Contradictheory: How lies can become truth

  • Living
  • Sunday, 20 Sep 2020

An example of how repeating a lie can get people to accept it is Trump’s mantra that Covid-19 is ‘a little bit like the flu’ earlier in 2020. Thanks to repetition, his supporters were calling the pandemic a hoax as late as August 2020 and refusing to wear masks. — AFP

During my school sports days when I was young, I would look forward to a particular van and its free, icy-cold chocolate drink. It was so delicious that after getting and downing my tiny cup, I would happily rejoin the queue for a second. (And a third, if the drinks hadn’t run out yet – they were popular!)

The fact that that drink was available on sports day, and that the advertising would show kids playing sports, and the motto even touted health benefits would make you believe the drink was a healthy one, good for growing, active children.

Well, perhaps the key word here is “active”. You’ll need to burn off 40gm of sugar for every 100gm of the drink. In fact, the drink made news a few years ago when the Australian government dropped the product’s Health Star rating from 4.5 (out of 5) because that rating assumed the drink was made with skimmed milk, which is not how most people consume it. Nevertheless, I know that when I see the product, I still subconsciously associate it with sports days and a jingle about healthy living. That’s what four decades of repeated messaging does to you.

Another example of repeated messaging, although over a much shorter period, is that Covid-19 is “a little bit like the flu”. This has been the mantra of US President Donald Trump since February of this year.

Since then, the idea that he was just misinformed and mistaken rather than outright lying has been blown out of the water by journalist Bob Woodward who reveals in his latest book, Rage (Simon & Schuster), that the president had confided in him in early February about how serious he knew it was. He had been briefed by officials about the coronavirus and had sombrely admitted at the time, “This is deadly stuff”.

The thing is this. Everyone knows enough really not to trust politicians. I think politicians, in their heart, know that the default position of the public is to not trust them. So why do they even try to offer opinions on anything? Maybe it’s because they know that if you repeat something often enough, people will start believing it.

There was an experiment conducted in 1977 by Hasher Lynn, David Goldstein and Thomas Toppino, in which subjects were given a list of statements to evaluate as true or false. The statements were pieces of trivial knowledge of relatively obscure facts, eg, “The thigh bone is the longest bone in the human body”, or “The capybara is the largest of marsupials” (only one of these two statements is true).

The subjects took the test three times, waiting two weeks in between. Crucially, some of the questions in the second and third tests were repeats of what was in the first test. You may already have guessed what the result was: People were more likely to mark statements that were repeated as “true” in later tests. If you see something familiar, you’re more likely to believe it’s true.

The way it works is that your brain seems to accept something is true if it doesn’t have to work so hard to process it. Research done by Rolf Reber and Nobert Schwarz from the University of Michigan in 1999 found that participants were more likely to say a statement was true if the words of the sentence were in a more visible colour (eg blue or red) as opposed to a less contrasting one (eg green, yellow or light blue).

It’s as if the effort needed to work out what is being said creates doubt in the mind of the reader. But then again, most marketers know that a catchy slogan or a jingle is more convincing than a wall of dull factual text (like how a certain drink might be healthy, for example).

What does this have to do with repeats? Well, if a piece of information is continually repeated, it becomes easier to digest it, and after a while it becomes familiar enough that the brain goes from asking “why?” to “why not?”. This is known as “the familiarity explanation”. (Note: This effect only happens when you’re unsure if something is true or not. With facts you are absolutely sure of, being fluent in reading them has no impact.)

So a strategy some people take when confronted is to continually repeat a lie. After a while it either becomes true, or it doesn’t matter because it’s replaced by a new lie.

How do we get around this? The short answer is to note that the same also happens for true statements: If you repeat it, it’s more likely to be accepted as true.

You can kind of see it happening in the United States. Despite the president’s attempts to muddy the facts about Covid-19, a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation says that only 40% of the US public trust Trump “a great deal” or “a fair amount” to provide reliable information about the coronavirus.

In a large part, this must be due to the idea that Trump is just wrong or lying when it comes to Covid-19 – a simple message consistently presented by the Democrats. However, it must be noted that only 51% say they trust Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden, while Dr Anthony Fauci (director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the public face of the pandemic in the United States) earns the trust of 68%. The conflicting messages from the Republicans and Democrats have divided the nation.

The messages we hear, especially during election campaigns, are themselves a conflicting mess. I think it’s convenient to dismiss them all wholesale and just not care about any of them. But as seen in the United States, lies can cost lives and they can cause grief. Sometimes they can be reconciled (you can drink something that is delicious while knowing it’s unhealthy), but sometimes you just have to battle on and keep repeating the truth.

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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Dzof Azmi , lying , psychology , Trump , election


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