Budget Compromise Illustrates 2 Basic Social Psychology Principles of Civility

Social psychology might be one discipline where the best findings are some of the oldest, rather than the newest.  Two basic principles of social psychology were illustrated in the recent budget deal, which averted a government shutdown.

1) A  focus on superordinate/common goals, as opposed to thinking of the budget as a zero-sum game, promoted compromise.  A deal occurred as both sides saw that a shutdown would be a superordinate loss, for both themselves, but also for the country, as shutting down the government would cost more than it would save.  The superordinate goal was to avert a shutdown and pass a budget.  In contrast, those people who had more partisan goals, such as Democrats who wanted the political victory or Republicans who wanted to make a political point (e.g. "cut it or shut it"), seemed less amenable to compromise.  Political power is a zero sum game, but the American economy is not, and most people care more about the later, than the former.

2) Positive contact improved the chances of a deal.  Personally, I was heartened by the fact that Boehner was willing to say publicly that he likes Obama personally.  Biden shares a "loose bantering relationship" with Boehner, which is more than evident from the picture accompanying this article.  When you like the people you are negotiating with, there is always the possibility of a superordinate goal, in that their pain is not necessarily your gain.  Indeed, a deal that saves the other side from pain (e.g. guaranteed votes on defunding Planned Parenthood and Obamacare, even if they are unlikely to pass) seems more palatable, when you actually care about the opposite side personally.  Contrast that with statements from Michelle Bachmann, who villainizes the president, and also is explicitly against any compromise.  One gets the sense that the less happy Obama is, the happier she might be, whereas Biden and Boehner might actually want each other to succeed in life.

These are fairly basic principles that most anyone could predict as being important, but if you want to read a bit more, visit our social psychology page and feel free to email me edits/suggestions.  Even though these principles are somewhat obvious, we often lose sight of them and if we can promote situations that encourage superordinate goals and positive contact between parties, we are likely to see an increase in civility, without ever having to use the word.

- Ravi Iyer