Since the second I discovered concerning the idea of the “thought-terminating cliche” I’ve been seeing them in every single place I look: in televised political debates, in flouncily stencilled motivational posters, within the hashtag knowledge that clogs my social media feeds. Coined in 1961 by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, the phrase describes a catchy platitude geared toward shutting down or bypassing unbiased considering and questioning. I first heard concerning the tactic whereas researching a guide concerning the language of cult leaders, however these sayings additionally pervade our on a regular basis conversations: expressions similar to “It’s what it’s”, “Boys might be boys”, “The whole lot occurs for a motive” and “Don’t overthink it” are acquainted examples.

From populist politicians to holistic wellness influencers, anybody all for energy is ready to weaponise thought-terminating cliches to dismiss followers’ dissent or rationalise flawed arguments. In his guide Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Lifton wrote that these semantic cease indicators compress “essentially the most far-reaching and complicated of human issues … into temporary, extremely selective, definitive-sounding phrases, simply memorized and simply expressed. They grow to be the beginning and end of any ideological evaluation.”

Such zingy inventory phrases are having fun with one thing of a golden age within the digital period, propagated by the use of aesthetically pleasing quotegrams and viral social media posts. Throughout Covid lockdowns, dogmatic maxims similar to “Actuality is subjective”, “Don’t let your self be dominated by worry” and “Fact is a assemble” exploded amongst on-line conspiracy theorists.

Thought-terminating cliches exist, in fact, in each language. In China, some authorities officers are identified to use the phrase “Mei banfa”, that means “No answer”, or “There’s nothing to be performed” to justify inaction. The saying “Shouganai”, a linguistic shrug of resignation just like “It’s what it’s”, is equally weaponised in Japan. The Polish idiom “Co wolno wojewodzie, to nie tobie, smrodzie” roughly means “Folks in positions of energy can get away with something” (therefore, don’t hassle placing up a combat). Based on Walter Scheirer, creator of A Historical past of Pretend Issues on the Web, thought-terminating cliches generally carry a defeatist flavour. It’s arduous work, involving psychological friction, to determine one of the best ways to consider advanced topics similar to local weather coverage or geopolitics. Any licence to surrender the wrestle goes to be interesting.

Tobia Spampatti, a choice scientist on the College of Geneva, argues that such phrases grow to be particularly problematic when wielded by politicians with decision-making energy. In 2023, Australian conservatives used the rhyming slogan “Should you don’t know, vote no” to discourage residents from supporting a constitutional modification that may have afforded Indigenous individuals illustration in parliament. Spampatti, who research the connection between data processing and beliefs about local weather change, says disinformation tends to spike round main occasions, like elections and local weather offers. That’s when thought-terminating cliches do their wiliest work. Examples used to squash environmental efforts vary from “Local weather change is a hoax” and “Scientists have a political agenda” to “Local weather change is pure” (or the associated “The local weather has all the time modified”), “People will adapt” and “It’s too late to do something now”.

Sadly, mere consciousness of such methods is just not all the time sufficient to assist us resist their affect. For this, we are able to blame the “illusory reality impact” – a cognitive bias outlined by the unconscious but pervasive tendency to belief an announcement just because we’ve got heard it a number of instances. Reminiscence scientist Lisa Fazio has discovered that we’re so primed to confuse an announcement’s familiarity with veracity that the bias persists even when listeners are warned to look out for it, even when they’re explicitly informed the supply was untrustworthy. “A few of these cliches catch on not essentially as a result of we consider them to be true however as a result of they really feel snug and are straightforward to know,” she says.

Prior to now, repetition was a good clue {that a} assertion was dependable. Once we hear a chunk of data again and again, that’s an indication it has come from a number of sources and is extra prone to be true than a one-off factoid. “Our brains decide up early on in improvement that these cues are related to reality, however this will go improper in conditions with plenty of ambient misinformation [like social media],” Fazio says.

Of the various cognitive biases that silently govern our decision-making, the illusory reality impact is among the most potent. There’s actually no strategy to forestall or fight it, says Spampatti, as “even elevating consciousness of this threat doesn’t decrease its effectiveness”. To compete within the market of thought-terminating cliches, then, our greatest guess could be to take what we find out about illusory reality and harness it to unfold correct data.

Past repetition, research present that folks understand statements as extra plausible when offered in easy-to-read fonts or easy-to-understand speech types, similar to rhyme. In up to date research of the so-called rhyme-as-reason impact, researchers discovered that individuals usually charge the phrase “Woes unite foes” as extra truthful than “Woes unite enemies”, regardless that they imply the identical factor. And a 2021 examine confirmed that humour is among the many qualities that make data extra memorable and shareable. A titbit is “simply extra prone to unfold if it’s humorous”, says Scheirer.

It doesn’t solely must be shameless disinformers who exploit the ability of repetition, rhyme, pleasing graphics and humorous memes. “Keep in mind, it’s OK to repeat true data,” says Fazio. “Folks want reminders of what’s true,” similar to the truth that vaccines are protected and local weather change is pushed by our actions.

“I believe it’s higher to create our personal catchy phrases – ‘There isn’t any planet B’ involves thoughts – and repeat them,” suggested Spampatti. Within the pursuit of spreading sense throughout mindless instances, it’s absolutely value sounding a bit cliched.

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

Additional studying

Metaphors We Dwell 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 Trade: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media by Emily Hund (Princeton, £25)


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