TV spoofs 1992
[Italian version here]
Phenomenon: Confirmation bias & expectation bias
Manufacturer: Our unconscious mental processes
Price: Sanity & needless expense and YMMV
Author: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
Research period 1973-2021
Published: May, 2021
On April 1 1965 BBC TV interviewed “a professor from London University” who had perfected a technology he called "smellovision".
Smellovision enabled television viewers to experience aromas, as seen being created and processed in the television studio, in their own homes by this new technology. The professor earnestly and enthusiastically explained that this machine broke scents down into their component molecules which could then be transmitted through the cathode ray tube screen.
The professor offered a demonstration by placing first some coffee beans and then onions into the smellovision machine. He asked viewers to report by noon next day, which of the aromas had been more successfully transmitted. Could the viewers smell anything?
Viewers were encouraged that “for best results [they] should stand six feet away from the TV set [as they were called in those days] and sniff.”
Viewers called in from across the country to confirm that they distinctly experienced these scents as if they were there in the studio with the professor and the presenter.
Some viewers even claimed that the onions made their eyes water.
“This sounds like it should be treated with a whiff of scepticism,” observe Plebs Chorus, stage left, “Something smells fishy here”
The Smellovision experiment was repeated on June 12, 1977 by Bristol University psychology lecturer Michael O'Mahony, who it claimed was interested in exploring the effect of the power of suggestion on smell.
O'Mahony told viewers of Reports Extra, a late-night news show that aired in the Manchester region, that a new technology called Ramen Spectroscopy would allow the station to transmit smells over the airwaves.
Michael O'Mahony told viewers that he was going to transmit “a pleasant country smell, not manure” over their TV sets, and he asked people to report what they smelled. The good folk of Manchester are smart, educated, sceptical people (after all, Manchester's two Premier League football teams have more supporters globally than in the rainy city itself) and yet within the next 24 hours the station received 172 calls confirming the effects of Smellovision. The highest number came from people who reported smelling hay or grass. Others reported their living rooms filling with the scent of flowers, lavender, apple blossom, fruits, potatoes, and even home-made bread.
Two people complained that the transmission brought on a severe bout of hay fever.
For Pastafarian devotees of the Flying Spaghetti Monster the concept of Ramen Spectroscopy would be exciting. Of course, this could all be invented to test your credulity too.
Memory is a fallible thing and yer Old Scribe may be misremembering another British TV April Fool Smell-O-Vision experiment, other than the 1965 version above. This may have been an April episode of Tomorrow's World that claimed to utilise specific audio frequencies to create molecular agitation that would emulate aroma close to the TV set loudspeaker. Again, many people were convinced they could detect odours other than the smell of hot dust on the television's valves (tubes).
In these pages we have already discussed audiophile groupthink and the development of Audiophile Mythologies, for which Confirmation Bias is the most powerful behavioural reinforcement. Not only are our Mirror Neurons designed to help align us with others but our brains tend to bias towards established Neural pathways, which when activated second, third or more, times, thicken that neural pathway, reinforcing the memory and its narrative. Thus what we anticipate we are more likely to observe; what we are primed to experience we are more likely to experience; what we are told to expect we are more likely to notice.
It is a wonder that we ever achieve anything new.
Scientific research is supposed to confirm, or provide supportive evidence for, a hypothesis. Of course, if there is profit to be made by confirming that medication X or piece of wire Y does what is intended, the theory of “Hell hath no fury like a vested interest masquerading as a moral principle” obviously applies. Using research to establish that a product or action is better than the control group (placebo or treatment as usual) is known as Inductive reasoning. Inductive research in particular therefore has a significant problem with confirmation bias.
Equally, scientific research is supposed to deny or falsify a hypothesis. This is called Deductive Reasoning. No unfalsifiable hypothesis can be confirmed reliably either. Qualitative data (however it is contorted into quantities by Likert scales or various modes of textual analysis) runs up against the challenge of unfalsifiability. The entire edifice of postmodernism is built upon trying to square this particular circle/ellipse/blob, from Husserl's phenomenology to the impenetrable Gauloises infused musings from Paris cafes.
Confirmation Bias as a name, if not the concept, was coined by psychologist Peter Watson. It is the tendency of people to favour any data that fits their existing belief system or supports what they think they already know, or might know. In experimental psychology it is also referred to as Observer-expectancy Effect where an experimenter unconsciously influences the subjects of a supposedly objective experiment towards behaving in the hypothesis supporting anticipated manner. Good examples are horoscopes, where we read the characteristics of our star sign and tend to agree. We agree that like others born under the star sign Bootes the Herdsman (as opposed to Boots the Chemist, or Boots the Credulous), we do tend to be overgenerous and uncritical, despite also being above average intelligence, like all the other Bootes.
Ideas and beliefs are difficult to dislodge once affirmed in some way and Confirmation Bias merely adds to that affirmation.
The Confirmation Bias tendency is an example of cognitive bias. A whole branch of psychotherapy intervention, arising from Social Learning Theory, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is based around enabling the patient to shift the frame through which they view & experience the world to help them alter their responses to thoughts and events. Confirmation bias or Confirmatory bias or Expectation bias has also been usefully described as Myside bias.
Confirmation biases are effects due to our information processing phenomena. Confirmation bias differs from what might be called the behavioural confirmation effect, colloquially described as “self-fulfilling prophecy”. This effect influences folks' expectations to influence their behaviour, thus determining the expected result to occur. Inevitably the audio designer works towards a desired result and invites others to notice how the equipment achieves this result.
Various biases are, counter-intuitively, not restricted to emotionally significant events or information. Confirmation Bias is potentially equally present in all data and information interpretation. This includes observation of graphically expressed correlations, interpretation of tables of numerical information, decisions which measurements to prioritise, which results to ignore. The excessive pursuit of low THD at the expense of more non-linear distortions is an example of misplaced pseudo-objectivism.
Furthermore, the Pareidolia effect, while probably subclinical in most audiophiles has to be sufficiently present for anyone to subscribe to Audiophilia Nervosa in the first instance. You know who you are and you are reading this. You may not believe that there are hidden messages in vinyl discs played backwards or at different speeds, but how many readers have tried?
Baron (1995) notes that there is no correlation between intelligence and tendency towards confirmation bias. Indeed, we might speculate that higher intelligence merely equips people better to justify their confirmation bias. Wolfe & Britt (2008) suggest that it is what participants believe constitutes a good argument that enables and maintains confirmation bias. Therefore people's over-reliance on their own concepts of objectivity acts as the first filter on any new incoming data. This applies to all incoming data, whether sensory experience or test results, whether qualitative or quantitative.
There is a really strong evolutionary reason for confirmation bias. It saves time when assessing any new situation, to rely on past similar experience that was helpful enough that we're still alive to face this new situation. James Friedrich (1993) offers the notion that it is not the truth that we seek (which explains a lot about many politicians elected or tolerated throughout the world) but the avoidance of the most costly errors. We're seeking the least worst outcomes, regardless of truth, accuracy or even moral imperative.
To believe that a bit of expensive wire will transform not only one's listening experience, but by extension, improve the quality of one's life, might be characterised as “Polyanna positive bias”. Conversely, to believe equally falsely that there can be no audible difference between audio wires would seem to fit the evolutionary confirmation bias to minimise risk. In this case the real risk is of spending a lot of money (money being an evolutionary signifier of food & shelter) on something that may not transform one's life. The risk is averted in equal measure to the benefit missed unless the money was better spent on basic food or fine wine.
When invited by the sales person to notice how the second product sample enables us to hear the turn of the first violinist's pages in a demo excerpt, we have primed our neural pathways to seek that page turning audio Gestalt.
There is also the Illusory Truth Effect that inclines us to believe that which is easier to comprehend than believe something more complicated. This could easily be renamed the Common Sense Effect or the Stands to Reason effect. The meta-belief in the written word may set up a more powerful a priori expectation waiting to be confirmed, than any verbal story. Hence the power of reviews even before the potential customer has set foot in a showroom.
The most obvious location where confirmation bias is useful is in a sales showroom where we are the sales team.
“Look at how much whiter this machine washes than that machine!”, says the sales rep holding up a previously laundered T-shirt in front of a machine. “You can see how much whiter it is, can't you? Look, I'll measure the reflected light from it to prove it is brighter”
Admittedly this would be an unlikely sales patter with too many props. The Plebs' Chorus were about to interrupt from stage left. As a hypothetical scenario it harnesses some pseudoscience beloved by laundry detergent manufacturers as much as audio manufacturers.
Many audio dealers do employ confirmation bias while leading customers up the upgrade path. They are absolutely sincere in their observation of how the Oggleclunk 701 is superior to last year's Oggleclunk 699 because most salespeople tend to be inclined to the same enthusiasms that they espouse, unless they have a Tin Men existential crisis.
The salesperson believes absolutely in the improvement (having experienced the company rep's enthusiastic confirmation biased demo last week) and a combination of their confirmation bias and customer confirmation bias enables the customer to leave the demo room with a heavy box and a lighter wallet. Everybody involved in these transactions is happier as a consequence.
Confirmation Bias is among the cluster of cognitive biases that includes the Ambiguity Effect. The Ambiguity Effect is the tendency to avoid options for which the probability of a favourable or unfavourable, outcome is unknown. Many people struggle to tolerate positions of uncertainty. Uncertainty or ambiguity equates to them as unsafe.
One attempt to mitigate this looming cloud of unsafe uncertainty is to retreat to a position that feels safe. One such position is like the child clinging to the legs of a parent or caregiver when exposed to a strange situation. The strength of being in a crowd, whether it is in a football stadium chanting threats at the distant opposition supporters or whether it is repeating the opinions of others in the same social media groups. The social media echo chambers of alike opinions serve to reinforce any direction we might have tentatively believed likelier than alternatives.
Loss Aversion effect (also Sunk cost effect) will impede people trying something for which there appears to be a more immediate loss than a much greater long-term gain. Reluctance to pay taxes that will be used for public services is a high social cost of this, identical in process to the difficulty some people have of sacrificing their existing welfare payments to gain employment. If politicians can pursuade people to elect them despite the evidence that they did not deliver their previous round of promises (which seems to be a universal gripe in most democracies) pity the poor audiophile faced with competing claims for the life enhancing qualities of rival audio hardware.
The idea that many voices sharing similar opinions equates to evidence is a strong one. Most psychopharmacology is developed by trying any new preparation on a number of people, while an equal number of people are offered treatment as usual and a third group are offered a placebo. The theory is that people answer reliably when asked whether the medication has any effect. However, being listened to by the researcher has been found to be at least as effective a curative influence as any of the 3 treatment arms in some research. The old saying is that 2 case studies are anecdotes but 200 case studies are evidence, but this is not necessarily so when we consider these responses are all subjective.
With far less rigour applied to studies of audio hardware (it is hoped that medical interventions are now researched with slightly more rigour than some of the gizmos that arrive in the TNT-audio premises) it is unlikely that there are any certainties beyond the application of Ohm's Law, and the subjective effects of even that are open to argument. Watch the FaceAche comments below this for confirmation of that hypothesis.
Confirmation Bias is an observable, repeatable, evolutionarily useful, psychological phenomenon. Confirmation bias affects those constantly repeated mantras beloved of groups of hobbyists like audiophiles, who tend to justify their position in one of the two pubs in the village by asserting their superiority over the other pub in the village. Confirmation bias is the priming of sensory neural pathways to anticipate a particular phenomenon, thus making that neural pathway more likely to be stimulated.
Knowing that Confirmation Bias is part of our listener position means we have to acknowledge that position in our reviews on TNT-Audio, which we tend to do when acknowledging which design aspects to which we're attracted in any product review. Prospective purchasers of audiophile exotica should also beware their own confirmation biases before parting with cash.
Music enjoyed while writing this review
while relocating & reconstructing system
Copyright ©2021 Mark Wheeler - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com
Baron, Jonathan (1995), Myside bias in thinking about abortion, Thinking & Reasoning, 1(3): 221-5, doi:10.1080/13546789508256909
Friedrich, James (1993), Primary error detection and minimization strategies in social cognition: a reinterpretation of confirmation bias phenomena, Psychological Review, 100(2): 298-319, doi:10.1037/0033-295X.100.2.298
Wolfe, Christopher; Anne Britt (2008), The locus of the myside bias in written argumentation, Thinking & Reasoning, 14: 1-27, doi:10.1080/13546780701527674