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The big idea: the simple trick that can sabotage your critical thinking
Culture Science

The big idea: the simple trick that can sabotage your critical thinking

Since the moment I learned about the concept of the “thought-terminating cliche” I’ve been seeing them everywhere I look: in televised political debates, in flouncily stencilled motivational posters, in the hashtag wisdom that clogs my social media feeds. Coined in 1961 by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, the phrase describes a catchy platitude aimed at shutting down or bypassing independent thinking and questioning. I first heard about the tactic while researching a book about the language of cult leaders, but these sayings also pervade our everyday conversations: expressions such as “It is what it is”, “Boys will be boys”, “Everything happens for a reason” and “Don’t overthink it” are familiar examples.

From populist politicians to holistic wellness influencers, anyone interested in power is able to weaponise thought-terminating cliches to dismiss followers’ dissent or rationalise flawed arguments. In his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Lifton wrote that these semantic stop signs compress “the most far-reaching and complex of human problems … into brief, highly selective, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. They become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”

Such zingy stock phrases are enjoying something of a golden age in the digital era, propagated by way of aesthetically pleasing quotegrams and viral social media posts. During Covid lockdowns, dogmatic maxims such as “Reality is subjective”, “Don’t let yourself be ruled by fear” and “Truth is a construct” exploded among online conspiracy theorists.

Thought-terminating cliches exist, of course, in every language. In China, some government officials are known to exploit the phrase “Mei banfa”, meaning “No solution”, or “There’s nothing to be done” to justify inaction. The saying “Shouganai”, a linguistic shrug of resignation similar to “It is what it is”, is similarly weaponised in Japan. The Polish idiom “Co wolno wojewodzie, to nie tobie, smrodzie” roughly means “People in positions of power can get away with anything” (hence, don’t bother putting up a fight). According to Walter Scheirer, author of A History of Fake Things on the Internet, thought-terminating cliches commonly carry a defeatist flavour. It’s hard work, involving psychological friction, to figure out the best way to think about complex subjects such as climate policy or geopolitics. Any licence to give up the struggle is going to be appealing.

Tobia Spampatti, a decision scientist at the University of Geneva, argues that such phrases become especially problematic when wielded by politicians with decision-making power. In 2023, Australian conservatives used the rhyming slogan “If you don’t know, vote no” to discourage citizens from supporting a constitutional amendment that would have afforded Indigenous people representation in parliament. Spampatti, who studies the relationship between information processing and beliefs about climate change, says disinformation tends to spike around major events, like elections and climate deals. That’s when thought-terminating cliches do their wiliest work. Examples used to squash environmental efforts range from “Climate change is a hoax” and “Scientists have a political agenda” to “Climate change is natural” (or the related “The climate has always changed”), “Humans will adapt” and “It’s too late to do anything now”.

Unfortunately, mere awareness of such tricks is not always enough to help us resist their influence. For this, we can blame the “illusory truth effect” – a cognitive bias defined by the unconscious yet pervasive tendency to trust a statement simply because we have heard it multiple times. Memory scientist Lisa Fazio has found that we are so primed to confuse a statement’s familiarity with veracity that the bias persists even when listeners are warned to look out for it, even when they are explicitly told the source was untrustworthy. “Some of these cliches catch on not necessarily because we believe them to be true but because they feel comfortable and are easy to understand,” she says.

In the past, repetition was a decent clue that a statement was reliable. When we hear a piece of information over and over again, that’s a sign it has come from multiple sources and is more likely to be true than a one-off factoid. “Our brains pick up early on in development that these cues are associated with truth, but this can go wrong in situations with a lot of ambient misinformation [like social media],” Fazio says.

Of the many cognitive biases that silently govern our decision-making, the illusory truth effect is one of the most potent. There’s really no way to prevent or combat it, says Spampatti, as “even raising awareness of this risk does not lower its effectiveness”. To compete in the marketplace of thought-terminating cliches, then, our best bet might be to take what we know about illusory truth and harness it to spread accurate information.

Beyond repetition, studies show that people perceive statements as more believable when presented in easy-to-read fonts or easy-to-understand speech styles, such as rhyme. In contemporary studies of the so-called rhyme-as-reason effect, researchers found that participants generally rate the phrase “Woes unite foes” as more truthful than “Woes unite enemies”, even though they mean the same thing. And a 2021 study showed that humour is among the qualities that make information more memorable and shareable. A titbit is “just more likely to spread if it’s funny”, says Scheirer.

It doesn’t only have to be shameless disinformers who exploit the power of repetition, rhyme, pleasing graphics and funny memes. “Remember, it’s OK to repeat true information,” says Fazio. “People need reminders of what’s true,” such as the fact that vaccines are safe and climate change is driven by our actions.

“I think it is better to create our own catchy phrases – ‘There is no planet B’ comes to mind – and repeat them,” advised Spampatti. In the pursuit of spreading sense during senseless times, it’s surely worth sounding a bit cliched.

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Amanda Montell is a linguist and the author of The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality (Thorsons).

Further reading

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Chicago, £7.99)

Going Mainstream: How Extremists Are Taking Over by Julia Ebner (Bonnier, £16.99)

The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media by Emily Hund (Princeton, £25)

Source: theguardian.com