Repeating a lie can’t make it true, but repetition certainly makes for effective propaganda. Here are some studies showing the power of repeated messages and—in a surprise twist relevant to mentorship—how repetition affects students and seniors differently.
Which of these often-repeated sayings is a real Bible verse?
These statements can ricochet around Western church circles with such abandon, it may come as a surprise that none of them is written in the Bible. Some of them are close to Bible verses; for instance, 1 Timothy 6:10 (ESV) states that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. And being in the world but not of the world is a biblical concept, rooted in passages like John 17:14–16; Romans 12:2; and 1 John 2:15. But I’ll admit, I had to take a few minutes to verify when someone told me this “verse” I’ve heard quoted so often is not a direct line from Scripture.
Whether pseudo-Bible verses, advertising slogans, or well-known “facts” that are really myths, messages can sound true just because we’ve heard them over and over. If we stop and think about it, we know that no amount of repetition can make a false statement true. To believe otherwise would be to fall for a fallacy—a faulty form of logic—known as argument from repetition, or ad nauseum.
Despite being illogical, arguments from repetition make for persuasive propaganda.1 Why are repeated messages so compelling—and so able to mislead? To find out, let’s dive into a little brain science.
In an earlier post, I mentioned that the human brain tends to fall into a faulty thinking pattern (cognitive bias), called the illusionary truth effect, where a message sounds true because it’s repeated often. This bias stems from two related heuristics, or mental shortcuts the brain uses to make automatic decisions:2
Messages we’ve heard before are easier to process—and so are messages that simply “make sense.” Messages that make sense are often true, so the brain tends to automatically associate processing ease, or fluency, with truth. For instance, studies have found that people are more likely to rate messages as true when they’re written in easy-to-read font colors.3 Fluency also helps explain why messages that are clearly and eloquently communicated can sound truer, because they’re easier to understand.
For instance, as a student, I noticed that some of my evolutionary professors communicated so eloquently, their words sounded true—even though the way a message comes across is irrelevant to whether it’s true. This highlights the trouble with relying on fluency: messages that are easy to process aren’t always logical.
However illogical, repetition remains an effective propaganda technique because—as multiple studies confirm—the illusionary truth effect is remarkably powerful.4,5 Some research suggests this effect packs even more punch when we hear the same (false) message repeated by different sources.6 For instance, the statement that birds evolved from dinosaurs over millions of years may sound convincing because we hear it from various sources including museums, textbooks, and movies. However, this is an interpretation about the unobservable past—one with marked issues from observational science.
Originally, most researchers assumed that people would be less susceptible to the illusionary truth effect if they already knew a repeated message was false. But in 2015, a study showed otherwise.7 Students read true or false statements, half of which they’d seen before, and ranked the statements’ validity on a scale ranging from definitely true to definitely false. Then, the students answered questions revealing their prior knowledge about the information those statements covered. Results revealed that on average, students always gave repeated lies a higher truth score than lies they’d never seen before, even when the prior knowledge test showed that the students KNEW those statements were false!
After further study, the researchers concluded that students are more likely to rely on fluency first, above prior knowledge, when evaluating messages. Opposite of what most researchers once assumed, students typically use their prior knowledge to evaluate messages only when relying on fluency and repetition isn’t an option.
But amazingly, a similar experiment in 2017 with both students and seniors above age 65 found that, while repetition trumped knowledge in young adults, seniors relied on prior knowledge more and only used the fluency heuristic when they didn’t already know whether a message was true.8 The researchers suggested this is because seniors have had more time to become familiar with what they know, making their knowledge easier to retrieve.
These findings offer just one more example of why Christian youth need connections with older adult mentors—not despite the fact that older adults may think differently from young people, but precisely because of it. As another practical takeaway, when I shared this research with a group of teenagers, one of them pointed out how the power of repetition connects to Christians’ need for media discernment. That is, understanding that repeated messages do have an effect on our minds reminds us as Christians to exercise wisdom when choosing the media—and associated messages—we consume.9
On the flip side, if we regularly fill our minds with God’s Word, which we know is true,10 we’ll be far more ready to use that truth to combat repeated unbiblical messages in today’s classrooms and culture. Plus, we’ll be pros at spotting fake Bible verses.