Less rider, more elephant in the health-care battle

By Kevin Huffman
Friday, February 26, 2010

Thursday's health-care summit was the latest episode in an epic battle between the elephant and its rider.

The elephant, in a metaphor originally devised by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, stands for our emotional side. It enables our capacity for love and loyalty and is behind our drive to protect our families. The rider stands for our rational side. It's what makes long-term plans, sets the alarm clock and tells us to walk away from that pint of Ben & Jerry's.

For the better part of the past year, Democrats have appealed to logic with health-care proposal after complicated health-care proposal, while Republicans have appealed to tea party emotion. It's been comprehensive reform vs. the audacity of nope, and, if you believe the polls, nope is winning.

How is this possible? Well, in the fascinating new book "Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard," authors Chip and Dan Heath draw from social science research to argue that we embrace change only by bringing these oft-conflicted systems into alignment. They argue, "When change efforts fail, it's usually the elephant's fault since the kind of change we want typically involves short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs." At the same time, the rider without the elephant is prone to paralysis by over-analysis. Ultimately, the authors write, "a reluctant elephant and a wheel-spinning rider can both ensure that nothing changes."

Welcome to Washington's health-care debate.

I asked "Switch" author Dan Heath why a president elected on a mantra of change keeps running into a brick wall, particularly on health care. "The appetite for change is here, but Democrats are doing a poor job of tapping into the emotion," he said. Bogged down in the "mind-numbing minutiae of the public option and triggers," they're missing the opportunity to appeal to something deeper in people.

In "Switch," the authors tell a story about the St. Lucia parrot -- a magnificent, colorful creature that lives only on that Caribbean island. Biologists were writing the species' eulogy when conservation activist Paul Butler found himself charged with figuring out how to save the parrot. Butler had ideas: create a bird sanctuary, license eco-tourism and muscle up the punishments for harming the parrot. But he also had a problem. Most people on St. Lucia didn't know about the parrot, let alone care, and some people even ate the poor bird. What to do?

Instead of making an analytical case, Butler went for the emotional. He appealed to St. Lucians' national character. The message: We are the kind of people who take care of our own. This bird is ours alone, and we must protect it. He built popular support for new laws, and today, there are seven times as many parrots happily squawking on the island.

What would our two major political parties do if tasked with saving the St. Lucia parrot? Senate Democrats would probably hold a series of hearings deriding opponents as bird-haters, before engaging in a months-long analysis of tree and forestry data. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans would decry the government takeover of the forest. Either way, the result would be the same: no parrot.

On health care, Democrats may ultimately "win" by jamming a bill through the Senate under the budget procedure known as reconciliation, but they're losing popular support for good initiatives because rank-and-file voters don't feel the emotional connection. This isn't about pandering; it's about basic psychology.

My unsolicited advice: a little less rider, a little more elephant. When Kathleen Sebelius talks up "pooled purchasing options," people's eyes glaze over. The logical arguments are good, but my elephant could not care less. Instead, try tapping into a deeper sentiment: This is America. We are the kind of country that doesn't let a man go bankrupt because his wife or kids get sick. We believe everyone deserves a doctor. That's who we are.

President Obama referred to his mother's battle with cancer as he opened Thursday's summit, and this is where he should steer this debate. If Obama can get people to see and feel the issue, change is possible.

"Switch" cites an abundance of psychology research to support the proposition that change comes only when we appeal to both logic and emotion. Ultimately, Democrats are going to have to attach an elephant to their rider if they want people to embrace change. They need to do it soon, though, before Republicans find a rider for their unwieldy elephant.

The writer won The Post's America's Next Great Pundit contest.

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