Clenching the Fists of Dissent – Cognitive Biases in Music

Hello everyone, welcome to psychology 101. In today’s class we’re gong to be looking at a host of psychological biases and contextualising them through numerous examples found within the music community. Most people already know what a bias is, but let’s start off with a definition to make sure we’re all on the same page: a bias is a mental tendency or inclination, which is preconceived, irrational and/or unreasoned. One thing we need to establish immediately is that biases are inherent in human nature and everyone has them. The extent to which they affect you will vary individually, but it doesn’t matter how you were raised, how intelligent you are or how many psychology degrees you’ve attained, it is impossible to completely eliminate biases from your own thinking. If you think you can, then you’re actually suffering from the bias blind spot, which is where you’re able to recognise the impact of biases upon the judgement of other people, but not on yourself. The reason for that is because it makes us feel better about ourselves, and helps us paint ourselves in a more positive light. So we cannot completely eliminate biases from all of our decisions, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, there’s a reason why after millions of years of evolution they’re still irrevocably prevalent in the way that we think, and that’s because they’re useful. Whether they’re there to make us feel better about ourselves, to protect us from our fears, or simply there to help simplify and categorise the enormous amounts of data and stimuli our brain interacts with on a daily basis, they have their purpose. Our aim here is to help elucidate how some of the more common ones relate to music, so that you can become better at recognising when such biases are affecting your judgement, and hopefully this will lead to a more enjoyable listening experience on your part.

Let’s kick things off with one we’ve all encountered countless times, even if we’ve never come across its official name; status quo bias. This is an emotional bias where the current situation comes to represent a baseline, and we prefer to remain at this baseline. Any deviation away from it is perceived as negative, even if such a deviation may be “objectively” better. Now, let’s apply that to music. We’ve all heard that person who immediately decries a new release from one of his favourite artists. ‘The old stuff was better’, and ‘how could they do this to the fans, it’s so different/shit compared to their first x albums’ are phrases we’ve heard many times before. These are prime examples of status quo bias. Let’s take Metallica as our example. Their first four albums were all-time classics in thrash, before they went for a mainstream metal sound on The Black Album. This move brought them a ton of backlash from their existing fans, and so let’s look at it through the lens of this bias. Note, we’re only going to focus on the sounds of the music here, not on the perception of the band members themselves, their attitudes, the way they dress etc. This holds for both this example and the examples to come in this article.

The Black Album then is an amazing mainstream metal album, with excellent songwriting, great riffs and some tremendous hooks. If you were a Metallica fan in the early 90’s who loved thrash, and did not like mainstream metal, then it’s OK for you to not like The Black Album. That makes sense. But if you loved thrash AND mainstream metal, yet you hated on Metallica as a terrible album, then perhaps you need to think about why you didn’t like that record. Yes, it’s very different from what came before, but different isn’t necessarily bad. A good way to think about this is to try and separate your expectations from the music. Ask yourself: ‘if a band I’d never heard of released this album, would I enjoy it?’. If the answer is yes, then enjoy it! You can be disappointed in an album, you can say it’s not as good as what you expected it to be, but you cannot say that it’s bad. It may not be what you wanted, but at the end of the day it might still be good music that you’re not giving a proper chance to.

Now let’s have a look at Machine Head. Machine Head burst onto the scene in the 90s at the vanguard of a heavy metal resistance looking to fly the flag in the wake of the grunge explosion, and giants of the genre (Metallica, Megadeth etc.) turning to more mainstream sounds. Their amalgamation of thrash with Pantera’s groove made them extremely popular, and their first two albums were very well received. Then, with The Burning Red, they turned to more of a nu metal sound, which led to criticism from both critics and fans alike, and after a couple of mediocre albums they had been labelled as ‘sell-outs’. Whilst they were still selling well commercially, The Burning Red still being the second-best selling record of their career, they had lost much of the respect they’d garnered with Burn My Eyes. Many of the fans who had supported them from day one suddenly found themselves on the outer, and were no longer willing to support the band. Then the band released Master of Puppets 2.0 The Blackening, a record which is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the greatest and most important metal albums of all time.

Thankfully, most of the old Machine Head fans welcomed the band back into the fold with open arms, forgiving their past ‘transgressions’. However, there are still some who wouldn’t even listen to The Blackening, even though they would probably fucking love it, because they’d been burnt so badly by the nu metal phase. This is a prime example of negativity bias, where negative events have a much greater effect on our psychological state of mind than neutral or positive events, even if these events are of the same intensity. The last three Machine Head records have all been top tier work and so it would be a real shame for people to miss out on it just because they still can’t get over some stylistic choices from 15 years ago. Now we’ve taken a meso approach with it thus far by looking at how negativity bias can affect our enjoyment of a band. The same can be seen on a micro level, where one terrible single can put people off an entire record, and on the macro level, where people can abandon an entire genre based on a couple of bands or albums.

Speaking of entire genres, let’s move onto another bias which we’ve all come across: stereotypes. Stereotyping involves ascribing a certain set of characteristics onto an entire group, where these thoughts/beliefs may not reflect the reality/truth. Stereotypes are helpful at simplifying the enormous amounts of data our brains gather so that we can make decisions more easily, but their lack of nuance can also really lead us astray. For example, a common genre stereotype out there is that deathcore is nothing but generic chugging, mindless breakdowns and cookie-cutter vocals. So if someone holds that belief, and they don’t like those three elements in their music, then they probably won’t listen to any new deathcore releases. This could be a positive in that they won’t waste their time on the litany of bands that fit that description, but at the same time, they would’ve missed out on amazing 2016 releases by bands such as Shokran and Slice the Cake, which go well beyond that simplistic stereotype. So stereotypes can be helpful at filtering what we choose to listen to so that we can maximize our listening experiences, but they can also lead to us missing out on some real gems. As a result, keeping an open mind is a great way to find an optimal balance between the two. Keep in contact with friends or publications who listen to genres you may not necessarily be a huge fan of, but whose tastes you still respect, and every now and then try out one of their recommendations – it just might be worth the leap of faith.

Expanding upon the role of publications within the metal community brings us to our next bias: the bandwagon effect. This is the phenomenon where the more people believe that seemingly everyone likes a certain band/album, the more likely they are to then like it themselves and hop on the bandwagon, if you will. Blogs and magazines have well and truly jumped aboard the hype train for certain bands and records, with Deafheaven’s Sunbather and Fallujah’s The Flesh Prevails immediately springing to mind, and this can set in motion the bandwagon effect. Now there are two ways in which this could be relevant to someone. Perhaps you’re one of the people who gets swept up in the hype and jumps aboard, even if it’s probably something that you wouldn’t normally enjoy. That may not be such a bad thing, as ultimately the more that people are enjoying the music they listen to, the more healthy the scene will be. On the other side though, there are certain individuals whose reactions represent the polar opposite of this bias. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon, they get so sickened by all the hype that they actually avoid the album at all costs! There are many reasons someone may react like this; it could be that they want to try and form a more ‘objective’ opinion without everyone else’s thoughts clouding their judgement, or perhaps they just like swimming against the current and being nonconformist. Whatever the reason may be, such individuals should take care that they aren’t missing out on something they love, simply due to the thoughts of others. It may not be all it’s hyped up to be, and there may be other bands of a similar style doing it better without the fanfare. Still, people must be enjoying it for a reason, so there’s a reasonably good chance that there is some quality to be found there. And of course, there’s always the chance it’s as good as they say and you’ve got another favourite to treasure.

Anchoring is a cognitive bias which relates to our tendency to rely too much on the first piece of information we receive (the anchor), when making decisions. Another way to think of this is the first impression effect. We all know that first impressions don’t always tell the whole story, and that’s especially the case with bands like Cyborg Octopus. Their 2016 debut LP Learning to Breathe is one of the better progressive metal releases of the year, and yet the way you’re introduced to the band could really affect the way you perceive them. If you heard the funk, disco, metal and craziness of ‘DiscoBrain!’ first up, you might go into it thinking ‘Yes! Finally, a band that combines funk and metal, my two favourite genres!’. You might then be disappointed to hear that every track sounds different, and you’ve got sounds ranging from the aforementioned, to straight-ahead progressive metal, to furious hardcore and more. Thus it’s important to be aware that first impressions are exactly that, only a first impression, and that in order to really know what you’re getting into you need to dig deeper. If the first song of an album isn’t hitting the spot for you, keep going and don’t let that negativity seep into your opinion of the following tracks. Sometimes albums take time to gel and make sense, especially if they’re jumping around a lot stylistically, or they’re different from what we’re used to, so trying to detach ourselves from that initial anchor and judge each moment on its merits can help us find the records that are truly good.

Next up we have the contrast effect, which Stevic from Twelve Foot Ninja eloquently explains in the first minute and a bit from the video above. He looks at it from the perspective of a single song and shows us the positive way in which this effect can work, so we’re going to look at it from a completely different angle. If you listen to one of your favourite albums of all time right before checking out a new record from a similar genre, you’re increasing the chance that you won’t like that new record. That’s because you’re comparing it to something you love, and making the new one look bad in comparison. Conversely, you may have just listened to something that sounded absolutely horrid, in which case the next album might sound fucking amazing in comparison. In that case you need to take a step back and ask whether the amazing album is actually any good, or whether it’s just a lot less bad than what you were checking out initially.

Last, but not least, it’s time for the big one: confirmation bias. This bias represents our tendency to seek out, interpret, favour and remember information which confirms our existing beliefs, whilst giving disproportionately less weight and consideration to alternative information. It’s especially pronounced when it concerns deeply entrenched beliefs or issues which are extremely emotional for the subject. Metal is a very emotional genre with an extremely passionate fan base, many of whom having been involved in the scene for decades, and so one can expect to encounter a lot of confirmation bias within our community. This bias can go hand-in-hand with stereotypes, which we already covered above. So let’s return to our deathcore example, and let’s say our deathcore hating metalhead decides to check out the track from Slice the Cake linked above, to see if he should listen to the album. If his confirmation bias was strong he would disregard the little acoustic intro and the spoken word passage, and then throw his arms into the air and shout about how ‘all deathcore fucking sucks’ as soon as the chugs roll in. Thus he’s ignoring the aspects which separate it from his stereotype, aspects which he may actually enjoy, and is instead focusing solely on the elements he doesn’t like. Listening to something new, or something you wouldn’t normally listen to, isn’t in and of itself enough to overcome biases and preconceptions. It requires patience and the willingness to go into it with an open mind, otherwise you’re going into the listening experience expecting to hate it. More than that, you almost want to hate it (because then you feel good about being right), and this means you’re more likely to become even more close-minded and your beliefs become further entrenched. So as we can see, confirmation bias can quickly get us into a vicious cycle of close-mindedness and stubbornness.

So confirmation bias can result in us disliking, or not giving a proper chance, to things that we may actually enjoy if we spent enough time with it. At the same time, it can lead to us enjoying things which maybe aren’t so good. Take the In Flames track from above for example, a cut from 2014’s Siren Charms. Perhaps you’ve been a huge fan of In Flames since day one, you enjoy all of their albums, and especially love those in between their debut and Come Clarity. You may approach this album, and this song, with excitement as your favourite band makes its return. You may hear the riffs in the verse as reminiscent of the good old days, and the electronics as a throwback to Reroute to Remain. Maybe In Flames have still got it, you tell yourself, maybe this album is pretty good despite the criticisms. Or, maybe you’re not able to separate what you used to love with what’s being produced now. Maybe those riffs sound generic and recycled, the track lacks purpose/direction and the record warrants the criticisms it’s receiving. Maybe your favourite band has started making bad music, and you don’t want to face the reality.

In summary, biases are a fact of life. We’ve only covered a tiny proportion of the biases that are out there, but these are the ones you will probably encounter most commonly; especially in a musical context. Hopefully we’ve helped give you the tools to recognise when you might be having biased thoughts or feelings, so that you can put in place mechanisms to try and deal with that. You can’t completely eliminate biases from your thinking, but you can definitely reduce their impact on your decision-making. The first step to rectifying your line of thinking is to heighten your own awareness of both what it is that you’re thinking as you listen to a song, and why it is that you’re thinking that way. Ask some of the reflective questions we’ve raised today, play devil’s advocate with yourself, and hopefully at the end of the day you’ll become a better judge of music, relative to your own personal tastes. Hopefully you’ll be better at recognising when albums maybe aren’t as good as you want them to be, and that they don’t deserve time ahead of some of the other releases out there. More importantly, hopefully you’ll be more open-minded and perseverant with releases that are new or out of your comfort zone, you can expand your horizons, and welcome awesome new music into your life that fills some voids you never even knew existed.

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Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Karlo is an aspiring author in fantasy/historical fiction with a passion for music, history and board games.






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