Last time we explored the rhyme-as-reason effect, which is a cognitive bias that causes us to overvalue the validity or utility of a concept if its name contains a rhyme. We supplied thee examples: lean and mean, lift and shift, and slice and dice. The problem is actually more common than mere rhyming terms. Any rhetorical device that produces a perception of beauty can also cause us to overvalue the validity or utility of the content of the speaker's words. Four other devices in widespread use are alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus.
These devices interfere with critical thinking by exploiting our human fascination with beautiful language. By enfolding with symmetry and beauty the meaning carried by the language, these devices make the message memorable and pleasurable to hear or repeat. In effect, these devices give the meaning of the language power that it might otherwise lack. This phenomenon is a result of a heuristic humans use to recall or understand language — the Keats Heuristic. [McGlone 1999] The Keats Heuristic causes us to conflate the beauty of a phrase with its validity.
Here are brief summaries of these four devices.
- Examples of alliteration include drill down and deep dive. Alliteration is like rhyme in the sense that it is a repeated similarity of word parts. Instead of repeated similarity at the ends of the words, as in rhyme, alliteration is repeated similarity at the beginnings of the words. The repeated similarities, whether at the ends or the beginnings, are what we find aesthetically pleasing. They make the phrase memorable and repeatable. In an ironic twist, the term rhyme-as-reason itself is an example of alliteration. Some more familiar examples: PayPal, Best Buy, Dunkin' Donuts, Coca-Cola, and Krispy Kreme.
- Like the rhyme slice and dice, which associates data analysis with a menial kitchen chore, drill down and deep dive also have negative connotations. They suggest that focused investigation into the subtleties of a situation is detailed thinking best left to specialists — whom we outrank, at least in our own minds. Us big-brained folk needn't be concerned with the details — we're concerned only with results. We accept those results, often without appreciating the full truth that hides behind them. Without seeking to fully understand the details (because they're beneath us) we accept the results uncritically, or, if we prefer, we reject them out of hand, unencumbered by any appreciation for the validity of the work that produced them.
- Like rhyme, the aesthetics of alliteration can cause us to perceive more validity in the alliterative phrase than we would perceive if the phrase weren't alliterative. It is this perception that enables us to accept (or reject) uncritically the results of someone else drilling down or diving deep.
- To use an anaphora is to structure sequential phrases, clauses, or sentences so that each one has the same or similar words at its beginning. A famous example from Winston Churchill: "…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender." Anaphoras delivered with properly escalating cadence can so inspire the passions that they can interfere with the listeners' reasoning, critical assessment of the speaker's meaning.
- Anaphoras are alliterations not at the level of syllables or phonemes, but at the level of phrasing. The symmetry of anaphoras is the basis of their ability to overwhelm the reasoning faculties.
- The power of anaphora can lead the participants in a meeting to make a mistaken group decision. A business-oriented example: "This opportunity is so far unrecognized by the industry. This opportunity is ours to exploit. This opportunity is uniquely compatible with our product array. This opportunity is not to be missed."
- Anaphora As we assess the validity of others'
statements, we tend to confuse the
beauty of their phrasing with
the reliability of their contentcan be overused, but when used sparingly it can inspire groups to believe they can succeed despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
- Anaphora has a similarly powerful mate known as epistrophe. Where anaphora is a repetition of words at the heads of phrases, clauses, or sentences, epistrophe is repetition of words at their tails. An example from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
- My experience of both anaphora and epistrophe is that their effects are more dramatic in spoken language than in written language, especially when delivered by someone seeking dramatic effect. They are more powerful because a speaker's influence on a listener's perception of tone and rhythm is more direct than is an author's influence on a reader's perception of tone and rhythm.
- Chiasmus is probably less widely recognized or used than alliteration; though once identified it's instantly recognizable. Chiasmus is a rhetorical device in which words, grammatical constructions, or concepts are repeated in reverse order, possibly in a modified form. An example from John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." And an example from Winston Churchill in 1942, about the war: "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
- If rhyme is symmetry of the ends of words in a phrase, and alliteration is symmetry of the beginnings of words in a phrase, chiasmus is an anti-symmetry — a reversal — of the order of the words in a phrase, usually at the ends. In some sense, a chiasmus is a reversed epistrophe. Chiasmus works because both symmetry and anti-symmetry are aesthetically pleasing. Because of the Keats Heuristic, symmetry and anti-symmetry can endow the phrases they decorate with perceived validity beyond their actual validity.
- Chiasmus is more difficult to find in writing about the field of business, but it is present. An example from Peter Drucker: "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." This sounds so right, we dare not question it. Yet, it is worth questioning — but that's a topic for another time.
Rhyme, alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus are all devices that can interfere with clear thinking by appealing to our emotions and to our affinity for the pleasures of symmetry and anti-symmetry. I'm sure there is an opportunity in this closing paragraph to use one of these devices to persuade you, dramatically, that understanding these devices can help you make sound decisions for the right reasons. But I prefer that you reach that conclusion on the basis of clear thinking. First in this series Top Next Issue
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- Why Scope Expands: II
- The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often?
One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
- 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.
- Motivated Reasoning and the Pseudocertainty Effect
- When we have a preconceived notion of what conclusion a decision process should produce, we sometimes
engage in "motivated reasoning" to ensure that we get the result we want. That's risky enough
as it is. But when we do this in relation to a chain of decisions in the context of uncertainty, trouble
- Seven Planning Pitfalls: I
- Whether in war or in projects, plans rarely work out as, umm well, as planned. In part, this is due
to our limited ability to foretell the future, or to know what we don't know. But some of the problem
arises from the way we think. And if we understand this we can make better plans.
- Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed
for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation
bias can distort decisions about how to downscope.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info