23 Dec Table Talk: Connected Conversations Over The Holidays
Table Talk: Connected Conversations Over The Holidays
The holidays can be joyful and can provide meaningful opportunities to reconnect with friends and family. Holidays can also be stressful, in no small part due to these same interactions. Contentious topics such as politics and current events create conflict that many families struggle to negotiate. Not surprisingly, research from the Pew Research Center shows that our country and families are becoming more and more divided (Dimock & Wike, 2020).
This post is a tad lengthy. Feel free to scroll to the sections that interest you:
- HOW WE FORM OUR OPINIONS
- HOW OUR OPINIONS BECOME ENTRENCHED
- PERSONALITY AND POLITICAL BELIEFS
- WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
- SUMMARY TIPS AND TRICKS
- WHAT IF CIVIL COMMUNICATION ISN’T POSSIBLE?
- CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
HOW WE FORM OUR OPINIONS
Most of us believe our decisions are well thought out and are under complete control of our conscious minds. You may be surprised to learn that multiple unconscious factors influence the conclusions we draw. For example, we rely heavily on heuristics and biases (simple mental rules or shortcuts) to make decisions and judgments outside of our awareness, especially under uncertain conditions where an obvious right or wrong doesn’t exist (Tversky and Kahneman, 1974).
Kahneman (2011) created the acronym, WYSIATI (“what you see is all there is”) to describe how we make decisions with insufficient information. We deal with “known knowns” (what we’ve observed and what we primarily use for making decisions), “known unknowns” (what seems relevant but about which we’ve gathered no information and which we rarely consider), and “unknown unknowns” (unknown phenomena which we completely discount). Kahneman goes on to elaborate multiple specific errors in judgment that dovetail with Tversky’s originally observed biases and that cause us to engage in flawed and unexamined reasoning in forming our judgments and opinions.
In addition to using heuristics, our emotions and unconscious minds impact our thoughts and beliefs. Greenwald and Banaji (1995, 2017) discuss Implicit Bias, or the impact of unconscious features and prejudices that we bring to assumptions about certain groups or categories and their traits. Implicit biases are thought to develop through social learning from interactions with others, social media, news sources, etc., and they are considered to have a profound influence on our choices and opinions. Affect Effect (Grecucci & Sanfey, 2014, for a review) refers to the impact our emotions have on our beliefs. Our likes/dislikes, emotional states when we receive and recall information, and overall emotional state, are all thought to have a significant impact on our opinions. Some sources cite as many as 50 cognitive biases that combat our rational minds in effective decision making. You’ll surely have heard of the more common ones, such as fundamental attribution errors, groupthink, halo effect, availability heuristics, Dunning-Kruger effect, confirmation bias, authority bias, satisficing and more.
HOW OUR OPINIONS BECOME ENTRENCHED
Furthermore, once we form our opinions, we surround ourselves with others who are like minded, and further entrench ourselves in our respective positions. Group Polarization (Myers & Lamm, 1976) is a phenomenon describing how the more a group interacts with other group members, the more extreme that group becomes. Think about it. If you count yourself as liberal or conservative, that tends to be reflected in the media or news you consume, the people you interact with, and the causes about which you care. Amidst all this interaction, we are pulled to become more like that group. More liberal, more conservative, more anti-left, more anti-right. We use confirmation bias (the tendency to focus on information that confirms our original beliefs) and other heuristics to support what we already believe, instead of seeking out and evaluating alternative input. In fact, the more we’ve supported a position previously, the less likely we become to consider alternative perspectives, even if we suspect we’re wrong on some level.
PERSONALITY AND POLITICAL BELIEFS
Political psychology, an interdisciplinary field dedicated to understanding how our political views are informed by psychological processes, has yielded interesting data on how personality influences our beliefs. This is fascinating! Consider that our perspectives aren’t solely informed by what we perceive as absolute rights and wrongs, but that we are drawn to these positions by prestanding personality traits. Haidt and colleagues (2012) have explored this concept thoroughly, from the lens of morality, and have determined that we evaluate right and wrong based on where we fall on a combination of five (formerly six) moral dimensions: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. We all fall somewhere on these continuums, either closer or farther away from the poles on either end. In our political example, liberals tend to favor care and fairness more, while conservatives favor loyalty, authority, and sanctity.
One can’t mention personality and political orientation without discussing the Big Five Model, or Five-Factor Model, one of the most researched methods of describing personality traits in common parlance today. The Big Five (a rich literature resulting from the contributions of several psychologists- please contact us for references) posits that personality exists along dimensions, not unlike Haidt’s model above. The identified dimensions are Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Openness, and Extraversion. According to Ian Phillips (2021), one reason politics moves so slowly is because people are actually at war with each other’s personality differences, not just their espoused political beliefs. He provides a rich discussion worth reading, and concludes that liberals tend to be higher in Openness, Agreeableness (though predictive validity varies for social versus economic liberalism), and Neuroticism. Conservatives tend to be high in Conscientiousness and Extraversion.
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
So where does that leave us? At the end of the day, your aunt’s diatribe against immigration and your nephew’s insistence on political correctness are likely still going to rattle the dinner table. But it’s important to recognize that these opinions have a basis in something–something that tends to pull us to be more extreme, more polarized, and more divided. It would help if we were able to hold an empathic space for those who are different from us, and be willing to consider how aspects of THEIR views might be relevant to us rethinking our own.
Adam Grant (2021) addresses “rethinking”. He encourages us to be willing to “think again”, and to engage with “the power of knowing what you don’t know”. He identifies several characteristic styles people use when trying to convince others of their opinion (Preacher, Prosecutor, Politician). He suggests that engaging a scientific mind, characterized by humility and a willingness to doubt one’s perspective, leads to curiosity and a sense of discovery. Grant terms this “The Rethinking Cycle”. The contrasting cycle is the “Overconfidence Cycle”, characterized by pride, conviction, and the use of confirmation and desirability biases, ultimately seeking validation of one’s original beliefs as opposed to learning and integrating more nuanced versions of the same. Phenomenal, right? What if we could be open and curious about the disparate perspectives of our friends and family, instead of close minded and judgmental about the ways their opinions are discrepant from ours?
SUMMARY TIPS AND TRICKS
How to hold open the space for conversation? Here are some summary tips and tricks for conversations that bring people closer together instead of increasing the distance and conflict:
- Maintain your curiosity. People come to their positions from their contexts (upbringings, geographic location, families, etc.). Understanding their context helps you know them better and leads to increased understanding.
- Be willing to learn from others. Holding strong beliefs does not preclude the possibility of learning something from others’ beliefs.
- Challenge your biases. Your beliefs are the result of YOUR context, moral stance and personality, and are also subject to multiple biases. It’s not just your Uncle Bob’s opinions that are impacted by unconscious influence!
- Collaborate instead of defeat. It should be obvious, but instead of staying open to other’s opinions, most of us engage in conversation with a goal to defeat or convince, instead of to listen and learn.
- People are multifaceted. You can dislike a person’s opinion without disliking the person.
- Listen, instead of simply biding your time to chime in with your response.
- Ask clarifying questions, such as “I understood you to say this. Is that what you meant?”, or “Can you describe more about that idea?”
- Convey interest in the other’s perspective, which decreases defensiveness. Statements such as “I never thought about it that way”, or “ “That’s really interesting, even though it doesn’t quite align with my perspective” could keep a conversation from breaking down.
WHAT IF CIVIL COMMUNICATION ISN’T POSSIBLE?
Despite using these techniques, there may be some family or friends with whom you are unable to engage civilly. Or perhaps you’re the person who can’t engage civilly! Avoid using or tolerating aggressive, dismissive language. Be mindful of your boundaries and the boundaries of the person with whom you’re engaging. Some topics may need to be off limits given the current status of our country, or at this stage in your relationships. Monitor your own defensiveness and physiological arousal. You might get too upset or overwhelmed to listen, and if so, it’s better to state this verbally and calmly exit the conversation before things escalate, potentially irreparably. Something like, “I think it best that we not continue this conversation right now.”
Our hope is that you will bridge boundaries, forge connections and feel better about yourself if you can engage in respectful, mutually curious conversations– instead of escalating to the point of contentious arguments with personal insults. Remember that being kind, feeling calm and staying connected is almost always more important than communicating a particular perspective or agreeing with the family member across the table.
Good luck and Happy Holidays!
Everett Moore, M.S.
Carla Pulliam, Ph.D.
Many of the sources listed below were identified in (identified by *):
Muran, J.C. & Eubanks, C.F. (2020). Therapist Performance Under Pressure: Negotiating Emotion, Difference, and Rupture. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Dimock, M & Wike, R. (2020). America is exceptional in the nature of its political divide. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/11/13/america-is-exceptional-in-the-nature-of-its-political-divide/
Furnham, A. & Fenton-O’ Creevy, M. (2018). Personality and political orientation. Personality and Individual Differences, 129, 88-91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2018.03.020
Gjersoe, N. (2016, November 14). The moral matrix that influences the way people vote. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2016/nov/14/the-moral-matrix-that-influences-the-way-people-vote
Graham, J., Haidt, J., Koleva, S., Motyl, M., Iyer, R., Wojcik, S. P., & Ditto, P. H. (2012). Moral foundations theory: The pragmatic validity of moral pluralism. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Forthcoming, 1-64. Retrieved from http://ssrn.com/abstract=2184440
Grant, A. (2021). Think again: the power of knowing what you don’t know. New York, NY: Viking.
*Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: Attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological Review, 102, 4-27.
*Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (2017). The implicit revolution: Reconceiving the relation between conscious and unconscious. American Psychologist, 72, 861-871.
*Grecucci, A., & Sanfey, A. G. (2014). Emotion regulation and decision making. In J J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation (pp. 140-153). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Hatemi, P. K. & Verhulst, B. (2015). Political attitudes develop independently of personality traits. PLOS ONE, 10(3), e0118106. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0118106
*Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Kassin, S., Fein, S., & Markus, H. R. (2017). Social Psychology (10th Edition). Cengage.
McNerny, S. (2011, December 8). Jonathan Haidt and the moral matrix: Breaking out of our righteous minds. Scientific American. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/jonathan-haidt-the-moral-matrix-breaking-out-of-our-righteous-minds/
Phillips, I. (2021). Big five personality traits and political orientation: an inquiry into political beliefs. Downtown Review, 7, Iss. 2, pp. 1-19
*Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185, 1124-1131.