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Volume 19, Issue 51;   December 18, 2019: The Trap of Beautiful Language

The Trap of Beautiful Language

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As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus.
Winston Churchill in the Canadian Parliament, December 30, 1941

Winston Churchill in the Canadian Parliament, December 30, 1941. Churchill was widely known for his witty and powerful use of the English language. Lady Astor once said to him, "Winston, if you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee." To which he replied, "Nancy, if you were my wife, I'd drink it." His brilliant retort derives its power from its brevity and its tight reference to Astor's insult. But its brilliance causes many to overlook a logical flaw in the scenario Churchill evokes: poisoning someone's coffee is usually executed in secret. The victim, who would rarely be aware of the presence of the poison, would therefore be unable to elect to intentionally end his own life. Photo "The Roaring Lion" by Yousuf Karsh, courtesy Library and Archives Canada, via Wikipedia.

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.

Alliteration
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.
Anaphora
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 content
can be overused, but when used sparingly it can inspire groups to believe they can succeed despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Epistrophe
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
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  Go to top Top  Next issue: Disjoint Awareness  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[McGlone 1999]
Matthew S. McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh. "The Keats heuristic: Rhyme as reason in aphorism interpretation." Poetics 26:4 (1999), 235-244. Back

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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.

See also Cognitive Biases at Work and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Bay of Pigs, CubaComing September 30: Seven More Planning Pitfalls: II
Planning teams, like all teams, are susceptible to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Three of these most relevant to planners are False Consensus, Groupthink, and Shared Information Bias. Available here and by RSS on September 30.
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Planning teams, like all teams, are vulnerable to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Two of these relevant to planners are a cognitive bias called the IKEA Effect, and a systemic bias against realistic estimates of cost and schedule. Available here and by RSS on October 7.

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