How to fight the “illusion of truth effect”
Zoom online meetings are just as productive as face-to-face meetings. A four-day workweek increases employee productivity. Fewer complaints means happy customers. Innovation requires disruption…
business leaders are often confronted with statements like these. However, what is it that convinces a certain statement to be true? More critically, how do these claims affect strategic decisions?
We live in unprecedented times where vast amounts of information are available anytime, anywhere. Even if we don’t seek it out, we are bombarded with opinions, comments and social media posts. Processing such a large amount of information is difficult enough, but there is a more serious problem: not all of this information is accurate, and some of it is completely wrong. Of particular concern is that when inaccurate or wrong information is repeated over and over again, it can lead to an “illusion of truth” in which repeated information is believed to be true even when it is not.
Misinformation and disinformation are commonplace. Arguably, since the dawn of organized existence in the world, they have been misleading decision-making. Yet today’s managers need to grapple with erroneous and unreliable information on a scale never before seen. The problem is especially acute for big tech companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter, where misinformation on the platforms can have wide-ranging societal ramifications. A recent study examined 69 of the most viewed videos on the YouTube platform about the new crown epidemic, and found that 19 of them contained unsubstantiated information, and these 19 videos containing false information had been viewed more than 6 , 2 million times.
In the realm of corporate decision-making, the proliferation of misinformation hurts organizations in a number of ways, including misleading public relations, fake reviews, trolling employees, and spreading rumors among current and future employees, just to name a few. Executives may find themselves on the receiving end of false data, facts and figures—information that is flawed and cannot be relied upon for critical decisions. False information, whether passed on inadvertently or shared maliciously, can hinder good decision-making.
All employees in an enterprise are always faced with the challenge of judging the authenticity of information, from the CEO to the frontline employees without exception. It’s not always easy—and it’s a task made all the more complicated by a habitual but surprisingly powerful bias in the way we interpret information. This bias is a small flaw in the human brain: We tend to think repeated information is more believable than the first time we hear it, whether it’s true or not. Our judgments about the truthfulness of a statement are influenced not only by the actual content of the information, but also by the tendencies described above.
Why Repeated Misinformation Sounds Like It’s True
In 1939, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously uttered a quote in which he warned, “Repetition does not make a lie truth.” Unfortunately, decades of research have shown that repetition of false information At least it will create an “illusion of truth”. Psychologists call this phenomenon “repetition-based truth effect”, or “truth illusion effect” for short. The information we hear over and over again creates a “stickiness” that affects our judgment, and this effect is lingering and deeply ingrained. In fact, the illusion of truth is so powerful that we’ve seen its power in a range of domains, from political speeches to product advertising. A disturbing finding is that this effect not only occurs during periods when people’s memories of the original information are fresh, but also persists months after exposure to the information. In addition, people perceive repeated information as more authentic, even if they no longer remember hearing it.
Repeated information is so powerful that we are often subconsciously swayed by it, even when we know it’s not credible—that is, we believe it even if it’s a false statement that contradicts well-known facts or comes from an unreliable source. . For example, a manager who knows a subordinate is a known gossip can still be misled by the rumors he spreads. This is because, over time, the content of information (rumours) tends to become decoupled in memory from its source (untrustworthy employees). Most of us have experienced that feeling: You’re sure you’ve heard or read something before, but you just can’t remember where it came from. Some of our findings show that the illusion of truth persists even when money is used to encourage good judgment (e.g., by awarding employees bonuses for it). Hiring trusted experts to combat disinformation won’t help either. Studies have shown that people believe repeated misinformation even when it is proven to be false by a credible source.
Although important organizational actions are often based on a rigorous assessment of available facts, people are still subject to the illusion of truth in information gathering and decision discussions. For example, a team member may repeatedly make the false argument that moving production to another country will not damage the company’s image. This statement may not be the only force driving the decision, but it may be one of many pieces of information that influences the final decision. Not every fact can be verified, especially where a degree of uncertainty exists.
Why are people more likely to believe repeated information than new information? The following scenario shows how this usually happens.
● A manager looking to hire new members for his sales team has shortlisted two candidates, Jane and Susan, for interviews on Friday.
● On Monday, a team member said that Jane knows the company’s product line inside out. This is a new piece of information that initially connects the concepts of “Jane” and “knowledgeable” in the manager’s mind.
● On Wednesday, the same team member mentioned again that Jane is very knowledgeable about the company’s products. The pre-existing association between the concepts of “Jane” and “knowledgeable” is strengthened in the manager’s mind.
● In Friday’s interview, both Jane and Susan indicated that they are familiar with the company’s product line. Since the information about Susan is new and the information about Jane has been repeated many times, the link between the concepts “Susan” and “knowledgeable” is weaker than that between the concepts “Jane” and “knowledgeable” contact. In the manager’s mind, the repeated information about Jane is more familiar than the new information about Susan, so it is relatively easy to deal with the former. We call this ease of digesting repetitive information “processing fluency.” It is precisely this fluency that the brain regards as the basis for identifying facts. As a result, that manager is more likely to hire Jane.
Given the enormous capabilities of the human brain, it might seem rather inconceivable that people would believe information simply because they were repeatedly exposed to it. But think about this: How do most people know that Tim Cook is Apple’s CEO? How do they know that Bitcoin is extremely volatile? That’s because they have been exposed to this information many times. Repetition plays a central role in how people learn and acquire knowledge. Therefore, “repeatedly encountered information is more credible” has its own truth. Experience tells us that most of the information we encounter on a daily basis is likely to be true, especially when we encounter it more than once. Accepting repetition as real helps us navigate our increasingly complex information landscape. The human brain has learned a functional shortcut to process fluency as a sign that information is valid and accurate.
Because this shortcut is so efficient, we tend to over-rely on it. But in today’s complex and uncertain information ecosystem, quick processing and repetition are no longer sufficient as a basis for judging the truth. Leaders must not only be able to tell truth from lies, but, more critically, they must be able to protect themselves and their teams and organizations from misleading, whether intentional or not.
Four Strategies to Combat the Illusion of Truth Effect
The illusion of truth works easily and subtly, but it takes a lot of effort to fight it. While we can never completely avoid its negative impact, it can be limited by striving for truth. This is especially important for management decisions, as gullibility in inaccurate or false information can skew hiring, firing, and promotion decisions, causing businesses to miss out on growth opportunities or make poor choices when entering new markets.
How can managers prevent and avoid the above-mentioned negative consequences? In our research, we identified four strategies that can help leaders and their teams better discern truth from fiction and make informed decisions.
Strategy 1: Avoid bias blind spots
Recent research has shown that people with high IQs or strong analytical skills are just as prone to delusions of truth as ordinary people. So the first thing a manager can do is realize that they are not immune to this.
Too many decision makers fall prey to a bias blind spot, a well-documented psychological phenomenon: people assume that bias affects the behavior of others but not their own. One of the authors of this article regularly teaches courses on leadership and decision-making biases to MBA students and senior managers, and every year several students openly claim that they would never fall into these decision-making traps. Yet during the mock-test sessions, which were designed to demonstrate the existence of bias and its impact on key leadership decisions, these individuals exhibited precisely the biases they had previously claimed were impossible.
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman once said that if he had a magic wand that could remove a judgmental bias, he would eliminate overconfidence, because it is this bias that makes people particularly resistant to their own May fall into other biased thoughts. Understanding the illusion of truth and acknowledging that you are as susceptible to it as everyone else is the first step in effectively reducing its dangers.
Strategy 2: Avoid Cognitive Bubbles
Strategic decisions are often based on information shared by team members and other key stakeholders. It is crucial at this stage that there are no cognitive bubbles in the network—that is, members of the circle cannot soak up similar views without considering other different views. Research shows that teams that reflect diverse perspectives outperform homogenous teams, even if the latter group members have higher individual abilities.
Imagine if the HR leader heard from a team member that research showed that adopting a four-day workweek improves employee productivity; a week later, another team member said the same thing. While making the decision to shorten the workweek required extensive analysis, research, and strategic meetings, the notion that such a change would improve productivity had been seared in the minds of executives and would carry its weight in decision considerations.
The HR leader needs to ask if the source of this information is truly independent, to make sure that those two team members aren’t just repeating each other’s views. Team members have been known to spend too much time discussing information that everyone already has, instead of thinking about new information that only a few have. This cognitive bubble can be detrimental if new information is critical to arrive at an optimal solution.
To avoid cognitive bubbles, managers should create an environment where opposing and divergent views can be generated and where team members can actively and openly discuss these views. Does the team have the ability to think critically about competing insights and opposing advice? When someone expresses an opinion, do others dare to speak up if they disagree? Remember that the repetition of the same idea by several like-minded people may increase the psychological persuasiveness of the idea, but not necessarily its accuracy or truth.
Strategy Three: Questioning Facts and Assumptions
Many times, we accept a piece of new information, only to reject it if we give it a second thought. A “true” mindset helps to debunk the illusion of truth, which focuses on assessing whether the information heard matches existing knowledge, which can shape a culture where whenever new information comes in, the default mode is to think about it first Is it true or false.
This strategy may sound simple, but in reality few people are able to critically evaluate the information in front of them on a daily basis—and, moreover, they share information without considering whether it is true or not. Building internal fact-checking capabilities can effectively address the illusion of truth. Recent research has shown that simply asking someone on the sidelines when they receive new information is less likely to believe it to be true if it is repeated.
There are some simple things managers can do to foster a “real” mindset. One is to clearly communicate to your team that the delusion of truth is pervasive and emphasize the critical importance of processing new information critically. Encourage team members to frequently ask “Is this true?” or “Does this match what I know?” when confronted with information, suggestions, and opinions. Reasonable, and provide details of the information on which it is based.
While the above is important, in many cases the team does not have sufficient expertise to tackle an issue and internal fact-checking alone is not enough. At this point, managers also need to facilitate external fact-checking to ensure that information used in decision-making has been verified from reliable sources.
To facilitate external fact-checking, managers should ask whether there are objective data, facts, and figures that support the information being checked, and whether there is information that contradicts it. It is also important to ask whether sources of information are reliable. Does the information provider harbor hidden motives behind it? How is the information collected? Is the method satisfactory?
External fact-checking is a very effective strategy, but it is relatively time-consuming and delays decision-making. Furthermore, it is not practical to verify every piece of information. Managers should weigh the consequences of acting on false information against the cost of verifying the information, and if the stakes are high, it may be worth spending more time checking the facts.
Strategy 4: Strengthen the dissemination of truthful information.
Because repetition can increase credibility, managers can make the truth stick to people’s hearts by repeating true and relevant information. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has created high levels of uncertainty in the business environment and workplace policies, and the risk of repeating mistakes and disinformation has become greater. In this case, the strategy of disseminating real information is particularly important.
To solve the current problem, managers should be prepared to respond: to present the facts, and to repeat, repeat, and repeat. Long-term scientific research in the fields of psychology, rhetoric, and philosophy has demonstrated the value of repeating arguments. It is especially effective to reiterate verbatim, without changing the wording.
This strategy does, however, entail risks: Managers may inadvertently repeat the wrong message. Therefore, it is crucial to evaluate the message being communicated before intensifying it. Be alert to the blind spots of prejudice, maintain a “true” mentality, conduct external fact checks, and avoid falling into cognitive bubbles.
In the digital age, information is power, and it provides managers with a competitive advantage. Yet inaccurate or false information, repeated over and over, can lead to a false sense of truth and risk executive decision-making. One of the most important challenges leaders face in the years ahead will be preventing inaccurate data, misinformation and false facts from compromising the integrity and success of their companies. The four strategies we outline in this article will help managers effectively address this challenge and create lasting, sustainable value for their companies and their customers.