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Confirmation Bias and Art

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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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.

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Comments 15 Comments

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  1. 1. ming_on_mongo 10:34 am 07/17/2011

    Hi…. enjoyed the article, that is until I saw the photo of the author, which may have been "entertaining", but didn’t exactly help his, um, credibility. Who knows, perhaps a case of "reverse confirmation bias" (…LOL)?!

    Link to this
  2. 2. robert schmidt 12:49 pm 07/17/2011

    I agree with the generalization that confirmation bias represents the brain’s prediction/reward system. That this is hard wired reinforces the need to teach critical thought at an early age just as it is important to teach hygiene, because the default mode of the brain towards laziness can be harmful. At the same time, I can understand the importance of critical thought when it comes to creating policy or attempting to understand the universe, but does it really matter if I prefer the Beatles to lady gaga? I agree we should all try to embrace new cultures and changing aesthetics but if I go through life thinking dance music is as much an art form as plagiarism is a literary style am I really worse off? On the other hand, what the author hasn’t mentioned is that confirmation bias is also likely the root of bigotry. The hatred of other cultures and lifestyles is similar to a distaste for other’s art forms. Foreign cultural practices also challenge our predictions, creating a feeling of awkwardness and alienation. So just as we should ask ourselves, do I hate this idea or art work because it is "bad" or do I hate it because it challenges my preconceptions we should also ask ourselves if our hatred and intolerance of other people is simply because they are different.

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  3. 3. smcnerne 2:53 pm 07/17/2011

    Robert, I think you are absolutely right. Confirmation bias explains things other than decision making and aesthetics – as you say, it could be the basis for bigotry. So I think psychologists are describing something much much more, but I am a little resistant to say that it "explains everything" or is an "essential component to human cognition." At the end of the day, confirmation bias really isn’t really capital E explaining anything, it is merely describing a tendency. If we really want to know how we decide, why we like the aesthetics we like, or what bigotry exists, we will need to dig a bit deeper.

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  4. 4. robert schmidt 4:23 pm 07/17/2011

    Agreed, As with most things about the human condition, "it’s complicated". While I certainly don’t believe that confirmation bias explains everything I do believe it originates from a fundamental aspect of learning namely prediction / confirmation. This is illustrated in the book, Gateway to Memory by Mark A. Gluck.

    One has to wonder, if logical fallacies prevent us from learning the truth, or if they in fact reinforce erroneous correlations then why do they exist? If it required just as much effort to learn a logical deduction as an illogical one then why do we tend towards the illogical one? To me it suggests that many fallacies are a direct result of the way our brain is wired. I guess that puts me firmly on the nature side of the nature/nurture argument. Again, this would reinforce the need to educate to overcome our intellectual shortcomings rather than supporting the theist view that good people think good thoughts.

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  5. 5. ming_on_mongo 7:46 pm 07/17/2011

    On its simplest level, perhaps "doubt" and "open-mindedness" don’t always improve "survival", quite as often as one’s "certainty" and "my way or the highway".

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  6. 6. Bops 9:18 pm 07/17/2011

    It seems, when it comes down to survival. Only the right choices save your life.
    Most of the "my-ways" die on the survival trip making foolish choices.

    I would be surprised if it really has anything to do with bias. Maybe, it’s all about common sense, comfort, and safety zones.
    What we are each willing "to put up with before we draw the line".

    People like to feel comfortable and safe most of the time.
    It’s ok to be different to a point… when we feel unsafe, that’s the stop point.

    We all have our "personal ok point" on different, another one for safe, and yet another one for each of our emotions.

    I wondered if words like bias are just an excuse… for some people to push their ideas beyond the comfort zones of most people.
    Like bipolar, and other personality disorders do.

    Would be nice to know for sure.

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  7. 7. Bops 9:24 pm 07/17/2011

    Your right…maybe to photo does more harm than good, then too, it makes a point.

    How many people would pay this person for his articles?
    We’ll see.

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  8. 8. Squirrel 10:17 pm 07/17/2011

    Might be interesting to study how much intelligence and stress correlate with a more "tolerant" or wider net of what is recognized as confirmation – does it have to be the same song by the same performer, or a new song bouncing off from the known one associatively in some way. As the article shows, humans cannot be strictly anti-new, or we’d still all listen to ancient Greek tunes, or none at all, because it’d make art a closed system of repetition that excludes innovation. Hence it might be interesting to look at where and how the preference for repetition is enhanced or diminished, or rather, what creates a cognitively more closed or more open method for defining what is correct/pleasant repetition! Stress might make people more keen to see what they expect? There’s interesting work on the effect of mood on pattern recognition that might link up nicely.

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  9. 9. Bora Zivkovic 11:31 pm 07/17/2011

    I love the fact that you included the quiz at the end of the lecture: the photo of yourself testing the confirmation bias of commenters. I wish you got 100 comments so you could do analysis to add as an Appendix to the post: how many reacted to your author photo, and of those, how many reacted negatively (e.g., "don’t make waves", or "not in my world") thus confirming the topic of your essay. Bravo!

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  10. 10. smcnerne 12:00 am 07/18/2011

    @Bops, I would pay this person for his articles!!! But that’s just me….

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  11. 11. rgcorrgk 12:25 am 07/18/2011

    “Confirmation bias” is BS, closer to say “conforming bias”. For very obvious & reasonable survival reasons, people have a desire to be at one with their leadership: the in crowd, the boss, the expert, the doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, academia, the elite and so on. "The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen is a fable for children that goes a long way in explaining the true “psychology” of this so called “confirmation bias & art” stuff. No offense to the writer of this piece Sam McNerney, who seems to want to be visualized as some sort of clown; but, there is a lot of sloppy thinking that bounces around in the field of “psychology” (some think various nut balls gravitate to “psychology” out of a sort of intellectual self-medicating drive; I’m not sure, I’m trying to keep an open mind).
    R. Carlson

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  12. 12. gkfs1 12:44 am 07/18/2011

    I enjoyed this article immensely, "especially" after seeing the author’s picture. I suspect the picture was intentionally bold as it clearly compliments the article. Either way, the image is refreshing (to me) on many levels, as is the article. I found it to be very well-written and particularly inspiring. The discussion reminded me of something a music professor once said in class. He said that our brains "crave" certain patterns and seek for them in art and music. He went on to say that the brain is especially pleased when viewing things that demonstrate a geometrical pattern found througout nature that is known as the "golden ratio". He then played a piece of music for the class that reportedly had been transcribed using the golden ratio found within the stained glass panels of the Sistine Chapel. The music was beautiful but I believe it was quite unpredictable. I was very impressed by this discovery. I thought I would hear more about it as I continued my studies in psychology, but it was never mentioned again. Now I am wondering if Mr. McNerney might be aware of the golden ratio and its inherent use in nature, art, and music. I would love to know if (and how) he might incorporate that concept into his own research.

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  13. 13. smcnerne 1:12 pm 07/18/2011

    @gkfs1 That is an interesting thought. I know of the golden ratio and have always found it fascinating. Here is the puzzle for me. Does the golden ratio actually exist, or is it just created in brains? Of course, the real question I am asking here is whether or not mathematics exist. Plato was say yes, but there are a handful of people that would say no.

    It is really difficult to wrap my head around this stuff. Are the patterns "in the music" is the golden ratio "in nature," or not? You tell me. And I’ll keep thinking about it.

    @rgcorrgk, do you have something against clowns?

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  14. 14. ming_on_mongo 10:36 pm 07/18/2011

    Talk’s cheap… show us the money (LOL)!

    Link to this
  15. 15. arenton1 4:58 pm 03/27/2012

    http://explaining-the-bias.tumblr.com/

    Link to this

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