If you are seeking positive change, you know your language choice matters. Your nightmare is to inadvertently use a word that triggers a frame in opposition to the change you want to see. Worse yet is to witness a counter-productive frame or an outright lie being repeated over and over again. Let’s look at why repetition matters, why what changemakers focus on matters, and what you can do to be sure you are advancing your mission rather than hurting it.
Why repetition matters
As you may know or have read recently, the illusion-of-truth effect can make a fallacy repeated often enough seem true. The concept was originally attributed to a quote from Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
The psychological bias or “cognitive ease” that is behind the illusion-of-truth effect has been supported over the years in academic research studies. Because it takes more mental effort to repeatedly sort fact from fiction, we humans use mental shortcuts that favor the familiar or often-repeated statement. (This is the cognitive basis for much of modern-day advertising, branding, and promotion.)
A brief video on the illusion-of-truth effect from the science group Veritasium brings the concept to life.
Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow goes into much more depth on cognitive ease and ranks as one of my favorite resources on mental processes because it offers practical tips on how to guard against the mental glitches and biases that lead us astray.
But not everyone will be on guard against the effects of repetition, which is why focus and message framing become essential for changemakers.
Why focus matters
C.S. Penn reminded me in one of his recent weekly newsletters of a wonderful phrase used by Seth Godin: the obligation of the weird. (In this context, weird means outside the current social norm — that is, not what most people and mass markets are doing.) The obligation of the weird means that whatever you want to see more of, you must support in substantial, tangible ways, and conversely, if you want to see less of something, stop repeating what they say or do. To me, the obligation of the weird is all about focus.
“If you want more operas to get written then you better go buy all the new operas that are available on dvd or cd; because if you don’t buy them no more of them are going to get made. If you read about something on boing boing that seems to appeal to your tribe, that someone’s written a great short story about unicorns and you’re into unicorns or someone has come up with a piece of furniture that’s also a drum set and you’re fascinated by it, you have an obligation to buy it right now. Because if you don’t and you’re one of the few members of this weird tribe, don’t expect that the world is going to make more stuff for your tribe. …
And there’s a really fascinating thing to talk about here. If you look at the Amazon best seller list all the time, in the top 25 books are books that appeal to Fox News viewers. All the time. And there’s almost no books that would appeal to the kind of person who listens to Air America radio, the kind of person who’s on the progressive side of the scale. Why? And the reason is because when Glenn Beck says go buy a book, 50,000 people rush and go get it. And that act and the fact that publishers know that’s going on, gets publishers to publish more books for that tribe.” From a 2011 Marketing with Coffee podcast interview with Seth Godin on his book, We Are All Weird.
Focus for changemakers
Do you want to minimize the impact of a person, group, or cause? Stop repeating them. Stop talking about them, stop thinking about them, stop reminding people of their existence. Refer to them only in contrast. “While X is promoting that, we believe Y is the better solution, and here’s why…” Focus your communication efforts. Using a message triangle helps to keep you on track.
The old Cherokee legend about the two wolves fighting for dominance illustrates the tried and true wisdom of a focused approach. The wolf you feed will win.
If you are a changemaker seeking positive change, fulfill your obligation of the weird, and feed the wolf you want to win — frame your messages to focus the vast majority of your strength and energy on what you want to fight for, not what you fight against.
Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach, by Shankar Vedantam in Washington Post, 2007
Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, World Catalog
The Illusion of Truth by Veritasium [VIDEO]
Message Framing and Your Brain: Formula for change, Change Conversations
On the Power of Words, Labels and Language: Do No Harm, Change Conversations
How to Remove the Curse of Knowledge from Your Writing, Change Conversations
Changing Minds: Frames Matter More Than Facts, Change Conversations