What’s the big idea?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - — Car­los Lozada lozadac@wash­post.com

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

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.”

Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand (D-N.Y.) & Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) Sen. Mary Lan­drieu (D-La.) & Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) & Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)

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