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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 www.theinvisiblegorilla.com.

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