Naughty Elmo Revisited

Oirignally Posted February 4, 2009

I just caught a report on our local Fox News station about a couple that appeared on “Good Morning New York”, complaining about Elmo’s potty mouth:

Notice that the segment opens with a statement of FACT — the toy has a dirty message — rather than a question about whether this might be true.

This is a perfect example of how human perception is influenced by knowledge. Perception driven by expectation and belief is called “top-down” processing, whereas perception that starts with information from the senses is considered “bottom-up”. Most of our daily perception is top-down in nature.

In many of my classes, I demonstrate this by playing music clips backwards. Some claim that these clips have “hidden messages”. Everyone from the Beatles to Queen to Eminem to Brittany Spears has been accused of it. An entire website is devoted to the study of what David John Oates calls the greatest discovery of all time: Reverse Speech. He even sells training courses and other products (surprise, surprise).

Oates claims that our unconscious is revealing itself through our speech and that these messages can be heard if we listen to recordings of this speech backwards. He spends countless hours listening to audio recordings of politicians, celebrities, and music — listening for anything that sounds like English and documenting it. Sometimes the audio must be slowed down before one can perceive the message.

His website is the source of many of the clips that I use. Fun classroom demonstrations are the only things of value there. My personal favorite is Neil Armstrong saying, “Man will space walk” as he is walking on the moon!

Click here to listen to Neil Armstrong

Oates says, “This is a reflection of his logical thoughts at the time. Man will continue to walk into space.” However, some have claimed that this is evidence that the moon landing was a hoax; that man will walk in space someday, but he is not at the moment.

If you listen to these clips, you will probably hear it, too. So, what is going on?

The “backmasking” and “subliminal messages” paranoia that began during the early days of the cold war has been the object of many studies, all of which point to one conclusion: we do not perceive these messages unless we are told to listen for them. One of the earliest (and best) of these, by Vokey & Read, is discussed in their article in American Psychologist in 1985. The authors conducted several experiments to fully address the question, but the most interesting is the last they discuss.

They started with a recording of the 23rd Psalm because the backmasking cryers of the time claimed that Satan was the source of the messages and religious material was free of them. In addition, they chose a passage from Jabberwocky because it is meaningless when heard forward. After listening carefully they found pieces that could be interpreted as something meaningful, albeit silly. For example, part of Jabberwocky played backwards sounds something like, “Saw a girl with a weasel in her mouth.” When participants in the study were told the message to listen for, they agreed 85% of the time. However, they did not perceive that message when given a different expectation.

This effect is fairly easy to demonstrate. Try listening to the following clips for anything intelligible:

1. Queen Singing “Another One Bites the Dust”

2. The Beverly Hillbillies Theme Song

3. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar

It’s no fun if you cheat, so listen several times and write down anything that sounds like it might be a message.

Did you get much?

THEN, click here to read the messages. Finally, listen again. It may take a time or two, but eventually you’ll hear at least some of them. Afterward, you will never perceive the jibberish you heard the first time. Instead, you will only hear the message.

In the Elmo clip, notice that one of the women on the street said, “It sounds a lot clearer this time around.” The newscaster in the studio also said that he did not hear the message, but when he played it again he did. This behavior is exactly what I would expect — and what I do expect when I play these clips for students. They never disappoint me because they are human.

Humans do not like ambiguity. We like to make sense of the world and will do so whenever we can. When told what to expect, we often form perceptions that match that expectation. Our perceptions often persist, even when we know that they were formed in this manner.

And there is the fear factor. And the outrage. And the frustration when people do not agree with you, although you believe it is obvious.

There have been many claims of evil in toyland. You might remember a few years ago, when the Teletubbies were under fire because a talking Po doll seemed to say, “Faggot, Faggot”. So, Po is a bigot even though, according to Reverend Jerry Falwell, his buddy Tinky Winky is gay.

Last year Wal-Mart pulled a doll from their shelves because of a complaint that the Doll said “Islam is the light”. Watch this ominous video about a woman who, after taking the doll away from one child, found the same message in a video game she bought for another child. Notice that the report, a broadcast from Indiana, calls it a “discovery” and does not address the question of intention or reality AT ALL.

Yes, it’s eerie that the doll and game sound the same, however, the source of the baby-talk audio may be the same. Both the doll and the game were designed to mimic a baby speaking little more than jibberish.

So, you can blame Fisher Price. You can call Elmo a pervert and conjure up a conspiracy theory. But the evidence says otherwise.


In December I blogged about this case of Hannah Montana’s secret plan to turn young girls into… well… you decide.

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