March 15, 2006

The Recency Principle Lives

One of the things that seems to characterize many of the tape recorded, surreptitious undercover conversations I've analyzed in court cases over the years is the recency principle. Often when cops bring up something that might incriminate a suspect, they quickly switch to a different, benign topic or two before the suspect even has a chance to respond to the potentially  incriminating one. Most of the time suspects answer the most recent topic on the table. Unless they are very alert, the cop's initial bad topic often gets lost in the ebb and flow of  conversation. People tend to respond to the most recent one. I call this the "hit and run" strategy of undercover cops (Creating Language Crimes Oxford, 2006). In cases where tapes are the evidence, even if the target makes no comment at all about the bad stuff, it's on the tape for later listeners such as juries to hear. They don't know about the recency principle. All they know is that some incriminating information is there and what's on the tape looks very bad for the suspect.

Unless this strategy is exposed by a linguist, the undercover cop's use of the recency principle works pretty well to bring convictions in criminal cases. Only recently have I thought  much about how it works in politics and world events. Now it occurs to me that it may be going on right now before our very eyes. As of today at least, the recent flap over control of the US ports is the current centerpiece for judging federal incompetence. It causes us to concentrate less on the increasingly long series of other recent political flaps, such as the Cheney hunting event, which in turn made us concentrate less on the illegal wiretapping issue, which made us concentrate less on the Katrina incompetence, which made us concentrate less on the prison atrocities, which made us concentrate less on going to war in the first place. Makes me wonder if our government is on the way the recency principle works. It's hard to believe that our bungling leaders deliberately create new goofs to make us respond only to the most recent ones and cause us forget the original incompetence that started it all. But it bears an eerie similarity to what cops do in undercover tape cases--the good old "hit and run strategy," only on a much larger scale.

Posted by Roger Shuy at March 15, 2006 11:47 AM