Whenever you hear something repeated, it feels more true when you hear it repeated. In other words, repetition makes any statement seem more true. So anything you hear will feel more true each time you hear it again.
Each of the three sentences above conveyed the same message. Yet each time you read the next sentence, it felt more and more true. Cognitive neuroscientists like myself call this the "illusory truth effect."
Illusory truth is one consequence of a phenomenon called "cognitive fluency," meaning how easily we process information. Much of our vulnerability to deception in all areas of life revolves around cognitive fluency.
Unfortunately, such misinformation can swing major elections, such as the 2016 presidential election. Fortunately, we can take a number of steps to address misinformation and make our public discourse and political system more truthful.
Our brains are lazy. The more effort it takes to process information, the more uncomfortable we feel about it and the more we dislike and distrust it.
By contrast, the more we like certain data and are comfortable with it, the more we feel that it's accurate. This intuitive feeling in our gut is what we use to judge what's true and false.
Yet no matter how often you have heard that you should trust your gut and follow your intuition, that advice is wrong. You should not trust your gut when evaluating information where you don't have expert-level knowledge due to mental errors that scholars call "cognitive biases."
The illusory truth effect is one of these mental blindspots; there are over 100 altogether. These mental blindspots impact all areas of our lives, from health and politics to relationships and even shopping.
Besides illusory truth, you need to watch out for "confirmation bias." That refers to our tendency to look for and interpret information in ways that conform to our prior beliefs, intuitions, feelings, desires, and preferences, as opposed to the facts.
Cognitive fluency deserves blame. It's much easier to build neural pathways to information that we already possess.
The more educated we are, the more likely we are to engage in such active rejection. After all, our smarts give us more ways of arguing against new information that counters our beliefs. That's why research demonstrates that higher education correlates with more polarized beliefs around scientific issues that have religious or political value overtones, such as stem cells or climate change.
Our minds like to interpret the world through stories, meaning explanatory narratives that link cause and effect in a clear and simple manner. Such stories are a balm to our cognitive fluency, as our minds constantly look for patterns that explain the world around us in an easy-to-process manner. That leads to the "narrative fallacy," where we fall for convincing-sounding narratives regardless of the facts, especially if the story fits our predispositions and our emotions.
You ever wonder why politicians tell so many stories? Sure, sometimes they cite statistics and scientific reports, but they spend much, much more time telling stories: simple, clear, compelling narratives that seem to make sense and tug at our heartstrings.
Now, here's something that's actually true: The world doesn't make sense. The world is not simple, clear, and compelling. The world is complex, confusing, and contradictory. Beware of simple stories! Look for complex, confusing, and contradictory scientific reports and high-quality statistics: They're much more likely to contain the truth than the easy-to-process stories.
To fix our brains, one of the most effective strategies is to build up a habit of automatically considering alternative possibilities to any claim you hear, especially claims that feel comfortable to you. Be especially suspicious of repeated claims that favor your side's positions without any additional evidence, which play on the illusory truth effect and the confirmation bias combined.
Another effective strategy involves cultivating a mental habit of questioning stories in particular. Remember, it's very easy to cherrypick stories to support whatever position the narrator wants to advance. Instead, look for thorough hard numbers, statistical evidence, and peer-reviewed research to support claims.
You can also make a personal commitment to the 12 truth-oriented behaviors of the Pro-Truth Pledge by signing the pledge at ProTruthPledge.org. Peer-reviewed research has shown that taking the Pro-Truth Pledge is effective for changing people's behavior to be less vulnerable to misinformation.
These quick mental habits will address the most fundamentally flawed aspects of our mind's tendency to accept misinformation.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, who lived in Little Rock during a year-long research fellowship, is a cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist researching defenses against misinformation, and co-founded the Pro-Truth Pledge. This op-ed is excerpted from "Pro Truth: A Pragmatic Plan to Put Truth Back Into Politics" by Tsipursky and Tim Ward.