Repetition

Oh, and repetititon.

It’s maybe the oldest polititcal advice around and also doubles as writing advice. Tell them. Tell them again. Tell them you told them.

And as with a lot of common sense prescriptions, social scientists are getting around to confirming it:

The study, carried out by Kimberlee Weaver and colleagues, found we can tell that three different people expressing the same opinion better represents the group than one person expressing the same opinion three times – but not by much.

In fact, if one person in a group repeats the same opinion three times, it has 90% of the effect of three different people in that group expressing the same opinion. When you think about it, that is strange….

The theme of this research is something that has been known and used by advertisers and influencers for decades. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt at all, it breeds attraction. Making your voice heard is the only way to let others know what you think. Otherwise they will think you agree with the loudest person.

Similarly, and more worryingly, when an opinion is repeatedly broadcast at us by the same organisation – think of a particular media conglomerate or an advertiser – we’re likely to come to believe it represents the general opinion. That’s despite the fact it is analogous to the same person repeating themselves over and over again.

This is about all you need to know about why 70% of Americans wound up thinking Saddam was behind 9/11. The White House said Saddam and 9/11 together, the media repeated it over and over and over and over again for months and what few rebuttals there were were few and far between. This also explains a lot of why the country believes there was a rightwards shift, especially with the rise of “talk radio” and the end of the Fairness doctrine.

I say believes because on the issues, even in the late nineties, most Americans were pretty liberal – they were pro-choice; they wanted the environment protected; they wanted health care and so on. Yet self-identified conservatives outweighed self-identified liberals. Odd that.

We like to think that we aren’t influenced much by the opinions of others, but at heart we all know we are. Liberals were demonized as wishy washy and weak, the “mommies” of the world, unlike the bold, decisive, pragmatic conservative daddies. (Who’s your daddy? Hmmmm?) If you can represent yourself as strong, decisive and pragmatic – rather than weak and wishy-washy, what’ll it be? And so, despite being liberal on the issues, Americans self-identified as conservatives.

Under the fairness doctrine both sides of a political argument had to be given equal airtime. The repetition factor was thus balanced out and the two ideas could then compete, hopefully, on the merits. Add to that the fact that most liberal positions are, in fact, majority opinions, which means people would, in their everyday lives, hear more liberal than conservative opinions, and in general you would wind up with more accurate impressions of what the majority belief was (and people are reluctant to go against the majority belief. If “everyone” except some “dirty hippies” thinks Iraq was behind 9/11 and has nukes, well, why wouldn’t you? You don’t have time to study it, but the media is repeating it, so why wouldn’t it be true.)

The repetition factor is why it matters that the New York Times runs more guest editorials against abortion than for it, even though the Times’ official position is pro-choice. Its why it matters if the media has a bias and why it matters when partisan talking points are repeated as if they are news and without rebuttal or alternate views being presented.

And its why the blogosphere matters. I’m sure many, perhaps most readers remember what it was like before the blogosphere. How you felt like you were one of a very few people who had the beliefs you had. How it felt like you were screaming into the wind. Forget the war, I remember the 2000 election (before the theft) when Bush was just making up budget numbers. He was spending the money twice. Paul Krugman kept calling him on it, and he kept ignoring it and the media didn’t pick it up and repeat it, so his lies about how much of a surplus there was and what it could be used for were accepted by the public. He was promising “your lunch, and eat it too” and he got away with it.

The guy I started blogging with, Kevin Brennan, was perhaps the savviest political observer I’ve ever had the pleasure of talking to and writing with. He doesn’t blog anymore and the reason he doesn’t isn’t just the standard “time constraints”, it’s because “I’ve said everything I wanted to say”. He’s right, he did. He said it all… once. And even those few people who read him, mostly won’t remember, because he didn’t say it, say it again, then tell everyone he told them so.

And repetition isn’t just about getting an idea of how many people believe what. It isn’t just about group think. It’s about learning. You learn by repeating things. Even essentially conceptual tasks, like solving algebra problems, are learned, once the concepts are explained, by doing problem after problem after problem. In the same respect when you first read about a new idea; a new concept; a new frame or a new way of understanding a problem or thinking about the world, odds are it doesn’t really sink in.

It sinks in, it becomes a part of you and how you think, when it’s worn in like a rut.

Beliefs and opinions then are a lot like the old saw “you are what you eat”. Hang out at FDL long enough, and you’ll see the world one way. Hang out at Little Green Footballs (no, no link) and you’ll wind up thinking a very different way. Listen to Rush Limbaugh every day; or have Fox on all the time, and you’ll wind up believing a lot of what they say. When something new happens you’ll apply their models.

This isn’t inevitable. There are always those few iconoclasts who stand against the tide, who see through the fog of lies and who have the guts to say so. But add in social approval of the people we spend our lives with, and its few enough of us who will be able to cut through and see that just because “everyone” thinks something doesn’t make it so.

Or, as Joe Conason said “it can happen here”. And, more importantly for each of us, “It can happen to us.”

So, at a political level, the Fairness Doctrine needs to come back. At a personal level, while few of us can bear to bathe in the swill that is a blog like Little Green Footballs, we need to seek out dissenting opinions and evaluate them. They may turn out, often enough, to be crap, but we need to remember to judge whether they’re crap after we’ve read them and asked ourselves, “on the merits, does this make sense?”

And for those of us in the opinion making, and shaping, business, which includes many people reading this today, we need to remember to “tell them, tell them again, and tell them we told them.”

We were right. They were wrong. And it isn’t gloating to hammer it in, it’s just good sense.

(Picture from Flickr, the photographer’s archive is well worth your time.)