July 17, 2011 | 15
By now, our overwhelming tendency to look for what confirms our beliefs and ignore what contradicts our beliefs is well documented. Psychologists refer to this as confirmation bias, and its ubiquity is observed in both academia and in our everyday lives: Republicans watch Fox while Democrats watch MSNB; creationists see fossils as evidence of God, evolutionary biologists see fossils as evidence of evolution; doomsayers see signs of the end of the world, and the rest of us see just another day. Simply put, our ideologies and personal dogmas dictate our realities.
For the most part, confirmation bias has been studied by psychologists and discussed by science journalists in the context of decision-making or reasoning. Examples of this include Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made , and the recent Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber article (pdf) that has garnered so much popularity. As more is written about confirmation bias and its effects, it is becoming clear that it is describing something much more than a mechanism that influences our everyday choices and rationality.
If we are defining confirmation bias as a tendency to favor information that confirms our previously held beliefs, it strikes me as ironic to think that it is almost exclusively discussed as a hindrance to knowledge and better decision-making, or as an aid to argumentation and persuasion as reinforced by Mercier and Sperber. With such a broad definition, I think it also explains our aesthetic judgments. That is, just as we only look for what confirms our scientific hypotheses and personal decisions, we likewise only listen to music and observe art that confirms our preconceived notions of good and bad aesthetics. Put differently, confirmation bias influences our aesthetic judgments just as it does any other judgment.
Let’s observe music, a popular topic in the psychology world. One of the common themes to emerge from the literature is the importance of patterns, expectations, and resolutions. Many authors argue that enjoyable music establishes a known pattern, creates expectations, and resolves the expectations in a predictable way. As neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music explains, "as music unfolds, the brain constantly updates its estimates of when new beats will occur, and takes satisfaction in matching a mental beat with a real-in-the-world one." This is one reason we repeatedly listen to the same songs and bands, we know exactly what we are going to get, and love it when they fulfill our preconceived expectations.
In this light, the relationship between confirmation bias and music is clear. In the same way that we decide to watch Fox or MSNBC, we decide to listen to Lady Gaga or The Beatles. In either case, our brains are latching onto patterns and getting pleasure from accurately predicting what comes next. Here is the key: your brain doesn’t "know" the difference between Glen Beck and Paul McCartney, but it does know, and it does care about confirming each in the context of their work: McCartney sings the chorus to "She Loves You," while Beck reams Obama’s latest political move. In other words, its predictions don’t discriminate between different mediums; it just wants its expectations to be fulfilled. So ask yourself this: is there really any difference between a Beatles concert and a Glen Beck rally? Are people not just going to these events to have their opinions confirmed?
One way to answer this question is to see what happens when people don’t hear what they expect. History has shown that this can get ugly. Some music performances defied expectations so dramatically that the audience resorted to rioting. Famous examples include performances of Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, Steve Reich’s Four Organs and Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. In each of these cases, the composers forced the audience to listen to exactly what they didn’t want to hear. It would be like if a Democrat was forced to watch Fox or a Republican went to a Glen Beck rally and heard him praise Obama. I am sure that both of these scenarios would provoke reactions similar to the ones that Stravinsky experienced.
The same is true with visual art. Consider Picasso’s les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon), Manet’s Olympia, or Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. Each of these works was highly controversial. In the cases of Picasso’s non-feminine depiction of women, Manet’s sharp depiction of the courtesan woman, and Warhol’s commercial treatment of art, each stood in stark contrast to then-contemporary norms that dictated the qualifications of good art.
But whereas the critics argued that these paintings were violating some intrinsic art rule, psychologists tell us that the only thing objective about this art was that it made people’s confirmation bias go haywire. Art doesn’t have platonic standards; good art is Form-breaking, and this is a big reason why all of the mentioned works went on to be classics.
Stravinsky would be credited with ushering in new musical styles and techniques into the 20th century, Picasso was praised for developing Cubism, and Manet perpetuated the Impressionist movement. This is not to say that good art has to break rules, there are plenty of conventionalists who made great art by reinforcing preconceptions, but it is to say that good art can break rules.
Unfortunately, our audio and visual systems are programmed to look for art that we like, and to ignore art that we don’t like. And this is what makes artistic innovation so difficult. But when we turn off our confirmation bias, we realize that watching or listening to something that doesn’t fulfill our expectations can be ultimately rewarding. All groundbreaking artists are in on this well kept secret: they know that in the end, it is just as enjoyable to experience something that violates an expectation, which is why they replaced the expected with the unexpected. In other words, they are the ones who saw through their confirmation bias.
Levitin explains this in regard to music: "brains take delight when a skillful musician violates [an] expectation in an interesting way – a sort of musical joke that we’re all in on. Music breathes, speeds up, and slows down just as the real world does, and our cerebellum finds pleasure in adjusting itself to stay synchronized".
Psychologists have nicely described the detriments of confirmation bias in the last few decades. Its power and influence is very clear now. But instead of thinking about it in regard to decision-making, let’s remember that it equally influences our aesthetics judgments. As I said, the great artists were well aware of their audience’s expectations; Picasso said that, "every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction." But instead of reading quotes like these as idealistic aphorisms, let us take them as warnings that confirmation bias appears in art just as it is in everyday decision-making.
If we continue to think that confirmation bias only applies to the everyday, we may be shutting out the next Stravinsky.
About the author: Sam McNerney recently graduated from the greatest school on Earth, Hamilton College, where he earned a bachelors in Philosophy. However, after reading too much Descartes and Nietzsche, he realized that his true passion is reading and writing about the psychology of decision making and the neuroscience of language. Now, he is trying to find a career as a science journalist who writes about philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. His blog, whywereason.com tries to figure out how humans understand the world. He spends his free time listening to Lady Gaga, dreaming about writing bestsellers, and tweeting @whywereason.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
Get 3 of our best-selling Pi topic issues
Plus a FREE Bonus Issue!