You’ve probably encountered someone who tells you his or her opinion on an issue more than once. Sometimes this is merely boring; sometimes it’s irritating and boring. What’s interesting – and a little unnerving – is that when a person repeats an opinion in different words, it makes us believe that opinion is more likely to represent the majority.
Kimberlee Weaver and her colleagues did a clever study to test this. They gave their study participants three statements of opinion that had been randomly chosen from statements made by a five-person focus group. Then they asked the participants to estimate how strongly the focus group as a whole felt about the issue, and how strongly people in the same situation (in this case, New Jersey homeowners) felt about it.
The sneaky part (because social psychology loves sneaky parts) is that the statements weren’t really randomly chosen. The participants always saw three statements that used different words and reasoning but expressed essentially the same opinion. However, half the participants were told that the statements all came from one focus group member, while the other half were told they came from three different members. (As a check, another group saw only one “randomly chosen” statement from one member.)
As you might expect, study participants who read similar statements from three different people believed that the focus group as a whole – and the larger population they represented – felt more strongly about the issue, compared to participants who had read only one statement.
However, I would have expected three statements from the same person to have the same impact as one statement from that person. Nope. Reading three statements from the same person had 90% of the effect of hearing the same statements from three different people. Weaver’s group tried several versions of the experiment and got the same results. Even repeating one statement in the same words had more effect than making the statement only once.
This shows that repetition increases the listener’s belief that that opinion represents the majority; it doesn’t necessarily change his or her own beliefs. However, as we’ve seen, the pull of peer pressure means that changing our sense of other people’s opinions can also change our own.
There’s a darker side to this. Older studies have shown that even when we’re told upfront that a statement is untrue, we’re more likely to believe it if it is repeated. This means that advertisers get nearly as much benefit from a widespread campaign debunking their claims as from advertising that supports them. It also means that expressing information in a “myth then fact” format can backfire.
Since I know that all my readers are on the side of truth, if you want your opinion to be perceived as the majority one, state it in positive terms and say it more than once. Express it repeatedly in different words. Assert it frequently, but vary the phrasing. Make your point on a regular basis using new terminology.
See what I did there? I knew you would.