Can't We All Just Get Along? What Psychology Tells Us About Political Gridlock

Denise Chow, LiveScience Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government is broken. That is how Diane Halpern, a cognitive psychologist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., opens her talks on the psychology of political partisanship.

The divisions between the Republican and Democratic parties are so pronounced and polarized these days that Halpern says the current political climate is one that is characterized by hyperpartisanship.

With the parties unable to agree, legislative measures are increasingly being held up in Congress, leading to more acrimony and political gridlock. But understanding cognitive psychology can help individual citizens find ways to hold politicians accountable, and encourage cooperation in the government, Halpern says. [7 Great Dramas in Congressional History]

LiveScience sat down with Halpern here at the 25th annual convention of the Association for Psychological Science to talk more about what psychology can reveal about hyperpartisanship, and what everyday citizens can do about it.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

LiveScience: You talk about Congress and the government as being broken. What do you mean by that?

Halpern: They're not getting anything done. We have very important work to do as a country, and it's not getting done. We have historic levels of negativity toward the U.S. government, and the lowest levels of trust and confidence in government and Congress. A Gallup poll found that people have less trust in Congress than in advertisers, lawyers, insurance salesmen and even car salespeople. It's bad. This has been labeled the most do-nothing Congress in decades.

LiveScience: Hasn't there always been a great divide?

Halpern: It's worse now. Pundits disagree, and there are plenty of people who will say Republicans and Democrats have never gotten along. Certainly that part is true; we have a two-party system for a reason. But it has reached a much more hostile level.

LiveScience: Partisanship is talked about extensively in political science, but as a cognitive psychologist, what can you bring to the table?

Halpern: Psychologists can look at partisanship through the lens of decades of literature on stereotyping. We have seven or eight decades of work on this, and we know ways to help break down stereotyping, such as certain kinds of cooperative interactions. We know we can create a nudge, which is a general push to move you in the right direction. So, we can nudge the system.

LiveScience: Can we use science to tackle hyperpartisanship?

Halpern: It can certainly alleviate some of it. I don't mean to say these are easy problems, but there are ways ordinary citizens — you and I — can have an impact. I think, increasingly, we're going to have to band together to work on things that are important to us.

LiveScience: Having two opposing sides can encourage healthy debate and keep the government in check, but where do you draw the line between "healthy" and hostility?

Halpern: It wasn't always this way. Things have become more hostile. Through the '70s, '80s and '90s, there were some Democrats who were more conservative than the most liberal Republicans, and vice versa. That's no longer true; Moderates can't get elected. This hostility has been likened to a new kind of racism. Members of the House have separate rooms where they read newspapers, drink coffee and talk, so it's almost like we have de facto segregation. Mixed marriages between people with strongly different political affiliations are very rare, and most people’s friends have similar views to their own, so there are a number of parallels to old-fashioned racism. We often think of modern racism as being much more subtle, because it's not acceptable for someone to make overtly racist comments. But it is acceptable to make overtly hostile comments about the other political party, and that's why we draw some parallels.

LiveScience: Can psychology tell us anything about how we got to this point of hyperpartisanship?

Halpern: It's a complex set of events. There are plenty of people who study this, and I don't want to denigrate the perspectives of other disciplines, because they all look at the issue differently. But in psychology, we see an escalating amount of stereotyping, prejudice and hostility. [6 Politicians Who Got the Science Wrong]

LiveScience: Knowing there is such a great divide, can we all come together?

Halpern: We can. We require it of ourselves first, and we also require it of our elected officials. None of my solutions will cure the problem, but as a group, we can help move away from hyperpartisanship and allow more for cooperative government.

LiveScience: What's an example of one of your suggestions?

Halpern: Currently, we have a zero-sum game. So, for example, if unemployment goes down and the economy goes up, it's a big win for Obama and the Democrats. The Republicans win if they can block this sort of thing. But we can change the game if we actually reward people for cooperating. "Compromise" can't be a dirty word. Maybe after every debate, members of Congress could ask themselves: “What have you done to cooperate so that we can get legislation passed? How have you crossed the aisle in a cooperative way?” Do I think we're going to get our most extreme members of either party to move? No, but I think we can demand and require movement in a large number of people who, I think, are as fed up as the American public is.

In psychology, we say that if we care about something, we measure it. We need to track this, advertise it and demand it of every one of our candidates.

LiveScience: What other things should we change?

Halpern: We have to expose ourselves to a variety of points of view. As long as I respond to you as though you are a stereotype Democrat or Republican, then I won't be able to see any merit in your positions. But if I can get inside your head, and if we can respectfully discuss a topic, then I might be able to see merit in your positions.

We also have to stop labeling anyone who changes his or her position on a topic as a "flip-flopper." We need a new kind of footwear, and I suggest it be "standing on the evidence." We need to ask why that person changed his or her stance. Was it for political expediency, or did the person change his or her stance because of newly obtained information? We should always be changing, because what we learn changes. An unwavering commitment to a single conclusion, regardless of the facts, is not something we should be rewarding.

LiveScience: What led you to look at this issue?

Halpern: I realized I had an opportunity to address an issue, and I wanted to think of one that was the most pressing. Clearly, this is something that has been troubling me. I've taught critical thinking for many years, and I've written books on it. A lot of this work has to do with how we can get people to rethink their assumptions and get away from their inherent biases. What are the assumptions? What's the evidence? We won't end up all thinking the same — which is as things should be — but it will give us a more reasoned basis for how we think.

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