Why Aren't Americans Buying the Bailout?

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Matt Campbell / EPA

A man walks past a stock ticker rolling inside the Fidelity Investments office in Boston.

The $700 billion financial bailout package failed because most Americans wanted it to fail. Before the vote, members of Congress were getting calls 100 to 1 against the bill. The question is: why? It's easy to understand that bailing out rich bankers doesn't feel super, but why, despite all the efforts of all the country's leaders to fill citizens with fear of an economic apocalypse, did they not see a failure to act as a serious threat to their livelihoods?

Traditionally, human beings are not great at assessing this kind of risk — a peril that has not yet arrived and that is, in any case, hard to viscerally imagine. Witness people's reluctance to evacuate before hurricanes, and weather forecasts portend a danger far easier to comprehend than failing investment banks.

But there are methods of communicating risk in a way that stills the heart, with words that inject dread into the populace. And Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and President George W. Bush used none of them. "The case wasn't made as to why the little guy needs this," says Paul Slovic, author of The Perception of Risk and a psychology professor at the University of Oregon. "The numbers and vague warnings are too abstract."

The most effective warnings are like the most effective TV ads: easily understood, specific, frequently repeated, personal, accurate and targeted. Paulson and his grim reapers managed only to repeat themselves frequently. They were not easily understood, partly because the problem is so complex. They did not personalize or target their warnings. And, as they themselves admitted, they did not know if their warnings were necessarily accurate, due to the novelty and unpredictability of the crisis.

But their biggest mistake was a lack of specificity. They never clearly told the American people what might happen if Congress did not act. "If you want people to support an action," says Dennis Mileti, an expert on risk communications who has studied hundreds of disasters of the more conventional kind at the University of Colorado, Boulder, "you need to link the action to cutting people's losses. And that link isn't in place."

Here is what Administration and congressional leaders must do if they want to convince the public to get behind the next iteration of the plan — assuming, of course, that they come up with a plan worth backing:

Find a Face Human beings are not moved by numbers or vague predictions of certain doom. They are moved by stories. "It's simple," says Mileti. "You get one family in America. You go to their house. And you paint a picture of what their life is like one year from now. You describe a kid who can't go to college, the house that can't be sold, the inability of anyone to use a credit card. They need to get a camera crew and go to Omaha and find a family."

Rebrand the Bill The word bailout is a deal killer. "People feel the breaks are being given to financial institutions and not to the consumer," says Slovic. He recommends calling it a Consumer Protection Act. It may be too late for this change to have much impact, but any change in language that acknowledges real people would be an improvement.

Shoot the Messenger If you want people to support the radical idea of rescuing rich investment bankers, don't send a rich, former investment banker (Henry Paulson) to convince them. And don't send a discredited, lame-duck President, either. As in normal life, people are more likely to believe the advice of someone they trust. There aren't many well-known experts in this field who aren't rich, but even Warren Buffett would have brought less baggage to the process than Bush.

Be Specific People need to know what will happen if they do nothing — or if they do something.

So far, Paulson and Bernanke have been specific only behind closed doors. On Sept. 18, they warned congressional leaders what inaction would bring: a stock-market crash, sky-high unemployment, Americans unable to get car loans, banks failing so fast that they would quickly drain the federal deposit insurance fund and people's life savings.

Paulson did not use those words when he went on TV a few days later — probably because he was afraid of provoking widespread financial panic. But that risk needs to be weighed against the risk that no one will panic at all.

"People don't perceive risk," says Mileti. "People actually perceive that they are safe." To override that bias, you have to talk to people in a language their brains understand.

(Click here to see photos of the global financial crisis.)

(See the ten steps to the financial meltdown here and TIME's photos of the global financial crisis here.)

(See TIME's Pictures of the Week here.)