Do you know what the “illusory truth effect” is? It’s our tendency to treat a false or misleading statement as fact after repeated exposure. You see, as humans, we tend to take shortcuts when assessing if what we hear is true or not. Instead of racing out to collect facts, we evaluate statements based on prior knowledge and how familiar we are with them. Researchers have shown that people who are exposed repeatedly to statements, even when false, are more likely to believe they are true.
How does this work you ask? Let’s take a look at a specific example.
Do you know how many humans were killed by sharks in the year 2015? The answer is six (see this infographic showing deadliest animals in 2015). That’s right, there were 6.
Do you know how many humans were killed by mosquitoes that same year? 830,000.
People are afraid to go into the ocean for fear of being attacked by a shark, yet they think nothing of going outside without protection against the most deadliest animal known to humans. Why is that?
Sharks are demonized as the predators of the sea and a menace to humans. Movies have been made about the deadly great white shark. The Discovery Channel has a whole week dedicated to the deadly animal. Shark attacks are violent. They are graphic. They instill fear.
Getting bit by a mosquito is not a gruesome experience. Mosquito bites happen all the time. If every mosquito bite got the media coverage of a shark attack, our television would be filled with nothing but breaking news alerts.
Bottom line, even though mosquitoes are way more deadly than sharks, they don’t get anywhere near the same media attention. Therefore, we are led to believe that sharks are the more dangerous animal because that is what we see most often. It gets told to us repeatedly to the point where we believe it.
Now that you know about it, you will see it everywhere. The illusory truth effect is widely use by marketers, politicians, and others who rely on word-of-mouth and propaganda to spread their message. The people spreading these falsehoods often become victims of their own misleading statements. They say them so often, that they themselves come to believe them. In the words of George Costanza, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”
So now that your know about the “illusory truth effect” and how it works, now would be a good time to prepare and guard yourself against it. This year’s election cycle is going to be full of sensational headlines and news stories filled with misleading information. It will be up to each of us to do our homework, to research candidate and media statements, and to make each other aware of which statements are fact and which are fiction.
Will it change the outcome? I don’t know, but at least we can find comfort knowing we made a more informed decision based on fact, not fiction.