Grants from Hewlett Foundation, Democracy Fund support new initiative at UMD

Increasing political polarization in the U.S. in recent years has led to gridlock and failure to find common ground in Congress. Observers have cited many contributing factors to the rise of hyper partisanship, including money in politics, ideological “echo chambers” in news media and gerrymandering in Congressional districts, but few viable solutions have emerged on how best to address the problem. 

A new University of Maryland (UMD) collaboration involving researchers in Psychology and Government & Politics offers a fresh approach—focusing on the psychological and behavioral factors that are precursors to cooperation in any organizational setting. 

The interdisciplinary team is launching a collaborative research initiative, in partnership with the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC) and the Millennial Action Project (MAP), aimed at exploring the behavioral aspects of political cooperation and developing a greater understanding of the organizational climate in Congress from a psychological perspective. The two-year project is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Democracy Fund.

Drawing upon the expertise of UMD Psychology faculty Paul Hanges and Jennifer Wessel and Government & Politics faculty Frances Lee and Kristina Miler, the project will examine how organizational structures and policies affect psychological processes that subsequently influence behavior, in addition to analyzing the political factors at play. 

“Our goal with this project is to gain a better understanding of how cooperation occurs and can occur in Congress by examining this institution through an organizational psychology lens,” explained Jennifer Wessel, an assistant professor of psychology at UMD. “By applying psychological concepts, such as organizational climate and culture, to this unique organizational context of Congress, we feel we can provide insight into the procedures, practices, policies and norms that are facilitating and inhibiting cooperation across the aisle.”

Gaining insight into the policies, practices and procedures that produce or inhibit cooperative, problem-solving climates offers the potential to understand how best to promote cooperative behavior in Congress. A stronger emphasis on productive problem-solving may help move members beyond an over-emphasis on their party identification and remind them of their greater allegiance to the collective good of their district, state and nation. 

“This project brings insights from organizational psychology to bear on the obstacles that stand in the way of reaching agreement in Congress,” said Government & Politics Professor Frances Lee. “This interdisciplinary investigation will yield fresh perspective on the challenges Congress faces.”

The initiative will involve interviews with many former and current Capitol Hill staff and members of Congress. These interviews will be designed to learn more about how members and staff perceive the organizational climate in Congress and their self-identity within this climate. 

As part of the initiative, the group will also organize a convening of scholars and practitioners with the goal of building a larger network to contribute to the initiative and to raise awareness of the research results. The group will broadly disseminate research findings among scholars, practitioners and the general public, sharing recommendations for future organizational changes that could help Congress establish a climate that more effectively promotes political cooperation.

About the Partners:

The U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC) is a non-partisan, non-profit organization of over 500 former members of the United States Congress. 

The Millennial Action Project (MAP) seeks to create a political environment where bipartisan cooperation is restored as our nation’s governing paradigm and our elected leaders work more closely together to address the challenges that millennials face as a generation and that we collectively face as a nation. 

About the Funders:

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is a nonpartisan, private charitable foundation that advances ideas and supports institutions that promote a better world. Its Madison Initiative focuses on strengthening democracy and its institutions – Congress, in particular – to be more effective in a polarized age.

Democracy Fund is a bipartisan foundation that invests in organizations working to ensure that the U.S. political system is able to withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people.

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