Julie Sedivy is the lead author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You And What This Says About You. She contributes regularly to Psychology Today and Language Log. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary, and can be found at juliesedivy.com and on Twitter/soldonlanguage.
Last week, a verbal stumble by Republican candidate Rick Santorum led to a fresh batch of accusations that he harbors racist sentiments. Here is a video clip and transcript, from a speech delivered on March 27th 2012 in Janesville, Wisconsin:
We know, we know the candidate Barack Obama, what he was like. The anti-war government nig- uh, the uh America was a source for division around the world.”
Almost immediately, this video clip began to zip around the internet, with many people arguing that Santorum had caught himself in the middle of uttering a racial slur against Barack Obama, inadvertently revealing his true attitude. The presumption behind these arguments is that “Freudian slips” reflect a layer of thoughts and attitudes that sometimes slip past the mental guards of consciousness and bubble to the surface. That they’re the window to what someone was really thinking, despite his best efforts to conceal it.
But decades of research in psycholinguistics reveal that speech errors are rarely this incriminating. The vast majority of them come about simply because of the sheer mechanical complexity of the act of speaking. They’re less like Rorschach blot tests and more like mundane assembly-line mistakes that didn’t get caught by the mind’s inner quality control.
Speech errors occur because when it comes to talking, the mind cares much more about speed than it does about accuracy. We literally speak before we’re done thinking about what we’re going to say, and this is true not just for the more impetuous amongst us, but for all speakers, all of the time. Speech production really is like an assembly line, but an astoundingly frenzied one in which an incomplete set of blueprints is snatched out of the hands of the designers by workers eager to begin assembling the product before it’s fully sketched out.