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The Bestselling Author of “High Conflict” Explains What it Takes for Someone to Break With Their Political Tribe

By David Epstein

Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony was a dramatic example, but even small deviations from the party line are harder than they seem.

I’m going to keep this intro short, because the Q&A below is a longer post than normal:

Watching the January 6 hearings, my mind went to an absolutely fascinating book I read last year: High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped, and How We Get Out, by Amanda Ripley. I think Amanda is one of the best reporters at work. (*Bonus: Because her publisher thinks the book is timely and important, they are giving the audio and e-book versions away for free this month.*)

“High conflict” isn’t normal, healthy tension. It’s when disagreements devolve into “us versus them,” zero-sum combat (i.e. politics right now). It is possible to get out of high conflict, but it takes individuals who are willing to break with their identity group.

Amanda’s reporting on conflict spanned astronauts (stuck together in a small space!) to gang leaders. She’s also a trained conflict mediator. I invited her to Range Widely to talk about what enables some people to step outside of a high conflict. Below is our discussion:

David Epstein: If you watched any of Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony in the January 6 hearings, I would love to hear a bit about what was going through your head. You’ve written about how incredibly difficult it is for people to stray from their group. Before I ask you specifics about why it’s so hard, I’d just like to hear your impression — not about details in the testimony, but about the fact that it happened at all, and in such a dramatic fashion.

Amanda Ripley: It’s very painful — as in, physically excruciating — to break with your tribe the way she did. To do that as a woman, as a young person, as someone without a full-time job at the moment, is just stunning. I am very curious to know more about her and her support system, which I hope is robust…

One thing that struck me was how her voice slowed down here, when she talked about how she felt on Jan. 6. “As an American,” she said, “I was disgusted. It was unpatriotic. It was un-American.” When people use strong words like that, they are usually revealing a deep well of emotion.

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