As you may have noticed (if you haven’t been living under a rock for the last year), the general election is only a few months away.
While it’s hard to decipher when (if ever) a politician is telling the truth, one fact is glaringly obvious: The things we are exposed to repeatedly feel more true because of a mechanism known as cognitive ease.
Cognitive ease is a measure of how hard your brain is working. Watching funny cat videos on YouTube is easy. Hard is when you try to multiply 234 by 37.
Statements that are true generally elicit cognitive ease. When you hear things such as “Fire is hot, ice is cold, the Earth revolves around the Sun,” not only do they intuitively feel true, they also feel familiar.
The problem (or advantage if you are a politician) arises with the fact that cognitive ease can be achieved in other ways. In a recent experiment the University of Michigan Psychology Department conducted, researchers placed ads in the school newspaper.
Each ad consisted of only one of the following nonsense words: kardirga, ikifaf, biwonjni, nansoma, saricik. The ads asked readers if they thought these words meant something good or something bad.
Turns out that the more frequently a word appeared in the newspaper, the more people thought it meant something good. This experiment has since been repeated by several universities and confirms Michigan’s findings. However, the findings are even more general than that.
Other studies have shown that songs heard repeatedly on the radio are judged more favorably and participants looking at yearbook photos tend to consider the people in the photos more likable the more they see the photo.
Cognitive ease also is at the core of the advertising industry. The idea that is repeated often enough — from black carbonated sugar water that can shut down your kidneys, to erection pills that can give you a heart attack to Orangutan-looking narcissistic presidential candidates — can start to sound less dangerous and even somewhat appealing.
If you think about it, this comes down to basic biology. Our brains have evolved to identify threats and anything novel is a potential threat. But after repeated exposure, it becomes familiar and over time, a sign of safety instead of a threat. Was it really a surprise that Walter Cronkite eventually became known as the most trusted man in America?
So if your campaign manager is smart and wants to improve voters’ perceptions of your honesty and trustworthiness, don’t hide from radio or television, get your face out there and talk, just talk, then talk some more.
If it can work for a guy who thinks a wall can stop any individual with a ladder, some rope or a shovel and a three-day weekend from getting the best of it, then it can work for you.