How Lies Can Become the “Truth”: A Warning For Democracies
The spread of misinformation over recent years poses huge dangers, and has so far proven extremely difficult to bring under control. Psychological research has revealed much of what brings people to believe false information, but the full picture is still far from complete, and new findings are bringing to light yet more factors that may maintain this problem.
The essence of the research indicates that if falsehoods are repeated often enough, they can become believed as the truth.
In an study by Doris Lacassagne and colleagues, published in the journal Cognition showed that “A single exposure to statements is typically enough to increase their perceived truth. This Truth-by-Repetition (TBR) effect has long been assumed to occur only with statements whose truth value is unknown to participants. Contrary to this hypothesis, recent research found a TBR effect with statements known to be false. We observed a TBR effect: truth judgments were higher for repeated statements than for new ones — even if all statements were still judged as false.”
In the first phase of the experiment, these participants were presented with eight of a possible 16 statements rated as very implausible by participants from a previous study. These included outlandish claims such as “Elephants weigh less than ants” and “Smoking is good for your lungs”, as well as perhaps more plausible claims (at least for an American sample) such as “Rugby is the sport associated with Wimbledon.”
Participants were asked to rate how interesting they found the eight presented statements, and were advised that they may be asked to rate the same statement multiple times. These statements were presented randomly, and repeated five times each, resulting in 40 trials overall.
Immediately after this, participants were randomly shown all 16 statements — eight of which they had seen repeatedly in the previous phase, and eight of which were new. They were asked to rate how true they felt each statement was, on a scale from −50 (“definitely false”) to +50 (“definitely true”).
Analyses of responses showed that repeating the implausible statements influenced participants’ truth ratings. While all ratings of truthfulness were still well into negative territory, statements that had been shown repeatedly were overall perceived to be less false than newly presented statements. Statements that were arguably less extreme (but still highly implausible), such as “A monsoon is caused by an earthquake”, were most subject to TBR effects.
Further digging also uncovered distinct patterns between participants: 53% showed a positive TBR effect, with their ratings sliding towards truth after statements were repeated,
Previous research has indicated people are exposed every day to a large amount of information, some of which is false and sometimes seems highly implausible. In general, repeated exposure to a given piece of information increases its believability. This Truth- by-Repetition (TBR) effect is robust and has been demonstrated hundreds of times. A prominent theory is based on processing fluency repeated statements are easier to process than new ones, and this processing fluency is used as a cue for truth. Typically, the TBR effect is demonstrated using only one previous exposure, but additional exposures may lead to a larger TBReffect.
L.K. Fazio also examined this phenomenon and published the results in Collabra: Psychology. She found that “People are more likely to think that false statements are true when they are repeated. In fact, people continue to rely on these proximal cues, such as repetition, even when they have access to more direct signals of truth such as prior knowledge and source reliability. That is, while people pay attention to cues such as prior knowledge and source credibility when judging truth, they are also affected by proximal cues such as repetition.”
This research may explain why such a signficant percentage of people believe the Trump/GOP lies that the 2020 election was rigged and that Biden did not win, lies that have been continuously repeated, or previously, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, a lie that was spread by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq and believed by the majority of the American politicians, public and media.
It also is a historical forewarning given by George Orwell in his book, 1984, where repeated lies by the country’s leader became the “truth,” and was the weapon to destroy democracy.