You see it done every day. Advertisers push the same message to us again and again. Politicians stick to the same script until we can practically recite it with them.
By now, you’ve come to understand that repetition helps you remember a point. You might not realize, however, that repetition also makes a point more believable, whether it’s true or not. And if the point is simple to grasp, it’s believability is enhanced even further. A simple point, repeated even once, is more believable than when you hear it the first time.
According to psychologist Jeremy Dean at University College London, a dose of familiarity breeds liking. Because of how our minds work, he says, that which is familiar becomes true. People have maximum confidence in an idea after hearing it three to five times. Past that point, believability hits its peak and may even reverse. As you’ve heard, too much familiarity can breed contempt.
For this reason, TV advertisers are starting to make subtle changes from time to time in ads that run repeatedly. The best advertisers make shorter and longer versions of the same commercial. They stick with the same message but change the actors involved in delivering it. In doing so, they create the best of both worlds for their products and services. They gain believability through repetition and simplicity, but they don’t wear out their welcome by feeding us the exact same commercial time after time.
Politicians have become masters of simplicity and repetition, and therein lies danger for us all. The better they become at these techniques, the more we as citizens have to be on our toes. In his article on this topic, Dean points out the following:
Repetition is effective almost across the board when people are paying little attention, but when they are concentrating and the argument is weak, the effect disappears (Moons et al., 2008).
In other words, it’s no good repeating a weak argument to people who are listening carefully. But if people aren’t motivated to scrutinize your arguments carefully, then repeat away with abandon—the audience will find the argument more familiar and, therefore, more persuasive.
Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, understood this well. “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly,” he once said. “It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”
So, if you want your message to be believed, simplify and repeat it. More importantly, make sure it’s true, and make sure it’s worth believing.