Why Do We Believe This Stuff?


I often think about the power that language has over us. The words in our lexicon shape our thoughts and beliefs, which shape our actions, which shape our world. The fewer words your mind can come up with, the shallower the thoughts it can entertain. But don’t get your hackles up because you think I called Uncle Earl stupid. So what if he’s an idiot. I would never suggest we take away his right to vote because he knows only three phrases: “gimme a beer,” “I’ll have the chili,” and “fuckin’ liberal media.”

That’s not even close to what I wanted to talk about today. I’m interested in something very primal in what shapes our beliefs, the truths we hold be self-evident. And what I think is that people will readily accept as true anything that can be spoken with a catchy rhythm and/or rhyme. In other words, simple poetry.

Let’s look at a few “old sayings,” for example.

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Most people don’t even know what this means until they’re at least 30. It doesn’t rhyme, but it does have a precisely repeated rhythm pattern, emphasis on “hand” and “bush.” It ends on an emphatic syllable. It sounds clear and magically true. But is it? Is it better to have one thing than merely the potential of having two? It says, “be happy with what you have. Don’t dream.” But we don’t question its wisdom because it sounds good.

“A stitch in time saves nine.” A pleasant rhyme, a little pause after “time,” and two emphatic syllables at the end. Who wouldn’t believe what this says, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” (no rhyme but solid rhythm and great opposition of “ounce” and “pound” that appeals to the supposed virtue of frugality.

“Hell no, we won’t go.” If it’s the sixties, and you’re in an anti Vietnam war march, you need a catchy slogan to chant as you march. After all, wars have them, why not anti-wars, right? It’s a cadence. Its rhyme and five all-emphasized syllables are powerful and good for shouting. “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Another rhyming Vietnam era marching chant. You can almost dance to it.

“A penny saved is a penny earned.” It doesn’t rhyme, but it does have repeated meter and repeats “penny,” as well as having the strong syllables at the end of each half of the equation. Aha, and it is an equation isn’t it? It has perfect balance. Does the effort of saving a penny really equate to having earned it? I don’t know. What if you found the penny, put in a drawer and just forgot to spend it? Did you earn it?

Political campaigners know that catchy slogans are at least as much about sound than they are about sense — maybe more. A few famous ones are:

A Chicken in Every Pot. A car in every garage. — 1928 Republican presidential campaign slogan of Herbert Hoover.
All the way with LBJ —1964 U.S. presidential campaign slogan of Lyndon Johnson.
Drill, baby, Drill!
– 2008 US presidential campaign slogan of John McCain, used by his Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. This phrase was often chanted as a call for America to consume domestic oil reserves. The phrase was originally coined by Michael Steele at the 2008 Republican National Convention.
I like Ike
– 1952 U.S presidential campaign slogan of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Yes We Can
– Barack Obama, 2008.
Read my lips: no new taxes – George H. W. Bush during the 1988 U.S. presidential election.

George Orwell published his novel 1984 in 1948. The Party, the ruling entity in the world the novel creates, knows that language controls thought, so when they want to make an idea disappear, they simply make the words disappear. And they have a marvelous slogan to justify a never-ending, fabricated war with a different geopolitical entity: “War is Peace.” Aha! A Slogan with a paradox. What could be better? I won’t go into Orwell’s point here at length. He’s making more than one. The main idea, though, is that The Party knows it’s possible to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time – and believe both. People are that easily manipulated. Put that in a slogan with three one-syllable words, and you’ve got mind control magic.

Advertising is, of course, no stranger to the power of language. One of my favorite little numbers was in an ad campaign by the U.S. Army. “Be All You Can Be.” Nice! It’s got the same existential word front and back, all one-syllable words, “you” right in the middle (ego), and the comprehensiveness of “all.” Who wouldn’t want to be all they can be? It has a nice appeal to low self-esteem, too. I haven’t heard of any medical schools using this slogan.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the what of this issue, but none on the why.  Why do rhyme, cadence, repetition, and other elements of language that one might think were just the clothes ideas are dressed in have such an impact? Is it because the nursery rhymes most small children hear cause certain neural pathways to be created in the brain or cause the release of endorphins, the residual memory of which we somehow retain as adults? Hell, I don’t have a clue. I never got to be all I can be and with luck never will. Sorry, I didn’t mean to cheat you out of an answer. But I promise to spend more time researching this someday.

I just want to say that whenever you hear a phrase that you think makes great sense, ask yourself if it’s because of what it really says or because it “sounds” good.

While not about how sound affects beliefs, read Orwell’s 1984 anyway. If you have already read it, read it again.

And also read about the the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Which is the basic premise behind what Orwell wrote.

What do you think?

About Peter Feldman

I'm a marketing and communications pro with more than 25 years experience helping professional service businesses get the right message to the right people in the right way. I’m also an adjunct professor of English.

Posted on August 3, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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