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 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 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 Top Next Issue
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- The Focusing Illusion in Organizations
- The judgments we make at work, like the judgments we make elsewhere in life, are subject to human fallibility
in the form of cognitive biases. One of these is the Focusing Illusion. Here are some examples to watch for.
- 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.
- Scope Creep and Confirmation Bias
- As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and
other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions,
is one of these.
- The Stupidity Attribution Error
- In workplace debates, we sometimes conclude erroneously that only stupidity can explain why our debate
partners fail to grasp the elegance or importance of our arguments. There are many other possibilities.
- Perfectionism and Avoidance
- Avoiding tasks we regard as unpleasant, boring, or intimidating is a pattern known as procrastination.
Perfectionism is another pattern. The interplay between the two makes intervention a bit tricky.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.