Monday, 8 May 2017

As sure as night follows day

We're going to see a lot of relentlessly repeated sound-bites between now and the general election date. The people responsible don't just do it to annoy (although it surely will), but because they think it will change your mind more effectively than rational argument:
Here's how a typical experiment on how the effect works: participants rate how true trivia items are, things like "A prune is a dried plum". Sometimes these items are true (like that one), but sometimes participants see a parallel version which isn't true (something like "A date is a dried plum").

After a break – of minutes or even weeks – the participants do the procedure again, but this time some of the items they rate are new, and some they saw before in the first phase. The key finding is that people tend to rate items they've seen before as more likely to be true, regardless of whether they are true or not, and seemingly for the sole reason that they are more familiar.
"How liars create the illusion of truth", Tom Stafford BBC Future.

I don't know why repetition works so well on the human mind, but I have a theory. Since we first evolved, humans have had to deal with two types of things - things which are new and novel and things which are unchanging, or predictable. If somthing's new and novel, you need to give it your full attention ("Is it prey I can eat, or a predator, come to eat me?"). 

If something's unchanging, or predictable, it goes to the back of your mind and becomes part of the landscape. If something happens with predictable regularity you make a working assumption that "that's just how the world is, I don't need to spend time worrying about it", saving your attention for that unpredictable thing rustling the bushes that you might eat, or get eaten by.

That, I think, may be why repeated messages are so powerful. Your mind classifies them as part of the background, an inevitable part of life, like night following day. And anything that's part of the background, you assume is safe, inevitable, nonthreatening. For most of human history and prehistory, people didn't waste time worrying that the sun might not rise in the morning (except, maybe, the Aztecs who liked to sacrifice a few prisoners to their sun deity Huitzilopochtli, just to be on the safe side).

If something's as predictably repetitive as the rising and setting of the sun, maybe it's hard to dismiss it as untrue and easier to accept it as inevitable, even though the rational part of your mind knows it's just a bunch of words, selected by biased, fallible humans.

Which makes repetition a powerful weapon in the hands of a manipulator. And one that you can't easily disarm just by becoming aware of the manipulation, thanks to the white bear problem - you can't decide to not think about a white bear (or a propaganda message), except by thinking about it.