I first published this in 2018 and each year I publish a new variation of it. The idea is to apply what we know about Behavioral Finance to guide our familial interactions, just in time for Turkey day. Enjoy the AI-generated image above, and enjoy your holiday!
Thanksgiving is here!
If your family is anything like mine, you will have more than a few people of different political persuasions at the table: Liberals, Conservatives, Magas, Q-Anon, and all sorts of other Pro- and Anti- folks of all manner of thought.
Well, I am here to help you avoid disaster.
I am going to share with you a few tips that will make your Turkey Day much more pleasant, regardless of whether you read National Review or the New York Times, or prefer Fox News or MSNBC.
Obviously, avoid talking about sex, religion, money, and politics. But if you cannot do that, rather than allowing partisan arguments to ruin your Turkey Day, try this timely advice, based on the latest behavioral research:
1. Understand Cognitive Dissonance: This is the mechanism that allows people to ignore facts inconsistent with their ideology or worldview. Psychologists know how much time and energy go into creating each person’s model of the world. Given that huge investment, everyone is extremely reluctant to change their models. It is a species-wide exercise in the “sunk cost fallacy.”
Your worldview includes your own self of sense, your ideology, and how you think about your “tribe.” Expect fierce resistance when you bluntly challenge this.
If you want to persuade your Crazy Uncle Murray, perhaps the best strategy does not require him to renounce the views he held his entire life. There are much more effective approaches (below).
2. Beware the Backfire Effect: Take a lifelong set of beliefs, then present it with unassailable contradictory facts. The response is to double down on those (false/disproven) beliefs.
This is called the Backfire Effect, and it is well understood by psychologists. Presenting info that challenges our worldview only serves to harden that prior position. Not only do you not correct beliefs by fact-checking, but the attempt actually “increases misperceptions.” It is astonishing but true: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.
Facts may be stubborn things, but minds are even more stubborn…
3. Emphasize Your Sameness (Tribe): Famed psychologist Robert Cialdini, author of the best-selling book “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 XX. But then this happened to me, and it changed my mind.”
Cialdini uses the example of a healthcare issue to an opponent of ACA (Obamacare). “I was in your shoes, I believed what you do – until my child got sick, and but for the pre-existing coverage mandate of Obamacare, we would not have gotten treatment. That experience led me to change my views.”
It is hard to reject somebody who shares your beliefs. People are more willing to be open to a person who used to believe what they do, but life events changed that perspective. Cialdini is surprised that the two major parties have not deployed this more systematically.
4. Let Socrates Help: OK, now you know lecturing people won’t help. If you want to actually change someone’s mind, follow the script first laid out 2,400 years ago by Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy.
Socrates never sermonized his students. Instead, he led them through a structured argumentative dialogue. He asked them questions. He helped them consider their underlying beliefs and knowledge. He forced his students to think critically about their own belief systems.
This led to better hypotheses by helping to identify and eliminate those that were weak or problematic.
The benefit of this cooperative dialogue is that when individuals reach a conclusion on their own, it more easily modifies their model of the world.
Therein lay the difference.
The Socratic method avoids both the Backfire Effect and Cognitive Dissonance. Finding the answers by yourself, even with assistance from Socrates, allows new conclusions to be incorporated into mental models more easily. The only drawback is that it requires thought, preparation, time, and patience.
5. “Never attempt to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.”
Finally, know who your audience is. The quote above is from Robert A. Heinlein’s story, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long. It is a reminder not to waste time and energy on futile efforts. From the same author: “Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.”
You could do much worse than Heinlein’s thinking on these matters.
There is no reason for politics to ruin your holidays. Use what we have learned from behavioral economics to enjoy your family get-togethers. For an even better holiday dinner, try giving your family members the benefit of the doubt . . .
Behavioral Hacks to Keep Your Thanksgiving Civil (November 24, 2022)
How to Talk to Your FoxNews Loving Relatives at Thanksgiving! (November 28, 2019)
How to Talk to a Fox News Viewer (November 22, 2018)
America has a Fox News problem (July 4, 2018)