“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
—John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819)
In recent decades, empirical studies have found that aesthetics can influence assessments of credibility, evaluations of goodness and even judgements of accuracy. The more aesthetically pleasing something is, the more credible, good and accurate it is perceived to be.
Despite the widespread knowledge that looks can be deceptive, humans prefer beautiful things. For example, people prefer symmetry, a marker of beauty, in both human faces and in patterns. In images, high contrast—a technique often utilised by artists—elicits greater aesthetic pleasure than low contrast. And these preferences go beyond pleasure. However trivial or superficial it may seem; aesthetics can influence evaluations of content.
One study found that website content presented in an aesthetic manner is judged to be more credible than the same content displayed in a less aesthetic way. But is information on pretty websites really more credible than that found uglier ones? This seems unlikely. Some of the most influential professors of psychology have rather unattractive websites, after all. (No offence to Dr Robert Hare).
Researchers have speculated that this bias may be related to processing fluency, i.e., the ease with which we process information. There is a well-established relationship between processing fluency and aesthetics. Musical compositions with mellifluous titles (e.g., Boya) are evaluated more positively than pieces with titles that do not trip off the tongue as easily (e.g., Emniyet). Furthermore, the aesthetic appreciation of art is rooted in the viewer’s processing fluency: ease of processing signals to the viewer that the artwork is enjoyable. To paraphrase Rolf Reber and colleagues, beauty might be less in the eye of the beholder than in the processing experience of the perceiver.
Processing fluency not only enhances our sense of aesthetic liking, but heightens our sense of truth. Consider stylistic devices, which are employed to transform an otherwise boring string of words into something more appealing. Researchers have found that the aesthetic properties of a text, such as rhyme, can increase both people’s liking of the text, and their perception of the text’s accuracy.
One study compared participants’ judgements of the veracity of rhyming phrases compared with non-rhyming equivalents with identical meanings: e.g., what sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals versus what sobriety conceals, alcohol unmasks. Participants judged the rhyming phrases as more accurate than their semantically identical, non-rhyming paraphrases. The authors hypothesise that participants mistook the enhanced processing fluency of rhyming statements for evidence of their greater accuracy.
Colleagues and I have also explored this phenomenon by studying a stylistic device called antimetabole, whereby two linguistic elements are repeated in reverse order, following an A-B-B-A pattern (e.g., do what you love, love what you do). Dating back to the earliest times (“…those who call evil good and good evil,”) antimetabole has been used extensively in everything from presidential speeches (“ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”) and Shakespearian plays (“fair is foul, foul is fair”) to national mottos (“all for one, one for all”). Joe Biden tweeted an antimetabole shortly after becoming president-elect:
Tonight, the whole world is watching America. I believe at our best America is a beacon for the globe.
And we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) November 8, 2020
In three studies, we found that antimetabolic statements were judged as more accurate than non-antimetabolic statements that meant exactly the same thing but violated the A-B-B-A formula. For example, it is not happy people who are thankful; it is thankful people who are happy was judged as more accurate than it is not cheerful people who are thankful; it is grateful people who are happy. We also measured the speed with which participants provided accuracy judgements of these statements, as speed of judgement is a proxy for processing fluency. We found that participants were quicker to respond to antimetabolic statements than their non-antimetabolic paraphrases, even when both statements had an equal number of syllables. We concluded that the inflated accuracy ratings they gave antimetabolic statements were partially explained by how fluently these were processed.
There is extensive literature demonstrating how fluency affects judgements of both beauty and truth: the more fluently something is processed, the more beautiful and the truer it will seem. People may find stylistic devices like rhyme and antimetabole aesthetic because of the enhanced processing they experience when encountering text that incorporates them.
Keats’ personified urn makes the bold claim that beauty and truth are not only related, but the same thing. (The poet allows the vase the final word on this and refrains from editorial comment.) This effect isn’t as potent as Keats’ lines would suggest, but beauty can indeed influence judgements of truth. Appropriately, this phenomenon is known as the Keats heuristic.