The Empathic Misanthrope

A grumpy graduate student’s guide to playing nicely with others.

What Is WRONG with Our Government?

A social psychological perspective on (lack of) congressional compromise.

Recently, the Republican members of the congressional "super committee" in charge of developing a plan to handle the country's growing deficit released their counter to the Democrats' plan. The Democrats' plan called for both an increase in taxes and cuts in various government programs, including Medicare and Medicaid. They called this the "grand bargain" because they are generally opposed to cutting spending in entitlement programs but are willing to do so in order to garner Republican support. The Republican plan, on the other hand, includes only cuts to government spending and even includes lower taxes for corporations, with the assumption that these cuts will lead to increased revenue. Their plan includes no concessions to their opponents, and the two sides appear unable to reach the middle ground.

As I was reading about the two plans, my anger and frustration toward government, already at a personal high, kept growing and growing; I just can't understand why it's so difficult for some members of our government to compromise. It feels like the same story, over and over again. Isn't it more important that both sides work together in an attempt to fix this major problem than to stick to one position, no matter what? After some thought, I drew a connection between these groups' failures and one of social psychology's classic experiments.

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In 1954, one of the fathers of social psychology, a man named Muzafer Sherif, organized a study aimed at looking at intergroup relations. Called the Robbers Cave Experiment, this research demonstrated both why groups engage in prejudicial behavior and how these issues can be resolved. The experiment involved three different phases, the first of which was called the in-group formation phase. Twenty-four twelve-year-old boys were recruited to spend several weeks at a summer camp. They were separated into two equal teams and kept separate for the first week of the experiment, during which time they engaged in various activities to develop group cohesion. This included naming their groups (they chose the Rattlers and the Eagles), choosing group symbols, and making flags.

Once the researchers felt the groups were sufficiently formed, they moved the boys into the friction phase. The Rattlers and the Eagles were introduced and engaged in a series of competitions against each other for various prizes, such as medals and pocketknives. The boys highly desired these prizes, and this created intense conflict between them, which initially resulted in name-calling but soon turned to more aggressive actions.

At this point, Sherif and his researchers began the integration phase of the experiment. The boys were told that the water supply to their camp had been destroyed, and that the two teams had to work together to mend the pipes. This is called a "superordinate goal". The Eagles and Rattlers worked cooperatively to accomplish this task, and the tensions between them subsided. They began spending additional time together and developed friendships across the groups, enjoying the rest of the summer as a group of twenty-four instead of two teams of twelve.

Sherif's study demonstrated how conflict over scarce resources (the medals and other prizes) could create prejudice between groups of individuals (called realistic conflict theory; Bobo, 1983). His study also showed how a superordinate goal (repairing the camp's water supply) broke down these prejudices and built relationships between those who had held them.

Simply put, the Democrats and Republicans are the Rattlers and the Eagles, and they seem to be stuck in that competitive friction phase. Both sides are fighting against each other for publicity, campaign contributions, and achievements, all of which are important for reelection. And though the country and the President are trying to push them to work together and come up with a solution, too many of them are refusing to put aside their own individual goals and get something done. For them, reelection and their stance on the deficit issue are too intertwined, and the costs of a compromise are too steep.

The bickering and partisanship surrounding this issue extends to many other areas as well, such as the government's role in the economy, in education, and in guaranteeing fair wages. A failure to attack these issues together, united, has seen our country's influence, prosperity, and integrity diminish at an alarming rate, and we Americans need to ask ourselves if this is acceptable. Because we live in a representative democracy, WE are ultimately responsible for the decisions of the people in office, and it is our responsibility to hold them accountable. We must stop buying into our politicians' talking points and rhetoric and show them the exit when they fail to deliver.

The truth is, the Democrats and Republicans in Congress are not really the Rattlers and the Eagles: we are. It is time for us to put aside our personal differences and be willing to compromise in order to protect our country. The people of the United States cannot afford a divided government, and guaranteeing the future prosperity of this country must be our own superordinate goal. If a group of twelve-year-old boys could fix their own summer camp, there is no excuse why we Americans can't fix our country. 

Special thanks to John Bunce for his contributions to the writing of this post.

Alexander Spradlin is a doctoral student in experimental psychology at Washington State University.

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