Virtue is catchy
Murphy was an optimist

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.

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