A billboard typo recently submitted by the South Bend Indiana school district contained a typo that was both amusing and thought provoking for motorists passing by. The billboard accidentally replaced the word ‘Public’ with the word ‘Pubic’ dropping the incredibly important L in the sentence. But other than being fairly strange and even funny, the typo actually reveals an interesting mechanism about human psychology and how we interpret language.
Some people when they read an ordinary paragraph notice typos standing out at them like fed flags, but others find that these errors don’t jump out at them the same way. And certain characters come out more quickly than others to reviewers. So when the Blue Waters Group, the public relations firm now taking full responsibility for the error, came forward revealing they had failed to discover the error, they were quickly the subject of ridicule and jokes. But there is actually a psychological mechanism by which even editors can miss typographical errors. The fact that the short message went through four different professional editors before going up certainly doesn’t help matters.
The cognitive association of context with words gives the reader an impression of what a word should mean. Research at Cambridge University has suggested that this context is the cornerstone of much of our cognitive process. Has someone ever started a sentence in your presence and given you a clear impression of what every word that will follow will be? It’s not necessarily a psychic impulse. In fact, it may be quite easy to understand as context gives the mind a shortcut to communication allowing it to focus on communication’s more mentally taxing elements.
And this newest typo may provide more insight than a simple amusing anecdote to tell over the water cooler. Is it possible that context is gathered so quickly that the mind actually understands it long before it reads each individual word? Several who have subsequently seen the sign have noted that they read it several times as ‘Public School’ before it occurred to them that a misspelling was there.
And there is the phenomenon by which people find it easy to read words that are scrambled as long as the first and last letters are in the same place.
“As Lnog as the Fsirt and Lsat Ltetres Reiamn, It Is Esay To Raed Jlumbed Mssegaes.”
Of course this becomes significantly more difficult as the words themselves increase in size or obscurity.
But as social or psychological experiments were not the purpose of the sign’s creation, it was torn down in mere hours to be replaced with a new corrected sign. So was this error nothing more than evidence of a major mistake that got through four editors by coincidence? Or can we discover more by studying the effects and speed which context is metabolized by the brain.
Obviously another aspect of the story was that the sign was touting the importance and quality of public schools and yet itself contained a typographical error (and an unintentionally crude one) on it. And of course there is the Freudian interpretation suggesting a subconsciously dirty mind may have been at work, but this is far too easy to suggest and difficult to prove. And it would suggest all typographical errors had some deeper meaning.