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
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- Scope Creep and the Planning Fallacy
- Much is known about scope creep, but it nevertheless occurs with such alarming frequency that in some
organizations, it's a certainty. Perhaps what keeps us from controlling it better is that its causes
can't be addressed with management methodology. Its causes might be, in part, psychological.
- 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.
- Wishful Significance: II
- When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking"
was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations.
Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.
- Cognitive Biases and Influence: II
- Most advice about influencing others offers intentional tactics. Yet, the techniques we actually use
are often unintentional, and we're therefore unaware of them. Among these are tactics exploiting cognitive
- Effects of Shared Information Bias: I
- Shared information bias is the tendency for group discussions to emphasize what everyone already knows.
It's widely believed to lead to bad decisions. But it can do much more damage than that.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 22: Red Flags: I
- When we finally admit to ourselves that a collaborative effort is in serious trouble, we sometimes recall that we had noticed several "red flags" early enough to take action. Toxic conflict and voluntary turnover are two examples. Available here and by RSS on July 22.
- And on July 29: Red Flags: II
- When we find clear evidence of serious problems in a project or other collaboration, we sometimes realize that we had overlooked several "red flags" that had foretold trouble. In this Part II of our review of red flags, we consider communication patterns that are useful indicators of future problems. Available here and by RSS on July 29.
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