Betrayed by Our Senses: Are Our Musical Judgments Unconsciously Biased?  

by Justin DeFilippis

Written for Doors of Perception (LARTS 221, Fall 2013)

 

            While watching online video streaming of an international music competition a few years ago, I experienced something that, in hindsight, I would have truly regretted had my opinion held any weight: because of my personal expectations and biases, my own senses unconsciously betrayed me in successfully judging the music. The names of two of the competition’s finalists were familiar to me and carried a certain weight in my mind as “the ones to beat,” but neither of these two musicians walked away with the top prize. Even trying my best to be impartial, I was stunned by the jury’s decision. I did not believe at first that the winner, who was unknown to me at the time, truly deserved the honor. Months later, however, I stumbled upon and re-watched a video of one of the winner’s performances from the competition and found myself shocked at how marvelously good the playing was. It made complete sense to me then, from the instant the music commenced, why this person deserved to have won and was at least an equal of the other finalists I had already revered.

            What had changed? Had my musical taste and listening sensitivity dramatically evolved in such a short time, or had simply being familiar with the winner’s name and possessing the knowledge that this person won developed my viewpoint? My common sense leads me to suspect it was the latter. As a violin major, if my musical opinion could be so fundamentally swayed by assumptions and expectations, could knowledgeable audiences and, in some circumstances, experienced professionals in music also be biased in their judgments? I wanted to test the extent of these possible biases in other listeners. 

 

Context for the Study: Sensation Transference

            The way my impressions were influenced can be explained by a psychological concept widely taken advantage of in the selling of commercial products. As recounted in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, marketing pioneer Louis Cheskin introduced the idea of “sensation transference”—that people who make assessments of products will unconsciously “transfer sensations or impressions that they have about the packaging of the product to the product itself” (160). Cheskin (1907-1981) was a Ukrainian immigrant with a background in visual arts who stressed the importance of color and design in food products (Clark). One of his earliest breakthroughs was with the product margarine, which was relatively unsuccessful until he advised the producing company to use the more elegant brand name “Imperial Margarine” and to color it yellow, like butter. He found that in unnamed taste tests where the same margarine was colored yellow and white, the yellow sample would always win hands-down. Subjects did not realize a bias at work and likely thought there was an actual difference in flavor. Gladwell also notes that the company Cheskin founded once advised a brandy company simply to change the shape of its bottle to be more like their competitor’s, and amazingly that company’s problems with market share ceased (163).

            Often a brand name carries a positive or negative sensation transference effect. A company called VideoMining, which analyzed security camera footage of various kinds of shoppers to observe their decision making, found that the majority of the beer purchasers they observed considered only brand at the store. As the company’s founder, Dr. Rajeev Sharma of Pennsylvania State University, put it, it was as if “their mind was already made up; they were on autopilot” (“The Science of Shopping”). A 1990 study by Wayne D. Hoyer and Steven P. Brown produced similar findings. They write that “subjects who are aware of one brand in a choice set tend to choose the known brand, even when it is lower in quality than other brands they have had the opportunity to sample” (147). Why might a consumer stick with a lesser-quality but known brand anyway? Susan Fournier’s 1998 study “Consumers and Their Brands” reveals that the quality of the “relationship” between a customer and a given brand depends on the product’s perceived “ego significance,” or how important using that product makes customers feel (366). Advertising has been shown to be one powerful way of affecting “brand meaning.”

            If brand name and context can emotionally sway people due to sensation transference and ego significance in the consumer marketplace, what effect, if any, could branding and context have among relatively knowledgeable people in a given field, such as the arts? As Gladwell recalls in the concluding chapter of Blink, “Listening With Your Eyes,” biases based on race and gender created real barriers against women and minorities in classical music before screens were used in orchestra auditions (245). In the 25 years after screens were commonly erected in orchestra auditions, the number of women in American orchestras jumped from less than 5% to nearly 50% of the total orchestral population (Gladwell 273). Could a knowledgeable audience today be swayed by other factors of context, such as fame or age?

 

Experimental Design

            I designed an experiment to explore whether or not people’s perceptions of two musicians changed when the audience was told that one was a mature legend and the other was a young student. I created two different versions of a survey in which people had to compare two audio clips of artists playing the same music; the experimental group took a version where the musicians were identified, and the control group took a version where they were not. Due to the nature of the “blind version,” I had to be careful to choose recordings where the recording quality would be even enough that no assumptions could be made about the artists or their era. For the listening material, I ended up selecting a nearly two-minute sample of the beginning of Beethoven’s Cello and Piano Sonata No. 3 in A Major and specifically asked subjects to focus on the cellists. The first recording (from 1975) was of legendary 20th-century cellist Leonard Rose with the famous pianist Glenn Gould, and the second featured a talented, then-mid-teenaged cello student who currently attends New England Conservatory accompanied by a local pianist. Both audio clips were taken from YouTube videos, the latter with the cellist’s permission. Listeners were asked rate them from 1-10 in different categories (feeling/emotional content, phrasing, style, intonation, tone/sound quality, and overall), and choose which one they’d rather listen to.

 

Hypothesis                                          

            Of course, the real purpose of doing the experiment was not to measure the subjects’ preferences in themselves but to observe the variance of their reactions in the blind version and the named test. I considered what outcomes I could reasonably expect. The ABC TV show “Would You Fall For That” once hung up some of an untrained child’s paintings in a Soho, New York City art gallery and billed her as a child prodigy (Would You Fall). Many art patrons “fell for it” and admired her beginner’s-level paintings as great works. While my experiment couldn’t provide the “social proof” (i.e., the human surroundings that affect the way we behave) of the “prodigy” experiment because the subjects participated in my study one-by-one online, as opposed to in a gallery with many people, I did provide a similar ego significance for choosing Rose by describing him as one of the “foremost and important cellists of the 20th century,” whereas I introduced the young cellist only as a “teenage student,” not as a “child prodigy.” Therefore, I predicted that people would prefer Rose at least somewhat more in the named survey than in the blind one, my general hypothesis being that sensation transference affects listeners to favor established names.

 

Results

            Eleven people took the named survey, and eleven people took the blind version. While the majority of the subjects wouldn’t be qualified to serve on an international competition jury, they were all relatively knowledgeable about music. In the blind test, eight were either professional musicians or serious students, and three were classical music lovers, whereas eight out of the named testers were either professionals or serious students, two were classical music lovers, and one did not regularly listen to classical music but has played cello. I was surprised that in the blind version of the test, 72.7% (8/11 subjects) said they would rather listen to the student than Rose, and average ratings were higher for the student in all categories. More interestingly, my prediction came true—the percentage that preferred Rose jumped from 27.3% (3/11 subjects) in the blind test to 45.5% (5/11 subjects) in the named test, while a slim majority of 54.5% (6/11 subjects) still preferred the student. Rose had equal or higher ratings in all but one of the six categories (sound quality, which was still a closer margin than it had been in the blind test).

Limitations of the Study

            I concede that this study is limited by the small data sample of subjects’ results, by the slight imbalance between the two groups in the listeners’ backgrounds, and by the miniscule sample of music used in the experiment, less than a tenth of the complete sonata. It would have been impractical to give participants the whole piece or multiple pieces for the purposes of this project, but it would be interesting to see if their preferences still held after a longer, more varied exposure to the music. In Blink, Gladwell provides an anecdote about how sweeter drinks like Pepsi often do well in taste tests in which small samples are administered but don’t compare as favorably to sharper beverages like Coke in a “home use test,” where a larger sample is consumed in a more natural environment (159). This kind of test, while less instantaneous in results, is often viewed as being more accurate. Also, I would find it fascinating to see my experiment recreated with other sets of recordings of many different instruments, voice types, and composition styles.

 

Conclusion

            When I was swayed by expectations watching the aforementioned competition, I was a victim of commonplace sensation transference not dissimilar to reaching unconsciously for a familiar brand of iced tea at the grocery store. Likewise, the subjects in the named version of this study, having been told that they were evaluating a famous cellist against a mere student, appear to have experienced the same phenomenon. Since the results of this experiment upheld my hypothesis, what real world decisions could be influenced by sensation transference? Might jury members at competitions sometimes unintentionally make manifest a self-fulfilling prophecy when they think they know who is “supposed to win,” denying deserving competitors a fair chance? Could an experienced panel of faculty members at a conservatory unknowingly choose less qualified applicants to accept if they are more familiar with certain students prior to the audition? Do young artists, playwrights, journalists, athletes, and up-and-coming people in all professions ever suffer from these same kinds of unconscious biases? It seems unfortunate that in our competitive society, most processes are not truly “blind” to bias. As Julie Landsman, principal horn player of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, admitted to Gladwell, “I’ve been in [non-blind] auditions without screens, and I can assure you that I was prejudiced. I began to listen with my eyes, and there is no way that your eyes don’t affect your judgment. The only true way to listen is with your ears and your heart” (qtd. 251).

            Beyond musical performance, if we are to address biased processes in society that don’t easily lend themselves to screens and being conducted blindly (e.g. traditional job interviews), I hope that awareness of our inability to trust our senses completely will be an important first step for achieving more fairness in our judgments. In addition, in situations where decisions could ideally be made blindly but aren’t presently, people should use their common sense and reconsider their processes of evaluation, as classical music did with orchestral auditions. Even if a totally egalitarian system is not always possible, we should all strive to create the most conducive environment we can for just decision making.

 

Works Cited

 

Clark, Alfred E. “Louis Cheskin, 72; Studied Motivation and Effects of Color.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 Oct. 1981. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.

Fournier, Susan. “Consumers and Their Brands: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research.” Journal of Consumer Research 24 (1998): 343-71. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Back Bay, 2005. Print.

Hoyer, Wayne D., and Steven P. Brown. “Effects of Brand Awareness on Choice for a Common, Repeat-Purchase Product.” Journal of Consumer Research 17 (1990): 141-48. Werbepsychologie. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.

“The Science of Shopping: The Way the Brain Buys.” The Way the Brain Buys. The Economist, 18 Dec. 2008. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.

Would You Fall for That? Art LoverWould You Fall for That? Art Lover | Video – ABC News. ABC News, 26 July 2013. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.

 

Appendix

 

You can take the surveys used in the study (hosted by SurveyMonkey.com) here:

Blind Version: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/JPRDJ3Y

Named Version: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/J6JC39M

 

The audio was lifted from the videos using Vidtomp3.com, and the clips were cut to the proper length (including a fadeout cutting the piano cadenza) using Nero Wave Editor.

YouTube video of Rose, all rights withheld to the uploader and Sony BMG: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUpBCO4TYfM

 

Audio clip of the student cellist: http://vocaroo.com/i/s0TJ17DYodLl

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