June 16, 2024

Ssince the moment I learned about the concept of the “thought-terminating cliche,” I’ve seen them everywhere I look: in political debates on television, in flashy motivational posters, in the hashtag wisdom that fills my social media feeds clogged. Coined in 1961 by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, the phrase describes a catchy platitude that aims to shut down or circumvent independent thought and questioning. I first heard of the tactic while reading a book about the language of cult leadersbut these sayings also permeate our everyday conversations: expressions like “It is what it is”, “Boys will be boys”, “Everything happens for a reason” and “Don’t think about it” are well-known examples.

From populist politicians to holistic wellness influencers, anyone interested in power is capable of weaponizing thought-terminating clichés to dismiss followers’ opponents or rationalize flawed arguments. In his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Lifton wrote that these semantic punctuation “compresses the most far-reaching and complex of human problems … into short, highly selective, definite-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. They become the beginning and end of any ideological analysis.”

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

Thought-ending clichés naturally exist in every language. In China, some government officials have been known to use the phrase “May banfa“, which means”No solution”, or “There is nothing to be done” to justify inaction. The saying “Shouganai”, a linguistic shrug of resignation akin to “It is what it is”, is similarly weaponized in Japan. The Polish idiom “Co wolno wojewodzie, to nie tobie, smrodzie” roughly means “People in positions of power can get away with anything” (so don’t bother putting up a fight). According to Walter Scheirer, author of A history of fake things on the internet, thought-ending cliches usually carry a defeatist flavor. Figuring out the best way to think about complex topics like climate policy or geopolitics is hard work, involving psychological friction. Any license to give up the fight is going to be tempting.

Tobia Spampatti, a decision expert at the University of Geneva, argues that such phrases become particularly problematic when used by politicians with decision-making power. In 2023, Australian Conservatives have the rhyming slogan “If you don’t know, vote no” to discourage citizens from supporting a constitutional amendment that would have allowed indigenous people representation in parliament. Spampatti, who studies the relationship between information processing and beliefs about climate change, says disinformation tends to rise around major events, such as elections and climate agreements. This is when thought-terminating clichés do their smartest work. Examples used to thwart 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 adjust” 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’ve heard it multiple times. Memory scientist Lisa Fazio has found that we are so primed to mistake a statement’s familiarity for truth that the bias persists even when listeners are warned to be aware of it, even when they are explicitly told that the source is unreliable. “Some of these clichés happen, 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, it’s a sign that it came from multiple sources and is more likely to be true than a one-time fact. “Our brains realize early in development that these cues are associated with truth, but this can go wrong in situations with a lot of surrounding misinformation [like social media],” Fazio said.

Of the many cognitive biases that silently govern our decision-making, the illusory truth effect is one of the most powerful. There is really no way to prevent or combat it, says Spampatti, since “even being aware of this risk does not reduce its effectiveness”. To compete in the market of mind-ending clichés, then, our best bet may be to take what we know about illusory truth and harness it to spread accurate information.

In addition to repetition, studies show that people perceive statements as more credible when they are written in easy-to-read fonts or easy to understand speech styles, like rhyme. In contemporary studies of the so-called rhyme-as-reason effect, researchers found that participants generally rated the phrase “Frenzy unites enemies” as more true than “Frenzy unites enemies,” even though they mean the same thing. And a 2021 study showed that humor is one of the qualities that make information more memorable and shareable. A bit is “just more likely to spread if it’s funny”, says Scheirer.

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

“I think it’s better to create our own catchphrases — ‘There is no Planet B’ comes to mind — and repeat them,” Spampatti advised. In the quest to spread sense in senseless times, it is surely worth sounding a little cliche.

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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 Take Over by Julia Ebner (Bonnier, £16.99)

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

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