Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

If the words aren’t new, we’ll think they’re true

March 24th, 2011

red sky at night, shepherds' delightThe above may be the worst headline I’ve ever written. I’m wincing just looking at it. But weirdly enough, the fact that it rhymes makes it that little bit more credible – because we perceive rhyming statements to reflect real life more accurately than non-rhyming ones.

Matthew McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh showed this in a clever experiment. They hunted down obscure rhyming aphorisms and created non-rhyming versions of each of them by changing a single word (for example, “What sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals” was turned into “What sobriety conceals, alcohol unmasks”). Then they gathered some obscure non-rhyming aphorisms and changed one word in each of those as well. They made randomly ordered lists that included one of each pair of sayings (either the original or the altered version) and asked their study participants to judge each saying on how well it “accurately described human behaviour”.

Birds of a feather flock togetherYou can predict the results. With non-rhyming aphorisms, changing a word didn’t have any effect on how accurate the participants thought it was. With the rhyming sayings, however, alterations that removed the rhyme also made the participants think it was less accurate – even though all the participants claimed they didn’t believe rhyming had anything to do with accuracy.

Rhythm and repetition within a word or phrase have the same effect as rhyme, and can even affect the perceived quality of a product. Jennifer Argo and her colleagues tested brand names by asking volunteers to compare two products with similar invented names, one of which included repeated syllables (like “Zanozan” or “Temasema”) while the other didn’t (like “Zanovum” or “Temafanu”). The volunteers consistently preferred the products with the repetitive names, even though both products were actually the same brand.

loose lips sink shipsThe effect was particularly strong when the study participants had read the names aloud, which is why advertisements, salespeople and restaurant greeters so often repeat their product’s name.

The reason for all of this appears to be an effect called “fluency”. When a word, phrase or idea is memorable and repeatable, we perceive it to be familiar and thus more appealing and more likely to be true. This is the same reason that repeated statements make people think they represent a consensus, and that instructions that are easy to read are seen as easier to follow.

So, if you’re naming a product, a program or an organization, think about how memorable it (or its acronym) sounds. Is it easy to pronounce? Does it roll off the tongue? It makes more of a difference than most of us realize: even stock exchange ticker symbols help a company’s initial performance if they’re easy to pronounce.

Best to get to work on that immediately. Because, you know, if you snooze, you don’t win.

Leave a Comment