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.
The theory goes that if you are primed to hear a certain piece of information, you will hear that one attenuated more highly than the other (Also, I probably should make clear that I’m using ‘hear’ as a catchall term for receiving sensory input, this phenomenon works across all senses and ranks them into a hierarchy I don’t have rhetorical room for here). For example, most Americans if fed the prompts “The clear sky above” and “President Lincoln was shot” will hear the information about Lincoln and not the clear sky. By the same token, the degree of attenuation can be influenced by the complexity of the information. More dense and complex stimuli are less likely to be absorbed than simpler ones which occur simultaneously. For example, if fed the stimuli “Green grass grows over the hill” and “The nexus of peristaltic action is oesophageal,” the listener is more likely to retain the stimulus about the green grass.
Back to Spicer.
When he made his now infamous Holocaust gaffe, Secretary Spicer was in the process of making a statement defending President Trump’s reversal of his stance on Syria and the military action that had just been undertaken there, military action which, upon analysis, was revealed to have taken place without the President’s direct authorization. None of this made the President look good, and the situation was complex. More complex than the average American’s understanding of how Presidents authorize military action and the general state of affairs in war-torn Syria.
But the average American is pretty clear on what happened during the Holocaust and what a concentration camp is. And that’s where Spicer’s gaffe becomes genius. It is such an easy piece of information to latch onto. It is simple in its error, it is sensational because of the social taboo of minimalizing the Holocaust, it is a statement that is perfectly attenuated to be played loudly through the consciousness of the media.
And so it was, the media repeated the Spicer gaffe and stopped the more complicated and less immediately retainable coverage about what the U.S.’s position in Syria is going to be moving forward and whether the President really has control over the military.
Now, whether Spicer is doing this intentionally or not is a matter for debate and probably another article. I choose to see Spicer as a willing participant in his own undoing, such that he is constantly being given lies to say in front of the media and unfortunately lacks the temperament and disposition to tell them effectively.
But, I also think that the present administration knows this, knows how effective it is and uses Spicer the way the President uses Twitter. As the jangling keys to divert attention away from more sobering realities. Spicer is their main agent of misdirection.
Oh – there’s also a bookend to this story. A 1990 study found that more experienced listeners, that is subjects who were used to receiving simultaneous stimulus, were much better at absorbing both and then afterward making a judgment about which was more significant. And if nothing else, the American people are getting more experienced at hearing a lot of bullshit at once.