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The Scary Power of Mere Repetition

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Originally posted on July 25, 2016.

We’ve heard the name-calling over and again: “Low energy Jeb.” “Lyin’ Ted.” “Crooked Hillary.” If repeated often enough, do such smears, independent of facts, shape public opinion?

In his 60 Minutes interview with Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine (July 24, 2016), Scott Pelley recalled talking with a man who said he would vote Clinton, “‘except for that corruption problem.’ As I talked to him further, he didn't quite know what he meant by that. But that was his impression and concern.”

Clinton’s reply: “There's been a concerted effort to convince people like that young man of something, nobody's quite sure what, but of something.”

Persuasion researchers understand how mantras such as “Lyin’ Ted” or “Crooked Hillary” might come to be believed based on repetition alone. In experiments, mere repetition tends to make things believable. Repeated statements—“The Cadillac Seville has the best repair record”—become easy to process and remember, and thus to seem more true.

Social psychologists have found such findings “scary.” And for good reason. The mere repetition effect is well understood by political manipulators. Easy-to-remember lies can overwhelm hard truths. Even repeatedly saying that a consumer claim is false can backfire. When the discounting is presented amid other true and false claims, it may lead older adults later to misremember it as true. As they forget the discounting, their lingering familiarity with the claim can make it seem believable.

In the political realm, correct information may similarly fail to discount implanted misinformation. Thus, in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, false rumors—that Obama was Kenyan born, that Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years—resisted efforts at disconfirmation, which sometimes helped make the falsehood seem familiar and thus true.

George Orwell’s world of Nineteen Eighty-Four harnessed the controlling power of mere repetition. “Freedom is slavery.” “Ignorance is strength.” “War is peace.” Is the mind-shaping world of Nineteen Eighty-Four akin to the world of 2016? What say you?

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).