Young unhappy multi ethnic couple ignoring each other after an argument during Christmas dinner.

‘Tis the Season Not to Argue

How to discuss climate change at your holiday dinner without picking a fight.

Talking about climate change with family can be nerve-wracking and infuriating any time of year. But the opportunity for frustrations to go from mild to explosive peaks around the holidays, especially when holiday meals force everyone around the same dining room table.

It only takes one comment from that aunt or uncle for two sides to quickly form, yelling statistics back and forth. In the end, neither side concedes and everyone is left feeling frustrated. Plus, dinner ends up cold.

We struggle to meaningfully connect with those who have different political viewpoints from us. One of the barriers that prevents us from communicating successfully is what social psychologists call identity-protective cognition — a powerful psychological pattern in which information that threatens a person’s core beliefs or group identity is resisted and ignored.

A study by Yale psychology professor Dan Kahan found that identity-protective cognition disables an individual’s capacity to understand “decision-relevant science” when it goes against their ideologies. The study presented participants with two brain-teasers: one neutral (about skin rash treatments) and one politicized (about gun control). Despite being able to easily solve the neutral problem, participant’s answers to the politicized problem were overwhelmingly dictated by their partisan beliefs, demonstrating the power of identity-protective cognition.

It’s easy to see why we behave this way: Humans are social animals that want to be part of a community. According to social psychology research, our attitudes, emotions, and behaviors are influenced by the group with which we self-identify, often falling under the umbrella of political partisanship. Once established, we’re driven to protect that identity by resisting information that threatens its values. This is why fact-throwing never works: If your facts oppose the other side’s social values, that person or group will resist.

We often inaccurately believe that our misunderstandings with someone come from a lack of information on the other person’s part. We think that with full information, the other party will naturally come around to our view — but that assumption doesn’t bare out in reality. In fact, with climate change, individuals in the United States with greater education and science literacy are more polarized in their beliefs. In the same study by Kahan, it was found that participants with stronger mathematical skills were 45 percent more likely to answer a politicized math problem correctly if the answer aligned with their partisan beliefs.

Similarly, research suggests that knowledge and problem-solving skill level don’t really matter when it comes to a politicized issue. It’s not that people don’t understand the facts and figures of climate change, but rather that the groups they associate with and identities they’ve created lead them to protect themselves by dismissing and disproving climate change.

For example, a study tracking the eye movement of participants observing global temperature graphs found that participants who identified as liberal tended to focus on the rising temperature curves, while self-identified conservative participants more frequently focused on the flatter portions of the graph. This selective bias toward climate information heightens climate concern in liberals and reinforces climate denial in conservatives, deepening political polarization.

So how can you get past identity-protective cognition? Emphasize a shared connection. Disagreement with those you identify with can be less threatening, which facilitates uncomfortable conversations. So, when that one family member brings up climate change at the dinner table, here are a few things you can try:

Make a community-based appeal, connecting it back to your shared identity. Maybe you share relatives in Florida where rising sea levels, induced by climate change, will inevitably displace thousands and cost millions of dollars in damage. You can share non-partisan resources such as Science Moms, a group of climate scientists who are also mothers that root their climate change messaging in family values. Or, you can share your personal experiences with the local impacts of climate change, like the wildfires that have devastated homes and livelihoods in the western United States, and continue to worsen in a warming climate.

Appeal to their values. Most climate change messaging appeals to moral foundations such as harm prevention and fairness that are favored by American liberals. A study conducted at Stanford University found that reframing some environmental messaging in terms of alternative moral foundations, such as purity, respect, and loyalty — like highlighting conservation as a patriotic value — encourages pro-environmental attitudes in American conservatives, decreasing climate-centered political polarization.

Reframe loss. Climate policy is often framed in terms of loss — think higher taxes, energy reduction, and diet changes — for little gain. Reframing climate action as a “gain” can help others embrace solutions, like emphasizing job growth and efficiency in the renewables industry. Additionally, highlighting losses associated with climate inaction, like the steep cost of climate-caused infrastructural damage, can appeal to someone who prioritizes economic values. The recent Inflation Reduction Act is a great example of reframing climate action — it highlights the benefits of domestic green energy production while also aiming to curb inflation, maximizing its appeal to a wide range of audiences.

The holidays are about bringing family and friends together, despite our differences. By approaching the conversation differently, you can more effectively discuss climate change this year — and hopefully get to dinner before it gets cold.

Stella Favaro was an RMI intern and is currently a fourth-year student at Pomona College. Ellie Smith is a recent graduate from Harvey Mudd College.