Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Repeat, repeat and keep repeating: The Big Lie

“The Big Lie” was a propaganda technique used by Adolf Hitler. It involves repeating a big lie over and over again, in spite of all the arguments or evidence to the contrary, until people believed it. Hitler explained his Big Lie technique in “Mein Kampf” – a 1925 autobiographical manifesto by the Nazi leader: “ In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility…minds more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehood”. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, later refined the technique in 1930s: “ If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it” (Camenker, 2015).

There are various studies that have demonstrated how message repetition might work as a powerful tool to convince and persuade others of one’s argument, perhaps this correlation can be explained by increased statement credibility. According to Koch and Zerback’s study (2013), there is a positive relationship between moderate repetition of a persuasive message and statement credibility –known as the “truth effect”. However, this truth effect has also been suggested to vanish or reverse if the message is repeated too frequently. The researchers have found that in such cases, people tend to perceive the repeated message as a persuasive attempt.

Koch and Zerback’s study (2013) consisted a total of 167 participants, who were instructed to read a newspaper article of about 600 words in length. The article was about microcredit loans that were given to poorer population segments in emerging nations, serving as a start-up capital for microenterprises. One section of the article consisted of an interview with Mr. Yunas – the founder of the microcredit loan system in which the statement “microcredits reduced poverty in emerging nations” (independent variable) was presented. Five versions of the interview was produced, which were identical expect for the message frequency.

Number of times the statement “microcredits reduced poverty in emerging countries” was presented to participants
Control Group (CG)
Did not receive the statement

After reading the article, the researchers measured the participants’ assessment of statement credibility, by asking the participants to judge whether they believed 3 claims regarding the effect of microcredit loans on poverty to either be right or wrong. This was done on a 5-point Likert scale. Similarly, Koch and Zerback (2013) also assessed whether the participants realised that they were exposed to an attempt at persuasion by instructing them to rate the following items on a 5-point Likert scale:

1.   “I had the feeling that Mr. Yunus wanted to convince the reader of his standpoint”
2.  “Mr. Yunus wanted to convince me of his views”

(Please not that there were also other variables, which were investigated in this study – for example: reactance and communicator credibility – but for the purposes of this blog I have chosen to only focus on the following variables: statement credibility, perceived intent to persuade and the number of times the statement was presented)

As a result, statement repetition frequency yielded a positive effect on perceived statement credibility (β = .17, p < .05). Thus, the more often the participants read the statement “microcredit loans have reduced poverty in emerging nations” in the newspaper article, the more likely they were to believe it. However, in contrast, participants who were presented with the statement very often were significantly likely to identify the stimulus material as an attempt to persuade,  (β = .29, p < .001). So in fact, an indirect and negative effect was identified when repetition of the message was taken too far, thus participants started to doubt the overall credibility of the message. These results are illustrated in the causal diagram below: 

From this study, it can be concluded that Hitler’s Big Lie Propaganda technique would probably work, but only to an extent. The credibility of a statement increases if it is repeated, but weakens or even reverses with more frequent repetition.  

Camenker, B. (2015). The Big Lie and the propaganda war. Retrieved 21 January 2015, from
Koch, T., & Zerback, T. (2013). Helpful or Harmful? How Frequent Repetition Affects Perceived Statement Credibility. Journal Of Communication, 63(6), 993-1010.

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