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Don't Tell Me Again

By Richard Morin
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page B05

You might remember Hitler's Big Lie Theory: Tell people something is true often enough and they'll come to believe it.

Now, a team of psychologists say their experiments have revealed a new twist to that perverse postulation: Repeatedly tell older people that something is false and a few days later they'll think it is true -- a phenomenon that makes senior citizens particularly susceptible to misleading marketing campaigns, these researchers claim.

"The key result highlights an extremely undesirable . . . side effect of the warnings: The more often older adults were told that a claim was false, the more likely they were to remember it erroneously as true after a three-day delay," reported Norbert Schwarz and Carolyn Yoon of the University of Michigan, Ian Skurnik of the University of Toronto and Denise C. Park of the University of Illinois in the March issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Their study involved 32 men and women who were 25 years old or younger and an equal number of adults older than 70. All participants were screened to make sure they were free of any serious medical disorders or mental impairments. Then they were shown statements about medical claims that were immediately identified as being true or false; researchers called this the "study" phase of the experiment.

Some statements and cues as to their accuracy appeared only once; others appeared three times. A half-hour later, the participants were tested to see if they could correctly identify the statements as true or false. Three days later, they were tested again.

Of course, both groups were more successful at remembering which statements were true when tested 30 minutes after the study phase. Three days later, both groups made more mistakes. But what was particularly interesting to the researchers was the difference that repetition had on the two age groups.

As might be expected, the younger adults were more likely to correctly remember both true and false statements if they saw the statement and accompanying cue more than once in the study phase of the experiment. Repetition, in other words, strengthened the young participants' memories.

Not so for the older participants. Far from improving their memories, repetition of the false information made them more likely to identify a false statement as true than if they saw it only once. In all, the older crowd incorrectly identified 40 percent of the false claims as being true after repeatedly seeing the statements and cues, compared to 28 percent after one viewing.

And to add to the mystery, older people were more likely to correctly recall that a statement was true after the longer delay -- it was the false ones they mixed up.

The Look-Alike Vote

Are people more inclined to vote for candidates who look like them? Your Unconventional Wiz never thought to ask. But four researchers at Stanford University did -- and then devised a clever way to find out.

Their preliminary conclusions: Men were significantly more likely to support a candidate who resembled them. But among women, just the opposite was true, though that result may have as much to do with the vagaries of the test as with the actual preferences of female voters, reported Jeremy N. Bailenson, Philip Garland, Shanto Iyengar and Nick Yee of Stanford's communications department.

The study team tested 72 undergraduates, who were divided into groups and seated in front of a computer monitor where each was shown a photograph of a fictitious Democratic candidate named "Tom Steele." Half the respondents saw a photo that had not been altered in any way.

The other half saw a computer-generated version that had been "morphed" with a photo of the student to produce an image that contained 40 percent of the participant's facial characteristics.

That's so cool was the Wiz's reaction (although when he glanced at the two altered photos published in the study, he thought they looked a whole lot more like the undiluted Tom Steele than like either of the students whose facial features had been morphed into the original).

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