Conformity is Making Congress Crazy

President Obama wants to conduct medical experiments on the minors flooding the US border. Environmentalism will lead to a world without energy, similar to the world in the movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. “Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.” These are just a few of the recent bizarre claims made by Republicans and they surely will not be the last.

In fact, there is so much constant craziness coming from the Right that Salon publishes a report of the wildest claims made by Right Wingers each week. Also, although not as popularly reported by the media, many on the Left make similarly wild claims from their side of the issues.

So the question is, how can smart, educated representatives get away with saying these crazy things? And why do smart, sensible people continue to elect them?

Well, a recent set of experiments conducted by Dan Kahan on the issue of partisanship yielded curious results. Unsurprisingly, it was proven that partisanship and political passion impacts people’s ability to think clearly. What was surprising, however, was the extent of this impact. Kahan found that partisanship “can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills…. [People] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.”

In another set of studies, Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth found similar results: “People who said the economy was the most important issue to them, and who disapproved of Obama’s economic record, were shown a graph of nonfarm employment over the prior year – a rising line, adding about a million jobs. They were asked whether the number of people with jobs had gone up, down or stayed about the same. Many, looking straight at the graph, said down.” If what has been occurring on Capitol Hill wasn’t enough to convince you already, scientific research now proves that evidence and facts will do little to persuade a person who closely holds a certain set of beliefs.

A few years ago, I took a Management and Organizational Behavior class taught by Professor Christopher Long in which we discussed the psychology surrounding group behavior. As we learned, groups provide many benefits to their members including security, status, power, and higher self-esteem. Groups also allow for a greater diversity of views and often generate more complete and accurate information and knowledge. Despite these many positive benefits, however, there is a dangerous downside to groups.

Often, group norms press groups towards conformity, the phenomenon whereby collective consciousness quells dissent. When this occurs, members avoid being visibly different and those with differing opinions and views feel great pressure to align with others in the group. It turns out this tendency to conform is part of human nature, as proven by the Asch Study conducted by Solomon Asch in 1951. In this study, respondents verbally provided an answer they knew to be incorrect seventy five percent of the time when other group members unanimously provided the incorrect answer first.  After hearing the incorrect answer over and over, respondents became less confident and began to rationalize abandoning their own instincts.

Aspects of conformity, including groupthink – when the quest for unanimity overrides discussions of the alternative – and groupshift – when positions become exaggerated and less rational during discussion because everyone agrees on everything – plague our bipartisan system today. On Capitol Hill, the two-party system creates sense of invulnerability and a driving mindset of “we will not be beaten by them.” Mindguards such as the majority and minority whips exist solely to keep the parties cohesive and conformed. Today, party lines are as rigid as ever and compromise seems impossible.

In order for Congress to break the current gridlock, changes have to be made. Open and diverse discussions yield more viewpoints, more creativity, and a higher performance over time; they should therefore be encouraged. With this in mind, I am encouraging you today to write your representatives and ask and encourage them to be more open and cooperative on issues that you believe to be important. More importantly, however, I am challenging you to open up beyond your own set of beliefs and to be more receptive to differing and diverse views. The United States’ bipartisan system is not going to disappear, and for Congress to make progress, we must cooperate and break the conformity that we all fall prey to. We at the grassroots level, in large numbers, can change how things are run at the top.


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