Social Psychology

Political polarization does not appear to be causing shorter Thanksgiving visits, according to new research

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It is not uncommon for political tensions in the United States to boil up during Thanksgiving gatherings. Some news publications have even written guides on how to best interact with relatives with opposing political views.

But new research suggests that political polarization is not cutting Thanksgiving short. The study, published in PLOS One, indicates that there is no significant difference between the duration of Thanksgiving dinners with politically-diverse attendees and the duration of dinners with politically-uniform attendees.

“The United States is in the midst of a Culture War. The majority of politically engaged citizens report that they feel afraid of and anger toward members of the other party,” explained researchers Jeremy A. Frimer and Linda J. Skitka

“The question that motivates this research concerns whether there are limits to this political rift in the form of times and places where people set aside their political differences and get along for the sake of enjoying an event together. A prime candidate for such a truce might be Thanksgiving dinner.”

A previous study had found that Thanksgiving dinners with politically diverse attendees were up to 50 minutes shorter compared to average. That study used voting data from the 2016 presidential election and anonymous smartphone-location data from more than 10 million Americans to infer the diversity of Thanksgiving dinners and their duration.

But Frimer and Skitka argued that “the validity of this inference is questionable, leaving open the broader question about whether political diversity really does shorten Thanksgiving dinners and by how much.”

For their own study, the researchers recruited 579 Americans two days before Thanksgiving 2018 and asked them to take note of the precise times that they arrived and left their Thanksgiving dinner. The day after Thanksgiving, the participants provided information about the dinner, including how many people were in attendance and the attendees’ attitude toward President Donald Trump.

The researchers conducted a similar study with another 1,146 American participants in 2019. But in both studies they failed to find evidence that Thanksgiving dinners with politically diverse attendees tended to be shorter than politically uniform ones in the years 2018 and 2019.

“The methodological differences between the prior and current analyses are substantial, rendering the present effort a conceptual and not a direct replication of the original,” Frimer and Skitka wrote, noting that they don’t intend their findings to be “the final word” on the subject.

“That said, the bulk of evidence thus far suggests that although people expect conversations with unlike-minded others to be painful, they over-estimate the severity of the negative affect of these actual conversations.”

“It appears that the Culture War division that exists is not as strong and toxic as generally thought, that many norms surrounding civility and politeness remain intact. With perhaps only a small disruption attributed to politics, Americans appear to be largely successful at putting aside their political differences and enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with relatives and friends with whom their differ,” Frimer and Skitka concluded.

The study, “Are politically diverse Thanksgiving dinners shorter than politically uniform ones?” was published October 27, 2020.