Music is silver but …

The other day I came across a report on the BBC website that non-expert listeners could pick out winners of piano competitions more reliably when presented with silent performance videos than when exposed to sound alone. In the latter case they performed no better than chance.

The report was based on the work of Chia-Jung Tsay at University College London, in a paper entitled Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance.

The news report immediately leads us to suspect that the expert evaluating a musical performance is not in fact analysing and weighing auditory complexity and aesthetics but instead falling under the subliminal influence of the proxy data of the artist’s demeanour and theatrics.

That is perhaps unsurprising. We want to believe, as does the expert critic, that performance evaluation is a reflective, analytical and holistic enterprise, demanding decades of exposure to subtle shades of interpretation and developing skills of discrimination by engagement with the ascendant generation of experts. This is what Daniel Kahneman calls a System 2 task. However, a wealth of psychological study shows only too well that System 2 is easily fatigued and distracted. When we believe we are thinking in System 2, we are all too often loafing in System 1 and using simplistic learned heuristics as a substitute. It is easy to imagine that the visual proxy data might be such a heuristic, a ready reckoner that provides a plausible result in a wide variety of commonly encountered situations.

These behaviours are difficult to identify, even for the most mindful individual. Kahneman notes:

… all of us live much of our lives guided by the impressions of System 1 – and we do not know the source of these impressions. How do you know that a statement is true? If it is strongly linked by logic or association to other beliefs or preferences you hold, or comes from a source you trust and like, you will feel a sense of cognitive ease. The trouble is that there may be other causes for your feeling of ease … and you have no simple way of tracing your feelings to their source”

Thinking, Fast and Slow, p64

The problem is that what Kahneman describes is exactly what I was doing in finding my biases confirmed by this press report. I have had a superficial look at the statistics in this study and I am now less persuaded than when I read the press item. I shall maybe blog about this later and the difficulties I had in interpreting the analysis. Really, this is quite a tentative and suggestive study on a very limited frame. I would certainly like to see more inter-laboratory studies in psychology. The study is open to multiple interpretations and any individual will probably have difficulty making an exhaustive list.  There is always a danger of falling into the trap of What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI).

That notwithstanding, even anecdotally, the story is another reminder of an important lesson of process management that, even though what we have been doing has worked in the past, we may not understand what it is that has been working.

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