confirmation bias by proxy

Confirmation bias is not a conscious preference for information that supports your position.  It’s the unconscious tendency not even to consider the possibility that we are wrong.

I have a theory that conductors feel biased on behalf of the composers whose music we interpret.  Of course, consciously we choose to seek out what a composer is trying to say in his or her music, and we try to reverse engineer the composer’s process.  But I’ve noticed that, when I’m studying a score, I instinctively tend to assume that my own thoughts are wrong and the composer is right.  If I find evidence in the score that something I assumed is wrong, my own ideas roll over and let the composer’s win.

I have written before that I suspect that intense choral training increased my empathy, made me better able to feel other people’s feelings because following a conductor at the highest levels basically means turning your conscious control over to them and allowing their actions to govern your behavior in the most immediate way possible, bypassing cognition. Similarly, as a conductor, I’ve observed recently that I surrender my opinions to a composer whose score I’m conducting.  It’s not a choice I make consciously, it’s just a habitual response.  I’m gonna call it Confirmation Bias by Proxy.

It’s not a habitual response to anyone else in any other context for me.  I am irritatingly argumentative about my own opinions (ahem, blog) and hold them firm until I am proven wrong by evidence.  My husband has said more than once when we argue, “you always assume you’re right!”  And, really, wouldn’t it be easier to argue if I could automatically, nondefensively ask myself “what if I’m wrong?” in the middle of an argument?  Yes.  But confirmation bias makes me assume I’m right: for example, the cereal bowls go in the top of the dishwasher.  I will not consider any other possibilities unless I’m faced with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, and perhaps not even then.

So, anyway, it startled me when I noticed Confirmation Bias by Proxy in myself after a controversial episode on my sister’s blog.

There was an article in Pyschology Today that says “involuntary physiological reactions such as the wetness of a vagina and the stiffness of a penis are emotionally so satisfying (which means, simultaneously, so erotic) because they signal a kind of approval that lies utterly beyond rational manipulation.”  My sister blogged that this was factually inaccurate because genital arousal and sexual desire are not necessarily linked.  The Psychology Today guy replied to her blog post, saying “I’m so sorry that so many people were offended by the lines published in Psychology Today. I’d like to assert that the lines were meant only in one very specific context: a loving consensual relationship….” Which is weird because it wasn’t so much offensive as wrong.  But anyway, then Emily blogged another post about that response, clarifying her point about his inaccuracies.

And I thought, in what context would he be right?  When could that be true?  No, I didn’t think it.  I immediately constructed a scenario in which he would be right.  Because he’s not writing a scientific paper.  He’s writing a little article about experiencing sexuality in the modern world.  And there’s something of a literary shade to that, something that skews artistic.  So I automatically came up with a situation in which the thing he wrote would be true an accurate.


Question: How sex is a great lie detector in romance novels and other works of erotic fiction that are part of the dominant cultural narrative about sex?

Answer: “Erections and lubrication simply cannot be effected by willpower and are therefore particularly true and honest indices of interest. In a world in which fake enthusiasms are rife, in which it is often hard to tell whether people really like us or whether they are being kind to us merely out of a sense of duty, the wet vagina and the stiff penis function as unambiguous agents of sincerity.”


Question: Given that context, why might a character in a romance novel value genital response so highly?

Answer: “Involuntary physiological reactions such as the wetness of a vagina and the stiffness of a penis are emotionally so satisfying (which means, simultaneously, so erotic) because they signal a kind of approval that lies utterly beyond rational manipulation.”


See?  It’s easy to make it work.  I came up with this the instant I read the original thing.  It was an automatic response.  All it takes is to assume that the writer is correct, then bend our ideas around it.  I do it all the time when I prepare scores–it’s my job to assume the composer’s point of view.  It came very naturally to me.  And that’s when it occurred to me that it was a habit that comes from score prep: confirmation bias a la conducting.

BTW, I think it’s sooooo meta that I’m writing about my unconscious response to an article about unconscious responses.

This entry was posted in i'm no scientist but--, tools, what the job is. Bookmark the permalink.

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