After weeks of making his case for the legislation in broad strokes — including two similar rallies last week in Philadelphia and St. Charles, Mo. — Mr. Obama used Monday’s appearance to pivot to the personal, as he recounted the story of the cleaning woman, Natoma Canfield — a health care drama that could not have been better scripted for his purposes if he had written it himself.
Ms. Canfield, of nearby Medina, wrote Mr. Obama at the end of December to say that she had been treated for cancer 16 years ago and had been cancer-free for 11 years. But with her premiums rising — she paid more than $6,705.24 in 2009 and had just received notification of a 40 percent increase — she decided to drop her coverage. The president read her letter aloud to a meeting of insurance executives this month, and had hoped Ms. Canfield would introduce him when he appeared here.
Instead, Ms. Canfield’s sister family introduced the president, as Mr. Obama explained to the crowd that, after collapsing last week and being rushed to the hospital, Ms. Canfield had received a new cancer diagnosis on Saturday.
“The reason Natoma is not here today is that she’s lying in a hospital bed, suddenly faced with this emergency — suddenly thrust into a fight for her life,” Mr. Obama said. “She expects to face a month or more of aggressive chemotherapy. And she is racked with worry not only about her illness but about the cost of the tests and treatments she will surely need to beat it.”
I’ve blogged about Slovic’s work before (most recently in the context of Haiti), but I think it speaks to the importance of getting past abstract statistics (CBO reports, deficit projections, etc.) and instead zooming in on a single emotional narrative when making a moral argument. Here’s how I describe Slovic’s experiment in my book:
The experiment is simple: Slovic asks people how much they would be willing to donate to various charitable causes. For example, Slovic found that when people were shown a picture of a single starving child named Rokia in Mali, they acted with impressive generosity. After looking at Rokia’s emaciated body and haunting brown eyes, they donated, on average, two dollars and fifty cents to Save the Children. However, when a second group of people were provided with a list of statistics about starvation throughout Africa⎯more than three million children in Malawi are malnourished, more than eleven million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance, etc.⎯the average donation was fifty percent lower. At first glance, this makes no sense. When we are informed about the true scope of the problem we should give more money, not less. Rokia’s tragic story is just the tip of the iceberg.
According to Slovic, the problem with statistics is that they don’t activate our moral emotions. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our mind can’t comprehend suffering on such a massive scale. This is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well, but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water. Or why we donate thousands of dollars to help a single African war orphan featured on the cover of a magazine, but ignore widespread genocides in Rwanda or Darfur. As Mother Theresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
The same principle applies to our political beliefs. Those rational calculations – the Senate plan will cover 30 million uninsured, etc – aren’t enough to budge us from our bias for the status quo. The massive numbers have no emotional heft. But maybe, just maybe, a tragic story will do the trick. Needless to say, this is a deeply problematic way of morally engaging with the world, but it’s the way we’re built.