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Framing aided by repetition, psychologists report

Better to refute adversaries' slogans with different, positive statements than to repeat them in an attempt to disprove.

Psychologist Norbert Schwarz has found it reinforces untruths to repeat them, even when refuting.ANN ARBOUR, MI, Sept. 27, 2007: New research confirms that repetition of "myths" and slogans helps lodge them in the minds of the public and that refuting them often leads only to the public remembering falsehoods better. Instead, they tell us that "education campaigns with an 'affirmative' message," even if it is a negative message, are far more effective in defeating an adversary's frame.

University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz has done experiments showing that people remember things they hear repeated often enough, regardless of its source, and even if it's from a single source.

"Hearing the same opinion from several sources is more influential than hearing it only once from one source. This is as it should be," he wrote in an email exchange with HarperIndex.ca "But, as we showed in a recent paper, hearing it multiple times from the same source is nearly as influential. 'A repetitive voice sounds like a chorus.' So a single person or small group can create the impression of broad consensus through sheer repetition."

He has experimented with exposing research subjects to falsehoods repeatedly. The research points to the conclusion "that hearing the same Bush snippet multiple times on CNN and every other news show gives it a disproportionate weight. And when several members of the administration hit the talk shows with similar statements, it surely creates reality."

"Research on the difficulty of debunking myths has not been specifically tested on beliefs about Sept. 11 conspiracies or the Iraq war," wrote Washington Post science and human behavior correspondent Shankar Vedantam on September 4. "But because the experiments illuminate basic properties of the human mind, psychologists such as Schwarz say the same phenomenon is probably implicated in the spread and persistence of a variety of political and social myths."

Schwarz showed volunteers two lists of common beliefs about health and disease that were prepared by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One list was entirely true. The other was entirely false and identified as being untrue common beliefs or "myths." After half an hour, older people "misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.

"Younger people did better at first, but three days later they made as many errors as older people did after 30 minutes. Most troubling was that people of all ages now felt that the source of their false beliefs was the respected CDC."

Experiments like these, reports Vedantam, "have broad implications for public policy. The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths." They also show the potential power of political rhetoric and the importance of not repeating the argument of one's adversary, even in refuting it.

The theory may help explain "why large numbers of Americans incorrectly think that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in planning the Sept 11 attacks." They certainly explain the tight discipline of Stephen Harper's Conservatives or the Bush Republicans in repeating slogans, charges and epithets like "cut and run," "support our troops," or "Canada's new government," and repeated focus on symbolic issues like the threat of terrorism and Arctic sovereignty.

"Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain's subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true," the Post reports. "In politics and elsewhere, this means that whoever makes the first assertion about something has a large advantage over everyone who denies it later."

Kimberlee Weaver at Virginia Polytechnic Institute did research showing that "the brain gets tricked into thinking it has heard a piece of information from multiple, independent sources, even when it has not."

Vedantam also reported on another research colleague of Scwharz', cognitive social psychologist Ruth Mayo at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, whose research indicates that denying something does not often work. "Mayo found that rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth."

"One should not reiterate false statements in an attempt to discredit them," wrote Schwarz. He says that during World War II, "the Army newspaper printed rumors spread by the enemy to alert readers that they are rumors with the effect of facilitating their spread."

Schwarz writes that "Negations are notoriously difficult to process...." Over time, people are left with "an increased familiarity of the statement that is unconstrained by a memory of its negation."

He suggests "that education campaigns with an 'affirmative' message should be more effective." Sometimes, too, he advises that "negated statements ('Jim is not guilty') can be reframed in an affirmative way ('Jim is innocent')."

Schwarz offers advice to those who face a barrage of media messages from a powerful adversary:

"Avoid mere negations. The negation gets lost within a short time and all you have achieved is an increased familiarity of the false message, which increases its acceptance.

"Instead, emphasize what's true and provide people with an alternative schema (frame). This is easier said than done. It suggests, for example, that it is more effective to re-frame the situation in Iraq as sectarian strife than to negate the assertion that Al Quaeda in Mesopotamia is a major threat to the U.S. One problem is that a familiar alternative schema is often not available.

"Finally, it is possible that one effective alternative frame is simply that the messenger lies. Once people assume that the administration misrepresents things rather routinely, the interpretation 'another lie' may attenuate the effects we otherwise observe. But I have my doubts about this. We know that communicators with low credibility are not effective as long as people remember that they were the source of the message but over time the source gets lost and their message has an influence. This is known as the 'sleeper effect' in persuasion research. Hence, messages from an untrustworthy source are likely to have a delayed effect, even when no immediate effect can be observed."

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  Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach, Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post, September 4, 2007

Posted: September 28, 2007

Harper Index (HarperIndex.ca) is a project of the Golden Lake Institute and the online publication StraightGoods.ca


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