The rhyme-as-reason effect is a cognitive bias that causes statements to be more memorable and persuasive when they contain a rhyme.
For example, the aphorism “caution and measure will win you treasure” is generally perceived by people as being more accurate and truthful than the aphorisms “caution and restraint will win you treasure” or “caution and measure will win you riches“, despite the fact that they all mean roughly the same thing.
This cognitive bias is important to understand, since using it yourself can help you craft messages that are more persuasive, and since recognizing its use by others can help you assess information that they present in a more rational manner.
As such, in the following article you will learn more about the rhyme-as-reason effect, understand why people experience it, and see how you can use it yourself, as well as how you can take its use by others into account.
What is the rhyme-as-reason effect
The rhyme-as-reason effect is a cognitive bias that makes people more likely to remember, repeat, and believe statements that contain a rhyme, compared to those that do not. For example, people generally judge the aphorism “woes unite foes” as more accurate than the aphorisms “woes unite enemies” or “misfortunes unite foes”, despite the fact that they all have roughly the same meaning.
The influence of the rhyme-as-reason effect can be observed in many real-world scenarios.
For example, the use of rhyming has been suggested as a beneficial tool for medical education, where it can help the students remember the material better. Similarly, rhyming has frequently been incorporated into advertising slogans, since slogans that contain rhymes are generally perceived as more original, more memorable, more likable, more trustworthy, and more convincing than similar slogans that do not contain a rhyme.
Note: a ‘rhyme’ involves a repetition of similar or identical sounds in certain words that appear as part of the same statement. For example, in the sentence “woes unite foes”, the word “woes” rhymes with the word “foes”, since both of them have the same sound at the end.
Examples of the rhyme-as-reason effect
There are many examples of aphorisms which people rate as more accurate when they contain a rhyme compared to when they do not, including the following:
- Anger restrained is wisdom gained.
- Anger held back is wisdom gained.
- Anger restrained is wisdom acquired.
- Those who are poor by condition are rich in ambition.
- Those who are poor by circumstance are rich in ambition.
- Those who are poor by condition are rich in desire.
- What sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals.
- What sobriety obscures, alcohol reveals.
- What sobriety conceals, alcohol unmasks.
In addition, because rhymes make messages more appealing and easier to remember, many traditional aphorisms contain rhymes. For example:
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning.”
“A friend in need is a friend indeed.”
Furthermore, a well-known example of the use of rhyming as a rhetoric technique occurred in the infamous trial of O. J. Simpson, whose lawyer (Johnnie Cochran) told the members of the jury “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”, in reference to the gloves allegedly used by Simpson during a murder.
Why people experience the rhyme-as-reason effect
There are several reasons why people are influenced by the rhyme-as-reason effect.
The main cognitive mechanism which explains why people experience the rhyme-as-reason effect is the Keats heuristic, which is a mental shortcut that people use when they base their judgment of whether or not a statement is truthful on the aesthetic qualities of that statement.
People are especially prone to using this heuristic in situations where they lack the necessary motivation, evidence, or expertise needed in order to evaluate the truthfulness of a statement, since relying on aesthetic cues gives them a simple factor that they can use in their evaluation. When this happens, the use of rhyme can make a statement appear more attractive, which in turn causes it to be perceived as more truthful.
Note: this phenomenon was named the ‘Keats heuristic’ in reference to a famous line in one of Keats’ poems, where he said that “beauty is truth, truth beauty”, which represents the connection between the beauty of the language used in a statement and that statement’s perceived truthfulness.
Another reason why rhyming can make statements appear more persuasive is the fluency heuristic, which causes people to assign more value to information that is easier for them to process. Essentially, the easier it is for someone to process a statement, the more likely they are to believe that it’s truthful, which means that a rhyme can make a statement appear more truthful when it makes it easier for people to process it.
Furthermore, statements that are easier to process are perceived as more aesthetically pleasing, which could further increase the attractiveness of such statements, and therefore increase their perceived truthfulness through the Keats heuristic.
Note: research on the topic suggests the possibility that rhyming might only facilitate prosodic processing (i.e. processing of the structure of the statement), but not semantic processing (i.e. processing of the content of the statement), which it might even hinder. Nevertheless, the net gain to ease of processing which is achieved by improving the prosodic fluency of the statement still makes the statement easier to process overall, which makes it more appealing overall, and therefore more persuasive.
Finally, another cognitive mechanism which could explain why people perceive rhyming statements as more truthful is the familiarity mechanism.
Essentially, when people become more familiar with a statement due to repeated exposure to it, they tend to find it more convincing. As such, if people repeat a certain statement more frequently because it contains a catchy and appealing rhyme, the fact that they are repeating it could cause them to find it more and more convincing over time.
This is further supported by the fact that the use of rhymes has been shown to help people remember information better, which could make them more likely to repeat statements that rhyme in the long term, simply by virtue of being able to remember them.
How to use the rhyme-as-reason effect
Taking advantage of the rhyme-as-reason effect is generally relatively straightforward. Essentially, if you’re trying to convince people of a certain idea or if you’re trying to get them to remember something, try to phrase it idea in a short, rhyming statement, that will be easy for them to repeat and remember.
When you do this, keep in mind that combining rhyme with other rhetorical techniques can make it even more effective than using it by itself.
One such technique is brevitas, which involves the omission of expected parts of the sentence, such as adjectives or articles, in order to achieve succinctness and artful shortness. Another relevant technique is meter, which involves the creation of a regularized prosodic beat. You can see examples of these techniques in the following set of sentences:
East or West, home is best. (with brevitas/meter and with rhyme)
Whether it’s in the East or West, being at home is best. (without brevitas/meter but with rhyme)
North or South, home is best. (with brevitas/meter but without rhyme)
Whether it’s in the North or South, being at home is best. (without brevitas/meter and without rhyme)
Furthermore, when taking advantage of the rhyme-as-reason effect, remember that familiarity with a statement makes people more likely to remember and believe it, which means that whenever it’s possible and reasonable to do so, try repeating the rhyming statement as much as possible, in order to increase the likelihood that people will accept it.
Finally, keep in mind that since rhyming makes it easier for people to remember information, you can also use it as a mnemonic device, that will help you if you’re trying to learn or memorize something.
For example, if you’re studying for a test and find yourself struggling to remember a key piece of information, you could phrase it in a way that contains a rhyme, as in the case of the mnemonic “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, which could help you remember the date in which Columbus sailed for the Americas.
Accounting for the use of the rhyme-as-reason effect by others
It’s important to account for the rhyme-as-reason effect in situations where other people try to convince you of something by using a rhyme in order to make their message more appealing. In such situations, you should be wary of the original statement, and try to mitigate the influence of this cognitive bias, in order to allow yourself to assess the information that you are encountering in a more rational manner.
In general, simply being aware of the rhyme-as-reason effect could help you mitigate the influence that rhymes have on your decision-making.
However, in some cases you might want to use additional techniques in order to reduce the influence of this bias. For example, you could alter the way information was originally presented in order to present it in a way that doesn’t involve a rhyme, or you could use more general debiasing techniques, such slowing down your reasoning process while you are evaluating the rhyming statement.
Finally, note that there are situations where you might need to debias other people, by showing them that a rhyming statement that they were presented with appears to be more persuasive than it really is, due to the rhyme that it contains. This might happen, for example, if you’re addressing an audience in a debate, right after your debate partner used a key rhyming statement in order to argue in favor of their stance.
In such cases, you also have an alternative option available besides debiasing: you could fight fire with fire, by phrasing your own competing message in a way that also contains an appealing rhyme, in order to win their approval using a similar approach, which could be more effective than debiasing in many situations. However, keep in mind that if this is your intended course of action, it will generally be preferable to pursue it without first mentioning to your audience the fact that rhyming can make messages more persuasive.
The Eaton-Rosen phenomenon
The rhyme-as-reason effect is sometimes referred to as the Eaton-Rosen phenomenon, primarily in non-scientific literature. However, the origins of this term are dubious, since the original scientific papers on the topic were published by researchers Matthew S. McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh, and since no researchers by the name Eaton-Rosen have ever published papers on the topic.
The most likely explanation for how this term originated is that on July 11, 2013, an anonymous Wikipedia user inserted the term “Eaten-Rosen phenomenon” into the Wikipedia article of the rhyme-as-reason effect, stating that this represents “alternative nomenclature” for this cognitive bias. This term does not appear to have been previously used in writing beforehand, and the user who added it to the Wikipedia article did not cite any sources in support of their claim.
Over time, many people who wrote articles on the rhyme-as-reason effect used Wikipedia as one of their primary sources of information on the topic. Some of them repeated the use of the term ‘Eaton-Rosen phenomenon’ in their own articles, which ended up leading to these sources being added as citations in support of the use of this term, even though they were all published at a date later than the original use of the term on Wikipedia.
As such, the use of the term ‘Eaten-Rosen phenomenon’ likely represents a case of circular reporting or citogenesis, where the term was made up and inserted into Wikipedia, and then copied by authors whose writing was eventually used to support the use of the term on Wikipedia.
However, despite the dubious origins of this term, its widespread use has caused it to become entrenched, and to serve as an alternative name for the rhyme-as-reason effect in non-scientific writing.
Summary and conclusions
- The rhyme-as-reason effect is a cognitive bias that makes people more likely to remember, repeat, and believe statements when those statements contain a rhyme.
- For example, people generally judge the aphorism “woes unite foes” as more accurate than the aphorisms “woes unite enemies” or “misfortunes unite foes”, despite the fact that they all have roughly the same meaning.
- People are susceptible to the rhyme-as-reason effect because rhyming makes statements more aesthetically appealing, easier to process, and easier to repeat, all of which are factors that people are affected by when assessing the truthfulness of statements, due to the imperfect way in which our cognitive system works.
- You can use the rhyme-as-reason effect in order to increase the likelihood that others will accept your message, or to help yourself remember information better; this approach will work best if you combine the rhyme with other techniques, such as artful shortness.
- When trying to counter the use of the rhyme-as-reason effect by others, the main approaches that you can use are to increase awareness of this bias, modify the original statement in order to disrupt its rhyme, or come up with a competing statement that also contains a rhyme.