Social science and bipartisan lunch dates

Two senators propose bipartisan lunch dates as a way to break Congressional gridlock. Don't scoff - social science backs it up.

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Does familiarity breed contempt? Or does it breed civility?

Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) – freshly returned from a two-man bipartisan retreat on a desert island (soon to be aired on the Discovery Channel) – recently proposed in the Washington Post the idea of monthly bipartisan lunch dates as a way to break gridlock in Congress.

“Before the ‘commuter Congress,'” write Flake (R-AZ) and Heinrich (D-NM), “senators and their spouses broke bread in each other’s homes, and in such a setting the concept of party was more verb than noun.”

Their sentiment echoes a common complaint by many former members of Congress, who blame the decline of civility in the Capitol on the fact that members don’t spend much time with each other either at work or outside it. To make time for fundraising, workweeks are short. Members don’t even need to go to the floor so see what their colleagues are saying – they can telecommute via C-SPAN.

As former Republican Congressman Connie Mack told CNN, “I know many times I would look up on TV and I would see somebody and then the name would come up and it would say ‘member of Congress’ and I’d go ‘I don’t even know who that is.'”

Groups such as Third Way and No Labels have advocated regular bipartisan gatherings as a way to rekindle civility. In 2011, at the prompting of both groups, members broke with a more than century-old tradition of sitting with their own parties at the State of the Union address.

Without question, some of these efforts have prompted scorn. The 2011 SOTU was widely mocked as “date night,” and one profile of No Labels by the Boston Globe used the group’s championship of bipartisan convenings as an argument against the group’s effectiveness:

“Even its own members admit the group has a long way to go. They say their most important accomplishment to date has been to simply convene both parties for monthly breakfast meetings at which Republicans and Democrats listen to each other — or at least feign to listen — instead of labeling the other side as crazy.”

But critics shouldn’t be so quick to scoff.

Social science research suggests that simply spending time with someone can make you like that person more. It’s called the “mere exposure effect” or the “familiarity principle.”

The father of the “mere exposure effect” is Robert Zajonc, a legendary American social psychologist who published a study in 1968 titled, “Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure.”

The study begins with this anecdote, a news item published in 1967:

A mysterious student has been attending a class at Oregon State University for the past two months enveloped in a big black bag. Only his bare feet show. Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 11:00 A.M. the Black Bag sits on a small table near the back of the classroom. The class is Speech 113—basic persuasion. . . . Charles Goetzinger, professor of the class, knows the identity of the person inside. None of the 20 students in the class do. Goetzinger said the students’ attitude changed from hostility toward the Black Bag to curiosity and finally to friendship.

Zajonc then goes on to show that “mere repeated exposure” is enough to change someone’s attitude for the better – whether it’s words, sounds or even Chinese characters.

In a later paper published in 1980 with Richard Moreland, Zajonc concluded that “mere exposure may increase the perceived similarity of others to ourselves.” In other words, the more familiar you become with someone, the more you’re likely to see that person as similar to you, which also makes them more “likeable,” in your opinion.

The exposure effect is in fact why companies pay millions for product placements in movies and TV shows. Research shows that people who see a product this way are more likely to have favorable impressions of a brand than people who don’t.

Applying these lessons to Congress, mystery members of the other party are essentially analogous to the “Black Bag” man cited in Zajonc’s pioneering study. Monthly breakfasts could in fact lead to bipartisan bills.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) are one concrete example of a social/professional bipartisan partnership. Collins and Gillibrand are among the co-captains of the Congressional women’s softball team, which organizes an annual game for charity.

They also collaborate legislatively, including on the sponsorship of their bill to reform how the military justice system deals with sexual assaults.

While a Tea Party/Progressive Caucus bowling tournament isn’t likely to happen, what is clear is that social isolation can only be contributing to ideological polarization.

A monthly bipartisan lunch – even if it only helps on the margins – is, at this point, worth a shot. And as Sens. Flake and Heinrich point out, at least it “doesn’t involve an island and a machete.”