Politics and Child’s Play II — Different Games, Different Thoughts

September 14, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

When kids play on their own — with no adults to direct, organize, or supervise —  they find ways to resolve differences and disputes that arise. Over the past few decades, kids’ opportunities for this kind of free play have dwindled. More and more play has come under the domination of adults and their institutions — schools, leagues, clubs, and the like.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt fears that this trend is aggravating the polarization that increasingly afflicts our society and politics. If kids never learn how to deal with one another in play, they’ll grow up to be adults who can’t work with other adults they disagree with.

There’s not a lot of data to support Haidt’s idea (see this previous post). More important, Haidt sees the problem as a matter of individual attitudes. That seems logical, but it makes two questionable assumptions: that it is largely these attitudes and abilities that determine what people do; and that each person has a limited repertoire of emotions and social skills. It makes more sense to realize first, that people generally have a wider range of thinking, feeling, and acting than psychological theories give them credit for. And second, that emotions and ideas are not just individual; they are part of a situation.

It might seem strange to see thoughts and feelings as residing in the external situation and not inside individuals, so let me give an example. In that earlier post, I briefly compared two ways that kids play baseball — pick-up games and Little League. In pick-up games, kids come up with all sorts of ways to resolve disputes and to deal with problems. Is the score lopsided after two innings? Have some players switch sides. Are there only thirteen kids, not enough for a full team on either side? Have same-side pitcher and catcher, no right-field hitting, or other work-arounds.

In contrast, in Little League, these solutions are literally unthinkable. If only six players from one team show up, it’s a forfeit. No game. Go home. How is it that the adults running the game cannot think of solutions that are obvious to 12-year olds playing a pick-up game? These grown-ups are not stupid. But ideas reside not just in the heads of individuals. What is thinkable and what is unthinkable is part of the situation.*

Emotions too come with the setting. Nobody likes to strike out or to muff an easy grounder or fly ball. Still, these things happen. But only in Little League did I ever see this kind of mistake bring a kid to the edge or tears, or over the edge. Were these Little League kids more emotionally frail while the pick-up game kids were psychologically resilient? No. These were the same kids. The only difference was the setting for the game.

What prevents kids from engaging with one another to resolve differences is not their personalities or social skills. It’s the structure of organized sports — adult umpires, coaches, and managers to make decisions; the teams dressed in uniforms, sitting on separate benches; the emphasis on winning. Put the kids in a different setting, and they are skilled negotiators and problem-solvers.

Politics may have this same dual character, with different kinds of politics shaping the available thoughts and feelings. Where people cannot talk to one another as people, they think of politics as a competition. Their goal is to win, to beat the other side. In politics at a smaller, more human level, people may see politics as governing — finding solutions to immediate problems in a way that accommodates others rather than alienating them.

The political polarization of recent years is real. At least there’s evidence of it in the answers people give in surveys. (See the charts in that previous post.). But surveys are general and abstract, and they ask mostly about national politics and national offices. What do you think of Trump, Democrats, Mueller, the tax bill? Which Senate or House candidate will you vote for? In other words, in this distant game that you watch on TV, which team are you rooting for? But when the issues are local — when a person can have a real effect on the outcome, and when the outcome is plainly visible — people are more flexible and co-operative. That’s one of the lessons James and Deborah Fallows draw from their five-year sojourn to cities in the heartland.

What we learned from traveling was not that the hardest American challenges of this era are illusory. They’re very real, and divisions about national politics are intense. So we made a point of never asking, early on, “How’s Obama doing?,” or later, “Do you trust Hillary?” and “What about Trump?” The answers to questions like those won’t take you beyond what you’ve already heard ad nauseam on TV.

Instead we asked people about their own lives and their own communities. [In The Atlantic]

Ask Conservatives and Republicans about taxes, and you’ll get the standard answer that lower is better. But Fallows visited towns in western Kansas, central Ohio, West Virginia, and South Carolina that voted for taxes in order to provide parks and libraries and to keep the employees who worked there from being thrown out of work.

These adults can come up with a variety of solutions to a problem. They can work out their differences. They can compromise. But they can also be the very same people who tell pollsters that they want government officials to stand on principle no matter what.


* I made this same argument in the early days of this blog (here) after I happened on a girl’s soccer game .

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