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Rhyme as Reason
Dr. KS Raghavan Bookmark and Share

 We often hear the adage “Old is Gold”.  It is used in different contexts. For example, people who are presently in their seventies and eighties say that the charm and beauty of the film songs of 1950’s or 1960’s are totally missing in the present day songs. In automobiles we see that more and more metal parts are getting replaced by plastic components and thereby it is felt that the cars are becoming less and less robust. There are many examples of its usage. What is relevant here is that Old is Gold and not Diamond or Silver though they both are equally precious. The word gold rhymes with old and, as a result, the phrase has become catchy and easy for people to remember and use and equally importantly to create impression in others. Similarly the phrase “woes unite foes” will have more impact as compared to a phrase like “worries bring together the enemies”.  We can also add the age old aphorism “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”.  This is one of such phrases which once learnt will never be forgotten. We will discuss this maxim again towards the end of the article.

People tend to accept statements which rhyme as true as compared to those which convey the same meaning sans the rhyme. In psychology this is identified as a cognitive bias known as the “Rhyme as Reason effect”. Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of deviation from rationality, that cause us to be irrational in the way we search for, evaluate, interpret, judge, use, and remember information, as well as in the way we make decisions.

The rhyme as reason effect can be considered to be a sort of human weakness. The weakness is exploited in day to day life, in commerce and also in politics. People who exploit this weakness will do so with certain motivation. In Karnataka one hears a phrase “Tungaa Paanam, Gangaa Snaanam”, which means drink water from the river Tunga and bathe in the river Ganga.  The message is that the former is good for the body and the latter is good for the soul. As Tunga river flows through the state Tungaa paanam is not a great challenge. Having achieved that, Gangaa snaanam remains an uncherished goal and a challenge because of the distance. They look for opportunity to visit Varanasi or Haridwar to realise the uncherished ambition. We should not forget the fact here that it is irrational to think that Ganga is a sacred river. In Andhra, people traditionally adhere to the guidelines of Vastu Shastra while constructing houses. One of the Vastu guideline says “Agneyam Agni, Eashanyam Easha” which means that the kitchen should be at the south east corner and Pooja room in the north-east corner of the house. This easy-to-remember aphorism is coined to make people to stick to Vastu rules.

The exploitation of “Rhyme as Reason” effect is prevalent in our political scene. During the last year’s parliamentary election BJP used the phrase “Phir ek baar Modi Sarkar”. Rahul Gandhi tried to counter, without success, by using the phrase “Chowkidaar Chor hai”.  During 1970’s the then Congress party president Devakanth Barooha had coined a phrase “Indira is India”.  RJD party in Bihar had coined a catchy phrase defining three eternal things. They are “jungle mein bhaalu, samosa mein alu, Bihar mein Lalu”. This was meant to give a message that Lalu Prasad Yadav will rule Bihar as long as you find bears in forests and potato in samosas. About four years back our prime minister introduced demonetization of high value currency. During the speech he admitted that people may face certain hardships. But these are necessary in the national interest and added the punch line “a little pain for a big gain”. The gain was projected to be on four fronts including containment of terrorist activities.  People spent long hours standing in queue for their own money, but with a mental satisfaction that they are doing their bit of sacrifice for the nation. As it turned out, it was all pain and without any perceptible gain.

Do rhymes strongly influence? Psychologists believe that they can. An incident often quoted in this regard concerns the 1994 criminal case involving O J Simpson the American football player. He was charged with the double murder of his former wife and her boyfriend. The prosecution had produced a pair of gloves found at the crime site as one of the evidences. As it happened, the gloves were too small and didn’t fit Simpson’s hands. This prompted the attorney Johny Cochran to come out with a phrase “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”. The phrase created waves. During the final summing up, he used the phrase repeatedly. Simpson was indeed acquitted. Many believe that the phrase did influence the Jury and thereby the final verdict.

Rhymes are exploited in commercial world. Companies use catchy phrases and rhyming taglines to influence the consumers. For example the makers of Prestige pressure cookers are touching upon the product’s reliability and safety with the slogan “jo bibi se kare pyaar, woh Prestige se kaise Karen inkaar (how can a person who loves his wife not buy a Prestige cooker). During the 1980’s Onida TV was the second largest selling brand. The success was attributed to a significant extent to their tagline “Neighbour’s envy, Owner’s pride”.

Many adages and maxims are harmless and can indeed be positive effect. For example, the phrases “health is wealth” and “haste is waste” will work very well with children. Cricket coaches often use the phrases “catches win matches” and “a run saved is a run scored” to put emphasis on the importance of good fielding.  Management consultants try to impress corporate top personnel with the slogan “innovate and flourish, else you may perish”. We all know the family planning family slogan adopted by the government “hum do, hamare do”.

In conclusion, it can be said that it is human nature to be influenced by rhymes. It is a well-recognized cognitive bias. It can work in both ways. One can become a victim by falling into a trap and do an unwise thing. Can one avoid such a pitfall? Yes. Awareness of the likely pitfall is the key. One needs to simply remove the rhyme factor and take a second look. For example compare the statement “if you consume one apple every day, you will remain healthy.”  With the aphorism “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”. Then you will get a little more insight into the popular phrase. You may even doubt whether the saying was originally coined by an apple plantation owner to boost the sales. On the other hand, if you are a manufacturer of consumer goods, a caring parent or an effective teacher you may use the “rhyme as reason” effect to advantage.

Whenever a certain action or decision defies logic and rationale, we say it was done for no rhyme or reason. What is possibly hidden in the idiom is that rhyme can be as important as reason.

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Comments on this Blog

Comment Well written Raghu! There is no doubt, catchy words make a big impact and rhyming words catch one's attention!!

Padma Ramaswamy
09/18/2020 10:54 AM

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