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Only a crisis will get Congress to cooperate

Sep. 26, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

In this age of political conflict when viewpoints and values run deep and different, our nation has a critical problem. It is bad enough that these differences emerge between small groups, but worse when they affect our entire country.

It's pathetic when these divisions bring our Congress to a standstill. While the nation has major economic and international issues needing rational decision-making, Congress is caught in gridlock.

Congress has now adjourned until after the election and there's no indication that when it reconvenes it will be any more effective. It seems that only a crisis or disaster will motivate Congress to act effectively.

Many people have expressed similar views and an old classic study in social psychology suggests that bringing opposing groups together cooperatively is not easy.

The 1954 "Robbers Cave Experiment" studied two groups of 12-year-old boys who were sent to camp to face some manufactured situations to cause friction between the two groups.

Cooperation within their own group was encouraged. The "other" group was not presented positively and when competitions were arranged between the two groups, unfriendly behaviors surfaced.

The researchers decided to end the ongoing group conflicts. They arranged fun and "get-to-know-you" activities for both groups together. It didn't work. The groups did not get along any better and some "get-to-know-you" gatherings ended in food fights.

OK, keep Congress in mind now. Because what we have learned is that once two divergent groups set their minds to their views, "being nice" simply doesn't improve the situation.

But what made the Robbers Cave Experiment famous (named after the location near the Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma) is the realization that by setting up a crisis situation where the groups had to cooperate, you could change the social interaction pattern.

This crisis had to involve everyone. So in the Oklahoma summer, a "water supply problem" was arranged. All the water for drinking, cooking and latrines "malfunctioned." This was attributed to "vandals." As the two groups grew thirstier and more concerned, they worked cooperatively to restore the water supply.

Everyone was delighted when the water returned. What was most interesting was that the forced interaction to solve a "crisis" caused the boys to interact and function with each other in a positive way; this continued after the crisis ended.

Now back to Congress, which is not made up of 12-year old boys, but its members act similarly. The Democrats and Republicans have such clear views of how they want to see our government run that our government may have great difficulty running. Congress now has the lowest approval rating ever and unless it makes some difficult decisions, our nation may soon go over a "fiscal cliff."

The people we send to Washington to represent us seem to have forgotten there is a United States of America, not just a state or party they represent. They are unwilling to cooperatively solve budget problems, defense concerns, health care needs, unemployment, energy issues, housing crises and just about everything else that involves the federal government.

In the past four years, there's been no indication that Congress can work as a whole for the betterment of this nation, and we've learned from the Robbers Cave Experiment that once hostilities and sides are set, just encouraging opposing groups to work together is ineffective. Unfortunately turning off the water at the Capitol won't help; they'd just blame the other party.

It's a pity, but it looks like only a catastrophic crisis will get Congress to co-operate.

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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