Sean Spicer: The Main Agent Of Misdirection
Last week Sean Spicer misunderstood the Holocaust. He glossed over Hitler’s use of chemical weapons against his own people in systemic execution and went on to correct himself saying that he knew what had transpired in the ‘holocaust centers’ during World War Two. This was a gaffe so prodigious, even by the standards of Mr. Spicer and the present administration, that it incited a remarkable backlash in the media.
Late night talk shows, the punditry, the mainstream news media and Melissa McCarthy in a bunny suit all descended on Spicer like flies on a corpse. For almost a calendar week it was impossible to avoid the lampooning, criticism and general eye-rolling of talking heads at Spicer’s expense. The firestorm even resulted in a few publications assembling handy lists of Spicer’s gaffes so far; here’s one from the Guardian and another from the London Telegraph.
On its own, the Holocaust debacle didn’t really warrant reporting, as the entire story was that the Press Secretary was a big dumb doofus incapable of thinking before he speaks. I considered writing about it, even drafted an article and then realized that whatever I wrote would be the journalistic equivalent of a retweet. I would be joining the chorus of people ready to condemn and mock Spicer without having any new insight to contribute. So, I wrote about something else and moved on.
But something about those list articles stuck with me – this is not simply the behavior of a man who doesn’t think things through, this is a pattern. And it’s a pattern that benefits the present administration. Sean Spicer isn’t a liability, he’s an asset.
To make this case properly, we’re going to take a little detour through the field of cognitive psychology. Specifically, the phenomenon known as “selective attention.” Selective attention refers to a process by which the brain in unable to process all the available stimuli in a field and so makes an unconscious choice to value some stimuli higher than others.
The terms dates to a 1958 study by psychologist Donald Broadbent who conducted a study where subjects were fed two different 3-digit sets of numbers through headphones simultaneously. He found that the majority of subjects were only able to remember one of the sets of numbers while losing the other one and that the selection process was seemingly random (i.e. the subjects did not hear and remember messages more through their dominant ear, etc.) Broadbent concluded from his tests that humans are actually not very good at processing multiple pieces of information simultaneously and so will choose some pieces randomly to omit.
In 1964, a psychologist named Anne Treisman updated the so-called ‘filter model’ of attention by adding an element known as ‘attenuation’ (Bored yet? I promise this matters.). Attenuation refers to the process by which the brain amplifies some information and diminishes others. Think of it as a subconscious volume knob that ratchets up some stimuli while slamming others way down. It’s not that all the information isn’t being absorbed, it’s that the information is absorbed at very different levels of priority. This is called a “semantic assessment,” which is made by the brain based on all kinds of variables. Social relevance, personal history, priming to look for certain information, or simply instruction to look for information are all ways in which the brain selects some stimuli over others. The important part is that this selection process happens and that’s how all of us, all the time, create our surroundings and take in the world.