New research reveals even if only one member of a group repeats their opinion, it is more likely to be seen by others as representative of the whole group.
A group of us are sat around shooting the breeze, talking about this that and everything else besides. Like all British people we always end up with a bit of weather-related chat when the conversation flags. And sure enough, before long, James is complaining about the unseasonably cool and wet weather that we’re having at the moment.
“It just flies in the face of all that ‘global warming’ crapola, right?” says James.
Now, like the others I know a little bad weather in the short-term doesn’t disprove a long-term trend. But, for whatever reason, I don’t say anything and neither does anyone else.
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He goes on: “Doesn’t it just make you wonder what’s really going on with all these environmental groups telling us we’re ruining the planet and all the rest?”
The power of repetition
This is starting to get me going a little – I actually think humans are ruining the environment and causing global warming. Again, though, I’m lazy and only mumble a few words in disagreement. I half think James is just trying to wind us up to get the conversation going. Still, I let it go.
There’s no more talk on the subject until much later when I’m with one of the group on his own. We start on about global warming and the environment again. It soon becomes clear that he’s been swayed by what James said earlier.
“Well no one really said anything against James and I just thought everyone agreed,” he explains. “I thought you guys were all up to date with this sort of thing being scientific types?”
I explained to him that James’ opinions probably bore no relation to what the rest of us thought – it’s just we hadn’t expressed our own opinions. I don’t think he believed me, which was annoying. It seemed the simple act of one person expressing their opinion loudly and clearly in a group setting had convinced him we all felt the same way. Unfortunately, knowing that group, I saw nothing could be further from the truth.
Our strange brains
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined exactly this situation to test how people judge the distribution of opinion.
The study, carried out by Kimberlee Weaver and colleagues, found we can tell that three different people expressing the same opinion better represents the group than one person expressing the same opinion three times – but not by much (Weaver et al., 2007).
In fact, if one person in a group repeats the same opinion three times, it has 90% of the effect of three different people in that group expressing the same opinion. When you think about it, that is strange. Indeed, I’m not sure I’d even believe it if I hadn’t already read many other psychology studies that point to the illogical and unreasonable ways our minds sometimes work.
Where does this effect come from? The authors argue it comes down to memory. Because repetition increases the accessibility of an opinion, we assume it has a high prevalence. In everyday life we are likely to hear the same opinion many times in different places. We then put all these together to judge the general mood of a group. When one person repeats their opinion, we simply over apply the rule.
Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt
The theme of this research is something that has been known and used by advertisers and influencers for decades. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt at all, it breeds attraction. Making your voice heard is the only way to let others know what you think. Otherwise they will think you agree with the loudest person.
Similarly, and more worryingly, when an opinion is repeatedly broadcast at us by the same organisation – think of a particular media conglomerate or an advertiser – we’re likely to come to believe it represents the general opinion. That’s despite the fact it is analogous to the same person repeating themselves over and over again.
So, next time James spouts off, I’ll make a point of speaking up. And make sure I repeat myself. Several times.
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This site is all about scientific research into how the mind works.
It’s mostly written by psychologist and author, Dr Jeremy Dean.
I try to dig up fascinating studies that tell us something about what it means to be human.