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No Politics at the Dinner Table?

Five simple steps to surviving Thanksgiving day politics

Political scientists largely agree that human beings are evolutionarily unprepared for the day-to-day tasks of citizenship. Our brains, our psychological processes, and our physiological reactions to stimuli evolved out of the need for physical survival, not the demands of political discussion, debate, compromise, and governance. Yet politics is a major part of contemporary life. No surprise then that politics is often a topic of conversation among friends and family. For those with homogenous social networks, holiday dinners offer a great time to stimulate our primordial brains with uncontroversial bashing of political opponents. For those who find themselves across the dinner table from a relation with different views from their own, political discussion had between bites of turkey and stuffing can be thoroughly unpleasant. Here are five pointers for surviving political disagreement at Thanksgiving dinner.

(1) Remember that other peoples’ opinions are not a referendum on your opinions. People come to their political opinions through a variety of processes – exposure to information in the mass media, learned views from parents and other close connections, life experiences that teach about political matters – but we rarely form opinions on issues because we dislike someone. My opinion on an issue – for example, immigration – is generally based on my thoughts and experiences on immigration, not my infrequent conversations with my cousin or anything that he thinks. Disagreeing with a parent, child, in-law or anyone else does not mean that they don’t like you. More likely than not, you wouldn’t be at the table if the person genuinely disliked you. Your political disagreement is secondary to your personal relationship and while political disagreements may be frustrating, they are rarely “about you."

(2) People who disagree often think about the same issue differently. Social scientists call this “framing” because a single issue can be seen through multiple frames of reference that shift not only what we think about the issue (our opinion) but also how we think about that issue (our frame). Framing has been the topic of considerable research, but one important take away from that research for your holiday conversations is that hearing the other side’s opinions requires hearing the other side’s frame. As a vivid example, those who oppose abortion are often described as “pro-life,” framing the issue in terms of human life beginning at the point of conception, but those on the other side do not think about their opinion in terms of life (they are not “anti-life”). Those who favor abortion rights are often descried as “pro-choice,” framing the issue in terms of women’s rights, while those on the other side rarely see their opinion in terms of choice (they are not “anti-choice”). When multiple frames of reference are available, people do more than disagree on policy, they disagree on what is at stake in an issue. Consequently, conversations about the issue will involve opponents talking past each other. Talking about an issue in terms of one frame with someone who doesn’t conceptualize the issue in those terms isn’t likely to be productive for anyone involved.

(3) Thinking you’re being rational can often be a sign that you’re actually biased. When we talk to others, we tend to be motivated to be “accurate.” We want to be competent, appear well-informed, and ultimately hold opinions that are “right.” But, we are always also fundamentally driven to defend our prior opinions. Political conversations seemingly aimed at resolving debates, which should drive us to be accurate and may actually make us think we are being accurate, are excellent opportunities to exacerbate differences. The drive to be “right” combined with our drive to defend our viewpoints can create a powerful mix that simultaneously makes us more extreme and more convinced of our views while also believing we are viewing an issue in an unbiased fashion. As we become more entrenched in our views, we increasingly see our own view as correct. When both sides of a conversation do this, friendly political debate can rapidly turn sour.

(4) We believe facts that support our opinions and disbelieve everything else. Perhaps the greatest cognitive failure for modern citizens is the inability to divorce our attachment to our opinions from our evaluations of new information and arguments. If we are reasonably committed to our views, new information that might change those views is resisted and misinterpreted. To avoid having to update our opinions, we tend to derogate the source of that information, discredit its logic or implications, or distort its meaning so that it seems to support rather than oppose our views. This means that arguing over “facts” rarely resolves political disagreements. Instead, conversations between opposing sides should focus on identifying differences of opinion, understanding frames of reference, and talking in terms of core political values and goals (on which you might find surprising amounts of agreement).

(5) Sometimes, you’ll never be able to change someone’s opinion. Though it remains an emerging area of social research, some of our opinions have a relatively static basis in our physiology, genetics, and evolved condition. For example, opinions on welfare policy have been shown to be based in intractable differences of opinion about who “deserves” help from others in society. Disagreements about social welfare spending will never be resolved and will often not be meaningful or productive without talking about the basis of those opinions in fundamental matters of who deserves help and who does not.

So, as you settle down for Thanksgiving dinner this year, keep these five things in mind. Political debates are about political issues, they are not (or at least should not be) about personal differences. Those debates often feature not only differences of opinion, but differences in issue frames that make political conversations seem frustrating. Remember that we are always motivated to defend our own views even when we think we’re being reasonable, rational, and unbiased. That motivation also leads us to disbelieve some evidence even when it is objectively true, so debating facts first is generally not a good idea. Sometimes, you’re never going to change someone else’s opinions.

If you must talk about politics during the holidays this year, try to keep these things in mind and hopefully you will be able to give thanks for not getting into a pointless political argument with your children, parents, in-laws, or other relations.