By PT Staff, published on September 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Rhyme, the mainstay of musical ditties and naughty limericks, isn't often taken seriously. New research, however, is showing it has the power to influence the way we think—and may even make dubious notions more believable.
Our reaction to any phrase is a response to both what it says and how it sounds, and it takes time and effort to separate the two. When we're not motivated to make the distinction—or when we don't have much information to go on—we often allow the beauty of a phrase to validate its truthfulness.
When Matthew McGlone, Ph.D., a psychologist at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, gave students a list of rhyming aphorisms ("Woes unite foes") and non-rhyming translations ("Misfortunes unite foes"), he found that they felt the rhyming ones were more accurate descriptions of human behavior.
This "rhyme as reason" effect, as McGlone calls it, disappeared when he asked the students to first evaluate the "poetic quality" of the rhyming proverb. Once made aware of the rhyme, they no longer automatically associated the sound of the phrase with its truthfulness.
As long as we're not made explicitly aware of it, says McGlone, rhyme can even make us look more kindly on a statement with which we would otherwise disagree. Asked whether financial success makes people healthier, almost all of McGlone's subjects disagreed, but "wealth makes health" seemed much more plausible.
McGlone speculates the "rhyme as reason" phenomenon may have had a hidden impact on the verdict in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson. When defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran intoned "If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit," jurors, like everyone else, took notice. The panelists had many pieces of evidence to consider, but Cochran's mellifluous phrase may have lulled them into assent, McGlone suggests.
Occasionally, rhyme has the opposite effect, however. "It will backfire when an audience has reason to be suspicious of the speaker," says McGlone. "For instance, Cochran's 'if the glove doesn't fit' line was treated as a rallying cry by African-American newspapers, but as a gimmick by the mainstream press, which for the most part portrayed Cochran as a huckster from the beginning of the trial." Suspicion, explains McGlone, provides the motivation to scrutinize a message more closely--and to make sure it's as pleasing to the intellect as it is to the ear.
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