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Why Can't Washington Leaders Compromise? We Don't Really Want Them To

We often get frustrated with Congress's inability to budge on anything, but that's what we hired them to do.

by Austin Considine
Dec 21 2012, 5:10pm

With last night’s news that Congressional Republicans had failed to agree on “Plan B” legislation to help avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” before Christmas—legislation that was, itself, viewed as unworkable by many Democrats—one can’t help wondering why it’s just so damned difficult for our elected leaders to compromise. Is it ego? A sign of our polarized times?

Recent research, including a new study from the University of British Columbia, suggests that our leaders have a hard time compromising because that’s not really what we want from them. Faced with the sausage-making realities of the political process, we often act disgusted, suddenly craving compromise. But the truth is we don’t think much about that stuff when we choose our leaders.

This latest situation with the “fiscal cliff” is a case in point: a perfect storm of sweeping budget cuts and tax increases that, by design, will go into effect in less than two weeks. The fiscal cliff was, in effect, created (or, not prevented) by Washington to force its own hand on finding bi-partisan compromise where earlier deals had proved impossible. Economists and the Congressional Budget Office seem to agree that going over the cliff would send the country back into a recession—hence the term.

A poll published this week by The Washington Post and ABC News indicates a strong majority of Americans want Washington to find compromise. A full 74 percent say, for example, that they would accept a tax-raise on Americans who make more than $250,000 a year “in order to strike a budget deal.” Another 65 percent say they “disapprove of the way the Republican leaders of Congress are handling budget negotiations,” indicating unhappiness with Republican intractability.

But polling before the election indicated that political prudence and flexibility isn’t something we particularly prize inside the voting booth. As noted by Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience for Duke University, in an article he wrote for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, we say we want leaders who are “wise” and exhibit “sound judgment.” But the qualities of a wise person, he argues, include “openness, flexibility, and a willingness to change one’s course of action as the situation changes,” along with “intellectual humility” and an ability to “take all interests and perspectives into account.”

When Leary’s article was written in late February—right before Super Tuesday—polling indicated that no matter what lip-service we pay to vague qualities like “wisdom,” it still wasn’t showing up in concrete terms. Citing data from a Pew Research Center poll of potential voters, he noted that only 38 percent said “willingness to compromise” was an essential trait for a president. A full half said it was important for presidents to remain consistent and forceful about their positions.

The new University of British Columbia study—scheduled for publication in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology—indicates . For the study, experimenters divided 200 participants into small groups and asked them to complete a problem-solving task. They were then asked to rate subjects’ perceived “dominance” (described in a press release by the university as including “the ability to impose ideas on others through bullying and intimidation"), “prestige” (“the appearance of skill and competency”), and influence during the task, along with their own.

Having videotaped the group interactions, experimenters found that subjects who objectively had the most influence on completing the problem-solving task were also perceived as more dominant and prestigious by their groups. They were also perceived as more influential from within the group.

To test the theory, experimenters showed 120-second videos of those group interactions to a group of 60 new subjects while the subjects wore eye-tracking devices. The subjects paid “significantly greater attention” to people in the video clips who appeared more prestigious or dominant, indicating, study leaders decided, a greater degree of influence.

The study also found that “likeability” was not a predictor for status. Participants were also more likely to choose dominance over prestige. As lead author Joey Cheng put it, “Our findings suggest there are really two ways to top the social ladder and gain leadership – impressing people with your skills or powering your way through old-fashioned dominance.”

Turns out we don’t really want the nice guy. One can’t help but conclude that no matter how smart we are, we're still animals after all.

Anyway, why would we want the nice guy? These days, it’s not how we’re built. As Eli Pariser points out in his book The Filter Bubble, algorithms driving our news content streams, like Yahoo and Facebook, become highly personalized over time—to the extent that we’re less and less likely to encounter things that challenge what we think or believe. Meantime, the sheer variety of news sources out there allows us to cherry-pick in a way that wasn’t possible in the Cronkite days.

Living amid such personalized, uncompromising interpretations of the world, it’s easy over time to believe that everyone agrees with us—that we represent the median, however extreme, and that anyone who disagrees is the idiot outlier. In that context, where opposition is mere incomprehensible idiocy, why would we want a leader who compromises?

The answer is simple: We don’t.

Lead image from 2001: A Space Odyssey, via Scrape TV