Why Rhyme, More Than Reason, Leads To More Golden Behaviors This Holiday Season

What will you find in your presents from Sinterklaas on Package Evening? And what will the poetic rhymes that accompany these presents reveal about your behaviors from last year? Have they been Golden Behaviors or are these still intentions for the New Year? Whichever version of rhyme you may receive, you may find these poetic rhymes accurate and truthful. Why is that? And how can you use it to remember and follow through on Golden Behaviors you may be preparing for the New Year.

Golden Behaviors

– Nudges for a Healthy Lifestyle –

Reading time: 5 minutes

In The Netherlands we celebrate the birthday of Saint Nicolas (“Sinterklaas”) on December 5th. It is a 3 weeks long celebration of presents and candy for almost every child in the age 5 to 8. After Sinterklaas has arrived in The Netherlands from Spain, children can put their shoe next to the fireplace (or any other location – it really does not matter). At night Sinterklaas places a small present in their shoe in exchange for vocalizing some of the many Sinterklaas songs. On the 5th of December is the great climax on Package Evening. Sinterklaas places a couple of jute bags full with presents in front of your door, knocks on the door and then vanishes in thin air, usually without anyone having seen him.

Then the unpacking of the presents start. Some of these presents are accompanied by poetic rhymes about past year’s events and how the recipient’s personality played a decisive role in the outcome of these events. These poetic rhymes are usually accompanied by poetic justice in which virtue is rewarded and misdeeds are punished. It can be accompanied by an ironic twist of fate related to the receiver’s own actions. Whenever I read my own poetic rhymes on Sinterklaas Eve, there seems to be a deeper truth in them. A deeper truth than when friends or family would otherwise be talking to me about my virtues and misdeeds. Why is that? Could it be that rhyme has something to do with that?

Birds of a feather flock together

Psychologists Matthew McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, USA, investigated whether people distinguish between the form and the content of the statement to evaluate its truthfulness. In their experiments they asked people to evaluate the truthfulness of various aphorisms in either rhyming form or semantically identical non-rhyming form.

Aphorisms are folk wisdoms that offer advice and observations about universal human concerns such as happiness (e.g., Better to be happy than wise), health (e.g. An apple a day keeps the doctor away), and friendship (e.g. Birds of a feather flock together). This last aphorism may be perceived as more truthful than the semantically identical aphorism “Birds of a feather flock conjointly”.

Respondents in the study were presented with 60 aphorisms that included rhyming and non-rhyming aphorisms that had semantically identical meanings (see table below for some examples).

Rhyming aphorismsNon-rhyming counterpart of the aphorisms
Woes unite foes.Woes unite enemies.
What sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals.What sobriety conceals, alcohol unmasks.
Life is mostly strife.Life is mostly struggle.
Caution and measure will win you treasure.Caution and measure will win you riches.
Variety prevents satiety.Variation prevents satiety
Examples of rhyming and non-rhyming aphorisms

Although the different versions of the aphorisms were perceived as equally comprehensible, the rhyming versions were perceived as more accurate. This suggests that in certain circumstances, people may base their judgments of a statement’s truth value in part on its aesthetic qualities, such as rhyme. Thus people not only base their evaluations on the strength of the arguments, but also on the extent to which these statements rhyme.

Being more persuasive using rhyme

So the poetic rhymes I read on Sinterklaas Eve seem to be more accurate and contain a deeper truth, because they rhyme. And at those times I confuse the strength of the argument with the beauty of the rhyme. So when you have some time to think, make your arguments rhyme. This is well understood by the advertising industry. Have a look at the following advertisement slogans:

  • Kids and grownups love it so, the happy world of Haribo
  • Beauty outside. Beast inside. (Apple Mac Pro)
  • Grace. Space. Pace. (Jaguar)
  • Oh thank heaven for 7-Eleven.
  • See the USA in your Chevrolet.
  • You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent

So, beware of ads that rhyme, they’ll get you every time. This last rhyme also contains another truth: repeated statements are evaluated as more likely to be true than non-repeated statements.

Rhyme can also support argumentation in the court room. It was famously used in the trial of OJ Simpson, a former National Football League (NFL) player, broadcaster and actor, who was tried and acquitted for the murders of his ex-wife and her friend. During the trial, Simpson made a show of struggling to fit into a glove linked to the murder. Simpson’s lawyer, Johnny Cochran, urged the jury to keep in mind: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Simpson was acquitted, and Cochran’s defense earned most of the credit for that outcome. While the trial depended on far more than that one phrase, the rhyme of quote makes it more memorable and is perceived to be more accurate. 

Using rhyme to boost your Golden Behaviors

So if you want to make good intentions for the New Year, make them rhyme! You are more likely to remember them. You are also more likely to follow through on your Golden Behaviors, because you perceive your intentions to be more sincere. Both these aspects make them more likely that you will follow up on them. Let me leave you with a small rhyme to inspire you:

If you want people to remember,

Share it with them in December (but you can also start your intentions in September).

The more your intentions are made on rhyme by you,

The more likely they are to be perceived as true.

And the more this rhyme is repeated,

The more likely your Golden Behaviors will have succeeded.

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Niels Vink (1975) is author of Golden Behaviors and behavioral designer. He uses insights from the behavioral sciences to explain why people often act against their own interests. As a behavioral expert, he explores how you can nudge your behavior for a healthy lifestyle. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior.

When you have been inspired to start and maintain your Golden Behaviors, reach out to me.

Source of top image: Photo by Ylanite Koppens via Pexels


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