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.