Repetition: The Key to Spreading Lies

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We'd all like to believe that facts trump falsehoods, but unfortunately this is often not the case. Misinformation is easy to believe, and even easier to spread. An untruth can be repeated into reality by simply bombarding the public via advertisements, news, and social media. It's that easy.

Psychologists are demonstrating that

repetition is the prime conduit for shaping beliefs. In the 1940s, Floyd Allport and Milton Lepkin conducted pioneering research demonstrating that newspapers could

be used to boost morale for the war effort. By repeating positive

headlines, even if they were misleading with the details, the public would believe that events are going smoothly, and would thus stand firmly behind the cause. The tactic worked to great effect.

Over time, studies have shown that repetition leads to familiarity, which is the key to fostering belief. In a 2007 paper published in the journal Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Doctor Norbert Schwarz, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, had this to say:

Perceived familiarity exerts the observed influence because, under natural conditions, frequent exposure to an opinion is often a valid cue that many people share it, providing the social consensus information that figures prominently in Festinger's ''secondary reality tests." Moreover, daily conversational conduct is based on the assumption that communicated information is truthful and relevant (Grice, 1975), again fostering acceptance, in particular when it seems that one has ''heard this repeatedly.''
Unfortunately, once familiar misinformation is embedded into our psyche, it can be incredibly difficult to dislodge. Prior research from Schwarz has found that attempting to debunk myths by presenting contradicting facts can easily backfire. In one study, researchers hung up fliers listing myths about the flu vaccine and corresponding facts contradicting them. Three days later, participants who had read the flier reported less favorable attitudes towards the vaccination than control participants who hadn't read the flier. The research indicated that any repetition of misinformation -- even if the purpose is to debunk -- can serve to perpetuate it.

This means that those fighting for the spread of truth -- scientists and educators, for example -- have to perform a delicate tap-dance when it comes to quelling misinformation, as any actual mention of the misinformation could hinder their honest pursuits.

Or they could just forget the tap dance and, instead, play the game: If you want the public to believe something, just yell it louder, say it simpler, and repeat it more often than anybody else.


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