Mistaking Repetition for Truth

Suppose I were to ask you if saturated fat is bad for you, how would you respond? If you’re like most people you think this is a no brainer, of course saturated fat is bad for you. Where, however, do your beliefs on the subject come from? I’m guessing that it’s highly unlikely that you’ve actually done any empirical research or read any scientific journal articles on the subject of saturated fat yourself. Surely, it must make sense logically then. Not at all, cows themselves eat nothing but grass or corn. They get fat without consuming any fat at all so why should we automatically be getting fat from eating fat? I continually find that most people believe they know the truth about saturated fat and I’m baffled by their religious-like confidence level in their answer.

There is, of course, good reason as to why people harbor the beliefs they do about saturated fat. Most of us have been told time and time again that saturated fat is bad for us. Here’s a secret: you believe to be true what you hear repeatedly. I’ll repeat, you believe to be true what you hear repeatedly. I would say it again, but I think you get the point. Psychologists have long reported that most people tend to mistake repetition for truth. This is called the illusory of truth effect. Repetition is one of the most powerful methods of persuasion and this is exactly why I think it’s so important to embrace your inner skeptic!

I once heard Jaron Lanier say that it takes 10 years to get rid of a bad idea, but thanks to repetition I think it usually takes much longer than a decade. This article, “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?“, was published nearly a decade ago in 2002 and I’m not sure much has changed in public opinion about saturated fat since then. Saturated fat is just one simple example where I believe the illusory of truth effect rears its ugly head.

Without a doubt, there are many other areas in life where we mistake repetition for truth. Advertisers, politicians, and the media all take advantage of this effect. As any advertiser, politician or member of the media knows, it’s far easier to sell the illusion of truth rather than the actual truth. We live in an incredibly complex world and simple explanations are easier to repeat and easier to understand. If something is difficult to think about and thus hard to repeat, people will unfortunately tend to believe it less. Sadly, this does not bode well for those who are trying to convince people with complex explanations for complex phenomena in a complex world.