An oft-repeated adage to never discuss sex, religion or politics at the dinner table is probably never truer than on Thanksgiving. However, in an America where polling reveals we are increasingly divided over political issues, social science suggests the dinner table may be the ideal place to start. Decades of research reveal we are more open to new information from people who are similar to us. We’re unlikely to bridge our divides as a nation if we can’t have constructive conversations about controversial social issues with loved ones.
Classic social-psychological research by Carl Hovland, Irving Janis, and Harold Kelley suggests that we are more influenced by people whom we like and respect, such as friends and family members. And persuasive messages tend to be more effective when we trust the person delivering the information and view them as holding values similar to our own. We also pay more attention to messages from people we view as part of our group, particularly when the messages contain quality arguments and the argument feels relevant to our lives. When people don’t pay close attention to arguments, then the likability of the message source is particularly important, according to research by social psychologist Shelly Chaiken. Many of these message source attributes associated with effective persuasive messages—likability, respect, group status, trust—are common among friends and family members.
So, conversations among friends and family members hold potency and offer opportunities that are missing from chatter in our social periphery. Yet with topics such as immigration, gun control, racism and sexual harassment in the headlines lately, there is no shortage of media provocation that can transform affectionate dialogue into a hostile standoff. Take climate change, for example. Across dozens of studies, identifying as either a Democrat or Republican is a strong and consistent predictor of beliefs about climate change. There is also divide over what to do about climate change. In survey research performed late last year, Anthony Leiserowitz and his colleagues found that 86 percent of Democrats say we should participate in international agreements to address human-caused climate change, compared with only 51 percent of Republicans sharing this opinion.
Conversations among family members and friends are more likely than messages from experts and pundits to lead to us finding common ground on climate change and beyond. But currently these conversations are not happening frequently enough. As 2016 surveying by Edward Maibach and his colleagues reveals, 68 percent of Americans hear the issue of climate change discussed among individuals they know only several times a year or less. Nearly a quarter of Americans report never hearing about climate change from people they know. We may be able to overcome the divide in climate change beliefs in part by discussing environmental issues with friends and family more frequently. Of note, recent social-psychological research by Nathan Geiger and Janet Swim suggests people overestimate the number of individuals in their social circles who do not accept human-caused climate change, causing hesitancy to raise the issue with others.
We know from the accumulation of numerous scientific studies that one of the most effective ways to help people change their environmental attitudes is to have them engage with other people they personally know and who already take environmental action. So, if we want to see increased climate change concern among Americans, we can’t expect scientists and opinion leaders, sometimes viewed as political actors, to do all of the work. We need to be the ones to reach out to climate change skeptics in our own communities and during our gatherings of friends and family.
The Thanksgiving table is also ideal for healing social and political divides, because face-to-face conversations have benefits over social media discussions. Communication research suggests that the value of such digital platforms for productive dialogue about controversial issues is limited because users self-select their information sources and online social networks. In addition, it is more difficult to establish trust online, and online communication can be particularly caustic. Social media may have a role in organizing like-minded advocates to generate momentum, but it seems unlikely it will help us better understand the views of others.
If you take this essay to heart and have an opportunity this Thanksgiving to have a productive conversation about controversial issues, here are some communication strategies supported by social science. Try to mimic the body language and vocal habits of the other person to show you’re attentive and concerned. Don’t go into the conservation looking to persuade. Instead express curiosity, which may help you keep an open mind, and will hopefully inspire the other person to reciprocate curiosity. Respect the other person and try not to use language that may make them defensive. Finally, try to enjoy the experience and harbor the belief that you can effectively discuss difficult topics with others.
To be sure, you know your family and friends better than I do. Social science doesn’t suggest we should necessarily try to engage with the most extremely close-minded family and friends about controversial issues, particularly if we have any reason to fear for our safety or permanent relational damage. But, for many of us, we might be underestimating our ability to have productive conversations with friends and family about difficult topics. Healing the divide among Americans will be complex, and conversations with loves ones aren’t enough by themselves. But social science does give some reason for optimism this Thanksgiving, if we only try to talk to one another.