How nicknames exploit a glitch in the human psyche that equates repetition and familiarity with truth.

By Katy Glynn
07/19/2019 • 11:50 AM EST

In 2016, Jeb Bush, the first two-term Republican governor for the state of Florida,[1] was anticipated to do well in the Republican primaries, due to his political clout and experience. When it came to the debates however, Bush was thoughtful and slow, yet undynamic, earning himself the nickname ‘Low Energy Jeb’.[2] It wasn’t long before Bush found it difficult to shake the branding and after finishing fourth in South Carolina and blowing through $130 million dollars,[3] he dropped out of the race early.

Following the success of this attack, the creator of that nickname, Donald Trump continued to assign nicknames to his competitors. Marco Rubio became ‘Little Marco’, [2] John Kasich, ‘1 for 38 Kasich’, [2] a reference to how few primary contests he had won, while Ted Cruz was given the epithet ‘Lyin’ Ted’ [2].  When Trump finally faced Clinton in the presidential race, he branded her ‘Crooked Hillary’[4] 

While these nicknames may appear to simply lampoon political opponents, when these reductive labelssee definition - pigeon-holing a person or group into a simple category and assigning names and/or beliefs to that category.
are repeated ad nauseumsee definition - repeating something over and over again, until it forms a mental association and/or becomes perceived as truth.
, they exploit an interesting glitch in the human psyche that equates repetition with truth. The act of nicknaming builds familiarity or “fluency” in the minds of an audience. When an individual hears something for a second or third time, the brain is able to process that information faster and then mistakes that ‘fluency’ for a sense of truth. This process creates an effect known as illusory truth, (or the illusion of truth effect) by which people begin to favor a concept or idea simply because it seems familiar to them.[5] Contrary to what one might expect, illusory truth occurs even when participants know the information they are hearing conflicts with what they already know to be true.[5]

The exploitation of this foible of human psychology is not exclusive to Donald Trump, as the same method was used effectively by Churchill over 50 years earlier. In a vicious comparison to a circus attraction, Churchill ridiculed former Labour Prime Minister, James MacDonald, calling him the ‘Boneless Wonder’[6], serving as a constant reminder to his lack of principle and indecisiveness when it came to domestic policies. Royal Navy Officer, Admiral Roebuck was also taunted by Churchill in this way. After having retreated from the Dardanelles Campaign in World War I, he was assigned the nickname ‘Admiral Row-Back’.[6] These damning epithets ensured that these figures were forever wedded to their weakest moments in the eyes of the public. 

What also makes the array of nicknames so effective is the combination of simplicity and familiarity that provokes the illusory truth effect. Thus, the act of repeating something, even if known to be repugnant, can eventually generate a sense of comfort. Nicknames that rely on racial stereotypes are good examples of this. Trump’s depiction of Elizabeth Warren as ‘Pocahontas’ plays on this approach, normalizing it until it becomes an amusing punchline. Churchill often took stabs at Gandhi, who he thought to be an elitist, posing as a champion of the downtrodden. Angered that he had been invited to the peace conferences taking place in London between Britain and India, Churchill began referring to Gandhi as ‘Half-naked Fakir’.[6] Even if the audience would not otherwise have condoned the use of racial slurs, the nickname condensed this generally unappealing message into a more digestible phrase which can create a sense of familiarity and ultimately agreement, while also be defended as harmless and jocular.

The nicknames employed by Trump and Churchill range from humorous, witty retorts to cruel, personalized attacks that seek to bully an opponent into submission or out of the public’s favor. What they reveal, however, beyond the nature of those who wield them, is our own vulnerability that predisposes us to assimilate them.

1. "When Did Jeb Bush Become the Smarter Brother?". The Washington Post. Published: September 14, 2015.

2. "Trump's nicknames for rivals, from 'Rocket Man' to 'Pocahontas'". Fox News. Published: August 13, 2020.

3. "How Jeb Bush Spent $130 Million Running for President With Nothing to Show for It". The New York Times. Published: September 22, 2016.

4. "Donald Trump is trying out a new nickname for Hillary Clinton". Business Insider. Published: May 20, 2016.

5. "How liars create the 'illusion of truth'". BBC. Published: October 26, 2016.

6. "Churchill's Potent Political Nicknames". Richard M. Langworth. Published: March 14, 2020.