A Psychological Glitch on the National Stage

Last week, one of President Trump’s lawyers for the impeachment trial, Jay Sekulow, reacted to something that, at first, was confusing for viewers  because no one was quite sure to what he was responding.  During his presentation to the Senate, Dr. Sekulow issued a strong chastisement of a phrase he heard one of the House impeachment managers say:

“‘Lawyer lawsuits’? ‘Lawyer lawsuits’? … The managers are complaining about ‘lawyer lawsuits’? The Constitution allows lawyer lawsuits. It’s disrespecting the Constitution of the United States to even say that in this chamber – ‘lawyer lawsuits.’”

The only problem? No one ever used the phrase “lawyer lawsuits.”  Instead, it seems that Dr. Sekulow misheard words stated by Representative Val Demings during her presentation of evidence:

“The President’s lawyers may suggest that the House should have sought these materials in court or awaited further lawsuits under the freedom of information acts, aka FOIA (foy’ah) lawsuits.”

Even in the “yanny vs. laurel” age, listening to the recordings, it seems impossible to confuse “FOIA” with “lawyer”—so what happened?

My best guess is that a number of psychological processes are necessary to fully explain the path from Representative Demings’s remark to Dr. Sekulow’s full-throated rebuke, but the most central mechanism responsible for this error probably emerges from a field in cognitive psychology, namely language processing.  In a 2009 paper published in The Journal of Memory and Language, researchers Meghan Sumner and Arthur Samuel studied various dialects and how the listener may perceive certain sounds according to their respective dialects.  In one part of the study, participants were given the sound “slenda.”  For most people, this was a meaningless sound, just like any other meaningless sound that they may hear.  But for New Yorkers, whose regional dialect includes dropping the “r” from the end of words, this sound was actually meaningful, and was mentally associated with other words like “thin.” In other words, one’s regional dialect can affect how he processes sounds and the meaning of those sounds.  Of course, as this process happens at the level of perception, for many people it is not a consciously activated mechanism, and it is also not a signal of intelligence or cognitive abilities.  It is, instead, a feature of how any human brain filters sounds and processes language.  

Returning return to Dr. Sekulow, although he has developed a fairly neutral spoken accent, his upbringing was in Brooklyn, New York; as the saying goes, you can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take Brooklyn out of the boy.  His early experiences with language are primed for the dropped “r” natural to the native New York dialect, which is a feature of his hard-wired language processing abilities.  As he was listening to Representative Demings comment about “FOIA lawsuits,” probably also thinking about his upcoming remarks and possible rebuttals, his brain actually heard the sound “FOIA” as “foyer,” which, given the setting, would have no relevance; then, doing what brains do, his language processing parts of the brain offered him the closest word to that sound relevant to the proceedings: “lawyer.”  And, as he then argued, “lawyer lawsuits” are fully sanctioned by constitutional law–a point disputed by no one present at the impeachment trial proceedings.

So what are we to learn from this amusing trick of the mind that seems to have affected Dr. Sekulow on a national stage?  Perhaps the most salient lesson to glean from this event is that if you think you hear something nonsensical, check it out with a friend first.  You may not agree with the speaker, but that doesn’t mean that everything she says is nonsense.