The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

Repetition is Persuasion

I have a simple new model of how persuasion works. The more you hear a message, the more persuasive you find it. That’s it. That’s the model.

Okay, so it’s not entirely a “new” model. I suspect that many people already believe something like this – in part. They also think that the message itself matters. But what if it doesn’t? The radical claim of this model is that quantity >> quality. Consistency and coherence matter MUCH less than pure repetition. Notably, this theory that repetition is persuasion is inconsistent with the “marketplace of ideas” theory that good ideas tend to triumph over bad. If the bad ideas are repeated more, they will dominate.

The useful takeaway – and I hadn’t appreciated this until I thought it through today – is that how much you hear a message isn’t fixed. It’s something that both you and others can control. And it has some important corollaries:

  1. People are resistant to ideas that are incompatible with their existing beliefs because they don’t hear those ideas often – and they don’t hear those ideas often because they’re incompatible with their existing beliefs.
  2. Forcing or bribing people to listen to a challenging perspective for an extended time is actually effective, because you need repetition.
  3. Going out and repeatedly exposing yourself to a challenging idea can go terribly wrong, because avoiding repetition is our first line of defense against bad ideas. You could end up believing anything.
  4. Algorithmic nudges and filter bubbles have real impacts, because they can result in extended exposure to particular ideas instead of others over time.
  5. The most useful people to persuade are those who don’t already agree with you, but they are also the hardest to get to listen. Most political speech is preaching to the choir.
  6. Preaching to the choir is a central part of politics because it is how you hold a group together: through constant, unceasing yet ever-changing repetition of the same core messages.

Exercise for the reader: if this model of persuasion is true, what would an ideal system of free-speech law look like? Bonus question: what would an ideal system of content moderation look like?