Poetry, psychology, and the Barack Obama Muslim e-mail

Also: Why "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit" worked.

By Farhad Manjoo
Published March 17, 2008 9:14PM (EDT)

For months, Barack Obama's campaign has been fighting a chain e-mail that claims he's secretly a Muslim. Of course, Obama is currently consumed with a separate controversy surrounding his religion, but in yesterday's New York Times Magazine I looked into why the Muslim rumor has been so difficult to combat, and why it may pose trouble for Obama in the future.

The problem, I argued, has to do with difficulties we all encounter in separating truth from fiction. In particular, I looked at one "paradox of social psychology, a problem for myth busters everywhere: repeating a claim, even if only to refute it, increases its apparent truthfulness."

In the Times, I went over much of the research behind this idea, including a study by psychologist Ian Skurnik in which seniors who were told repeatedly that a given health-warning was false tended to remember, three days later, that it was true. This suggests that Obama and his supporters need to be careful in fighting the Muslim myth -- by repeating it in their debunking, they run the risk of convincing people of its accuracy.

But due to space constraints I didn't get to mention some other interesting studies concerning tricks our minds play on us when we're trying to suss out what's true from what's not. Among them, this finding: We tend to believe rhymed phrases more easily than we do non-rhymed phrases.

In 2000, Matthew McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh, both then of Lafayette University, asked undergraduates to read lists of unfamiliar English aphorisms; some of the students got lists that contained rhymed aphorisms (for instance, "Life is mostly strife," or "Woes unite foes") while others got aphorisms that were substantively the same, but without rhymes ("Life is mostly struggle," or "Woes unite ememies.")

McGlone and Tofighbakhsh found that people were far more likely to consider the rhymed phrases as accurate representations of human behavior. Tell someone, "What sobriety conceals, alcohol unmasks" and they're likely to think you're a fool. But say, "What sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals," and you'll be considered sage. The phenomenon, of course, also explains the courtroom successes of the late Johnny Cochran. ("If it doesn't fit....")

Why does rhyming suggest truth? Most likely because rhymes make phrases easy to remember, and many studies show that the more familiar we are with an idea, the more likely we are to think it's true. (That's precisely why you don't want to repeat a rumor when you're trying to stop it.)

McGlone and Tofighbakhsh's study, by the way, carries a beautiful title: "Birds of a Feather Flock Conjointly (?): Rhyme as reason in aphorisms."

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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