Psycho Babble

If It Talks Like the Truth

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By Jessica Love


 

All things come to he who waits.

Except, of course, for the worm. That’ll go to the early bird.

Much like street signs in the greater Pittsburgh area, aphorisms send us on our way with confident and contradictory assertions. The clothes make the man, we learn, but don’t be the fool who judges a book by its cover. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, but whatever you do, let the golden goose be.

Despite their obvious inconsistencies, we repeat aphorisms to one another, even to ourselves, all in the name of good advice. Matthew McGlone, now at the University of Texas at Austin, and his colleagues have tested a number of hypotheses over the years about why these sayings seem so true. One factor that appears to matter is an aphorism’s familiarity: participants will rate a well-worn observation like Opposites attract as being truer than they’ll rate the unfamiliar (but meaningfully identical) People with divergent interests and personalities tend to be drawn to one another. Familiarity, the thinking goes, increases the ease with which we process language, and easy things—no matter why they’re easier—just feel true. This is why advertisements—and political scare-tactics—if repeated often enough, are so effective. (Ease of processing also increases our confidence about what we know: study with your lecture notes in front of you and you’ll always overestimate what you understand.) Ease, as Stephen Colbert would say, breeds “truthiness.”

You may ask, however, whether a more conscious strategy is at play for our judgments of aphorisms. For instance, participants may find familiar aphorisms more truthful not because they are easier to process, but because participants have decided that these aphorisms must be familiar for a reason: if we still use a truism that gained its traction back when catching birds in bushes was standard practice, well, perhaps there’s something to it.

So about 10 years ago, McGlone and his colleague Jessica Tofighbakhsh rounded up a set of 30 rhyming aphorisms, all of which were unfamiliar to both the researchers and the participants (e.g., Caution and measure will win you treasure). For each, the researchers created a second version that did not rhyme by swapping out the end word and replacing it with a synonym (e.g., Caution and measure will win you riches). We know that rhyme affects ease of processing: we’re faster to understand “treasure” when it follows “measure” because we are already primed to make sense of its constituent sounds. If ease of processing affects our understanding of aphorisms independent of familiarity, then participants should rate the rhyming aphorisms as more truthful than the non-rhyming versions. Though the effect was small—about as small as an effect can be and still be reliable—this is indeed what the researchers found. We perceive sayings that rhyme as “truthier.”

Voltaire once quipped, “A witty saying proves nothing.” But why should we believe him? It doesn’t even rhyme.

 

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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