelong student of emotional manipulation and political skulduggery, and has built an insanely successful career weaponizing people’s feelings to influence lawmakers and win elections.

Which is exactly why I wanted him on the show. The Art of Charm Podcast isn’t a political program or an editorial rant. I’m not a journalist or an academic. What I am is a student of human nature and success who’s obsessed with interviewing interesting, talented, highly effective (and often controversial) people. Politics and morality aside, Stone is undoubtedly one of those figures.

So how could we explore the psychology of success and not talk to him? How could we pass up the chance to talk to the guy who architected one of the most dramatic and unlikely wins in American history? How could we say that we have a lot of the right questions, then refuse to ask them of the people who have meaningful answers?

As soon as the interview posted, my inbox and Twitter feed were a timpani of clamoring voices — some of the most passionate responses to an episodes I’ve ever had. I read and responded to almost every single one. I was especially interested in the reaction to this episode, because it said a lot about human psychology and the state of our discourse these days.

Oh No You Di’int

The first type of response was disappointment and rage. There were loads of these replies, but they all came down to one basic argument: that because Stone is an unprincipled and hateful manipulator, it was a mistake to interview him on the show.

A handful of people went a step further, and said that they decided to unsubscribe from the podcast in response. In many cases, people in this camp (by their own admission) didn’t actually listen to the episode at all. They just saw the title and immediately objected.

The most eloquent criticism of the episode came from a listener who believed that interviewing a guy like Stone meant that we were giving him a microphone he didn’t deserve. More than that, this listener felt that Stone reflected poorly on us, and that by inviting him onto the show, we were complicit in what he’s done, because:

He trades on your reputation when you bring him onto your podcast. He steals your legitimacy and your credibility when you share your platform with him … He should be deprived of oxygen until he is forgotten, not given time and room to preen in the reflection of others.

It didn’t matter that we weren’t holding up a mirror, but simply exploring Stone’s perspective in order to understand him. In this listener’s view, any interview with the guy is feeding a hateful voice, and it’s society’s job to:

…shun anyone who has contributed to Trump’s rise to power and the creation of such a dangerous threat to our democracy. We must make it so uncomfortable for them to appear in public that they never want to show their faces in society again. Part of that process must include shunning those, like you, who give Trump, Stone, and their associates the opportunity to continue indulging their narcissism.

Which is a perspective I can appreciate, especially given how divisive and personal the last election was. I’m going to talk about my response to this argument in a minute, but in the meantime, I just want to recognize that this is a position a vocal minority shared: that interviewing Stone was tantamount to helping him spread his message, that inviting a controversial figure onto the show said something about us, and that the media should stay away from talking to people we as a society — according to this one person — generally agree are “bad.”

And then there was another group of listeners.

I Don’t Like It, But I Wanna Hear It

The other response we received was patience and curiosity.

Interestingly, a lot of people in this group also hated Stone, but their eagerness to understand the man dwarfed any political and ethical objections. These arguments were a bit more varied, but they basically came down to this: Stone might not be a “good” person, but he’s a useful character to study, and the fact that he’s so reviled these days is a sign that we should, at the very least, try to figure out what he does and how he does it.

The responses on Twitter focused on what listeners could learn from Stone, not what they felt about him. Some listeners advocated separating out the two:

Other listeners pointed out the historical value of the episode:

Others praised the interview while condemning the subject:

https://twitter.com/AlaynaBrauer/status/913273425837166594

And still others pointed out that talking to people with different beliefs is the best way to fight the filter bubbles of modern life:

There was, of course, a third type of response, which was no response at all.

To this group — by far the largest — Stone was just one more guest, more controversial than most, but one of many interesting people we’ve interviewed to shed light on a certain way of operating. Maybe those people hated him, maybe they liked him, maybe they didn’t feel one way or the other, but they didn’t respond and (most likely) didn’t unsubscribe, which is a good reminder that Twitter tends to attract more extreme positions, and doesn’t reflect a large swath of people’s opinions.

I find this fascinating. I genuinely loved reading the replies and responding to my listeners in both camps, and I thank them for it. In a way, it was like Stone was teaching me how people process controversial information through these tweets and emails. The responses told me that, character and politics aside, he has an uncanny grasp of human nature. That it was the right decision to have him on the show.

Get Me Roger Stone

The Roger Stone response confirmed that the title of our episode was apt. People really do hate Roger Stone. (A lot of people, of course, also love him.) What really struck me, though, was that people who hated the subject could choose to have two different responses to the episode: to get angry that we gave a hate-mongerer/manipulator/propagandist a platform, or to be curious how this hate-mongerer/manipulator/propagandist has managed to transform our political system.

Obviously, I fall into the second category.

The reason is not that I think Roger Stone is good or right as a human being, but that he’s interesting and meaningful for us to study. I don’t think he necessarily deserves a platform; I simply want to use my platform to better understand him. I can hold my political opinions, such as they are, and still be curious about him. In fact, it’s because I hold those opinions that I’m curious. And that’s the point: Judgment and curiosity are totally compatible, as long as we prioritize informational value over moral judgment, openness over censorship, learning more over knowing enough. To me, that is true liberalism in the broadest and most classical sense of the term: openness to new behavior or opinions, and a commitment to broadening our general knowledge and experience. That’s my guiding philosophy, and it’s the reason we host our show.

There are also obvious benefits to taking that stance. People who understand their opponents’ arguments are, as we know, better equipped to understand and defend their own. Whether you’re developing a competitive strategy, negotiating a deal, or navigating conflict with a partner, being fluent in the other side’s perspective will always make you more effective. As Charlie Munger once said, “I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” There’s a reason the most successful people — who are also among the most principled — are obsessed with listening to ideas that are radically different from their own.

Finally, the criticism of the interview made me reflect on some fundamental beliefs I had about the role and philosophy of our show. The listener I quoted earlier was right: interviewing Stone did say something about us — but it wasn’t what that listener thought. It said that we are committed to studying successful people of all stripes, even when those people hold distasteful views, even when we don’t agree with them. It said that we could learn from anyone who’s left a mark on this world. It said that we were listening. I’m proud of that.

And while I can appreciate that Stone’s critics don’t like giving him another microphone, shunning him from the media is not the right answer. (Incidentally, it’s also not going to make him or his ideas go away.) In fact, I’d argue that giving him a mic — and asking the right questions — is one of the best ways for people to arrive at an informed opinion on their own. We weren’t giving Stone a platform; we were giving the conversation a platform. Listeners can draw their own conclusions, and hopefully better ones for it.

That is, if we can just step outside ourselves, and consider another point of view.

Confirmation Bias

In a recent New Yorker article, Elizabeth Kolbert did a terrific job of exploring confirmation bias — the tendency to embrace information that supports our beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. This “serious design flaw” in the human mind leads to all sorts of problems, from an irrational confidence in our own expertise to our intractable attachment to political opinions.

Interestingly, Kolbert explains that our susceptibility to confirmation bias is an evolutionarily selected trait that allows us to live in collaborative groups. Reason, she writes, is not designed to solve problems and analyze information (as we often like to think), but to allow us to cooperate with our fellow human beings. It makes us good at spotting problems with other people’s beliefs, while preventing us from questioning the ones we and our tribe already hold dear.

Since those beliefs are the glue of our society — just look at the way people identify themselves to one another when it comes to politics, including how they feel about guys like Roger Stone — we tend to double down on our existing beliefs while dismissing evidence about new ones. From an evolutionary standpoint, the cost of changing our minds is just too high. We might lose our sense of self, our ability to be part of a community, our standing in the tribe. The filter bubbles of social media only reinforce the beliefs we hold (the beliefs we feel we must hold), and our confirmation bias grows stronger.

Which is a good reminder that beating confirmation bias is hard. I got frustrated at times with the vitriol about the Stone episode, but asking people to open their minds — to even just listen — meant asking them to go against their most fundamental programming. I’ve been there, too, and I probably still hold on to views that deserve revisiting. In fact, you could say that my commitment to openness and curiosity is itself a belief I’m unwilling to give up. But the difference is that true liberalism allows for multiple beliefs to enter the conversation, and protects against the weaponized identification with any one. I believe that we can appreciate multiple beliefs, and that we should try to understand them, even (and especially) when we disagree with them. How else can we be sure we hold the right ones?

My views on figures like Roger Stone are complex. I think he’s dangerous and fascinating, worrisome and useful, immoral and important. I can believe all those things at once, because they’re all true. My stance is this: The moment I decide to support him or marginalize him, hate him or love him, I’ve already lost. I genuinely believe we have an intellectual and moral duty to open ourselves up as much as possible to perspectives, techniques, and worldviews that are different from our own, even when those conversations are ugly, difficult, or uncomfortable. That’s our job. It’s how we become more thoughtful, more effective, and better equipped to deal with this complicated world.

But maybe even that is a belief I need to revisit. In the meantime, it’s a helpful one to hold.

Jordan Harbinger - author of 703 posts on The Art of Charm

Jordan Harbinger has spent several years abroad in Europe and the developing world, including South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, and speaks several languages. He has also worked for various governments and NGOs overseas, traveled through war zones, and been kidnapped -- twice. He’ll tell you the only reason he’s still alive and kicking is because of his ability to talk his way into (and out of) just about any type of situation. Here at The Art of Charm, Jordan shares that experience, and the system borne as a result, with students and clients.

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