Once in Psychology 101, two of my fellow students got into a fight.We were all settling in, when we heard rising voices.A couple guys were facing off, pushing desks around and hurling profanities.One threw a book.The other threatened a punch. We all jumped up.

“Hold on, everybody! Sit down,” the professor chuckled. The two combatants smiled. The prof explained that it was all staged, and then he asked a question. “What else just happened?”

No one had noticed the stranger who had walked in and written on the chalkboard, or the student who had opened a window, or the woman who had pulled a small goat from her purse and milked it (or something like that, the details elude me). The point was to show how easily people’s observation skills can be misdirected.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since the shooting in Tucson, as voices in both major parties have called for cooler words in our political debates, lest our over-heated rhetoric push unstable folks to violence. President Obama made a compelling and impassioned appeal for just that during his speech in Arizona. But I don’t have much faith that we’re going to see it, for several reasons.

First, there are folks on either side who are genuinely mad at each other.Centrists talk compromise, but there are hard-core partisans who are spitting sparks every time the other side of the aisle gets even an extra pad of Post-It notes. It doesn’t help that fundraising thrives when the base is whipped up.

Second, too many pols truly believe that they are only responding to the dirty tricks of their foes. They feel as justified as the hockey goon who suffers a cheap shot and then takes an opposing player’s tooth in retribution.

And third, well, it gets back to that psychology class. As long as the two major parties are screaming at each other, the fight distracts voters and the media from more serious concerns over jobs, housing values, the deficit, foreign entanglements — all those nasty problems for which neither side has easy answers.

–CNN’s Tom Foreman is a regular on “AC360”/www.ac360.com and “The Situation Room.”

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