Fake news is a thing. In 2017 alone, fake news convinced people around the world of the following:
- Category Six hurricanes exist (they don’t)
- Comedian Sam Hyde was the mastermind behind the London Bridge attack on June 3 (he wasn’t)
- There were double tornados heading for Miami Airport during Hurricane Irma (there weren’t)
- A little girl named Frida was trapped in a collapsed building in Mexico and became a national icon in the face of a natural disaster (Frida didn’t exist). The exact same thing happened in Iran in November
The list goes on – trust me.
How do stories like this gain traction? Is it just because of sensationalism and entertainment, or is there something deeper happening here? The question I’m answering in this post is: are people actually believing these stories in real time?
To explore what’s going on psychologically here, I’ll draw a simple example.
If I told you the sky was green, you would immediately disagree and point to the sky and say, “No, Dan, it’s blue.”
I would then be at a loss and forced to admit I was wrong. But if we were inside and I ran up to you saying “the sky is green,” then what would happen?
Most likely, you would use past experience (and possibly scientific basis) to tell me I’m wrong. You’ve seen the sky before – it’s blue. Pure and simple. If it was blue every time before, it’s going to be blue now – not green.
In short, you’re using past experience to logically determine truth. But did you know there are two ways our brains determine truth?
Our brains determine truth by means of “logic” and “fluency.”
In the case of logic, we use empirical evidence and logical deduction to determine truth. Math falls under this category, as do simple mental exercises we learn in our childhood.
Our brains, however, are wired for energy efficiency. They try to reduce the energy being used in any given moment, and as a result, we create subconscious shortcuts known as heuristics. These heuristics cause us to subconsciously ignore certain steps we would have taken during the regular logical “flow” in order to save energy.
That process of “shortcutting” our way to determining what is true or false, or what decision to make in any moment, is known as creating fluency.
While logic plays with rational assumptions and formal deduction, fluency plays with irrational assumptions and familiarity.
The simplest example of fluency is if I spoke a statement to you once, and then repeated it immediately afterward.
The first time you hear the statement, your brain is interpreting it, picking it apart piece by piece, putting it back together, storing it, and formulating a response to it.
The second time you hear the statement, your brain recognizes it, and then relies on all the conclusions it drew the first time in order to form a response.
As a result, we consider the second statement as having more “fluency” than the first.
This is the basis of the Illusory Truth effect.
This psychological effect causes us to mis-attribute truth to statements that have more “fluency” as a result of repetition.
My telling you that the sky is green could be considered a “new statement” in our example above. The first time I tell you, your brain picks that statement apart and regards it as untrue. After all, you’ve seen the sky. It’s blue. It’s always been blue, and it always will be blue.
But as I run into the building and tell you the sky is green, and then tell you again the next day, and the next day, and the next, and so on… Eventually your brain will experience more and more fluency in the idea that the sky is green.
As a result, your brain will start to formulate possibilities that allow for the sky to be green: maybe you’re color blind, or maybe I’m color blind, or maybe, maybe, maybe.
The Ethics Of The Illusory Truth Effect
I’m going to be upfront and bold about the use of this effect: it is unethical.
The very application of this effect on our brains is deceptive. It’s a user manual on how to make someone believe something that is not true and, possible something they don’t want to believe.
Those two facts alone come in direct conflict with the first two tenets of the Bedrock of Brilliance’s Neuromarketing Code Of Ethics: Bona Fide and Bullseye.
Under no circumstances should you use this effect in your marketing, and those who use it as the basis of politics, news, or any form of media or advertising are in breach of the Bedrock of Brilliance.
So why am I telling you about this effect? Why even bring this effect up when it’s such a harmful tool to implement? I’m writing about this for two reasons:
First, I want you to know if you’re mistakenly using the Illusory Truth Effect in your own marketing.
Second, I want you to know when you’re falling victim to it.
Knowing both of these things will allow you to protect yourself from its effects while enforcing the Neuromarketing Code of Ethics in your branding and messaging.
How To Know If You’re Using The Illusory Truth Effect
There’s a simple test to know if you’re using this effect to your customers’ detriment.
Ask the question: Are the claims I’m making true in every way possible?
If you take a full minute to think about that question and you can’t honestly say “yes,” then you need to change your messaging. If you feel that your advertising is mis-quoting information or smearing your competitors or making statements that you know are untrue, or even questionable, then you’re causing your customers to hold beliefs based on a lie.
And that’s wrong.
Do a deep dive into your advertising, your headlines, your email subject lines, and everything else you publish and ask that question. You might be surprised at the effect your words are having on your customers!
Don’t Fall Victim To The Illusory Truth Effect In The Real World
Out “there,” the illusory truth effect is running rampant. If you’ve ever heard the term “fake news” then you know what I’m talking about. Fake news is the most blatant example of the Illusory Truth Effect at work in the real world.
As Wired Magazine put it, “Repetition is what makes fake news work…”
When articles and posts are published with false or misleading information, even if you don’t believe them the first time, the second, third, and fourth times you see them will start to become a little more convincing. Your brain will start mistaking the fluency of those headlines as truth – even in small little ways. That brings us to the main question: how can you protect yourself against these headlines and other claims that could be using the Illusory Truth Effect against you?
Although it’s difficult to avoid this effect from permeating every part of my life, I use a simple rule.
If a statement will affect my well-being in any way, or will affect any decision that I’ll be making, I fact check. It’s as simple as that, but it’s a critical question to ask.
There are way too many articles in the world to care about. Too much information. But the articles which CATCH my attention GET my attention. All of it.
I don’t read many articles on scandals or conspiracies, but if there IS one that I’m interested in, I’m reading every possible article I can find, published by the left, right, and center, and checking their sources. Sensationalist news and sensationalist culture are both fueled by sensationalist headlines, most of which aren’t based on truth – they just hold a grain of truth amidst a beach of exaggeration.
Social media sites don’t exactly help, either. Facebook and Google have come under fire recently from places ranging from Vox.com to The Atlantic for not suppressing questionable (or even blatantly untrue) sensationalist stories.
Back To The Real World
Next time you’re scanning headlines, watching ads, or reading your promotional emails, stay aware of the sensationalism that’s feeding your reactions. Pay attention to how certain articles make you feel, how many times you’ve seen that statement before, or whether you’ve seen data or sources to back up seemingly grandiose claims.
When you do that, you’ll start to become much more aware of how you might be manipulated by sources you trusted.
This is kind of an “escaping the matrix” moment of sorts, but I don’t want it to lead to all sorts of conspiracy theories. While this effect is used in the political and media worlds, most of the time it’s being used unconsciously by businesses just like yours.
The first and most important thing you can do it audit your own messaging to ensure it’s “clean” from the Illusory Truth Effect.
After that, stay accountable to yourself to differentiate “fluent” truth from “logical” truth. You’ll be better informed and – most likely – a less stressed human being!