Dispatch Column: Repetition Creates an Illusion of Truth in our Minds

On March 28, the Columbus Dispatch ran this column by Lisa Fazio. I feel it is so important and true that we all need to remind ourselves of this. Do you agree?


“In one of his radio addresses, Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth.” Unfortunately, he was wrong.

Repetition does affect what we believe, and this quirk of human nature is now threatening our democracy. In an age where politicians tell — and repeat — easily disprovable lies all the time, we need to be more careful than ever not to throw fuel on the fire.

I should know: I’m a psychologist who specializes in the science of misinformation.

More than 100 research studies in the past 40 years, including my own, have all found the same thing — repetition increases belief. When people hear a statement twice, they’re more likely to believe that it’s true as compared to when they’ve only heard it once. Researchers call this the “illusory truth effect.”

Research studies have found illusory truth effects for trivia statements, political opinions, product information, even false news headlines. It occurs when the statements are repeated immediately or across multiple weeks.

Most important, while our prior knowledge helps us decide which statements are true or false, it does not protect us from the illusory truth effect. Repetition increases perceived truth even when the statement contradicts what we already know. For example, college students who heard the false statement, “A wasp is an insect that makes honey,” twice were more likely to say that it’s true than if they only heard it once.

On average, things that you hear multiple times are more likely to be true than something that you are hearing for the first time. But when false statements are pervasive, lies win.

Unfortunately, we now live in such a society — one where some falsehoods are repeated just as often as the truth. And while misinformation and lying politicians have always been a problem, modern technology allows these falsehoods to be spread faster and farther than ever before.

Part of the responsibility for fixing this problem lies with the media. Headlines and tweets should never report false statements without identifying them as false.

A recent study by Media Matters examined the Twitter posts of major media outlets over a three-week period during the summer of 2019. There were 653 tweets that referenced a false claim made by President Donald Trump. Half of the tweets did not mention that the information was false or misleading. Given that most people simply read a headline or social media post without clicking through to the full article, the news media are exposing readers to false information.

To be sure, reporters have a responsibility to report on and refute politicians’ falsehoods, but they also need to be aware of the risk of making the falsehoods more believable with repetition. It is irresponsible to simply repeat the false statements without indicating that they are incorrect.

Individuals also can play a role in improving the quality of information we see. We control what spreads on social media and can be responsible for what we share and publicize. We’ve found that simply asking people to pause and think about how they know that a headline is true or false reduces their intention to share false information.

You can try to implement that pause in your own social media habits. In addition, don’t share stories without reading them first, and double-check information when it feels too good to be true.

We would all like to live in Roosevelt’s world where repetition does not affect what we believe. But the fact is, it does, so we all — journalists and average citizens alike — need to be careful about what we repeat.”

Lisa Fazio is an assistant professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University.

So important to remember in these times!  Stay safe!


About Advanced Reading Concepts

President and co-founder of Advanced Reading Concepts Speed Reading Plus, I'm passionate about helping people reach their career and education goals through superior reading skills.
This entry was posted in critical thinking, decision making, information, journalism, Listening, reading, skepticism, speed reading and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Dispatch Column: Repetition Creates an Illusion of Truth in our Minds

  1. Terry says:

    Hi Bonnie! Nice to read your post today. I don’t think we’ll ever get everyone to double-check the facts. We are a lazy lot. 🙄


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