Playing Nice Isn't Always a Natural Instinct With the shift of power in Congress, both political parties have talked about the importance of reaching across the aisle and working together. But research indicates that playing nice isn't always in our nature.

Playing Nice Isn't Always a Natural Instinct

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The power shift in Congress has led to new pledges from both parties to work together. This week, NPR has been reporting on efforts to bridge the differences that exist in our country. Our series is called Crossing the Divide.

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: The interrelatedness of all communities -

Mr. ELIE WIESEL: The other is not my enemy.

Mr. GLENN BECK: Stop dividing ourselves like this.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: In a moment, we'll talk with a historian about one member of Congress in the 1800s famous for his ability to bring about compromise. But first, a story that may help explain why politics gets nasty so often. Turns out, playing nice isn't easy. Scientific research indicates it's not always in our nature or self-interest.

NPR's David Kestenbaum has our story.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Frans de Waal has spent his life watching some of our closest relatives. Like members of Congress, they also get into disagreements.

Dr. FRANS DE WAAL (Emory University): The males, most of what they do 99 percent of the time, is they put their hair up. And they look very intimidating.

KESTENBAUM: De Waal studies chimpanzees at the Yerkes Primate Center of Emory University.

Dr. DE WAAL: And they go around and they bang doors or they uproot trees in the wild or they dislodge stones that they rolled down the hill. And they basically make a big show of how strong they are.

KESTENBAUM: Believe it or not, this is the mechanism evolution has selected for resolving conflict. The shouting actually helps. Typically no one bites anybody. In the end, one side backs down, or sometimes the chimps reach across party lines and decide to share the banana.

Dr. DE WAAL: The males, after a fight, they will come together and kiss and embrace each other and groom each other for the longest time, which then calms them down and probably settles their relationship to some degree.

KESTENBAUM: De Waal says when he watches politics play out on TV, he's pretty sure he sees chimp-like behavior.

Dr. DE WAAL: I think humans are a very cooperative species, but we have never lost, of course, the tendency to fight for the things that interest us. And so we have this very precarious balance between competition and cooperation. We need to cooperate for our survival that our whole society is built on cooperation. But we are all very interested in getting a little bit more than somebody else. And that's why we fight.

KESTENBAUM: Now, you might think that given our advanced brains, we could get beyond this. We could sit down and reason out our differences in a calm manner. But in a way, our big brains actually make it harder to reach consensus. We are constantly playing mental games of chess that can make finding middle ground difficult. We're not just thinking I'm going to fight for this banana. We're thinking, maybe I should play a hard ball and destroy the banana so that no one gets it.

Steven Brams is a professor of politics at NYU and an expert in game theory. Sometimes, he says, the logical choice is not to compromise.

Professor STEVEN BRAMS (New York University): Looking ahead, you might feel that you can get something better in the future. So it's not just the immediate situation. It might be that you're looking ahead and trying to develop that tough reputation.

KESTENBAUM: Congress sometimes gets deadlocked because no one will yield. It's like a game of chicken, which actually is studied extensively in game theory.

Professor BRAMS: In chicken, for example, it's best to swerve when the other person doesn't, because otherwise you'll collide and kill yourself. But if the other might swerve, maybe you shouldn't swerve and not chicken out. It turns out many of these games are difficult, and I think that's a good explanation of much of the conflict in the world at all levels.

KESTENBAUM: Humans will argue. That's just the way it is. So the focus among people who study conflict is often on how to argue more constructively. Here's a clip from our archives. It's a congressional hearing on federal rules for overtime. California Democrat George Miller argues working families need overtime, then he says this -

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): We wouldn't understand that in the Congress of the United States because we only work a three-day week or two-day week, so we never get up against those 40-hour weeks here in Washington.

KESTENBAUM: Georgia Republican Charles Norwood struck back.

Representative GEORGE NORWOOD (Republican, Georgia): Now, I would get away with three days, but most members of Congress work all week pretty hard.

Representative MILLER: (Unintelligible) of the United States -

Representative NORWOOD: Now, let me - Mr. Miller, come on. You are really out of line.

Representative MILLER: Well, you're out of line with the Congress. We go into work at 2:30 on a Tuesday -

Representative NORWOOD: I congratulate you on working two to three days a week. That's what you said.

KESTENBAUM: Is there any hope? They sound a bit like a couple fighting over who takes out the trash, so we decided to consult a marriage counselor.

Dr. HOWARD MARKMAN (University of Denver): Howard J. Markman. I'm the director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.

KESTENBAUM: Markman says neither side is fighting in a good way here. They're both escalating the conflict and not hearing each other. As a counselor, Markman sometimes feels like he's in an uphill battle against evolution.

Dr. MARKMAN: People who can argue and fight the best have been evolutionary selected, so all our ancestors have been pretty good fighters, and we're the best fighters right now on the planet.

KESTENBAUM: So in some ways, the miracle is when people don't fight.

Dr. MARKMAN: That's right. And there's fighting and fighting. That's the thing. There's destructive conflict and constructive conflict. And it's the destructive conflict that kills marriages and kills bills.

KESTENBAUM: Can you really envision that Congress where everyone plays nice?

Dr. MARKMAN: Not without intervention. And I think that - I'm really serious.

KESTENBAUM: You think -

Dr. MARKMAN: And I hadn't really had this idea, that of offering my service to Congress. Good idea. I'm going to write this down and talk to my congressman.

KESTENBAUM: Markman thinks in the distant future, thousands of years from now, historians will look back and see that the civilizations that survived were the ones that learned to manage conflict well.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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