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How To Survive (And Maybe Even Enjoy) Thanksgiving Dinner

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This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Though the cups at Starbucks have been red since the day after Halloween, Thanksgiving marks the start of the holiday season for most people. That means taking the time to reflect on everything we are grateful for, being generous, spending time with the people we love.

DANIEL PINK, BYLINE: So you can say to yourself, ah, I can't get into an argument with uncle Joe, but that might not work nearly as well as saying, you know, I don't get into stupid political fights with people who don't know what they're talking about.

VEDANTAM: We all know that the whole spending-time-with-the-people-we-love part can be a little challenging.

TYLER OKIMOTO: When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered.

VEDANTAM: On this week's episode, we'll talk about some themes that often come up in disagreements around the dinner table, and we'll give you some strategies to help keep the peace.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: (Laughter) Just pay them.

VEDANTAM: This holiday week, we're going to bring you two short conversations I had with Steve Inskeep. He's a host of NPR's Morning Edition. If you haven't heard me on the air, I often talk with Steve about new social science research on the radio. After that, we're going to have a brand-new edition of Stopwatch Science with Daniel Pink. Our theme throughout this episode is how social science can help you have a happy Thanksgiving.


KEVIN KLINE: (As Ben Hood) So let's do it right, and Wendy, why don't you say grace? You used to love to say grace, remember?

CHRISTINA RICCI: (As Wendy Hood) Dear Lord, thank you for this Thanksgiving holiday and for all the material possessions that we have and enjoy and for letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands and stuff ourselves like pigs even though children in Asia are being napalmed.

KLINE: (As Ben Hood) Jesus, enough, all right.

VEDANTAM: The Thanksgiving dinner table can be a place where tensions arise, as in that clip from the 1997 movie "The Ice Storm." And very often, those fights tend to be about politics. Steve Inskeep asked me why it's so difficult to find common ground in these conversations.

INSKEEP: Okay, so what's the new research?

VEDANTAM: The research looks at seemingly intractable conflicts, such as the conflicts between Democrats and Republicans. And it shows that besides disagreements about the issues, there's an underlying psychological process that makes the search for common ground really difficult. The research comes from Liane Young at Boston College, and along with Adam Waits and Jeremy Gingers, she asked Democrats and Republicans about the emotions that motivate them and the emotions that motivate their opponents. Both sides said that they were motivated by positive emotions such as love or loyalty to their fellow Republicans or their fellow Democrats, but that their opponents were motivated primarily by hate and animosity. Now, this was true of both Republicans and Democrats. Here's Young talking about the Democratic volunteers.

LIANE YOUNG: Democrats were much more likely to say that they're motivated by love compared to hate. We then went and asked them, how much is the Republican Party motivated by love and hate? And there we found that Democrats were likely to say that Republicans were motivated by their hate of Democrats rather than their love of Republicans.

INSKEEP: OK, so the research says that I'm thinking the worst of the other guy, or more properly, I think that you're thinking the worst of me. I think you hate me, and that colors my perceptions of you.

VEDANTAM: That's precisely right, Steve. The point that Young and her colleagues are making is that if we believe that our opponents hate us, it's really hard to imagine common ground. So this might be one reason conflicts end up being intractable not just in politics, but in arguments over the Thanksgiving table. When we feel an aunt or an uncle or a grandparent is out to get us, we do everything we can to defend ourselves against this hate that's coming across the table. What we don't often realize is the person sitting across the table is trying to defend themselves from what they think is our hate for them. So Young and her colleagues think that if we try to see the other side as also being driven by positive emotions such as loyalty or love, rather than animosity, the arguments don't disappear, but it takes the sting out of the arguments.

INSKEEP: You know, we have a colleague here at work who talks about assuming the best intentions of the other person. I suppose that's the insight here is to assume the best of intentions of the partisan jerk across the table from me.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, Steve. People live very different lives and they're coming together for a Thanksgiving meal, so it's not surprising they're going to bring their loyalties to their own groups to the shared dinner. Young told me she hopes to apply the lesson of her study to her own Thanksgiving if an argument happens to break out. Here she is.

YOUNG: In the case of a fiery Thanksgiving debate, it's good to give the benefit of the doubt that this person isn't arguing with me because they hate me. But I would tell myself hey, you know, they want me to understand their point of view because they think it's right, and this grandparent is motivated by their love of me.

INSKEEP: But wait a minute here, suppose I try so hard to be big about this and to be open-minded and the other person is just a jerk, or I'm afraid the other person is going to be a jerk. What would it take to get the other person to open their minds?

VEDANTAM: Well, that's a good question, Steve. Young's study actually might point to the solution because she and her colleagues wanted to see if they could do anything to get people to accurately perceive their opponent's point of view. Now, since this is America, they decided to try the old-fashioned approach. They promised volunteers a financial incentive.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Just pay them, pay them.

VEDANTAM: They found that when you tell Democrats and Republicans that they stand to earn about $10 if they can accurately describe what's happening in their political opponents' minds, both sides now say the views of their opponents are probably shaped by positive emotions, such as loyalty and love, rather than hate. I asked Young whether the same technique might work at Thanksgiving dinner tables. Now I have to say she was very skeptical that this could work, but I say that we should run an experiment, slip a $10 bill under people's plates, and as they sit down see if that gives us a happy Thanksgiving.

INSKEEP: Shankar, there's a little something for you underneath your paper there.

VEDANTAM: You know, Steve, I always thought so highly of you. So hopefully, your Thanksgiving dinner will be argument-free. But just in case it's not, our next story is about apologizing. In the 1973 movie "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving," Peppermint Patty picks a fight at the dinner table.


CHRISTOPHER DEFARIA: (As Peppermint Patty) What kind of a Thanksgiving dinner is this? Where's the turkey, Chuck? Don't you know anything about Thanksgiving dinners? Where's the mashed potatoes? Where's the cranberry sauce? Where's the pumpkin pie?

VEDANTAM: Sometimes we know we've done something wrong, but it's still really hard to say we are sorry.


DEFARIA: (As Peppermint Patty) Do you think I hurt old Chuck's feelings? I bet I hurt his feelings. Golly, why can't I act right outside of a baseball game? Marcie, maybe you can go to old Chuck and patch things up for me. Maybe you can tell him how I really feel. Tell him that I didn't mean it the way it sounded. Marcie, you can do it. You go see him, and tell him that I really like him and that the dinner is OK with me.

JIMMY AHRENS: (As Marcie) Well, I don't know. I think maybe you should go to Chuck and tell him yourself.

VEDANTAM: I talked to Steve about why I love you really can mean never having to say you're sorry or at least never wanting to.

INSKEEP: OK, if you've ever looked after a group of children, chances are you have tried to break up a squabble using the following words. Come on now. Just say you're sorry. If your advice was met with stony-faced resistance, you will want to listen to this. Shankar, not sorry to have you here.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: So what do you mean, not apologizing? What is this about?

VEDANTAM: Apologies present us with a puzzle, and the puzzle is kids find it hard to do. Adults find it hard to do. It's even hard when it's completely rational. So in the criminal justice system, for example, you have situations where someone has been found guilty, and they're awaiting sentencing. And the only thing that could reduce the severity of their sentence is if they say, I'm sorry. And time and time again, people refuse to apologize. So, Tyler Okimoto, who is a researcher at University of Queensland in Australia, along with his colleagues Michael Wenzel and Kyli Hedrick, they decided to conduct some psychological experiments to understand why people refuse to apologize. Now parents have been telling their kids for years, look, just say you're sorry. You're going to feel better about yourself. Okimoto finds that parents have been telling their kids the truth, but they haven't been telling their kids the whole truth. Here he is.

OKIMOTO: We do find that apologies do make apologizers feel better, but the interesting thing is is that refusals to apologize also makes people feel better. And in fact, in some cases, it makes them feel even better than an apology would have.

VEDANTAM: So what he does is he asks a number of people to remember times when they've harmed someone, and most people, of course, remember trivial things, domestic quarrels and stuff like that. But some people also remember serious harms they've done. They remember crimes, such as theft. And Okimoto does two things. He asked them, did you actually apologize in real life? And then second, he conducts a laboratory experiment, where he asks them to compose an email where they either apologize or they refuse to apologize. And what he finds is that both in real life, as well as in the laboratory, refusing to apologize increases your feelings of status and increases your feelings of integrity.

INSKEEP: You feel like you have more integrity because you refused to apologize for something that you know you should apologize for.

VEDANTAM: That exactly right. The human mind is a wonderful thing, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so what is the conclusion here? We should never apologize for anything.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Well, actually, there are huge interpersonal costs to not apologizing and not just between individuals, between groups. I mean, think about conflicts that have been stuck for decades because one side can't tell another side, look, we're really sorry about what we did. The value of Okimoto's research is it starts to get a handle on why people find it so hard to apologize. Here he is again.

OKIMOTO: When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered. That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth.

INSKEEP: I think I'm getting this because when you apologize, you are putting your fate in someone else's hands. They will accept the apology or not or respond however they do. When you say, I will not apologize, you are still in control.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, and I think this research actually reminds me of the value of something that philosophers have been saying for a very long time, which is being able to apologize is not a sign of weakness. It's actually a sign of strength because if you look at the people who find it difficult to apologize, it's people who feel threatened, people who feel an apology would somehow make them extremely vulnerable.

INSKEEP: And of course, if you're a little kid being asked to apologize, you feel vulnerable. You're little to begin with, and that almost suggests that maybe a parent would want to approach that situation a different way.

VEDANTAM: If you're actually trying to change people's behavior, love and support might be more effective.

INSKEEP: Because if not, people end up giving that apology that they don't really mean.

VEDANTAM: They're completely insincere.


VEDANTAM: That was Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep with a rendition of a totally sincere apology. Coming up, Stopwatch Science with Daniel Pink. We'll tell you how to keep from overeating, overshopping, and fighting with your relatives this holiday. Back in a moment.

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VEDANTAM: Welcome back. We're going to stick with our war and peace and Thanksgiving theme in our next segment, which is Stopwatch Science. I'm joined, as always, by Daniel Pink. Hi, Dan.

PINK: Hey, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Dan and I are going to give one another 60 seconds to describe ideas from social science research. We're going to do things a little differently this time based on some of your feedback. As we approach the 60-second mark, our producers, Kara and Maggie, will gently bring up the music, just like they do at the Oscars. So Dan, what do you think? This is a kinder, gentler version of Stopwatch Science.

PINK: Kinder, gentler, Clooney-esque (ph) - those are three adjectives that describe me very well.

VEDANTAM: They do indeed, Dan. Alright, so Thanksgiving can be a wonderful time of peace and harmony. In other words, they speak to all of Dan Pink's finest qualities. But sometimes things can go off the rails. Maybe that's because a fight breaks out at the table. Maybe it's simply because you eat too much. On this edition of Stopwatch Science, Dan and I are going to give you tips on how to have a better Thanksgiving. Dan, if you are ready, your first 60 seconds starts now.

PINK: Well, Shankar, as you say, Thanksgiving, for many of us, is about resisting temptation. So how can we do it better? Well, a paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests one secret might be a simple language trick. We should shift from saying I can't to saying I don't. Now, in one of the experiments, undergraduates were trained to resist unhealthy foods by saying to themselves either, I can't eat X, or I don't eat X. Later, they were offered a choice between chocolate and a healthy granola bar. Of those using the I-can't self talk, fewer than 40 percent picked the healthy snack. But in the I-don't group, nearly two thirds chose the healthier option.


PINK: What's going on is what linguists call semantic framing. Semantic framing - different words give us different views of reality. Can't is disempowering. It implies someone or something else is in control. Don't is empowering. Implies that I'm in charge of what I do and, ultimately, who I am.


VEDANTAM: That's fascinating, Dan. And you were also empowered by the fact that you finished well under 60 seconds.

PINK: I feel like riding a horse across an open plain right now.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) I think you forgot to thank your family and your friends for this wonderful movie that's just been made. But I have a question for you, Dan. So I can understand how you can apply this semantic framing when it comes to overeating at Thanksgiving. Can you also apply it, do you think, to limiting the kind of fights that sometimes break out?

PINK: Absolutely. Absolutely. I'm thinking in some cases, depending on your family, this might be more useful in that regard. So you can say to yourself, oh, I can't get into an argument with Uncle Joe. But that might not work nearly as well as saying, you know, I don't get into stupid political fights with people who don't know what they're talking about.

VEDANTAM: I'm going to remember that when I speak with Uncle Joe on Thursday.

PINK: (Laughter) Alright, so now on to you, Shankar. Your 60 seconds starts right now. Leaf Van Boven at the University of Colorado, George Loewenstein at Carnegie Mellon and other colleagues recently analyzed a factors that I think plays a role in Thanksgiving table social breakdowns, Dan. It has to do with the concept of hot and cold emotions. So when I'm not very hungry, for example, I know that I should eat healthy. But when I am hungry, and I'm in the group of hunger, I forget my resolution. George Loewenstein once told me that the key idea here is not that we have these hot and cold states, but that when we are in a cold state, we are terrible at forecasting how we will behave when we're in the grip of emotions, when we're in the hot state. The researchers recently applied this idea to embarrassing situations. Many of us think we can handle embarrassing situations, but when we're actually confronted by an embarrassing situation, we fail to act with courage and confidence. I think this plays a role in Thanksgiving table meltdowns. We think we will rise to the occasion to confront that proverbial drunk Uncle Joe, but we fail to predict that when he actually starts acting up, we will lapse into silence.

PINK: Yeah, sad but true - but what were the actual experiments that they did to demonstrate this?

VEDANTAM: Well, they did a bunch of things. One of the things they did that I thought was very interesting is they asked volunteers to predict whether they would be willing to dance to the 1970 James Brown song "Sex Machine." If they agreed to dance in front of others for three full minutes, they were to be given two dollars. Now, compared to the number of volunteers who predicted that they would be willing to dance, about 1 in 10 were actually willing to dance. So in fact, Dan, when I heard about the study I told myself, Dan and I should actually run this experiment during Stopwatch Science. Would you be willing to dance to "Sex Machine" at the end of the segment today?

PINK: Do I get two bucks? No, I can't do that.

VEDANTAM: Are you sure?

PINK: Well, actually I should say I don't do something like that. Sorry.

VEDANTAM: Well played, Dan, well played. All right, your next 60 seconds starts right now.

PINK: All right, here's some good news. Stuffing your face with turkey, gravy and candied yams might have an upside.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: Arul and Himanshu Mishra - they're a husband and wife team at the University of Utah - have found that on Thanksgiving, what's bad for your waistline might actually be good for your wallet. A few years ago, they interrupted 170 people on Thanksgiving evening, and they asked those people how willing they'd be to buy deeply discounted items. The researchers found that those who'd eaten a traditional holiday meal were significantly less likely to be seduced by the bargains. What's going on here? In a word, serotonin. That's a brain chemical that regulates mood. When serotonin goes up - which it does when we eat tryptophan-heavy foods like turkey and rich carbohydrates like mashed potatoes - our impulsiveness goes down.

PINK: In other words, if you want to save money on Black Friday, pig out on Thanksgiving Thursday.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) I love it, Dan. I have to say that I have an alternate theory though, which is that the people who have eaten so much at Thanksgiving, they might just be in a food coma. They're just physically not able to get to the telephone to speak to telemarketers.

PINK: It's an interesting theory. It's a testable theory. My hunch is that the research would validate that being in a food coma reduces your impulsivity.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: All right, so on that, let's go to your second and final study, Shankar. Your 60 seconds starts right now.

VEDANTAM: All right, we've known for a very long time that children are easily distracted by bright and shiny objects. Turns out, adults are too, and this can be a very useful idea to apply at Thanksgiving. Martin Reimann at the University of Arizona and Antoine Bechara and Deborah MacInnis at the University of Southern California, they ran an experiment. They set up a food stand and offered people chicken nuggets, beef tacos and bacon-avocado sandwiches. They told the volunteers that if they chose a half serving instead of a full serving, they would get a lottery ticket - a chance to win either a $100 Amazon gift card or 10,000 frequent flyer miles. And they measured how likely people were to choose the full serving versus the half serving. They found that about two-thirds of the volunteers chose the full serving without the lottery incentive, but with the lottery tickets, that number dropped by more than half. If people thought they could win a prize, they ate less. In other words, if you want to incentivize people to eat in moderation or behave nicely at Thanksgiving, the answer is simple - hand out lottery tickets.

PINK: (Laughter) Well, that's great. You know, I really think you've uncovered the true meaning of Thanksgiving, which is handing out cash prizes for dumb luck.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: You know, that's what this country is all about.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) That's exactly right.

PINK: It puts me in the holiday spirit.

VEDANTAM: Well, there you go. That was Dan Pink, our senior Stopwatch Science correspondent. Dan, thank you for playing Stopwatch Science today.

PINK: It's always a blast.

VEDANTAM: You can follow us on Twitter and Facebook. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can also tune in to your local public radio station. The HIDDEN BRAIN podcast is produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison and Maggie Penman. I'm Shankar Vedantam. I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving. This is NPR. Thanks for listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. Check out NPR's Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, your guide to what's good in pop culture. Every week, Jesse Thorn interviews people like Elvis Costello, Ethan Hawke and Margaret Atwood about their creative work and lives. Find your new favorite TV shows, books, movies and music and gain new insights into the things you already love. Find Bullseye now at iTunes under podcasts.

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