Carnegie Mellon University
September 28, 2020

COVID, Politics Could Divide This Year's Thanksgiving Table

By Julie Mattera

Julie Mattera
  • Marketing and Communications
  • 412-268-2902

Differences in politics and beliefs in pandemic precautions could literally divide families this Thanksgiving or make it downright toxic, according to Carnegie Mellon University experts.

Debating politics while grandpa carves the turkey or aunt Hellen passes the stuffing isn't new, especially during presidential election years. But the politicization of COVID-19 behaviors could cause spatial divisions in families with opposing political views, said Gretchen Chapman, a psychology professor in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences who studies decision-making and health behavior.

"In the past, when a liberal college student gathers for Thanksgiving with her conservative uncle, they might argue politics or talk about football to avoid politics," Chapman said. "But this year, that student is going to feel that her health is in jeopardy because conservative uncle isn't wearing a mask. So, she might decide to do something else for Thanksgiving where she feels like she's better protected."

Chapman said people's decisions around COVID-19 are driven by much more than how risky they perceive that behavior. Whether people wear a mask or not, host a physically distanced gathering, or insist on having Thanksgiving dinner around the dining room table according to tradition, these decisions reflect a person's political identities and people stick to them to keep from having their liberal or conservative credentials questioned. For instance, Chapman said, many liberals will keep their masks on and stay away from crowded gatherings, while a lot of conservatives will say that masks are an infringement of their personal liberties, and that gatherings are part of their right to assembly.

George Loewenstein, the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology at CMU, said this comes at a time when the nation is more politically segregated than ever.

"When it comes to politics, most of the time people don't have much contact with opposing political views. Attitudes toward the virus are polarized as well, and the consequences of not having contact with other political views also reduces the exposure of people who feel differently about the virus," Loewenstein said. "Thanksgiving is going to bring both together: a cauldron of political views and virus. It could be a toxic year for the holiday."

Loewenstein, who expanded on these thoughts in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, said when loved ones disagree on how to behave during a pandemic it can be "especially distressing." One reason for this is our "natural tendency to believe that the way you see the world is the way the world really is, which psychologists call 'naïve realism,'" Loewenstein said in the piece. "Most people don't believe that their view of coronavirus risk is simply one of a range of possible perspectives. Instead, they believe their view is reality, and all other perspectives are clearly wrong."

Loewenstein and Chapman provided a few tactics for people in politically mixed families. While Loewenstein recommends against trying to convince people that you are correct or telling them that they are biased, Chapman said that if you must make an argument, anecdotes are more convincing than statistical facts. She added that a message coming from a trusted source would be more impactful than someone who isn't trusted.

"A liberal college student shouldn't use a CNN story to convince her conservative uncle," Chapman said. "But a Fox news story might be more convincing to him."

Additionally, people can put aside changing beliefs and instead focus on changing behavior, Chapman said. For instance, the liberal college student referenced earlier could ask her conservative uncle to wear a mask just on Thanksgiving.

"You're not trying to convince him that masks are necessary," Chapman said. "Instead, you can explain to your loved one, 'This is important to me. Would you do this for me for one day? And is there something I can do that is important to you?'"

— Related Content —