The Scary Thing That Happens When You Repeatedly Hear A Lie

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There was a time when pathological lying was not acceptable. Anyone who was knowingly spreading false information was de-platformed and had their reputation destroyed.

With the blow-up of social media, many people who might have previously been deemed a pathological liar were given a voice and millions to bombard with their "truths."

There are millions of famous people, politicians, and "influencers" who have built a captive audience of followers, stans, fans, and friends around the world and say exactly what’s on their minds, true or false.

Somehow, hearing assertions from people you admire and respect makes those lies easier to process and creates an air of perceived truthfulness. This can develop into a tendency to believe false information.

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The influx of messaging and data coming from all directions makes it harder to vet the truthfulness of each statement. Repeated exposure to the same false information can give people illusions of truth.

What is the illusory truth effect?

The illusory truth effect, or the illusion of truth, is a term that describes the fact that hearing the same false information over and over can make the person receiving it start to believe it to be true.

The term was first described in a 1977 paper by Lynn Hasher and David Goldstein entitled, “Frequency and the Conference of Referential Validity.”

Hasher and Goldstein gave a group of 60 students a range of statements on various subjects familiar to the study participants. The statements were objective and factual, not opinion-based.

The students were asked to rate their certainty to the questions three times in a span of two weeks.

Researchers did not repeat the first 10 or last 10 items on the list of statements, but all others were delivered repetitiously.

Every time a participant heard the mistruths, they became more confident in their validity. Familiarity with the comments seemed to enhance their confidence in their truthfulness.

TikToker Ryan McNeill shares more on this phenomenon, also known as Truth by Repetition (TBR).



Why does truth by repetition happen?

The short answer to why the illusory truth effect happens is processing fluency. Thinking is a lot of work for our brains, using up about 20% of our energy.

Whenever possible, the brain takes shortcuts in order to preserve that energy. The recurring statements get easier and easier to process due to familiarization.

To go a step further, in an article titled “Effects of Perceptual Fluency and Judgments of Truth," Rolf Reber and Norbert Schwarz found that information presented in easy-to-read colors and good penmanship were more easily accepted as true.

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What are the effects of the illusory truth effect?

There have been no more prevalent times than now to witness the illusory truth effect. In the world of social media, influencers are able to get followers and fans to believe anything once they are loyal.

Since 2020, there have been numerous cases where online personalities were outed for telling white lies, scamming followers, or making up a lie to avoid repercussions.

Conspiracies are a form of illusory truth, and what better example is there than Alex Jones’ denial of the Sandy Hook shooting? There were millions that believed it never happened.

This conspiracy theory spread like wildfire, causing the families of the victims to be harassed, threatened and traumatized. Eventually, Jones was order to pay $1 billion in damages to those parents.

And who can forget the media and press reign of Donald Trump? After building his public persona for decades, Trump amassed a devoted fanbase that would follow him through his presidency and beyond.

Trump coined the term "fake news" to discount anything negative floating around about him. The irony is that even when the reporting was true, he cast doubt by simply labeling it fake news and attacking the media.

As a matter of fact, Trump’s relationship with the truth and the news media was so unnecessarily tense, it has changed how and where people get their news — and not for the better.

Then, there is propaganda that dictators and people in power use this psychology to control the masses. By playing on the public’s fears, hopes, and biases through strategic messaging, their actions and behaviors can be heavily influenced.

How To Avoid Falling Victim To The Illusory Truth Effect

The constant onslaught of information and ideals coming from all directions makes it difficult to decipher what is true from what is make-believe. But there are some steps you can take to protect yourself.

1. Be selective about the information you take in.

The best way to combat the illusory truth effect is to monitor and filter that information you take in.

Like our diets, data can have a positive or negative effect on our overall health. And just like anything else, it is possible to consume too much news and business that is not yours.

Find a few trustworthy sources and limit how much time and energy you invest in them.

2. Be mindful of what you hear and see.

Most of the information we take in on a day-to-day basis is consumed passively. That means we observe it while on the bus, in line at the grocery store, or in passing.

Mindfulness means we are present in the moment and thinking critically. Consider the source and don’t take anything you see or hear at face value. Do your own homework and trust yourself over and above anyone else.

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NyRee Ausler is a writer from Seattle, Washington, and author of seven books. She covers lifestyle and entertainment and news, as well as navigating the workplace and social issues.