How do humans fall prey to believing fake news? The truth is more flexible than you may think.

As Scott Adams writes in Win Bigly:

“If you have ever tried to talk someone out of their political beliefs by providing facts, you know it doesn’t work. That’s because people think they have their own facts. . . . And facts are weak persuasion.”

But is fake news really a new phenomenon? The zeitgeist seems to believe that fake news and artificial “grassroots” movements are a recent problem.

They’re not. They’re a manifestation of Homo Sapiens’ psychology. These errors have been with us for millennia.

Repetition Causes Perceived Truth

You’ve likely read about the power of repetition. Repeatedly exposing someone to information that is actually false will lead them to believe it is actually true.

Your brain likes easy-to-process information more than hard-to-process information. The more you repeat something to someone, the more that person’s brain sees the information as familiar and known. And the more likely they will be to consider it true.

TL;DR: Repeat anything enough, and it becomes true.

Shane Parrish calls this the Illusory Truth Effect:

“[W]e all have a tendency to believe something is true after being exposes to it multiple times. The more we have heard something, the truer it seems. . . . The illusory truth effect is the reason why advertising works and why propaganda is one of the most powerful tools for controlling how people think.”

As Shane Parrish writes, “[i]t’s why the speech of politicians can be bizarre.” Think about how President Trump often repeats the same punchline or visual image over and over again when speaking.

Perfect Storm

Repetition’s power works in concert with several other biases to make us believe in false information. Specifically:

  • Confirmation Bias — Your brain interprets new information in a way that confirms your existing beliefs. Any news that doesn’t align with what you believe will be perceived as fake. And anything that confirms your pre-existing beliefs will be perceived as true (regardless of its actual truth).
  • First Conclusion Bias — Your brain has a tendency to settle into its first conclusions. Your first stance on an issue, for example, will be incredibly hard to change. And once someone has committed to a view, he or she will feel pressure to be consistent.
  • Emotions — Human emotions notoriously cloud the brain’s ability to determine the truth. When someone’s views are challenged, he or she will likely get emotional and not be able to correctly process new information.

How You Can Use Fake News

Some ideas to get you started:

  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. If you want someone to believe your idea, repeat the idea often. This repetition is especially powerful if you provide a because.
  • Trigger emotions in others. You can do this by using human stories, or appealing to others’ self interests.
  • Be careful how much news you consume. Reported events often have spin on them and are presented in a way to rile you up. Be especially careful when reading from sources that have known political slants.

How have you seen psychology used to bend the truth? Share your expertise in the comments!


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