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To make anything become like the truth: just say it, again, and again.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“Eating carrots improves your eyesight.”
“Vitamin C cures the common cold.”
“Crime is at an all-time high.”
“Women have been oppressed for two thousand years.”
“‘Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth’, is a saying invented by the Nazi Joseph Goebbels.

None of these things are true, yet most people believe them.

Recently, Tom Golden of Men Are Good wondered aloud why we are so willing to believe badly of all men, while assuming all women are wonderful.

There are man studies like the 1979 one by Brock and Queen’s Universities ⇩1Journal of Experimental Psychology Learning Memory and Cognition; January 1979; Credibility of repeated statements: Memory for trivia; John Mitterer and Grant T Harris which illustrate the ‘illusion of truth’ effect of repetition and familiarity.

…participants rate how true trivia items are, things like “A prune is a dried plum”. Sometimes these items are true (like that one), but sometimes participants see a parallel version which isn’t true (something like “A date is a dried plum”).

After a break – of minutes or even weeks – the participants do the procedure again, but this time some of the items they rate are new, and some they saw before in the first phase. The key finding is that people tend to rate items they’ve seen before as more likely to be true, regardless of whether they are true or not, and seemingly for the sole reason that they are more familiar.

Tom Stafford, BBC Future

Sales marketers, advertisers and politicians are masters of manipulating our cognitive bias towards the familiar. And the familiar doesn’t have to be factual to become the accepted truth.

Repetition is what makes fake news work, too, as researchers at Central Washington University pointed out in a study way back in 2012 before the term was everywhere. It’s also a staple of political propaganda. It’s why flacks feed politicians and CEOs sound bites that they can say over and over again. Not to go all Godwin’s Law on you, but even Adolf Hitler knew about the technique. “Slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea,” he wrote in Mein Kampf.

The effect works because when people attempt to assess truth they rely on two things: whether the information jibes with their understanding, and whether it feels familiar. The first condition is logical: People compare new information with what they already know to be true and consider the credibility of both sources. But researchers have found that familiarity can trump rationality—so much so that hearing over and over again that a certain fact is wrong can have a paradoxical effect. It’s so familiar that it starts to feel right.

Emily Dreyfuss, Wired

Men have been given a bad image by those following the tactic of repetition. They haven’t cared that it is not the truth: it becomes so.

One study asked participants to rate how true each statement seemed on a six-point scale. The more the researchers exposed the information the higher the participants rated it on the scale, increasing the odds that a statement would be categorised as true. Old-time teachers knew this one and our grandparents would have sat in class chanting through the times table, historic dates, and more, just getting the information sunk in.

Another study exposed participants to a range of true and not true statements, all given the same weight regardless of the facts. It didn’t matter if the statements that were fact or fiction, or even if the participant could be expected to know the reality beforehand, repetition made them all seem more believable.

Oddly, complaining about it can do the opposite to what is desired, as it repeats the original lie. This is a propaganda coup, since getting people to ask if something is the truth (were the Twin Towers destroyed by planes?) actually reinforces that it is the truth.

All it takes to remove the lie is to follow the same tactic of repetition to put facts back in the position of truth.

Men are good!


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