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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Politicians Love Repeating Lies: The Illusion of Truth

Why do politicians repeat the same messages endlessly? Can just repeating a persuasive message  greatly increase its effect? Psychological research has found support for the "illusion of truth" effect again and again:

Repetition is one of the easiest and
most widespread methods of persuasion.

People tend to rate statements that have been repeated just once as more valid or true than things they've heard for the first time. Familiarity breeds liking.

People even rate statements as truer
when the person saying them has been repeatedly lying.

(Begg, el al., 1992)

And, believe me, intelligent politicians know about effective strategies to manipulate the truth. They know there's not much difference between actual truth and the illusion of truth. So, the mindset for shady politicians seeking office is to project and magnify the perception of truth. Since illusions are often easier to produce, why would they bother with the truth?

Of course, if something is hard to comprehend, then most people tend to believe it less. This makes it very difficult for anyone trying to earnestly persuade others of complicated ideas in a very complicated world. So, politicians like to use repetition; however, they understand the value of the old wisdom of KISS -- Keep It Super Simple when explaining issues and beliefs. This relieves the voters' burdens of thinking and thoroughly understanding solutions to difficult concerns.

Some studies have even tested how many times a message should be repeated for maximum effect. These suggest that people have the maximum confidence in an idea after it has been repeated between 3 and 5 times. (Brinol et al., 2008) After that, repetition ceases to have the same effect and may even reverse. Over-familiarity breeds content. For this reason, political advertisers now use subtle variations in ads to recapture voters' attention.

But, what if a politician has a simple argument that is fundamentally weak? If people listen carefully (Oh yeah, like that's happening.), it's no good to repeat a weak argument.  But if the audience isn't motivated to scrutinise arguments carefully, they will still find the repeated argument more familiar and, therefore, more persuasive.

And, the sad truth is, sometimes politicians with the arguments based on best truths don't repeat them enough.
Instead, the "loudest voice," even if it is NOT
the most truthful voice, usually equals the majority opinion.

Think about a town hall meeting and how repetition can override reason.When one person in the group repeats their opinion a few times, the other people think that person's opinion is more representative of the whole group. They tend to follow blindly the lead of repetition.

The same psychology is at work again: to the human mind, there is little difference between appearances and truth. What appears to be true might as well actually be true, because people tend to process the illusion as though it were the truth.

And believe it or not, research exists to show that people can effectively persuade themselves through repetition. A study has shown that when an idea is retrieved from memory, this has just as powerful a persuasive effect on a person as if it had been repeated twice. (Ozubki et al., 2010)

What is this saying about comprehension, memory, and retrieval? Something everyone knows but seldom takes to heart: people should be especially alert to thoughts that come quickly and easily to mind because these people can persuade themselves with a single recall of a half-remembered thought. (Jeremy Dean, "The Allusion of Truth," PsyBlog, 2012)

How often do people seem to convince themselves that something is true based on faulty initial reasoning? Risk, itself, is often based on this mental repetition, and risk taking is inherently failure-prone. To quote famous author Jane Austin: "How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!" These reasons can be totally illogical if "what we like" is based on the illusion of truth.

My Take

The real truth is very allusive, yet many people consistently profess their ability to possess it and to understand it. When they wish to pass this great wisdom onto me, I often become defensive. Why? I know illusions of truth and pieces of half-truths abound, and these same human beings find it very easy to pick up a shred of truth, believe it, and abide by it. Some even preach it. That, to me, represents supporting opinion, not understanding the searing truth.

Now don't misunderstand me, I think nothing is wrong with opinion, We need to make important decisions based on opinion, so we must continually seek it. To refuse to learn to form good decisions would make living well impossible.

The problem with opinion is that many base their opinions on scant information and support. They refuse to take the time and effort to develop their ability to comprehend and evaluate difficult understandings. Instead, they listen and watch the crowd -- absorb the repetition that influences their limited views -- and close their minds around a neat little package of limited input. This is easy and doesn't require time and effort. And, believe me, politicians today are masters of feeding the public what they want to hear despite the actual truth of their propaganda.

Politicians eager to raise approval ratings and acquire votes make their living by influencing opinion, not by embracing truths. They often stretch truths, modify views, use unreliable statistics, and flat out lie to live another day. Humorist Will Rogers once said with great candor and a smile, "If you ever injected truth into politics you would have no politics."

Ron Riggio, an organizational psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College, says this about the history of truth in politics:

"From Richard Nixon -- "I'm not a crook" -- to Bill Clinton -- "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" -- to Marion Barry -- "It's all made up... I don't know what happened" -- to John Edwards -- "The story is false... It's completely untrue, ridiculous" -- American politicians have had a history of political deception, or at least stretching the truth."
(Halimah Abdullah, "Why Politicians Lie and Why We Want to Believe Them, CNN, June 1 2012)

 In The Encyclopedia Britannica Blog, Michael Levy claims the following:

"Even on Facebook, we tend to have friends who believe the same things we do, allowing us to mutually reinforce each others’ relatively narrow views.

"Although this bubble validates our worldview, it’s corrosive to democracy and contributes to the conspiracy theories that abound. To reverse this trend we would need to penalize candidates and campaigns that lie. Unfortunately, most of us are so ensconced in our own worlds (or don’t follow politics or just believe that all politicians lie, so what’s the point) that we lack the civic information that would enable us to penalize them.

"As a result, politicians learn this vital and unfortunate lesson: lie, because you can get away with it."

(Michael Levy, "Why Politicians Lie: Because They Can," Encyclopedia Britannica Blog, September 24 2012)

Is it any wonder so many folks dislike politicians? A survey by the Pew Research Center in 2010 found the only 22 percent of Americans say they trust the government "just about always" or "most of the time." Americans' trust in the federal government has been on a steady decline from a high of 73 percent during the Eisenhower administration in 1958, when the "trust" question was first posed in a national survey, the research center said.

So, what are the biggest lies swallowed hook, line, and sinker by the American public during this 2012 Presidential campaign? According to, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, here are the most egregiously false and misleading claims from the entire presidential campaign:
  • President Barack Obama claimed Mitt Romney is planning to raise taxes by $2,000 on middle-income taxpayers and/or cut taxes by $5 trillion. Neither is true.
  • Romney claimed Obama plans to raise taxes by $4,000 on middle-income taxpayers. That’s not true, either.
  • It’s also not true that Obama plans “to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements,” as Romney claimed.
  • Equally untrue is the Obama campaign’s repeated claim that Romney backed a law that would outlaw “all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest.”
("Whoppers of 2012, Final Edition,", October 31 2012)

In closing, don't get too upset about politicians and their lies. Just remember that the "illusion of truth" has been employed in American politics for hundreds of years. Mudslinging is not some 20th- and 21st-century phenomenon, lest we forget John Adams being branded a “hermaphrodite” by supporters of Thomas Jefferson during the election of 1800. In addition, the Jefferson supporters said Adams possessed character that had "neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

In return, Adams' men called Vice President Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." They warned that atheism and rape would be openly taught in America under Jefferson.

As the slurs piled on, Adams was also labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.

And, is nothing sacred? Even Martha Washington succumbed to the propaganda, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was "one of the most detestable of mankind." And, who wouldn't believe Martha? After all, she was the First Lady of the President who "could never tell a lie." Lord, help us all.

(Kerwin Swint, "Founding Fathers' Dirty Campaign," CNN, August 22 2008)


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