Repetition can make even the strangest claims seem more true.

(ORDO NEWS) — The spread of disinformation in recent years is a huge danger, and so far it has proved extremely difficult to control it.

Psychological research has revealed much of what causes people to believe false information, but the full picture is far from complete, and new discoveries are revealing even more factors that may be supporting this problem.

One example is the Truth by Repetition (TBR) effect the repetition of a statement increases its perception as true.

A well known theory as to why this occurs emphasizes the role of “processing fluency”; in essence, repetition makes information easier for cognitive processing, and this ease is misinterpreted as a signal that the information is true.

Until recently, this phenomenon was thought to be limited to statements that could conceivably be true. But new research shows that this effect extends much further and can make even the most ridiculous claims seem more true.

Previous work in this area has shown that repeating meaningless statements like “The Earth is a perfect square” once does not affect how true such statements are perceived to be. But this could be because the methods were not sensitive enough to notice a small effect.

To remedy this, Doris Lacassagne and her colleagues at the University of California, Belgium, showed participants more repetitions of false statements than in previous studies, and also had them respond on a scale with significantly more discrete ratings. Their recent study involved 232 US English-speaking participants (51% women) recruited over the Internet.

In the first phase of the experiment, these participants were presented with eight out of 16 possible statements, which participants in the previous study rated as very implausible.

Among them were implausible claims such as “Elephants weigh less than ants” and “Smoking is good for the lungs”, as well as perhaps more plausible claims (at least for the American sample) such as “Rugby is a sport associated with Wimbledon.

Participants were asked to rate how interesting they found the eight statements presented and were warned that they might be asked to rate the same statement multiple times. These statements were presented in random order and repeated five times each, resulting in 40 trials.

Immediately after that, participants were randomly shown all 16 statements eight of them they had seen repeatedly in the previous stage, and eight were new. They were asked to rate how true they thought each statement was, on a scale from 50 (“definitely false”) to +50 (“definitely true”).

An analysis of the responses showed that the repetition of implausible statements affected the participants’ assessments of the truthfulness.

While all veracity scores were still in negative territory, claims that were repeatedly shown were generally perceived as less false than newly presented claims. Claims that were perhaps less extreme (but still highly implausible), such as “The monsoon is caused by an earthquake”, were the most affected by the TBR effect.

Further research also revealed differences between participants: 53% showed a positive effect of TBR, in which their scores shifted towards true after repeating statements, while 19% showed no effect, and the remaining 28% showed a negative effect of TBR.

In this last group, repetition made the claims seem even more implausible. These analyzes show that not everyone responds to the effects of TBR in the same way.

These results show that a surprisingly low number of repetitions can affect the perception of the truth of highly implausible claims. This casts doubt on some theories that suggest that increasing the sense of fluency should only make statements seem true if they are plausible.

Further exploration of individual differences, in particular why some participants find statements less true when repeated, may provide interesting insights into how fluency is interpreted by different people. Longer studies may also be informative.

Shifts in truth perception were relatively small after several repetitions at short intervals studying how this effect can shape perception of truth over days and weeks can help us better understand how the TBR effect works in everyday life.

In an age of 24-hour cycles of repetitive news and online algorithms, the TBR effect gives us some insight into why and how people believe increasingly unbelievable claims. With any luck, these findings will form part of a larger puzzle in finding better ways to prevent the spread of disinformation.


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