Most of us have that relative whose political opinions are the opposite of our own. As a result, Thanksgiving gatherings often generate social tension, so commonly so, it's now an age-old (and overused) cliche.

But just because something regularly occurs doesn't mean we should ignore it. And this political division (often referred to as political polarization) is one of the most concerning problems in the United States. Fortunately, it is an issue that psychological research can uniquely address.  

As people's views get further and further apart, the less likely we're able to find solutions to societal problems. The economy, the environment, the criminal justice system… people must find a middle ground between differing beliefs in order to come to a solution. So, the more political division between people's beliefs, the less any societal improvement is likely to occur.

What, then, can psychological research teach us about reducing polarization this Thanksgiving?

Understanding Key Drivers  

One of the primary reasons that political polarization emerges is that people are not exposed to the opposing side. They get "their side" of the story repeated over and over again, and this makes them firmer in their beliefs. But, there's an easy solution.

Put simply: people need to actually speak and engage with people of differing views.

Unfortunately, even when the opportunity is available (like at Thanksgiving), people don't like to do this. For example, two separate studies found that Thanksgiving dinners are 20 to 50 minutes shorter when the guestlist includes people with differing versus the same political beliefs.

But, just like exercising and eating healthy, people often avoid what's good for them. So, my recent research focused on trying to understand why people don't engage with those they disagree with.

An Assumption-Making Process

Before continuing, let me acknowledge that many people avoid speaking to those with differing views for good reason. Maybe they feel unsafe. Or this "debate" is about their lived experience, and constantly defending it is simply exhausting, or even feels insulting to oneself.

At the same time, there are lots of other people who do possess the capacity for these important dialogues. And in our research, my colleague Rich Petty and I sought to answer why these people avoid engaging with people of contrary political views.

To do this, first, we recruited a large number of people to tell us why they avoided political debates in general, both on topics with minor and large disagreements. From this, we found six overarching explanations. We then gave those explanations to a nationally representative set of participants and had them rank-order them in terms of their influence. Specifically, they ranked each reason for its effect on their engagement in political conversations.

Maybe people primarily avoid these discussions when they think the other person is too confident in their belief. Or too extreme. Or too prone to emotional agitation. Although people were sensitive to these explanations, the results revealed a far and away clear winner.
People avoid these kinds of discussions because they expect to feel unheard. And this is a real problem for political polarization.

Before even speaking to someone on the opposite side, we often assume they will not listen to what we have to say. So, in order to get people to engage with people of differing views, researchers need to understand why people believe the other side will not really listen to them.

Emotional Irrationality

When it comes to perceiving other people, our expectations about them (or assumptions) are not always accurate. And that's the case when we perceive people on the other side of a political issue.

From my research, a really strong predictor of when people expect they will feel unheard was this: when they think the other person's opinion is based on their emotions (compared to their reasons). When it comes to political topics where the other person disagrees with us, we automatically assume the other person's opinion is emotionally based.

To test this explanation altogether, my colleague and I recruited participants following the 2020 U.S. presidential election, just a few days before Thanksgiving. We asked them to describe one of two people they would see at Thanksgiving: either a person who shared their opinion on the presidential election, or someone who disagreed with them. After Thanksgiving, we then followed up, asking them how much time they spent speaking to this other person about the election.

In line with our expectations, people thought those who disagreed (versus agreed) with them were more emotionally based in their opinion, which led them to infer they would feel unheard when speaking on this topic with the person, which accounted for why they spent less time actually speaking to them on the topic.

Starting That Conversation

In understanding why people avoid these conversations, we can better work toward initiating them. For example, we can take a moment to think about how this other person's opinion could be rationally based, which might make them seem more open-minded to contrary views, motivating our likelihood of discussion. Of course, once you do start speaking to them, you'll have the greater challenge of how to actually have a productive conversation.

Because such advice would require its own blog post, I've created a research-based one-page guide on how to have a productive political conversation – whether that's this Thanksgiving or another encounter.

Regardless, though, consider seeking an opportunity to have a conversation with someone with different views. At the very least, you can try to convince them that their assumptions about your opinion being emotionally based—and of you being closed-minded—are untrue.

For Further Reading

Teeny, J. D., & Petty, R. E. (2022). Attributions of emotion and reduced attitude openness prevent people from engaging others with opposing views. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 102.

Broockman, D., & Kalla, J. (2016). Durably reducing transphobia: A field experiment on door-to-door canvassing. Science, 352(6282), 220-224.

Finkel, E. J., Bail, C. A., Cikara, M., Ditto, P. H., Iyengar, S., Klar, S., … & Druckman, J. N. (2020). Political sectarianism in America. Science, 370(6516), 533-536.

Frimer, J. A., & Skitka, L. J. (2020). Are politically diverse Thanksgiving dinners shorter than politically uniform ones? PLoS ONE, 15(10).

Jake Teeny is an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the science of everyday people's opinions and what factors lead people to change them.