Thursday, January 5, 2012

Santorum, Black people, and Speech Errors!

Oh goodie!  Another politican makes an embarrassing speech error.  This time it's our favorite, frothy presidential candidate, Rick Santorum!  Here's the video:



The first question is whether or not this is really a speech error.  It is definitely an error in the sense that a person on welfare is not necessarily black (Slate reports that 9% of welfare recipients in Iowa are black and 84% are white), but the question is whether he meant to say "black" or something else.

I think maybe it was a speech error. For example, Obama and Osama are frequently mixed up:



Despite what I'd like to think, Ashcroft's slip up was probably an honest mistake.  Work by psychologists like Gary Dell has demonstrated that words that  sound similar (like Obama and Osama) and words that mean similar things (well known public people like Obama and Osama) are often interchanged in the speech production system.  When both are true, well, you get Ashcroft embarrassing himself.

The reason for this has to do with how the production system operates.  Most researchers use an activation metaphor for understanding how word selection works in our brain.  When you pick the word you want to say, it gets activated, but this energy also activates  words that share similar meanings and similar sounds to the word you intend.  Sometimes noise in the system  boosts activation for the wrong word, so  you end up saying Osama when you meant to say Obama.

It's possible that for Santorum, black people and welfare recipients really are very semantically related, ....so he slipped in one for the other by mistake.  This would make what he said a speech error, but at the same time, a very revealing one.  I guess we'll never really know....

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