Truth vs. the Illusory Truth Effect Part 1: Repeating is Believing

By: Ruth A. S. Nichols, M.A., M.A., CFLE p
Last Update: December 19, 2017

The Illusory Truth Effect and Your Divorce Case  

If a statement is repeated often enough, it becomes the truth for the listener. This is the illusory truth effect: repetition creates a sense of validity, in essence, repeating is believing.

Anyone of a difficult divorce knows the feelings of devastation and helplessness when your ex tells a story casting you as the villain. They believe the scenario is true; however, you know this is yet another tale of lies. Sadly, the untruths are shared with family and friends and sometimes co-workers. The destruction cuts to the core even deeper when the disinformation is deliberately conveyed to your child.

This is important information in high-conflict divorces because repetition supersedes prior knowledge. Your child may recall a close and loving relationship with you yet, the illusory truth effect means your child perceives the repeated negative statements as the truth. Negative statements, albeit false, are replacing what they know to be true by the false statements they are hearing. In essence, constant exposure to the negative facts becomes your child’s new reality.

High-Conflict Divorce Cases May See a Parent Utilizing the Illusory Truth Effect

In high-conflict divorce, sometimes one parent uses the illusory truth effect to lead your child to believe you do not want to see or talk to them, or you do not care about your child; but nothing could be further from the truth. What you want is the opportunity to protect your child. Instead, your child is embroiled in the bitter battle called the illusory truth effect.

The illusory truth effect is a concept evolving from a 1977 study, but recent research challenged the findings revealing repeated statements are easier for the mind to process as there is a sense of familiarity when hearing the information again. The brain perceives this as ordinary information and processes the material quicker. The mind is concluding the fact as a true statement faster because this is now common knowledge.

Despite the fact that most parents teach their children not to lie, the illusory truth effect demonstrates that parents lie too. Like most relationships, trust is the groundwork for a strong parent and child bond. A child willingly and whole-heartedly believes what their parents say, and things do not need to make perfect sense because the child trusts their parents and expecting to hear the truth is natural.

Parents or parent figures are the backbones to the heart and soul of children. If we did not have parents our society would be different. When parents are kind and loving they want the best for their children. Parents are influential with the power to instill a sense of belief creating a strong foundation for the child to grow.

Children love and trust both parents; this is what makes the illusory truth irrevocably damaging. Who is speaking truths or untruths is not your child’s issue. Adding insult to injury, spouting lies about the child’s other parent is like putting a knife in their little heart.

Children Are More Vulnerable to the Illusory Truth Effect

Intensifying this even more, a key point revealed in recent research shows the illusory truth effect may be more powerful when individuals are distracted or tired. A child within the throes of a high-conflict divorce may experience both, making a child more vulnerable to the facts directed at them.

Why are the lies harmful to your child? Children are not emotionally equipped to differentiate the illusory truth from lies. More importantly, parents are purposefully altering their children’s lives. All children have a right to enjoy a caring, kind, and loving relationship with both parents, and they too are entitled to the opportunity to parent and protect their child.

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