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Volume 19, Issue 50;   December 11, 2019: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect

The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect

by

Last updated: December 11, 2019

When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, humans tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics.
An onion, sliced and diced

An onion, sliced and diced. Slicing and dicing onions is different from slicing and dicing data. With onions, an untrained non-chef can do a decent job. But with data, database management skills are essential. In the realm of data analysis, the term slice and dice suggests that an untrained non-professional can do a decent job. The truth is otherwise.

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, non-rhyming 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 aesthetics
preface 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.

Lean-and-mean
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 non-professional 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 Go to top Top  Next issue: The Trap of Beautiful Language  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[McGlone 2000]
Matthew S. McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh. "Birds of a feather flock conjointly (?): Rhyme as reason in aphorisms," Psychological Science 11:5, (2000), 424-428. Available here. Back
[McGlone 1999]
Matthew S. McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh. "The Keats heuristic: Rhyme as reason in aphorism interpretation." Poetics 26:4 (1999), 235-244. Back
[Goold 2005]
Michael Goold and S. David Young. "When lean isn't mean," Harvard Business Review, 83:4, (2005), 16-18. Available here Back

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