Updated: Mar 20
If you’ve talked to anyone who hears the infamous Yanny/Laurel audio clip differently from you, it may have ended up in a shouting match: “Laurel!” “Yanny!” “Laaw-rruhlll!!” “YIIEEAAH-NAAAYY!!”
And if you’ve recently discussed politics with anyone who views the subject differently from you, it probably didn’t end well either.
How do we bring our political discourse back from the brink of extreme polarization? And what can the Yanny-Laurel debate teach us that could possibly be relevant to this issue?
Great thinkers in history have learned deep lessons from sensory illusions. In the early 16th century, the Dutch philosopher Erasmus noted that optical illusions can fool us into perceiving things that aren’t really there – and that therefore we should have humility about our beliefs. From this starting point, Erasmus made arguments which laid the foundations for religious tolerance – 200 years before the Enlightenment – which we now take for granted.
So maybe the Yanny-Laurel (or is it Laurel-Yanny?) clip can teach us about political tolerance.
Here are the characteristics of our Yanny-Laurel debates that make them so frustrating:
We clearly hear one word or the other – not an ambiguous combination. Our brains, at an unconscious level, like to resolve ambiguity and create cohesion – so they pick one word and stick with it.
We can’t understand why other people hear it differently. Even if we read explanations from linguists and neuroscientists, and even if we try to hear it the opposite way, we hear the clip our way when we listen to it, and it seems just as unambiguous as before.
We can’t break it down into simpler parts. By the time the sound reaches our conscious minds, the ambiguity has already been resolved. Most of us can’t go down one level to debate whether the sound is velarized or sonorant to reach the source of the disagreement.
There’s ambiguity in the question. If we’re asking about what the speaker intended to say, then the answer is Laurel. But the clip is a distorted, low-quality recording of a computerized voice that has its quirks. So if we’re asking what it sounds like, then how can there be an objective answer, other than what it sounds like to us?
Luckily, we found a good way to resolve the Laurel-Yanny debate, or at least reach mutual understanding. If you’ve played around with the New York Times’ frequency slider, you know that by playing around with the pitch, you can make your brain switch to hearing the opposite version of the clip – and then you have trouble switching back to the original way you heard it! This is called a Gestalt shift.
There are a few lessons we can learn from this experience:
Intellectual humility. Just like Erasmus, we must learn that our beliefs and perceptions may be wrong, and that we should therefore hold on to them gently, be open to changing our minds, and tolerate other points of view.
There are techniques and tools we can use to understand the other side. You might think you’d need more than a pitch modulator to understand your political opponents – but you’d be surprised: research has found that modulating political candidates’ voices to have a lower pitch actually makes people more likely to vote for them. But maybe a better technique for understanding the other side would be to read their news sources and books, or listen to their podcasts. Perspectives is a powerful new tool from the Constructive Dialogue Institute, designed specifically for this purpose of depolarizing political debates. You’ll know you’ve succeeded once you’re ready to pass the Ideological Turing Test – articulate the other side’s position so clearly that people can’t tell you don’t believe in it.
Try to break it down into simpler parts. As you explore the fundamental reasons why you believe what you believe or see the world the way you do, you will better understand yourself and construct a more explicit model of the world – and you may find some unjustified assumptions that need to be corrected. You can use the double-crux technique from the Center for Applied Rationality to trace your beliefs back with someone to find the point of disagreement. Even if you can’t resolve the debate, you can at least clarify what facts or values need further examination.
Sharpen the question. The more precise the question is, the harder it is for us to answer it based on our tribal loyalties and biased preconceptions. For example, I got into an argument with a friend over gun control. Since we couldn’t agree on whether guns cause homicides, we decided to make a bet about whether gun ownership is correlated with homicides. Turns out even this question was still too vague – it depends on what factors you control for.
At the end of the day, most of us will continue to be Yanny-hearers or Laurel-hearers, Democrats or Republicans, and hold to our existing perceptions and worldviews. But we have to get past the shouting and incredulity at each other’s stupidity. If we can kick the level of discourse up a notch and start exploring areas of disagreement, understanding the other side, and questioning our assumptions, then we will have achieved something great.
Do you want to keep educating yourself on this subject? Learn to spot and overcome your biases completing our political test.