In persuasion, rhetoric, style

I recently touched upon the current debate in the UK which seeks to divide people into ‘strivers’ – often also known as ‘hard-working people (especially ‘families’ – British politicians love families) who try to do the right thing’, and ‘skivers’ – alternatively ‘scroungers’ or those ‘happy to live a life of leisure at the expense of the taxpayer’.

Whatever you think of the message of “strivers versus skivers”, you have to admit that the perpetrator of this particular poison dart has done a spectacularly good job. No debate on austerity or benefits is complete without reference to it – it simply pops up everywhere. Why, then, has it become so ubiquitous?

First, there’s the contrast. And we all know that humans cannot resist these binary oppositions, there being two sorts of people: those who divide the world into two groups, and those who don’t. Second, it’s alliterative: those ‘s’ sounds lend the phrase a certain something.

Finally, it rhymes. This gives the phrase what psychologists call ‘fluency’. Research in this area tends to point to the fact that messages that are more fluent are not only more memorable, they’re also perceived as being ‘truer’. They’re memorable because they are processed more easily. That ease of processing makes them easier to recall, and this sense of ease is mistaken for what American comedian, Stephen Colbert, memorably referred to as “truthiness”. And of course, messages that you can actually remember are much easier to spread to others.

There’s certainly no shortage of people who are willing to bet the ranch that rhyme will boost the power of their message, from parents who tell their kids: “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, to politicians: “I like Ike”, to advertisers: “A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play” and of course the ultimate: “Beanz Meanz Heinz” (right up there with Vini, Vidi, Vici, if you ask me).

The ease with which I came up with these examples is testimony to their memorability, but is there really any evidence that they work to persuade us? Researchers Matthew S. McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh published a paper in the Journal of Psychological Science in 2000 that investigated the persuasive power of little-known sayings that rhyme, such as:

“Caution and measure will bring you treasure.”

These sayings were contrasted with non-rhyming alternatives, such as:

“Caution and measure will bring you riches”.

They found that not only were the rhyming versions better preferred and better remembered, they were also better believed.  This is something researchers have started referring to as “the rhyme as reason effect” or the “Keats’ Heuristic” after the English poet who commented: “Beauty is Truth, Truth is Beauty”.

In short, people are more attracted to messages that are fluent, and more repelled by those that aren’t.  This suggests that we are much more likely to succeed if we spend some time thinking about the aesthetics of our message, rather than just its objective content.  This focus on aesthetics brings into play factors such as rhyme, metaphor and alliteration.

After all, OJ Simpson’s lawyer, Johnny Cochrane, saw fit to use rhyme in his summing up at Simpson’s murder trial: “If the gloves, don’t fit you must acquit”. If, instead, he had said, “If the gloves don’t fit you must set him free”, it might have been quite a different story.

Recent Posts