What My Kind Fears the Most

One of the many duties of a copy editor is catching small mistakes that can damage credibility. For example, see if you can spot the typo in this ad that appeared in Tacoma’s News Tribune last December:

Are you interested in Pubic Charter Schools?

When a reporter from a local news station handed the newspaper to about a dozen people to read it out loud, most read the misspelling as it should have been written: public. If you also whizzed past it, it’s understandable—your brain wants to correct it and does. The nature of that particular word caused quite a fuss, and spell-check wouldn’t have helped at all. Chalk up one point for humans in the robot war. For now.

It’s worth pointing out here that the simple act of reading words is practically instinctual. Oh, how I wish I could ignore Dr. Zizmor’s outdated ad in the subway every single time. Even though I quickly look away, the gears have shifted automatically. Don Draper is smiling into his whiskey right now.

What concerns me is the natural tendency to miss such errors, especially in English. Seeing what you expect to see even when you think it’s wrong is best explained by the Stroop Test, created by John Ridley Stroop in the 1930s and considered an important contribution to cognitive psychology. The word “green” was printed in red ink, but when participants were asked what color the letters were, they would often say “green.” And it goes beyond the power of suggestion. It’s known that one part of the brain deals with language—decoding letters and figuring out the meaning of grouped letters to form words—and another interprets color. In the test, this clashing of messages gets reconciled in yet a third part of the brain that tries to make sense of the whole mess.

Another example of how our minds have minds of their own was illustrated on the NatGeo TV show Brain Games. The wonderful Dr. Lera Boroditsky, associate professor of cognitive science at UCSD, asked people to count the number of f’s in the following sentence:

The first half of February is often the fastest freezing and most frigid time of the year.

Most readers counted seven, but there are nine. The f in the word “of” is often missed because your brain remembers that letter sounding like the letter v. Your mind will use a shortcut based on logic from past experience.

Who knew we language wrestlers were battling our brains so fiercely every day? Maybe I should put on a Viking helmet before I turn on my computer from now on.


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