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Driven to abstraction: Why Obama’s words are not reaching us

By Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

President Obama, with National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen, during a visit to New Orleans on June 4. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Is BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for President Obama what Hurricane Katrina was for President Bush? Conservatives have argued that President Obama’s response to BP parallels Bush’s handling of Katrina: too little, too late, suggesting disengagement or even incompetence. Liberals also pleaded for a more forceful and decisive reaction, with harsher consequences for BP and more effort to pass the stalled energy bill.

In a recent interview with Politico, President Obama himself offered a different analogy: “In the same way that our view of our vulnerabilities and our foreign policy was shaped profoundly by 9/11, I think this disaster is going to shape how we think about the environment and energy for many years to come.” Obama argues that 9/11 and the oil spill are similar because their long-term impact will be more profound than their immediate consequences.

Obama’s critics were quick to pounce: “This is, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the most bizarre things ever said by any president,” wrote John Podhoretz in the New York Post. Families of 9/11 victims were offended. “Politicians have no sense of reality,” said the father of a firefighter killed that day.

Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris are the authors of "The Invisible Gorilla, and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us"

It is understandable that Obama wants to be compared to the post-9/11 Bush rather than the post-Katrina Bush. Sept. 11 “made” Bush early in his first term, while Katrina unmade him early in his second. And the president’s long-view analysis could be correct: History may show that the Deepwater Horizon fiasco marked a turning point in American attitudes about energy and the environment. But his analogy does not resonate today because it neglects an important fact about how our minds work: We process abstract information differently from concrete information, and the concrete is always easier to think about and remember than the abstract.

Obama’s comparison of BP and 9/11 is chock-full of abstractions: “vulnerabilities,” “policy,” “environment,” “energy.” In contrast, the comparison between the oil spill and Katrina is grounded in concrete similarities: the Gulf, damage to the coast, impressions of a bumbling response. Even Obama’s verb, “shape,” is abstract, and his analogy depends on anticipating how events will be viewed in light of history rather than in the here and now.

It is not just on the oil spill where Obama has spoken abstractly. In his remarks on the departure of General McChrystal from command in Afghanistan, he said: “We have a clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum.  We are going to build Afghan capacity. We are going to relentlessly apply pressure on al-Qaida and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same.” Obviously his intention was to say that changing the commander has not changed the nature of the war. But the “goal” he spoke of could have been made more clear by casting it in more specific and decisive terms rather than breaking momentum, building capacity and applying pressure.

We are not arguing that Obama always speaks in abstractions, or that he does so more than other politicians or leaders. But we think these recent statements illustrate an aspect of his public speech that can cause problems for him. The reason lies in how our minds and brains process information. Concrete and abstract words activate different parts of the cerebral cortex. Concrete words like hammer, hit and hard are processed more by areas at the back of the brain that handle visual and spatial information. Abstract words like justice, fairly and render activate the frontal lobes, which process information independent of any particular sense (vision, hearing, touch).The frontal lobes typically are involved when a cognitive process requires effort and attention, which implies that we have an easier time interpreting the meaning of concrete words than interpreting abstract ones. We also have an easier time remembering concrete words because they can be stored in memory using two separate codes: a verbal code (the sounds or characters of the word) and a pictorial code. Abstract words don’t call a specific, universal image to mind. And, concrete words evoke stronger emotional responses, further strengthening our memory for them.

Listeners balk at hearing BP and 9/11 in the same sentence both because they bear little concrete resemblance and because the oil spill seems, at least on the surface, so much more like Hurricane Katrina. When people must compare two concepts, events or problems, they consistently pay attention to the superficial similarities and don’t see through to the deeper, more abstract commonalities. In a famous study, subjects had trouble drawing an analogy between an army attacking a fortress from all sides at once and a doctor treating a tumor by bombarding it with radiation from several different directions — because a fortress doesn’t seem like a tumor, and an army doesn’t resemble radiation beams.

Great communication occurs when we use concrete words to express abstract concepts and the surface similarity matches the underlying deep structure. Metaphors like “shutting the barn door behind the horse” are effective because the concrete image vividly illustrates the abstract principle (in this case, doing something only when it is too late to be effective).

Ronald Reagan was an acknowledged master of communication. His most memorable and effective lines brimmed over with concrete imagery: “I am paying for this microphone!” at a 1980 primary debate; “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” in Berlin. President Obama at times masters the form as well: his inaugural address vividly contrasted an outstretched hand (his, to Iran) with a clenched fist (Iran’s posture in response). And he mentioned the “arc of history,” giving a specific spatial structure to an amorphous concept. Reagan, and President Clinton too, regularly told stories of real people (complete with their names), a technique that Obama eschews and which strikes intellectuals as an embarrassing way of pandering to an audience’s emotions. But giving an abstract idea like welfare reform or business deregulation a concrete embodiment matches the rhetoric to the way the human mind best processes a message. Stories and individuals are concrete; policies and statistics are abstract.

The human preference for concrete stories over abstract principles might explain why some people view President Obama as aloof or distant. As a candidate, he was praised for a complex, nuanced approach to the nation’s problems that contrasted with President Bush’s sometimes simplistic rhetoric. (Even Bush’s abstractions seemed concrete — good and evil, dead or alive.) But Obama’s preference for expressions like “overseas contingency operations” over “war on terror” and “violent extremism” over “Islamic terrorism” leaves him appealing to a part of the brain — the abstract processing network — that requires extra mental effort that his audience may not always be willing to put in.

It is tempting to think that one’s political opponents are less intelligent, less serious and more prone or willing to distort the facts than are one’s allies. But the preference for the concrete over the abstract is a universal feature of the human mind, not a conservative or liberal foible. President Obama and other leaders, just like advertisers, teachers and anyone in the business of communication, should consider this fact when crafting their messages.

Christopher Chabris is a psychology professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. Daniel Simons is a psychology professor at the University of Illinois. They are the authors of the new book “The Invisible Gorilla, and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us” (Crown). They blog at

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  • mick

    it’s not a spill! It’s a well head BLOW OUT. A disaster. You “spill” milk.

  • Michael

    I agree with Mick on the “blow out”……it’s still flowing people………

    What I’m getting here is that Obama should talk down to the level of the electorate. Sounds like someone might be using too many big words for the low education level of our country.

    I also laugh when Reagan is quoted for the “Tear down this wall” speech, when he had little to do with the falling of the Berlin Wall. Pope John Paul and Gorbachev were the most responsible parties in that action. Reagan just happened to be President of the most powerful nation at the time. He already knew the wall was going to be opened when that speech was given.

  • Liz Flynn

    If B. Obama has to speak like a professor in times of crises he ought to model his style upon Stephen Hawking. Cut out all the “fluff” verbiage designed to impress and simply deliver the core message. During a crisis all people want to know is that help is on the way. The fluff serves only to satisfy the speaker’s ego while giving the listener ample space to become distracted and turned off.

  • Katie

    Thank you for this article. I studied business management and this is useful information for communicating to my employees/boss. This concept makes sense. Your last paragraph got me laughing because I stopped reading at the paragraph before and was thinking about political opponents. It takes more effort to remember something when it’s presented in an abstract manner. I like to think that there are groups of people who don’t want to make this effort, which explains some of their perceptions. I almost want to say that you have to ‘dumb down’ the abstract to a concrete concept in order for a message to reach a particular group. Unfortunately I think this group that puts no effort into the receiving side of communication is a majority. It’s just easier to be told something than it is to think about it and tie ends together. And we’re Americans, lazy by reputation.

  • Kelly

    >But the preference for the concrete over the abstract is a universal feature of the human mind, not a conservative or liberal foible.

    What nonsense. It may be universal in people that don’t put enough thought into things (who can, of course, be of any political stripe), and that is very common, but common != universal.

  • Jason H

    Good article and nice comment Liz F. I don’t blame the president for this disaster, nor for the handling of it… he doesn’t have a degree in mineral science or submarine engineering. The people he’s asked to fix this are the ones to look to for answers, as well as anyone responsible for the blowout and response. I doubt there is a law requiring businesses to wait for the President’s go ahead to contain and clean up a marine oil leak under corporate ownership. But the President does have a duty to inform us of what he is managing and how it’s going. And I realize now after reading this that his words have not meant as much as they could have because he chose abstract rhetoric over concrete, simple straight-talk.

  • Donna

    Some comments seem to be saying that intelligent people respond better to abstract statements than to concrete ones, and seem to assume that it’s OK if Obama restricts his audience to that group of people. Of course, his audience needs to be everyone, because everyone is affected by politics. And if you have an ounce of empathy you’d have to at least understand why the families of 7/11 victims are insulted by comparisons of the Gulf Oil Spill with 7/11. You don’t need to lazy to understand it. Even intelligent people can get it. Concrete language is not restricted to simple ideas. In school we are taught that good writing is clear, straightforward writing. We are taught that visual images have more impact than abstract ideas. I also completely understand Obama tendency to look at the broad picture; I have a tendency to do that too. The solution? Obama can illustrate his abstract ideas with concrete examples. Textbooks do the same thing. Theories do not stand alone, we need experiments. Abstract concepts alone can sound to people a lot like political obfuscation. Obama doesn’t have to give up his more complex and/or abstract ideas completely; he can use more concrete and visual language to describe them without sacrificing complexity. When I think of those stories by Reagan and others complete with people’s names, I do think, he’s using the example of one person to make it seem everyone’s experience is the same, and using people’s emotions to sway opinion.. But Obama doesn’t have to throw logic out the window to have more impact, and doesn’t have to become a man of one-syllable words to get people’s attention. Concrete does not have to equal dumb.

  • Robert Karma

    President Reagan is remembered as a great communicator because the truth is we want our Presidents to be a father or grand-father figure who is there to comfort us in times of crisis and grief. The reality that President Reagan’s policies weren’t all that good for our country doesn’t matter as we value style over substance despite our protests otherwise. President Clinton was also an excellent communicator who was able to connect to the American people but he had the rare talent of also being a policy wonk who understood the abstract. President Obama seems to have the potential to be a great communicator to the masses but he tries too hard too be rational and reasonable in a culture that desires talk from the White House to be aimed at the gut rather than the frontal lobe of our brains. In simple terms we want a Captain Kirk rather than a Mr. Spock when the tribble hits the fan.

    We prefer the illusion of action to the reality of the short-comings of our government in times of crisis. We have undercut the ability of our government’s abilities and competence over the past 30 years yet we want the illusion that our government is actually capable of acting to protect our vital interests. When reality crashes into illusion, as we have seen in the wake of the BP apocalypse, the situation turns ugly in a hurry. We want someone to blame but in the end we have been hoisted by our own petard and there is nothing President Obama can say to change that harsh fact no matter how great a communicator we desire him to be for us.

  • Beebop

    So Faux News has Rhodes scholars pretending they don’t know big hard three-syllable words, and it’s a success, so Obama has to act dumber than he is, too?

    There’s nothing wrong with his analogy. Nothing. Anybody who doesn’t get it, and there’s no shame in that, should make the effort to understand instead of criticizing him for using it.

    I really, really hesitate before suggesting that people who claim they are offended don’t need to be. In fact, I won’t do it. But I need someone to explain to me why his analogy is offensive. 9-11 did force us to completely reevaluate our vulnerabilities, and our foreign policy. That’s a simple fact. The BP oil leak is going to force us to reevaluate our attitudes and practices toward energy consumption. That’s also a fact. Why do either or both of those statements in any way impugn or diminish the loss of our citizens in the WTCs?

  • marla

    I don’t know why people can’nt respect someone that uses their mind. He is what he is. After 8 years it is hard to get used to.

  • Hun Cho

    It’s not likely that President Obama wasn’t familiar with magnitude the concept’n usage of concrete or abstract words in his speech, but primarily he wanted to emphasize he will ‘Become Like Bush’ a leader in determined response for this oil spill, and protection and conservation of the environment, creation of new, cleaner energy included, as Bush tried to make America more terrorist free after Post 9-11. (Whether Bush actually did so is contentious though) Obama just tried to prove his frim determination and leadership regarding this incidence by making abstarct comparison with Post 9/11 response, and in that sense, it’s more appropriate for him to do so, rathn than compare to Hurricane Katrina aftermath and response management by Bush, in which the former president failed to show sense of urgency and leadership, far detached to the plight of victims, economic loss by the hurricane. There’re greater similarities between them in outer context as both has caused tremendous loss’n environmental destruction and affecting almost similar gulf coastal areas as well, though the impact from this spill’s definitely broader areas, and extensive in economic scale.

  • Hun Cho

    President Obama could show to American public greater sense of urgency and his firmer determination to fix this problem by using more expressive terms in his speech, like “dark, horrible messy oils gushing out of Deepwater Horizon’s ruptured well.. or have plug out that big hole to stop the toxic matter pouring out so on..” and be more concrete and specific, but he has expressed that way i think, primarily because by this prolonged crisis itself with tremendous impacts till unforeseeable future, the public are already aware of how serious current situation is. So Obama, as a president, not just has a reponsibility to show the degree of urgency enough but also must prove precision of his judgement by making it plain, not over exaggeration or more than necessary gruesome words(for example) to make a political point. By showing leadership and capability to make an objective judgement (sufficient degree of his determination to fix this one) he’d be fine enough i guess..

  • Heather

    “And if you have an ounce of empathy you’d have to at least understand why the families of 7/11 victims are insulted by comparisons of the Gulf Oil Spill with 7/11.”

    I agree! Just the other day, 7/11 totally gouged my mother for a hunk of cheese she could have bought for half the price anywhere else. Animals!

  • Jason

    I see the point of this article and it’s well taken, but after 8 years of dumbing-it-down, I frankly like having a president who has an intellect that challenges me.

    And what’s all this talk about 7/11? I thought the we talking about disasters, not convenience stores.


    [...] PBS Need to Know (July 5, 2010). “Driven to abstraction: Why Obama’s abstract words are not reaching us.” This commentary explores the ways in which abstract comparisons are less compelling than more concrete ones. link [...]