Confirmation Bias and Art
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…
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.