It's easier for me to believe in peace on Earth than to imagine Congress getting along. But a new study suggests that the secret to making politicians act like grownups might be to remind them of children.
According to research by Sreedhari Desai, an assistant business professor at the University of North Carolina, the answer to bringing peace to Washington isn't campaign finance reform, a third-party or an end to gerrymandered districts, but teddy bears.
Her experiments showed that participants primed for childhood lied less and were more generous than the control subjects. Adults cheated less often and engaged in "pro-social" behaviors more often when reminders of children, such as teddy bears and crayons, were nearby. Desai calls this the "return to innocence effect."
Contacted in Bangalore recently, Desai warmed to the idea of applying this research to making Congress work better. "That sounds wonderful," she said. "I should think that child-related cues might work on politicians just the same as ordinary people."
Desai pointed to a prison study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health that gave felons teddy bears and were asked to care for them as they would a child. Participants showed a 60 percent drop in recidivism a year after release compared to convicts who skipped the study.
Giving members of Congress teddy bears won't work, says Desai. "The cues need to be subtle," she said. Besides, the teddy bears would inevitably be handed off to interns and forgotten in Georgetown bars.
"My research suggests that child-related cues operate at a subconscious level, and so, exposing politicians to cues that are sort of under the radar indeed might be a good start. So long as people attribute the presence of such cues to some genuine reason such as the decor or art and don't suspect that the cues are there to make them behave in a certain way, the effect should work," said Desai. "For instance, First Lady, Michelle Obama's decision to decorate the White House this holiday season with pictures and drawings made by military children may not only be a great way to honor American heroes but also inspire everybody to be more ethical."
The real question is whether politicians are immune to the innocence effect. Reforming violent criminals is one thing, but politicians? We're all familiar with the horror stories of politicians who have "gone Washington" and behave as if the rules do not apply to them when they store cash in their freezer, troll for affairs on the Internet, scream at constituents in a public venue, or take a wide stance in an airport bath room. What if the capitol building blocks moral signals like metal roofs interfere with mobile phones?
"I think that politicians likely are not much different from ordinary folks," said Desai. "It is just that they are usually under greater public scrutiny, and thus, it may appear that they have lower moral standards. But to the extent that they have at least some sort of a moral identity, they should not be immune from the return to innocence effect."
When it comes to getting politicians to protect school funding over the plaintive pleas of the business lobby, Desai says sending teachers and even parents to lobby politicians should take a back seat to our most effective weapon.
"School children, hands down! They may not have voting rights but their voices can be more powerful than that of adults," said Desai. "Children should be put at the center of all advocacy efforts -- access to quality education ought to be a non-negotiable right, and who else can voice it better than children?"
Things get dicey when voters use what Desai called "cognitive shortcuts such as trusting people who display pictures of children, puppies and so forth."
"However, whether doing so is reasonable on our parts is debatable," said Desai. "Politicians are notorious for engaging in activities such as baby kissing right before election time. To the extent that their concern and love for children is genuine and not an effort to garner public support, one might suppose that politicians displaying pictures of their kids, grand kids, or other children with whom they have a personal connection might be nice people."
Then again, they might be people like the former southern Governor and Congressman. The cover of his autobiography, The Trust Committed to Me, features him walking hand in hand with his toddler son. The book, which describes Congress as "an amazingly human institution," was written by Mark Sanford, the disgraced former Governor of South Carolina and hiker of the Appalachian Trail.