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If something is seen as big, and is a lie, why is it still seen as truth by so many?
I have been thinking about this as I have watched the Jan. 6 hearings this summer. The claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump — promulgated by him and others — has seemingly taken on a life of its own. The concept of “the big lie” has been repeated many times by countless people. And many believe it — or say they believe it-- though the facts indicate otherwise.
How do we make sense of this?
In the world of Psychology, we have a concept known as “The Illusory Truth Effect,” (ITE) that is relevant to this paradox. This idea first appeared in 1977 in a paper entitled “Frequency and the Conference of Referential Validity” by Hasher, Goldstein, and Toppino in the Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior. Since 1977, research has validated the ITE as a significant force. The Illusory Truth Effect fundamentally postulates that there is a tendency for some people to see untrue information as true, if exposed to that information repeatedly over time.
There are numerous examples of the ITE. The idea of “fake news” is one. But I want to focus on the big lie. The evidence is overwhelming for numerous reasons that Joe Biden won the election. Yet the big lie continues to be repeated by many as truth. Why? Because according to the ITE if the big lie is repeated constantly, people will believe it regardless of its merit.
I think there are two types of people publicly supporting the big lie. First, those who truly believe it. I would hypothesize that many of these folks have been influenced by the ITE. Then there are those who do not believe it, but state publicly that they do. I think these are often Republican politicians at all levels of government. They frequently behave this way in order to stay in the good graces of Donald Trump and in order to win an election.
As I have written elsewhere, (Iowa City Press Citizen, March 21, 2021), it astounds me that so many people appear to criticize Trump privately, but endorse him publicly. In particular it is distressing that elected officials behave this way. Is holding public office, which in this case often means being dishonest publicly, so important that one is willing to abandon one’s moral principles and integrity? Apparently for many it is. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote on Aug. 6, “So many Republicans have behaved grotesquely out of fear that Trump will turn on them.”
Thankfully, there are some who have spoken out against the big lie. Liz Cheney is one, though certainly there are others. She is willing to lose an election. She is willing to risk the wrath of many Republicans and of Donald Trump. Her public comments are commensurate with her private beliefs, and she will not succumb to the ITE. Liz Cheney realizes the dangers posed by both Donald Trump, as well as continued endorsement of the big lie. Speaking in June at the Ronald Reagan Library, she stated “Donald Trump attempted to overturn the presidential election, he attempted to stay in office and prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power …. The reality that we face today as Republicans, as we think about the choice in front of us, we have to choose, because Republicans cannot both be loyal to Donald Trump and loyal to the Constitution …” She also stated in an Aug. 6 interview with CNN: “Some things are more important than any individual office or political campaign.” Based on her recent comments the night of her primary defeat, clearly — and thankfully-- she intends to continue to fight for democracy and what is right.
I am sure we will continue to see endorsement of the big lie by many. However, the next time you encounter someone supporting it, consider introducing them to the concept of the ITE. And while it is of course unlikely that they will endorse the notion of the ITE, maybe it will at least give them pause, and they will consider the issue further. And just maybe they will stop endorsing the big lie — no matter how many times they hear it repeated.
John S. Westefeld is a professor emeritus of counseling psychology at the University of Iowa, and is board certified in counseling psychology. The opinions expressed are his own.