Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Speech Errors during Administration of the United States Presidential Oath of Office: When Memory Fails

Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Speech Errors during Administration of the United States Presidential Oath of Office: When Memory Fails

Article excerpt

Every four years, the United States of America elects a president in November, and the winner is sworn in three months later on January 20. Central to this event is the administration of the Presidential Oath of Office by the Chief Justice. From the Constitution of the United States Article 2, Section 1, Clause 8, here is the official text:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

In the vast majority of oaths "swear" is chosen over "affirm". All mention the new President by name, usually in this manner: "I, NAME, do solemnly swear.....". In addition, the President-elect ends by stating "So help me God." It is not clear when this practice began, but in a reply to a federal lawsuit, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that "So help me God" is separate from the official oath, and follows it. Seventy-five oaths (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oath_of_office_of_the_President_of_the_United_Sta tes) have been taken. Information is available for 30 (see Table 1). Beginning in 1933 with President-elect Hoover and ending in 2017 with President-elect Trump, 28 can be seen or heard on a YouTube video compilation (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vGQDBbO-fg). One of these (1945, President-elect Truman) is silent but has been briefly described in a list of oaths with administrative errors and two others before 1933 also appear in this list (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oath_of_office_of_the_President_of_the_United_Sta tes).

From the YouTube compilation, there are four cases in which the Chief Justice did not administer the oath. Only the President-elect cited it. The remaining 24 videos show six variations in the procedure: presence or absence of (i) a warning about being ready, (ii) what to do with the hands, (iii) "repeat after me", and (iv) reading (Chief Justice and the President-elect both read, Chief Justice reads, neither reads). Finally, (v) the Chief Justice has broken down the oath into four, five, six, seven or eight segments, and (vi) has used the third person ("you") or the first person ("I") when reciting the oath.

Logically, it would seem that speech errors are more likely to occur with less reading and fewer segments (i.e. more words per segment), a combination that imposes a greater burden on memory. The purpose of this paper is to examine this issue.

Theory: Remembering and Speech Acts

In Atkinson and Shiffrin's (1969) long-established memory theory, the two major stores are the short-term store (sometimes referred to as short-term memory), and the long-term store (or long-term memory). In short-term memory, information lasts for about 30 seconds without rehearsal. In long-term memory, information is stored permanently. According to Atkinson and Shiffrin, failure to recall from long-term memory is a problem of retrieval.

During the administration of the Presidential oath, memory may be involved at two stages. First, if the Chief Justice does not read the oath, it must be retrieved from long-term memory. Errors could accrue from incorrect storage, from faulty retrieval or from both. Second, if the President-elect does not read the oath, it must be retrieved from short-term memory, based on what the Chief Justice has just said. As noted above, various combinations have occurred: both read (no memory involved), the Chief Justice reads (short-term memory for the President-elect), or neither read (long-term memory for the Chief Justice and short-term memory for the President-elect).

Studies of errors in recall have demonstrated that retrieval from long-term memory is a reconstructive process. This is shown by evidence that mistakes may reflect past experiences stored as memory "schemas" (Bartlett, 1932; Brewer & Treyens, 1981). In other research, if a list has a common theme, the name of the theme may be falsely recalled even though it did not appear on the list (Roediger & McDermott, 1995). …

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