The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect: Why We Find Reason in Rhyme, Time After Time 

Over the years, marketers, campaigners, and politicians have successfully used rhyming slogans as a tool to persuade people that their product, idea, or candidate is the right choice for them; “A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play,” “Lead the scene and keep it green,” “I like Ike.” Why is this tactic so effective?

What is the rhyme-as-reason effect?

The rhyme-as-reason effect refers to our tendency to perceive rhyming statements as more truthful than those that don’t rhyme; “What sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals” seems somehow more accurate than “What sobriety conceals, alcohol unmasks.”

(The bias is sometimes referred to as the “Eaton-Rosen phenomenon,” although this term seems to originate from a random entry made by an anonymous Wikipedia user in 2013.)

The seminal study

The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect was identified in 1999 by psychologists Matthew McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh, who set out to show how poetic structure can influence our perception of truth. They gathered a group of pithy aphorisms and created new ones, losing the rhyme but keeping the meaning; “Woes unite foes” became “Woes unite enemies,” and “Life is mostly strife” became “Life is mostly struggle.” They then asked a group of volunteers to judge the validity of the statements. On average, the rhyming aphorisms were judged to be 22% more accurate than the non-rhyming ones.[1]

Other experiments have had similar results, including one that showed that rhyming slogans were more likable, trustworthy, persuasive, and original than their non-rhyming counterparts, as well as easier to remember and more suitable for ad campaigns.[2] The effect was found to be more effective for advertising products — like Coke or cars — than it was for advertising on social issues such as human rights issues or environmental activism. This is possibly because people tend to have strong opinions on social issues and are less likely to be persuaded to change their opinion by a slogan.

But perhaps the most high-profile and infamous example of the bias comes from the 1995 trial of former NFL star O. J. Simpson. Simpson had been accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman, and one of the pieces of evidence presented in the case was a leather glove that had been found at the scene of the crime.

The glove contained DNA evidence from Brown, Simpson, and Goldman, and it had been bought by Brown for Simpson. But when Simpson was asked to put it on, he was unable to squeeze his hand into it. This prompted his defense lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, to famously declare to the jury, “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” It didn’t, so they did, and in the ensuing controversy, the rhyming remark was accused of having helped to bring about the questionable acquittal.

How does it work

The rhyme-as-reason effect has been attributed to several interrelated cognitive mechanisms, including improved aesthetics, increased fluency, and increased familiarity.

Rhyming makes statements sound more beautiful to people, and that, in turn, makes the statements seem more truthful or accurate, something the authors of the original paper called “the Keats heuristic,” after the famous poet who once asserted that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Because of our natural tendency to find rhymes aesthetically pleasing, we tend to overlook the distinction between the form and content of the phrases. As a result, we treat rhyme as reason.

A similar phonetic appeal has recently been shown to extend to antimetabolic statements — those in which the words in the first half of a sentence are inverted in the second half, like “All for one and one for all.” In this experiment,[3] “Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get” was judged more accurate than “Success is getting what you wish. Happiness is wanting what you receive.”

Rhyming — and antimetabolic — statements also benefit from increased fluency. Fluency makes statements easier for our brains to process, and this makes us feel good. However, because this happens subconsciously, we have a tendency to conflate the ease with which we understand a statement with its accuracy. The faster and smoother we can process a statement, the more likely we are to assign value to the information that it contains and to believe that it’s true.[4]

Finally, two different features of memory — recollection and familiarity — also profoundly impact our perception of a statement’s value.[5] We are more likely to rely on information that is easy for us to bring to mind, and rhyming statements are easier to recall than statements that don’t rhyme because they are more easily encoded by our brains. This is thanks in large part to the way visual and acoustic encoding works. During these processes, each word is broken down into its phonemes, and since rhymes end each line with a similar sound, they are quicker to encode and easier to recall. In fact, people are twice as likely to remember rhyming statements as they are statements that don’t rhyme.[6]

Rhyming aphorisms also benefit from being catchy and appealing, making them more likely to be repeated. Most of us seem to work on the assumption that the more something is repeated, the more likely it is to be true, possibly because, all things being equal, speakers generally try to be informative and helpful, and true statements are more likely to be repeated than are false ones.[7] Ultimately, because our memory’s function is to store important information for later use, our recollection of and familiarity with rhyming phrases leads us to attribute more credibility and accuracy to their content.

How to avoid it

Happily, though the rhyme-as-reason effect is insidious, it is also quite easy to neutralize. In a follow-up to their original study, McGlone and Tofighbakhsh pitted new aphorisms like “Caution and measure will bring you treasure” against non-melodic counterparts like “Caution and measure will bring you riches.” Unlike in their previous study, however, they specifically told the participants to base their judgments on the accuracy of the claim itself and not the poetic form of the phrase; this time, the accuracy ratings of the rhyming aphorisms were markedly lower.[8]

The key to defending yourself against this bias is to understand what it is and to be wary of rhetorical rhyming statements. You can eliminate a rhyming statement’s power by re-phrasing the original information in your own words and judging its content in order to see if it holds true or not. So, while you might hope that drinking liquor before beer puts you in the clear, past experience or a quick search on the internet should be enough to tell you that, if you want to avoid feeling sick, your best bet is to avoid drinking too much of anything, in any order. Sadly, just because something sounds catchy doesn’t mean that it’s true.

References:

  1. McGlone, M. S., & Tofighbakhsh, J. (1999). The Keats heuristic: Rhyme as reason in aphorism interpretation. Poetics, 26(4), 235-244.
  2. Filkuková, P., & Klempe, S. H. (2013). Rhyme as reason in commercial and social advertising. Scandinavian journal of psychology, 54(5), 423-431.
  3. Kara-Yakoubian, M., Walker, A. C., Sharpinskyi, K., Assadourian, G., Fugelsang, J. A., & Harris, R. A. (2022). Beauty and truth, truth and beauty: Chiastic structure increases the subjective accuracy of statements. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie expérimentale. Advance online publication.
  4. Reber, R., & Schwarz, N. (1999). Effects of perceptual fluency on judgments of truth. Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal, 8(3), 338-342.
  5. Begg, I. M., Anas, A., & Farinacci, S. (1992). Dissociation of processes in belief: Source recollection, statement familiarity, and the illusion of truth. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 121(4), 446-458.
  6. Shotton, R. (2017, October 9). The power of rhyme. The Media Leader. the-media-leader.com/the-power-of-rhyme/
  7. Arkes, H. R., Hackett, C., & Boehm, L. (1989). The generality of the relation between familiarity and judged validity. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 2(2), 81-94.
  8. McGlone, M. S., & Tofighbakhsh, J. (2000). Birds of a Feather Flock Conjointly (?): Rhyme as Reason in Aphorisms. Psychological Science, 11(5), 424-428.

Psychology