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Is taste in art a matter of confirmation bias? 
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Post Is taste in art a matter of confirmation bias?
I came across this editorial at the Scientific American website and thought I'd pass it along to my fellow ReelViewers.

Quote:
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.


Some interesting implications:

1. Approaching new artistic experiences with an opening mind may be a simple matter of understanding and controlling for the way our brains cling to the tried and (ostensibly) true.

2. But if that's so, then perhaps we need a new yardstick by which we can judge artistic experiences, one that doesn't rely on our resistance to change what we think we know.

3. Music and storytelling rely on processes of tension and resolution. We know one from the other because of our previously held beliefs and experiences. But it is those same old beliefs and experiences that discourage us from allowing for new ones to happen.


Sun Jul 17, 2011 6:23 pm
Post Re: Is taste in art a matter of confirmation bias?
Ken wrote:
1. Approaching new artistic experiences with an opening mind may be a simple matter of understanding and controlling for the way our brains cling to the tried and (ostensibly) true.


Interesting read with which I mostly agree. I'm not sure that your listed point is "simple" at all though. Or that it's even necessary. I think the brain is more likely to resist something that is completely different than what we're familiar to. On the other hand, we can "train" ourselves to appreciate different things by subtle adjustments. That is via evolution, rather than a revolution.


Mon Jul 18, 2011 3:55 pm
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Joined: Sat Aug 22, 2009 6:19 pm
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Post Re: Is taste in art a matter of confirmation bias?
For most it certainly is. Confirmation bias is both a survival mechanism and a means for steady improvement. You certainly don't want to re-learn something everytime you experience it. You keep it and build upon it.

On the other hand, true innovation usually comes when one thinks in a completely different pattern. For most this only occurs when extreme circumstances (desperation) forces it. Some seem to be wired differently and are naturally inspired. Success gurus often try to teach this ability, but I'm not sure everyone can, or should try to think in patterns that are different than their natural inclination unless they need to drastically alter the direction of things in their life.

I'm definitely not a free thinker most of the time even though I have a scientific occupation. I tend to be content with the way things are and only discard old notions when discontentment comes along.


Tue Jul 19, 2011 9:36 pm
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Post Re: Is taste in art a matter of confirmation bias?
I think there have been some instances when innovation has been able to occur, involving a careful balance between the staid and the new. The audience is able to accept the step forward, because the other foot is still firmly planted on familiar ground. David Bordwell talks about it sometimes--how movies that are progressive in one way often cling doubly to the old standards in other ways. They sneak in the medicine, so to speak. It takes something in which the balance is shifted significantly toward the new in order to trigger an instinctive rejection in the audience.

As an example, I'll cite the Bourne sequels. Their editing and camerawork aggressively reject the grammatical norms that have been established by a century of filmmaking, but their story conventions (secret agents, double-crosses, globetrotting chases, government conspiracies, etc.) are vintage spy movie tropes, which act as signposts for fans of the genre.

In popular music, too, genres typically intermingle and crossbreed, but rarely do they produce something so distinctly different that it must be thought of as a different genre entirely. For example, no matter how far out groups like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience pushed the boundaries of rock music, they still kept enough to their roots that their audiences (for the most part) didn't reject their more esoteric material. There was always just enough rock in there.

CasualDad wrote:
I'm definitely not a free thinker most of the time even though I have a scientific occupation. I tend to be content with the way things are and only discard old notions when discontentment comes along.
What do you do? You may have mentioned it elsewhere, so I apologize if I'm asking you to repeat yourself.


Wed Jul 20, 2011 1:22 am
Cinematographer

Joined: Sat Aug 22, 2009 6:19 pm
Posts: 666
Post Re: Is taste in art a matter of confirmation bias?
Ken wrote:
What do you do? You may have mentioned it elsewhere, so I apologize if I'm asking you to repeat yourself.


I am an engineer. I've spent 20 years as a product development engineer, 10 in aerospace and 10 in medical devices. I've spent the last 5 years as a quality engineer in medical devices in order to reduce my travel schedule and accomodate my young family (two kids 8 and 4). By and large I'm out of the innovation side of things and now spend most of my time in statistical analysis and risk assessment for new products and production processes.


Wed Jul 20, 2011 9:14 pm
Profile
Post Re: Is taste in art a matter of confirmation bias?
CasualDad wrote:
I am an engineer. I've spent 20 years as a product development engineer, 10 in aerospace and 10 in medical devices. I've spent the last 5 years as a quality engineer in medical devices in order to reduce my travel schedule and accomodate my young family (two kids 8 and 4). By and large I'm out of the innovation side of things and now spend most of my time in statistical analysis and risk assessment for new products and production processes.

Still sounds like a work that requires a healthy dose of analytical thinking, at the very least. (Something a writer such as myself has no choice but to occasionally brush up on.)


Thu Jul 21, 2011 4:41 am
Post Re: Is taste in art a matter of confirmation bias?
Excellent topic! As a composer/musician I think exactly about this all the time.

I think that confirmation bias might be in part a defense mechanism, to prevent us from feeling ignorant. At a certain age we form some kind of "world view", which becomes imprinted. We also form our tastes regarding all kinds of shapes and patterns.

I think the first step to break that pattern is not trying to open the mind, but to fully admit the existence of this mechanism. Only then we can form some kind of parallel thinking, or call it side-stepping, and eventually some expansion/evolution.

I believe in the old "saying": a stupid person thinks he/she is smart. A smart person knows he/she is stupid. Doesn't sound too wrong for me and fits right in: a "stupid" person protects what they percieve as the truth with brick walls and steel doors. Anything unfamiliar remains outside.

Of course I have no idea about what I don't know (nobody has). I am having enough trouble checking and re-checking what I know or what I think I know, since I firmly believe in "knowledge maintenance". One single wrong information or half-truth many years ago might cause a huge amount of mis-judgement and trains of thought which are simply wrong. So I re-visit a lot of my "basic knowledge" and correct problems if I feel it is necessary. I see it as maintaining the foundation of a building to prevent it from collapsing.

Yet I can imagine my amount of ignorance in an abstract way. I think it is very healthy to let go of the idea that any of us really, deeply understand anything. We can memorize data, yes - but memory is quite tricky. Just watch an old movie again after many years. Anyone who can think just a little, will come to the conclusion that our memory is unreliable, and some mechanism filled-in some of the blanks. The movie looks and feels quite different this time. If already memory is unreliable - how about the rest: processing, interpretation, evaluation..... sure there must be "mechanisms", since our consciousness only controls (if at all) only a tiny fraction. Similar to our eyesight: we only "see" in a narrow 4 degree angle. The rest is scanning through eye movement, peripheric vision and our brain doing a lot (!) of filling-in for us. And if I think about it - do I really know what I just said? Nope. I just think I know.

Here, so I think, is where individual character comes in. I know people who seem to stand still all through their lives, recycling the same ideas again and again, reacting aggressively to anything outside their "universe". Others seem to evolute through the years. Hunger for knowledge is most likely the key to overcome confirmation bias.

How come that I heard some 25 years ago for the first time a Morocco radio station - with totally different sounds, scales, tunings, patterns, rhythms - you name it.... and I loved it from the first moment on? Of course it is the "Bourne" - effect. My (poor) brain picked up familiar patterns (after all I had already heard a lot of jazz fusion with Middle Eastern and African influences before) and that was my one foot on familiar ground. Yes, opening our minds can only be done in baby steps.


Sat Jul 23, 2011 1:26 pm
Post Re: Is taste in art a matter of confirmation bias?
Here's one more thought: the fist time I heard the Henry Mancini music score for "Wait Until Dark" (1967), I loved it. It was the very first time I heard that quarter-tone scale. It doesn't sound "out of tune" at all (because it isn't). I think this is one of the very best examples of constant "tension and relief" - since the two pianos (tuned exactly one quarter step apart) play back and forth between the familiar key and one quarter step apart. I still need to analyze the entire score, but as far as I know, the additional notes are below the traditional/familiar 12-note equal tempered scale, so: "down" means "tension" and "up" means "relief". The melody line is kept in the familiar equal-tempered scale (up, to my knowledge at the moment). There we go: again one foot firmly on familiar ground.

I still wonder how this got greenlighted - probably because a taged-on pop song "sold" the soundtrack LP/CD? Whatever - I love the pioneering spirit of this soundtrack.

For non-musicians: quarter tone is easily explained. Our Western equal-tempered scale has 12 notes. Now fill in another 12 notes exactly in the middle of the spaces - that's the 24-note quarter tone scale. Another way to explain it: visualize a guitar and its frets. Now put in additional frets, one into each space - and you're there.


Sun Jul 24, 2011 8:38 am
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