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March 2010

Rational Man RIP

Irrational Newsweek's latest public opinion poll demonstrates how difficult it is to figure out what people really think about any important issue.  And how relatively easy it is to shape their opinions in the first place.

Item: when Newsweek asked for their "overall opinion of Obama's health care reform plan," 49 percent opposed it, 40 percent were in favor and 11 percent didn't know or had no opinion.

But in a subsequent question, significant majorities said they favored specific proposals to change the health care system.       

For example:

  • 59 percent favored requiring all Americans to have health insurance.  
  • 75 percent favored requiring most businesses to offer health insurance to their employees, with tax incentives for small business owners to do so.  
  • 76 percent favored requiring health insurance companies to cover anyone who applies, even if they have a pre-existing medical condition. 
  • 81 percent favored creating a new insurance marketplace that allows people without health insurance to compare plans and buy insurance at competitive rates.  
  • And 59 percent favored preventing insurance companies from dropping coverage when people are sick.

Of course, not all specific proposals were popular.  

  • 62 percent opposed imposing fines on individuals who don't obtain health insurance coverage or larger businesses that don't offer it.  
  • 55 percent opposed taxing insurers who offer the so-called Cadillac health insurance plans to help pay for health care reform.  
  • And only 50 percent favored creating a government-administered public health insurance option to compete with private plans.  (42 percent opposed it.)

But the real kicker came in the next question:  

"Now please think about the proposals I just described to you.  ALL of these proposals are included in Barack Obama's health care reform plan. Having heard these details, what is your OVERALL opinion of Obama's plan -- do you favor it or oppose it?"  (Emphasis in original.)

48 percent now favored the plan, 43 percent opposed it, and only 9 percent didn't know, practically a reversal of the answers to the question when it was first posed.

Of course, what was described as "Obama's plan" is not, in fact, what the White House released on Monday in preparation for Thursday's big summit with Congress. Newsweek's survey was conducted between Feb. 17 and 18 before the White House released the details of its plan. 

Obama's current plan doesn't include the so-called "public option." Furthermore, almost as if the White House read the poll results, Obama's new plan lowers the tax on Cadillac plans and reduces the fine for not carrying health insurance.

But what I found interesting is how volatile people's opinions appear to be on this issue.It reminds me of Walter Lippmann's admonition that most people have their minds made up long before they come in contact with any relevant facts.

Opinions are the product of emotion filtered through reason, not the other way around.In this case, the very controversy surrounding the issue helped form their opinions.  Talk of "a government takeover of health care," "death panels," "two and a half trillion dollar price tags," and "bureaucrats dictating care to doctors" framed the issue for most people.  Even when factual data put some of these charges to rest, people were left with the negative feelings the original attack elicited.

The original question in the poll allowed people to express their emotional opinion, but the follow-up on the specific elements of the reform plan put their rational brain into gear.  And it was still engaged when the first question was essentially asked again.

People aren't totally irrational, but they're not automatons either.  Ignoring their emotions is a formula for disaster.

That's a lesson Mr. Toyoda should keep in mind as he addresses his company's current crisis.  It's about more than sticky accelerators, wayward floor mats and electronic gremlins.

Virtue is catchy

Happy Seeing someone perform a virtuous deed (especially if they are helping another person), makes us feel good, often eliciting a warm, fuzzy feeling in our chest. 

This positive, uplifting emotion, known as "elevation," might make us feel great, but is it enough to get us to go out and perform good acts ourselves? 

According to new findings reported in PsychologicalScience, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the answer may be yes.  Learn more in this "Science Daily" report.

Best In Class


2009 was a treasure trove of case studies in "how not to handle public relations."

I wrote a whole book based on the notion that you can learn a lot from your own mistakes, but sometimes dwelling on the missteps of others is little more than an exercise in shandenfrude.  Or a publicity opportunity for Monday morning quarterbacks.

So it's refreshing to see a study that tries to identify the few companies that get it right.  Executive search firm Heyman Associates asked 250 communications pros which Fortune 500 companies are “best-in-class” in the areas of corporate communications, internal communications, investor relations, media relations, online communications, community affairs, philanthropy and corporate social responsibility.

While the results are not all that surprising, they're informative.  A majority of respondents didn't think any company excelled across all eight functions, but three companies came closest -- General Electric, IBM, and Johnson & Johnson. 

The five companies that improved the most were Wal-Mart, Google, Starbucks, Microsoft and Coca-Cola. 

Heyman doesn't seem to have posted the study on its web site yet, but you can get a copy by emailing  [email protected].  

Gekko Remember Gordon Gekko?  

His Fortune cover may have been fictional, but his operating philosophy -- "Greed is good." -- has long been the bedrock principle of the U.S. financial system.  

It's based on a tripartite explanation for human behavior -- people are rational; they always act in their own self-interest; the good of society is based on people acting in their own self-interest.  

Barry Schwartz, who has spent his career studying the intersection of economics and psychology, doesn't think human nature is quite that simple.  

"The reductive appeal to self-interest as the master human motive," he says, "is a false description of human nature."   Worse, if society operates as if greed is the only thing that motivates people it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. People can quickly become addicted to incentives. 

For example, using market forces -- such as pricing or taxing mechanisms -- to solve social problems can have perverse consequences.  When a daycare center started fining parents who were late picking up their children, late pick ups increased. When Switzerland asked people if they would allow a waste site to be built in their neighborhood, the percent agreeing went down if they were offered financial compensation.  

Apparently, introducing the idea of financial incentives causes people to ask "what's in it for me?"  For a You Tube video of Schwartz's presentation at the 2009 Conference on Law and Mind Sciences, go here.  

Our thinking bodies

Popup Embodied cognition is a hot new field that considers how abstract concepts like "power," "time," and "goodness" are processed not just in our brains, but also by our bodies.

The findings have broad implications for all forms of communications and marketing. For example, a study at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, showed that whether someone's photo is positioned at the top of a screen or at the bottom affects how powerful and attractive he or she is perceived to be by the opposite sex.

When people think of power differences, they literally think of spatial differences too. Powerful people are thought to be those who stay "at the top," while the less powerful are "below."

In the Gettysburg study, men were 1.8 times more likely to find the same woman attractive if her photo appeared at the bottom of the screen rather than at the top. Women were 1.5 times more likely to find men attractive if their photo appeared at the top. This may help explain why CEOs ten to be tall and why wives are taller than their husbands in only one out of 750 married couples.

The New York Times reports on a study in the journal Psychological Science that shows that people actually lean forward when thinking of the future and lean back when pondering the past.

Others have discovered that the smell of Windex can prompt people to donate more to charity.  (No, Windex didn't sponsor the study.  You can read it here.)  Books we are told are "important" seem to weigh more than other books of the same size.

It seems that our figurative language (e.g., "the stain of sin") has roots in the way our body actually processes information.

Thinking about language

Chim 2 Language and human sexual practices are apparently related in ways we've never imagined. 

It seems that the way humans mate is fairly unusual among primates.  No, not the missionary position, but the fact that we don't couple randomly with each other, as bonobos do.  

Anthropologists call this "a system that minimizes competition between sperm." In other words, human females usually only mate with one male at a time so his sperm don't have to compete with someone else's on the way to her eggs.  

Anthropologists see evidence of this difference in the recent decoding of human and chimp genomes.  Many anthropologists believe that the development of language was a necessary component to the way we organize ourselves sexually. Grunts and body displays just couldn't cut it. 

Chris Knight has shown that language could never develop in the standard ape social structure where males contribute very little to survival, fight among themselves and take whatever females they want.  

Come to think of it, that may explain the current devolution of language in some quarters.  For more, go here.