Confirmation Bias and Art

McNerney To follow up Julia Galef on the fallacy of difference in art, Samuel McNerney on confirmation bias in art, in Scientific American:

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?