Psychological Insights for the Health Care Reform Debate

Marion Steininger

healthcareQuite apart from our personal views about what health-care reform should look like, psychologists can help to educate legislators, people we know, and groups we address about several factors with regard to human behavior that, if understood, will be less likely to continue standing in the way of progress on this issue.

Most basic, perhaps, is the very human tendency to want to eat our cake and have it too. In this case: “Lower my taxes, but don’t remove any services.” Sometimes just becoming aware of this tendency encourages us to think more carefully.

As psychologists, we are also very familiar with the power of labels, such as “death panels,” or “socialism”. Many commentators have pointed out that those on the political right make superb use of this power, while those on the left seem to be less adept. We could help encourage people to ask that speakers be very specific about what they have just labeled. Or perhaps, some would want to help their own “side” come up with better labels. My opinion is that the former is more ethical than the latter.

At this time, many Americans are justifiably afraid of the future. Unless someone has a solution to a particular fear (“No, you will definitely not get fired”), change — any change — may seem more frightening than it otherwise would. Here again, self-awareness could be helpful, as could the ability to identify when legislators are using such fear for their own advantage.

And finally there is the common human craving for simplicity in the face of complexity. Who wouldn’t want an instant solution that solves a big problem? Perhaps we can help people to acknowledge this craving and to begin to move beyond it.

Sometimes we can perhaps find a way to include such psychological considerations in our everyday conversations, or perhaps they can be part of our contribution to public meetings. As psychologists, we could certainly act responsibly in this way!

PsySR member Marion Steininger taught at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Camden for 26 years before retiring. She remains an active member of PsySR, the National Organization for Women, and Amnesty International. Marion can be reached at


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