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Americans left Thanksgiving dinner early because of divisive 2016 election, study finds

Keith Chen and Ryne Rohla

Did you feel like leaving Thanksgiving dinner in 2016 a little early because of your blowhard uncle's views on the election? Apparently, you were not alone.

Americans shortened their Thanksgiving visits that year by an average of 30 to 50 minutes, researchers said, suggesting that the drop in family facetime was attributable to the divisive vote that had wracked the country just a few weeks before.

"Politics actually affects how long we spend at Thanksgiving dinner," Ryne Rohla, a doctoral candidate at Washington State University, one of the authors of the study, said in a statement from the university. The study was published in the journal Science.


How much total family time did the election, roiled by divisive candidates and by outside agitation from Russia, cost Americans?

The researchers estimated that 33.9 million person-hours of crosspartisan conversation at Thanksgiving were eliminated.

"The fact that political polarization is increasingly degrading our close connections with friends and family didn't have much empirical study and attention from social scientists," the other study author, Keith Chen, an associate professor of economics at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, said in the statement. "That's where we leapt off with this project."

The researchers used anonymized cellphone data that included more than 10 million users' home locations in the weeks before Thanksgiving and their locations on the afternoon of Thanksgiving. They mixed in voting data, weighting users based on the proportion of Democratic and Republican votes in their home precincts, the statement said.

They compared the 2016 dinners with 2015 dinners, when people visited for an average of 4.2 hours.

Travelers going from Republican precincts to Democratic ones shortened their visits by 50 to 70 minutes, while travelers going from Democratic ones to Republican ones shortened their visits by 20 to 40 minutes, the statement said.


The effect was even more pronounced for visitors traveling from media markets with intense political advertising, the statement said.

The 2016 election featured a stunning victory for Republican Donald Trump, a controversial political neophyte whose tenure has been chaotic, over Democrat Hillary Clinton, whom many voters disliked. Since the election, there have been a string of revelations about Russian meddling in the election, including through social media, to sow discord and bolster Trump.

Is it possible the Russians had a hand in your Thanksgiving dinner? The researchers said they don't really know.

"It is certainly possible that Russian social media efforts increased the partisanship that we find shortened Thanksgiving dinners; our study has no way of measuring how much of an independent effect that would have had though," Chen said in an e-mail.

The researchers were concerned about the decline of what they consider the "deep civic institution" of close family ties and Thanksgiving dinner talk.

"Some people don't see losing dinner with relatives as a particularly large cost," Rohla said. "I've talked to people who are, 'Well, so what?' Personally, I think it is concerning. To me it's a symptom of a broader decline in the social fabric of the United States."