Aphorisms are pithy, memorable sayings or observations that we generally accept as truthful or wise. Examples: "An apple a day keeps the doctor away;" "Pride goeth before a fall;" "If you want a thing done well, do it yourself." Although we generally accept aphorisms as universally true, few of them are. For instance, there's no evidence that daily apple consumption ensures perfect health; indeed, there's abundant evidence to the contrary. Why then do we place so much faith in these pithy sayings?
An investigation of the matter was reported in 2000 by Matthew S. McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh [McGlone 2000], who found that aphorisms that rhyme were judged to be more accurate than their modified, nonrhyming versions. As McGlone and Tofighbakhsh put it, "the traditional analytic distinction between a statement's 'rhyme and reason' (i.e., form and content) is not always appreciated by readers; in some circumstances, rhyme may be treated as reason." They called the phenomenon the "'rhyme as reason' effect. It has since been widely referred to as the rhyme-as-reason effect. McGlone and Tofighbakhsh attribute this effect to what they call the Keats Heuristic [McGlone 1999], by which we humans conflate the validity of a phrase or statement with its aesthetic qualities. Since rhyme is an aesthetic quality, it endows a rhyming phrase with greater perceived validity. Not all aphorisms are rhymes, but the evidence suggests that a cognitive bias — the rhyme-as-reason effect — causes those aphorisms that do rhyme to gain perceived validity from the rhyme.
With this The rhyme-as-reason effect causes
us to confuse the validity of
a phrase with its aestheticspreface in mind, one might reasonably ask whether the rhyme-as-reason effect plays any role in how people regard various business-related concepts. Consider three examples: lean-and-mean, lift and shift, and slice and dice.
- To describe an organization as lean-and-mean is to imply that it's efficient, that it consumes the minimum level of resources consistent with accomplishing its objectives, and that it is singularly focused on reaching those objectives.
- The term rose dramatically in popularity starting in the 1980s. Even today its use connotes well-run operations, especially at the higher reaches of the org chart. This, despite ample evidence that financial performance isn't correlated with small leadership teams. [Goold 2005] Given the questions about the effectiveness of downsizing (especially downsizing of leadership teams), one wonders whether the lean-and-mean strategy would be as popular if it were called, say, efficient-and-focused.
- Lift and shift
- When migrating data processing and storage operations from a local on-premises infrastructure to a cloud-based architecture, people speak of "lift and shift" — lifting workload from local facilities and shifting them to the cloud.
- The term can make the cloud migration effort seem simpler than it actually is. Applications that have been "lifted and shifted" continue to operate as if they were on-premises. They don't take advantage of the new (cloud-based) environment because they were designed for the on-premises environment. To gain access to the full advantages of the cloud, the applications must be modified, sometimes extensively. In this way the rhyme of lift and shift connotes a crispness and completeness of the operation that might not actually pertain to the situation. A more accurate but less appealing term might be "the first step of migrating an application to the cloud."
- Slice and dice
- Said of the data in a database (or a collection of databases), to slice and dice is to perform a sequence of operations on subsets of the data that reveal useful information, usually in the form of connections and correlations that are not obvious initially. For example, examining usage data for several products together can reveal how customers are using two older products to avoid buying a third newer one.
- The term slice and dice is a rhyme, and it's cute, which accounts for some of its popularity. It evokes processes that are familiar from the home kitchen. Slicing and dicing at a professional level of skill requires weeks of practice. But at the nonprofessional level, the level with which most of us are familiar, the processes are rather menial.
- To regard analyzing the data in a set of databases as mere menial "slicing and dicing" is to risk regarding that analyzing activity as menial, which it most certainly is not. This error of thought can cause organizations to undervalue data analysis, and to undervalue the people who perform that function. But the term slice and dice is more appealing than the much more accurate — and much less loaded — data analysis.
The rhyme-as-reason effect is but one example of the results of our using the Keats Heuristic. Other devices that make phrases aesthetically appealing include alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. We'll examine them next time. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I
- We continue our exploration of confirmation bias, paying special attention to the consequences it causes
in the workplace. In this part, we explore its effects on our thinking.
- Cognitive Biases and Influence: I
- The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive
biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support.
- Neglect of Probability
- Neglect of Probability is a cognitive bias that leads to poor decisions. The risk of poor decisions
is elevated when we must select an option from a set in which some have outstandingly preferable possible
outcomes with low probabilities of occurring.
- Motivated Reasoning
- When we prefer a certain outcome of a decision process, we risk falling into a pattern of motivated
reasoning. That can cause us to gather data and construct arguments that erroneously lead to the
outcome we prefer, often outside our awareness. And it can happen even when the outcome we prefer is
known to threaten our safety and security.
- Risk Acceptance: One Path
- When a project team decides to accept a risk, and when their project eventually experiences that risk,
a natural question arises: What were they thinking? Cognitive biases, other psychological phenomena,
and organizational dysfunction all can play roles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
- And on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
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