Bryan Caplan  

Who Are These People?

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During this holiday season, you may have enjoyed reconnecting with your extended family.  But many people have a different reaction.  After yet another unpleasant holiday meal, they shake their heads, and silently ask themselves, "Who are these people?"  Where else but a family get-together do you see so many behaving so badly - deliberately aggravating the same people in the same way for the umpteenth time?  Why does it seem like your friends and co-workers treat you more decently than the folks related to you by blood and/or marriage?

Part of the explanation is that repeated play tends to improve behavior only when combined with low exit costs.  Since the family has high subjective exit costs (most people are deeply reluctant to purge their families), a lot of people treat their relations badly in order to defend their long-run dominance.  Consider, for example, the uncle who insults everyone he can, and ends every meal in a drunken stupor.  After a few years of this behavior, his relatives might purge him, but they're more likely to just let Crazy Uncle Gerald have his way.

Over time, though, I've grown less satisfied with this explanation.  There are some truly evil people in the world - take Hitler, for example.  But such monsters are remarkably rare.  In all likelihood, your family doesn't contain Hitler's moral equivalent.  In his own eyes, almost everyone is fair and decent.

So what's the problem with the holidays?  The most important - but largely overlooked - explanation is lack of self-selection.  If you went out to dinner with a random group of people, you'd probably find them boring and rude.  But the problem is neither them nor you.  The root of the dissatisfaction, instead, is simply social mixing between people with different interests and standards of decorum.  

With friends and co-workers, this rarely happens, because we here we largely follow the logic of search theory.  We weigh the benefits of further search - the discovery of more compatible people - against its costs - loss of time and loneliness.  With family, in contrast, our search efforts are highly circumscribed.  Yes, we can search for a spouse to add to the family - and brighten our holidays for the rest of our days.  But most of the people who attend family functions are there for good - even if they are less compatible with you than random strangers.

What difference does it make?  Either way, Crazy Uncle Gerald is making you miserable, right?  Well, not quite.  As I've argued before, conflicts that arise from mismatched expectations are easier to bear and easier to resolve than conflicts that arise from willful wrong-doing.  It feels a lot better to say, "He's an OK person, but we 't have little in common," than to say, "He's a bastard."  And it's a lot easier to negotiate with an OK-but-little-in-common person than a bastard.

Admittedly, "easier" doesn't mean "easy."  But once you accept that your family disharmony comes from bad matching rather than bad people, new strategies come into view.  When you see family members as bad people, you probably feel like you only have two options: (1) Put up with them, or (2) Totally purge them.  (Notice how the holidays are also a time to remember relatives who stopped having anything to do with the rest of the family?) 

When you see family members merely as mismatched with you, however, a whole continuum of strategies opens up.  You can cut back on family activities by, say, 25%, or 63%.  You can sit at a different table than the people who get on your nerves.  Your action doesn't make you a bad person.  Neither does your action say that anyone else is a bad person.  It merely discretely accepts the fact that good people often have nothing in common.

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The author at Belligerati in a related article titled writes:
    Bryan Kaplan asks Who Are These People?, that is why don we seem to not get along with members of our extended families at holiday time. So what's the problem with the holidays? The most important - but largely overlooked... [Tracked on January 3, 2009 8:02 PM]
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Jody writes:

For better or worse, this doesn't happen at my family gatherings.

Very civil and friendly (though, e.g., there are well-known political differences). Perhaps it's because of more frequent interactions (some cousins are daily, some are monthly). Perhaps it's just cultural.

Patrick writes:

Is this just a very complicated and long-winded way of saying "you can pick your friends but you can't pick your family"?

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

People expect too much from the holiday season. They believe that a holiday without the extended family is not a holiday at all. Unable to find happiness from within, they repeatedly look to their dysfunctional families to give them cheer and are usually disappointed.

Go to any decent diner on Christmas Day, and you'll find the booths filled with people who are having quiet (and peaceful) meals. They are neither lonely nor are they miserable. As a matter of fact, they are smiling; because they're not sacrificing their happiness for the sake of tradition.

liberty writes:

Maybe its because (a) you believe in satisficing in love (or is that only Tyler?) and (b) you believe in having lots of kids; if your genetic relations have the same love and family philosophies, its not wonder you all don't get along...

In my family we love each other and get along very well on the holidays, despite political and other differences. Or maybe the difference is just that we lubricate with plenty to drink....

Finja writes:

What about family where you get along the rest of the year, just not on Christmas?

Isaac K. writes:

I happen to find myself, rather surprisingly, straddling two categories.

On one hand, my entire extended family, through the modicum of good humor, gets along fabulously.

On the other, my immediate family always ends up fighting at least once when we get together. Always.
We love each other and get along, in general, just fine.
We don't hold grudges with one another (though I am dealing with a possible exception to that rule presently), and we make up fairly quickly, with no real after-effects.

In this case, what seems to happen is that the cost of gathering information and reformulating behaviors outweighs the benefit of more pleasant interaction on the shorter timeframe.

If we were to spend a week, a month, etc., together, undoubtably things would play out differently - I got along swimmingly with my brother when we were living two blocks from each other in New York, but we still clash when he comes up for the holidays to Maryland.

Reformulating the stereotype of childhood tropes isn't economically justified on a holiday timescale.

Isaac K. writes:

One more thing.

There is a close family member that neither I nor my wife talk to.
This person made a conscious decision to ostracize themselves and refused even to attend our wedding, chosing instead to fly across the country to California rather than walk down the aisle.

The sad part is a good deal of their behavior is attributable to a prior stroke, and the person refuses to deal with any medication or psychological help.

Inherent in dealing with someone with severe psychological problems is the skewed system of utility which leads to, ahem, "unconventional choice."
One need not have a relative "as evil as Hitler" to justify purging them from the family.
One just needs a limited tolerance for excessive drama and stress and a refusal to enable abusive behavior even when it is "justifiable."

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