How to Keep Your Thanksgiving Dinner Civil
Some tips from behavioral economics to help you have an actual discussion rather than a shouting match, even on politics.
Bloomberg, November 20, 2018
If your family is anything like mine, there will be lots of arguments over Thanksgiving dinner. Here are some timely insights from behavioral economics that will make it easier to debate family members1 — even on politics — and might help save your holidays.
Start by recognizing the difficulty of changing a person’s mind. Improve the odds by understanding how people, regardless of ideology, create their own subjective model of the universe. Then follow these steps:
1. Understand cognitive dissonance: This is the mechanism that allows people to ignore facts that are inconsistent with their ideology or worldview.2 Psychologists know how much time and energy3 go into creating each person’s model of the world. Given that large investment, people are extremely reluctant to change their model. Think of it as a giant exercise in the “sunk cost fallacy.”
Our worldview includes our sense of self, ideology and tribal identity. If you bluntly challenge these beliefs, you naturally will encounter fierce resistance.4 To persuade your crazy Uncle Murray, you shouldn’t try to get him to renounce views he has held his entire life. The more effective approach allows his investment in creating a model to be preserved.
2. Beware of the backfire effect: When a dependable lifelong belief set is confronted by contradictory facts, the result is the so-called backfire effect. Academic research has found that merely presenting facts that challenge our worldview only hardens those positions. Not only are our beliefs not “corrected” by fact checking, but the attempt at “correction actually increases misperceptions.”
It is astonishing but true: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your original beliefs only get stronger. Facts may be stubborn things, but minds are even stubborner.
3. Let Socrates help: OK, lecturing doesn’t help. If you want to actually change someone’s mind, follow the script first laid out about 2,400 years ago by Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy.
Instead of sermonizing to his students, Socrates led them through a structured argumentative dialogue. He asked them questions, and helped them consider their underlying beliefs and knowledge. The process forced students to think critically about their belief system. It led them to better hypotheses by helping to identify and eliminate those that were weak or problematic.
The benefit of this cooperative dialogue is that people are more likely to modify their model of the world when they reach a conclusion on their own. Therein lay the difference. The Socratic method avoids both the backfire effect and cognitive dissonance. When people come to the answers by themselves, even with that assist from Socrates, they can incorporate their new conclusions into their models.
The only drawback is that this requires thought, preparation and patience.
4. Emphasize your tribe: Famed psychologist Robert Cialdini, author of the best-selling “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” and all-around expert on persuasion (see our MIB interview here), notes how important it is to emphasize you are of the same tribe. He calls it the Convert Communicator: “I used to believe what you do — I was against ________. But then this happened to me, and it changed my mind.”
Cialdini has found that it is hard to reject somebody who has the same beliefs as you. People are more willing to be open to a person who used to believe as they do, but whose perspective was changed by life events. Cialdini is surprised that the two major parties have not employed this systematically.
So, regardless of your beliefs, there is no reason to let politics ruin your holiday get-togethers. Try using the best of behavioral economics as tools of persuasion. And, enjoy your holidays!
1. As we have shown, Investors who have a faulty model of the world or believe in alternative facts end up quickly punished in the markets. The key difference between investing and politics is the speed of the feedback loop.
2. Note: I have held the title of “Director of Twitter Cognitive Dissonance” since 2009.
3. By energy consumption, I mean literally: The brain only weighs about three pounds, but it consumes 20 percent of the body’s energy.
4. A variation of this is the Upton Sinclair quote: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”