“Strong and Stable” – a lesson in the use of consonance, rhyme-as-reason, and the Keats Heuristic

It’s General Election time here in the UK and, right now, if there was one phrase that seems to be on everyone’s lips it’s “Strong and Stable”.

Or, at least, it’s on Theresa May’s lips. A lot. A staggering ten times during the final PMQs and who knows how many times since then in rallies, interviews, and speeches. Is it working? Right now it’s tough to tell – my social media bubble certainly seems to be talking about it, but not always for the right reasons. Despite this, we are all repeating it.

Strong and Stable… Strong and Stable… Strong and Stable.

As a hypnotist, I understand the power of repetition in communicating ideas and in changing people’s beliefs. The more we hear something, the more we believe it. Repetition is fundamental to how we learn when we are children and we carry Repetition Bias; the tendency to believe something we are repeatedly told by multiple sources, with us into adult life.

But it’s not just repetition that has made the phrase “Strong and Stable” stand out and stick in people’s heads – it’s the use of consonance and a little something called the Keats Heuristic.

What is consonance?

You might not think that “strong” and “stable” rhyme, but they do. They have rhyming consonant sounds at the start (the hard “st”) – a type of rhyming defined a consonance. More specifically:

Consonance refers to repetitive sounds produced by consonants within a sentence or phrase. This repetition often takes place in quick succession such as in pitter, patter.

It is classified as a literary term used in both poetry as well as prose. For instance, the words chuckle, fickle, and kick are consonant with one and other due to the existence of common interior consonant sounds (/ck/).

– https://literarydevices.net/consonance/

So, why is consonance important? Well, that would be because of something called the Rhyme-as-Reason effect.

What is the Rhyme-as-Reason effect?

The Rhyme-as-Reason effect (or Eaton-Rosen phenomenon) is a cognitive bias that tricks your brain into thinking that phrases that rhyme are more accurate or truthful than phrases that do not.

In experiments, subjects judged variations of sayings which did and did not rhyme, and tended to evaluate those that rhymed as more truthful (controlled for meaning). For example, the statement “What sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals” was judged to be more accurate than by different participants who saw “What sobriety conceals, alcohol unmasks

For a famous example of the persuasive quality of the rhyme-as-reason effect, you can’t get much better than “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” the signature phrase used by Johnnie Cochran in the acquittal for O.J. Simpson when he was on trial for murder.

What is the Keats Heuristic?

The Keats Heuristic measures an effect according to which a statement’s truth is evaluated according to aesthetic qualities. It’s similar to the fluency heuristic, according to which things could be preferred due their ease of cognitive processing.

We see this in action every day – cute, rhyming phrases that lodge in our brains and affect our behavior. We call them “slogans”.

The other slogan that is being repeated a lot by the Conservatives in their campaign to date is “Coalition of Chaos”. Compare that phrase to strong and stable and you’ll find a very similar set of rules being used:

  1. It’s short – three words long (and there’s a cognitive bias that shows people like things in threes)
  2. It has consonance (C)
  3. They are repeating it… a lot

Interestingly, I wouldn’t consider “Coalition” to be a particular effective word when creating a hypnotic suggestion or a slogan – it’s got too many syllables and it’s more complex and ambiguous a word than either “strong” or “stable”. It makes you ask… What kind of coalition? With who? Organised how? Of course, the choice of this word makes complete sense of course when you realize that this slogan isn’t intended to make you want something – it’s designed to make you reject it.

What should you do?

This isn’t a post telling you to vote one way or another. I’m going to take a look at the campaign materials from the other major parties too for hints of egregious use of hypnotic techniques or manipulation of cognitive biases and I’ll be pretty astonished if I don’t find some. I suspect all the parties are at it, and that’s rather the point.

“Strong and Stable” is not just a catchphrase – this is the stuff of serious science and it’s being used on us all, right now.