Sunday, August 23, 2015

Musical Mind: Judgment. 2

Just like being labeled "judgmental," I don't want to be called "biased." Biased is only a few steps away from prejudiced, at least in my connotative mind.  (And that's a word I'd prefer never appear on this blog again.)

But, there is certainly an evolutionary advantage to bias, is there not?  Over the last week I've been thinking about this quite a bit.  Where does bias come from? All of us develop a few of them, so why am I so adverse to the term?  And, if we all develop them, they must come more from functions of the brain than the mind, right?  They are separate animals, are they not: my brain reminds my heart to beat so my mind can ponder important things like where bias comes from.

Here's what my mind found.


Our brains, being the efficient machines they are, develop mental shortcuts, or rules, that we use to form judgments and make decisions.  They are based on frequency of certain decisions and outcomes of the past. For example, we learn that pushing through the yellow light resulted in a ticket last time because it turned red and there was a cop nearby, so next time we decide to stop at the yellow.  Or, we remember that last time we had 4 margaritas it didn't turn out so well, so we decide to stop at one and call it a night.  I imagine our ancestors learned with much greater consequences: don't try to pet the lion, don't you remember what happened to Marv??? (He got eaten.)

Though heuristics generally help us in our everyday lives hundreds of times a day, there are inevitably errors that occur.  When these errors happen, and heuristics lead us to a certain judgment time and time again due to a restriction to our evaluative processes, we develop cognitive biases.  There's a long list of these, including rosy retrospection, pareidolia, ostrich effect (hahaha), and the IKEA effect (seriously, studied by the Harvard Business School and Yale University). And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is what I find interesting!

ostrich effect (in hilarious realism) photo source

The development of bias is, in many ways, out of our control.  When the brain leads us to the same conclusion, the mind starts to interpret it as a true preference for that particular outcome, sometimes in error.  Here's a little example.

I don't want to talk about grip, but this example is about grip

When I moved to Boston to study with Nancy Zeltsman, I was the nerdiest, most excited (but contained) Laurel I've ever been.  I had ideas and I was stoked about what I could do with them.  I was excited about conversing with people my age that were just as passionate about marimba playing as I was.  A conversation that popped up rather quickly between members of the marimba and percussion studios was on the topic of   [dun dun DUNNNNN]  - grip.

Mallet grips. 4-mallet grips. Because they are the most important thing in the music world.  Duh.

We sat around for hours, some of us arguing that cross grips are better, the others saying we're idiots and that Stevens grip is far superior.  I talked about how my change to a cross grip from Stevens resulted in fast progress with no pain, and cited examples of peers who had surgery due to the misuse encouraged by the grip. (I promise I'm not going down this road...for now...)

Essentially, I had an incredible bias against a particular grip due to my experiences, personal and otherwise.  I was convinced, that because everyone I had seen play with it was not as good (see: musical) as a cross grip player, that the grip was inferior.  I was convinced, that because most people I'd see learn the grip ended up injured, that the grip was inferior because it went against our anatomy.  

My bias led to my own logical fallacy on the matter.  It wasn't until this summer, when I saw a performance by Ji-Hye Jung, that I learned I was wrong - that I had been biased, not right.  Of course, part of me was amazed and inspired by her performance, but there was another part that had to now deal with this new information, realize my own cognitive mistake, and decide to move forward in acknowledgement but no more participation in this particular bias.

Experience in the Midst of our Biases

As the adaptable species we are, we are better at adapting our mores in response to our biases than we are in noticing bias itself.  We mistake bias as a learned preference, true to our own aesthetic and wisdom.  But really, a bias is a conditioned preference, one that we didn't choose.

Positive experiential responses to bias range from the mundane, such as physical survival, to the emotionally meaningful, like social belonging.  Since survival doesn't take much explanation, let me jump to the other.  Biases allow us to build rapport with others.  Using my Boston example, I had the strength to argue because I had rapport with those that agreed with me: strength of the group vs. strength of the one.  Think about how people get obsessed about sports teams - a team is their team and they have to beat them.  (The evil "them.")  The favor for a team inevitably comes from bias.  This team-building rapport can develop into a range of relationships, from colleagues, to friends, to life-long spouses.

Negative experiential responses range from the development of prejudice, to alienation, to an eventual annihilation of diversity.  The dangers of prejudice are well-known and too harsh for this blog.  Alienation is a negative social consequence of bias; whether as the biased individual or the one biased against, a social life that operates on cognitive error breeds loneliness.  If it is not stopped, bias can eventually lead to the annihilation of diversity in a particular social construct.

Unsurprisingly, bias seems to play a larger role in those that are young, inexperienced, and insecure, as it becomes a "security blanket" for social belonging, and, as a result, personal value.  Much of this is without blame, as we have to learn, as I did, that we are functioning on bias rather than reason.  Using mallet grip as a specific example, I know that Nancy has had students that play all grips, and does not discriminate based on them.  I've heard students ask her if they should change to the one she plays, and I've often heard her wonder why they would want to, especially if they aren't encountering direct problems with the one they are currently using.  Her response shows that she is able to evaluate every "grip situation" without influence of her bias, if there is one.

Competition Bias - this is about grip, too, but I promise I don't want to talk about that

Since this whole series of essays is based on my competition experiences, good and bad, here is the inevitable connection.  I was very surprised to see that a jury eliminated all players of cross grip except for one, and she was frankly so good that they could not eliminate her without suspicion.  (She was in a younger category, and excellent.)  I had a hard time dealing with this fact, mainly because of its implications.  Coupling it with what I had heard about certain favoritism in this competition already, it was (well, is) hard to not read into it a little bit.  Hello, confirmation bias.

Reading about how bias is developed, I wondered if it played a part in the judges' decision.  After all, was it really a coincidence that they all played the grip their judging showed they preferred?  Perhaps there's relief in what I learned previously, about how judgments made amidst stress do not consider all variables, but rather the most obvious.  Is this what happened - did they "default" to the obvious?  Or did they willingly judge based on bias? 

I'm sure it isn't.  I mean, I hope it isn't.  Can't be.  

Though I want to think that those called judges are above the cognitive errors of the mind, it isn't fair to expect them to be.  There's an article from 2002 all about the International Marimba Competition in Belgium; it writes from the judges' and participants' perspectives, with little interviews from members of each.  It acknowledges the conscious effort the judges made to be unbiased, and it's interesting to hear that perspective.  

This does bring me back to the idea of discernment over judgment: seeking to understand rather than rate.  To understand something is to attempt to put all bias aside so that the truth of it can be seen.  I imagine some who have judged before would call this something like the "musicality" or "artistry" of a player, rather than the technique.  If only the lines were this clear. 

The danger of bias has to be one of the dangers of competition, and unfortunately it rests on the shoulders of the judges more than anyone else.  Though it isn't fair to depend on them to be above their own biases, they should be.  Whether or not the results of the competition I referenced earlier reflect those not ruled by bias, I'm not sure.  

I can't help but wonder what bias does to our world of music in the long run.  Actually, that's the subject of my next post.  Stay tuned. 

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