The Big Idea

Will bipartisan seating at the State of the Union make lawmakers more civil?

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By Carlos Lozada
Friday, January 21, 2011; 8:00 PM

It's one of the first symbolic acts of this supposedly new era of civility in Washington: Heeding a call from Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), nearly 60 lawmakers - and counting - from both parties are pledging to sit together at Tuesday's State of the Union address, breaking with the tradition of separating themselves by party.

But will sitting together for an evening make lawmakers more likely to get along?

Turns out, sociologists and psychologists have long explored how proximity affects the chances of friendship, attraction and collaboration. Most recently, in a study published in 2008 in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at the University of Leipzig in Germany took 54 students on the first day of a psychology class and randomly assigned them seats in a series of rows. Immediately after each student stood up and introduced himself or herself to the class, all the students filled out a questionnaire rating how likable they found the others. One year later, they were asked the same question.

Proximity matters, the researchers discovered - and in a good way. "Sitting in neighboring seats . . . compared with sitting in seats with no perceivable physical relation, led to higher ratings of friendship intensity 1 year later," the researchers found. Even sitting in the same row, if not adjacent to each other, led to greater friendship.

Of course, members of Congress are not exactly the same demographic as 22-year-old German college kids. A 1975 study of 441 residents of Midwestern retirement homes (perhaps more apropos) found that proximity produced strife, not friendship. Published in the Gerontologist journal, it concluded that "interpersonal conflict was, in fact, found to occur more often between patients residing within a distance of two rooms." Patients who lived farther apart were "better able to sustain positive interaction."

So which will it be? Will familiarity breed unity - or contempt? Either way, it's not clear that a stage-managed State of the Union gimmick will make a huge difference by itself. As the nursing home researcher concluded, the key to more social interaction is "the minimizing of artificiality in that environment by creating an atmosphere which can allow for spontaneity and freedom of expression."

lozadac@washpost.com


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