The Social Psychology Explanation for Congressional Dysfunction

The congressional gridlock that’s plagued the country over the last few years is generally attributed to concerns about electoral prospects overtaking concerns about governing.  If something might help the country but also might lower your party’s chances of gaining influence, you better oppose it. It’s an outlook that essentially turns every single negotiation into a zero-sum game, and a new study illustrates exactly why this mindset can be so paralyzing to government.

Researchers conducted a series of three experiments that pitted two subjects against each other in a negotiation — for example, distributing possessions after a divorce. For each subject the possessions were assigned different values. This made it possible for deals to be made that benefited both parties. For example, if one subject was given a value of 5 for the TV and a value of 1 for the couch, a compromise could be reached if the other subject was given a value of 1 for the TV and a value of 5 for the couch.

In all three experiments “perspective taking” — seeing the situation from your opponent’s point of view — decreased the number of negotiation impasses. The effect held when subjects were primed to be egotistic (only concerned with maximizing their own outcome) or pro-social (also concerned maximizing their opponent’s outcome).

However, there was one situation in which perspective taking had no effect. When the negotiation took place in a distributive context, that is, when a “zero-sum” situation was created by assigning objects the same value for both participants, perspective taking did not decrease the number of negotiation impasses even when the subjects were primed to be prosocial. In other words, when a gain for an opponent was viewed as a personal loss (due to the object being equally valued by both subjects), compromise became much more difficult even when the other conditions were ideal.

The results of the experiment demonstrate the power of viewing politics as a zero-sum game. When it becomes impossible for your opponent to gain something without it inflicting some loss on yourself, the desire to avoid that loss tends to override other concerns, tactics, or thoughts that may lead to a compromise. This could help explain why a bill that creates jobs and lowers the deficit cannot attract  a single vote from the opposition party.
Trötschel, R., Hüffmeier, J., Loschelder, D., Schwartz, K., & Gollwitzer, P. (2011). Perspective taking as a means to overcome motivational barriers in negotiations: When putting oneself into the opponent’s shoes helps to walk toward agreements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101 (4), 771-790 DOI: 10.1037/a0023801

One Response to The Social Psychology Explanation for Congressional Dysfunction

  1. Misaki says:

    The third option is to vote out the existing incumbents, no matter what party they are, if they refuse to compromise on issues.

    However, in this particular example… lowering the deficit is in direct opposition to creating jobs. While it would nice to do both, with standard fiscal stimulus (including things like aid to state governments) that isn’t possible. Unless it involves raising taxes (and diverting that money to jobs or to welfare which creates jobs)… but if people were willing to accept higher taxes the Tea Party would not have any representation in the US Congress.

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