How Positive vs. Adversarial Relations Help Solve Problems: Politicians Should Heed New Research

Some interesting new research indicates that when people are faced with solving problems — and those facing the country right now are among the most severe — their “executive functioning” capacities improve after they engage in sociable, positive interactions.  But they don’t improve after competitive interactions — those likely to generate adversarial feelings.  Politicians would do well to learn from this, as an aid to building the kind of mentality needed for solutions to our current problems.  But it’s unlikely that they will.

Here’s what researchers at the University of Michigan found.  They looked at the impact of brief episodes of social contact upon the capacity known as executive functioning.  That’s the capacity for having an overview of the elements of a situation or problem; seeing how the parts connect, in what relation to each other; and what kinds of actions lead to effective outcomes.  Included are the abilities for self-regulation, for staying on task, for focus and keeping relevant information in mind – much like the “memory” in a computer program that holds the information while you’re using it or working with it.

The researchers found that after a period of positive conversation and connection with another person, the participant’s performance on cognitive tasks improved.  Performance on these tasks reflected the degree of executive functioning capacity of the participants.  However, participants whose interactions were marked by adversarial, competitive engagement did not improve on the performance of those tasks.  According to Oscar Ybarra, the lead author of the study, forthcoming in Social Psychological and Personality Science,

“…simply talking to other people, the way you do when you’re making friends, can provide mental benefits…”  And, that “…performance boosts come about because some social interactions induce people to try to read others’ minds and take their perspectives on things…trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, there is a boost in executive functioning as a result”

In other words, when people build empathy towards each other — seeing the other’s perspective  from the “inside” of the other person’s world, so to speak, their capacity for more effective thinking and problem solving increases.  If only our politicians could recognize that reality and use it to create the collaborations that enhance their own brain-power for finding compromise-based solutions, rather than perpetuating adversarialness, all of us would benefiit.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear very likely now, in the aftermath of this week’s election.