A human year equates to seven dog years.
A man’s maternal grandfather determines whether he will go bald.
Dietary cholesterol raises blood cholesterol.
We use only 10% of our brains.
These statements are all false. The dog-to-human age ratio has been repeated since the thirteenth century, with zero scientific basis. The gene for baldness can be inherited from either side of your family. Eating cholesterol, as Dr. Peter Attia explains, “has very little impact on the cholesterol levels in your body.” And the 10% figure about the brain “is so wrong it is almost laughable,” explains neurologist Barry Gordon. Over the course of a day, we use 100% of our brains.
These are all facts—not opinions. Yet the misconceptions surrounding them have persisted for decades, for a simple reason: We’ve been repeating them over and over.
This principle of repetition has been the key to fueling toxic political propaganda over the centuries. “A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth,” explained Joseph Goebbels, the mastermind behind the Nazi propaganda machine. Adolf Hitler agreed: “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly: It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”
Repetition has become even easier with social media. Myths, once reported and retweeted, become the truth. When we see a piece of false information, our instinct is to correct it. But in repeating fake news in an attempt to dispel it, we end up unwittingly spreading the virus. People remember the myths rather than the opposing arguments.
Consider the myth regarding the link between autism and the MMR vaccine. In one study, researchers sent more than 1,700 parents one of four campaigns intended to increase MMR vaccination rates. The campaigns, which were adopted nearly verbatim from those used by federal agencies in the United States, ranged from textual information refuting the vaccine-autism link to graphic images of children who had developed diseases that could have been prevented by the vaccine. The study’s goal was to determine which campaign would be the most effective in overcoming parents’ reluctance to vaccinate their children.
None of the campaigns worked.
For parents with the least favorable attitude toward vaccines, the campaigns actually backfired and made the parents less likely to vaccinate their children. The fear appeal campaign—bearing tragic images of children suffering from measles—paradoxically increased already hesitant parents’ belief that the MMR vaccine causes autism.
So resist the urge to hit that retweet button. Don’t take the bait. Stop repeating false facts (as I did at the beginning of this post) or reposting that latest quip from your favorite demagogue.
Fake news won’t disappear. But at least we can drain it of the oxygen of repetition it needs to thrive.
[Inspirations for the post: Annie Duke, Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts and Tali Sharot, The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others].