How many times must I tell you? Familiarity breeds belief

July 10, 2007 at 1:10 pm | Posted in Climate change, Interest groups, Public communication, Public relations, Social Psychology, Squeaky wheels, Times | Leave a comment

Psychologists have found that, if you want the public to buy an opinion, you should persuade many people to voice it. But – and this is alarming – you can achieve comparable success by getting just one person to repeat the same opinion over and over. The key is to make that opinion seem familiar.

Familarity, it seems, breeds belief.

A group of American researchers, led by Kimberlee Weaver, of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, enlisted more than a thousand students to voice opinions in controlled settings. The experiment’s conclusion is encapsulated beautifully in the title of her recently published paper: “Inferring the Popularity of an Opinion From Its Familiarity: A Repetitive Voice Can Sound Like a Chorus”. The article appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.Makes you think, doesn’t it, about the whole tricky field of public consultation, hijacked with tiresome regularity by special interest groups. Just a small number of coordinated calls to a politician, Dr Weaver argues, could lead to that politician believing that an opinion is more widespread than it is.

Now think of religiously motivated, anti-science lobby groups, animal rights extremists, climate-change deniers. Through repetition, their dangerous whispers carry farther than their small constituencies merit, sometimes awarding them a disproportionate influence over public policy. We should not close our ears but we should remember that such groups do not speak for all.

From The Times
July 9, 2007

How many times must I tell you?

by Anjana Ahuja: Science Notebook


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