We're more inclined to believe statements if we've heard them before, even if there's no truth to them. Confusing familiarity with truth can lead to interpersonal problems and conflict, as I explored in last week's Southern Star. The column is reproduced below.
'A reliable way to make people believe a lie is frequent repetition’, says cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman, ‘because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth’.
Marketers, propagandists and politicians like Donald Trump have long instinctively understood Kahneman’s message. It’s a disheartening message but a very important one. We like to think our beliefs – about ourselves and others – rest on objective foundations, but that’s often not the case.
Lies, distortions and misconceptions get repeated; after a certain amount of time, they become so familiar that they get mistaken for long-established truths.
It may sound simplistic to say that merely repeating a message makes us more inclined to believe it, but a mountain of research confirms this point. Experiments show people rate statements that have only been repeated once as more believable than statements they have heard for the first time. This is true even if the person making the statements has been repeatedly lying, and it occurs even if people are warned in advance that repeated statements are no more likely to be true than unrepeated statements (continued below)...
One study showed that even if you know a false statement to be untrue, you’re more likely to doubt yourself if the falsehood is repeated. For example, it showed people who had correctly answered that the Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean in the world nevertheless would often go on to agree with the statement “The Atlantic Ocean is the largest ocean on Earth”. ‘Repetition makes statements easier to process’ the researchers said, and therefore to the ‘false conclusion that they are more truthful’. This occurred ‘even when participants knew better’.
Similarly, people should be aware of the “saying-is-believing” effect. Imagine your boss asks for your opinion on a subject, and you already know his opinion on the issue. What would you do? Most people will take their boss’s opinion into account and then tailor and tune their opinion accordingly. It’s perfectly rational to play it safe in a case like that. What’s less rational is that as time passes, we tend to end up believing what we said – even if we were simply telling people what they wanted to hear.
A similar dynamic occurs in conversations with friends, family and loved ones. When asked for their views on someone or something, people generally look for cues as to what others think and then respond accordingly. “We have a fundamental need to experience a shared reality with others”, as one study concluded. All too often, this desire for common ground leads people to tell each other what they what to hear. Over time, half-truths get repeated and upheld; familiarity and the saying-is-believing effect mean the constant verbalising of these beliefs results in them being accepted as truth, even if the reality is much more complicated.
All of us have motivational biases. Sometimes, these biases are blatant. More often, they operate more subtly, allowing people to employ different but seemingly reasonable standards to come to the conclusion that suits them.
These thinking and motivational biases are problematic in two instances. Firstly, interpersonal and familial conflict can arise. One sure way of bonding with others is by sharing gossip and accepting invitations to criticise a third party, and the net result is that unhealthy coalitions and alliances are created. It would be nice to think we reach our opinions objectively, but the reality is a myriad of factors – our biases and motives, our self-image and self-confidence, our happiness or lack of – shape our opinions.
The second instance is when negative opinions and criticisms are directed not at others, but at ourselves. I’ve noted previously in this column that low self-esteem often resembles a prejudice against the self, with people being quick to spot apparent mistakes that confirm their negative self-image while dismissing evidence that points to their qualities.
The solution? Firstly, check your motives. Secondly, challenge those familiar thoughts. Thought records are a staple of cognitive behavioural therapy and help you weigh up the evidence dispassionately, looking for evidence that both confirms and disconfirms your thoughts and opinions.
With CBT, the goal is not positive thinking, but balanced thinking. Ultimately, life is better when you’re truly honest with yourself.