Perception / Bias

Posted on May 10, 2008

I have multiple ways of using my iPod in my car, while driving to work: sometimes I listen to podcasts; other times I select an album or artist to listen to; others, still, I listen to my “mixed tape” (or other, thematic) playlists.
All of the above stem from a conscious decision to listen to that particular show/artist/album/compilation.
But then, some other times, I just put it on shuffle and let it rip, usually inside a restricted context –_shuffle all of the songs which are rated 3-stars and above, which have been played least recently_ – (yes, I do actually have automagic playlists such as these, I am, after all, a geek).

And then there are those days when I feel like listening to a good shuffle, but I want to feel somehow productive while doing it. And on those days, instead of stuffing the iPod inside the glove compartment (where the “aux” connector is) and controlling it with the remote, I just lay it on the passenger’s seat and make it shuffle through the “Unrated” playlist. I then listen to the songs, one by one, without the benefit of the whole album they belong to, and after I’ve caught the gist of them I rate them on their own merit. On a bad traffic day I sometimes rate 20-30 songs. It sure helps to pass the time!

So what does this have to do with perception?

Well, I found that when I’m doing this kind of (supposedly) objective listening, I can have my perception thwarted in a huge way if I’m not careful about it. And I find this to be most amusing.

This is what happens: some days I’m mostly stuck in traffic and I’m stalled most of the time. On those days I tend to look at the iPod whenever a song begins and upon seing the artist and album it belongs to, I immediately get a sense of how I’ll rate the song. After a few seconds I just rate it and then (if I’m not in the mood for that particular song) I just skip it and get to the next one; Other days, though, traffic is a bit lighter (or I’m just distracted with something else), and I don’t bother to look for the details of the song, I just listen to it, usually for a much longer time than when I know who’s playing and what it is and then I rate it.
And it is at these times, when I rate it before I know what it is that I truly appreciate each song on it’s own. And the funny thing is that I sometimes get some huge (and great) surprises.

Case in point: today I was doing just that kind of rating, while driving to work and I started listening to a song which fell a bit out of my usual league (and definitely out of the groove of the previous ones, which were mostly hard rock). This was a song which had a slight country feel to it, but was still enough of a rock song for me to enjoy. It was not an absolute marvel, but it had a good vibe, which I really quite liked (it sort of fit the mood of the day, which also helped). Now some songs you just know what band they’re from, just by listening to a few chords, but this one was kind of baffling me. I couldn’t quite place it (I had a few educated guesses, which turned out to be quite close, but I wasn’t sure about it).
So what was it? “Try And Love Again” by the Eagles.
This is a song from the Hotel California album which I (obviously) don’t know all that well. I’ve listened to it, sure, but I’ve never really listened to it and the proof is that I haven’t rated most of it. If I just decided to put the album on, listen to it cover-to-cover and rate the songs as I went along I would probably get a bit tired of it (like I said, this is not exactly my favourite genre) and would rate most songs rather poorly.
Had I looked at the iPod before listening to the song and saw that it was an Eagles song, chances are I’d have given it a medium-type rating and skipped it after a few seconds.
As it happened, though, I really listened to the song, enjoyed it for it’s own sake, and then gave it a good rating. Because it is a really nice song and it made me feel good. And that’s (at least partially) what music is about.

Our perceptions are so easily biased that it kind of scares me to think about it.
What happened here was nothing that surprises or shocks me, I know that we are all prone to this type of thing and I understand the basic mechanisms behind it. In fact, this is why people invented things like blind wine tasting and other such activities, but it is always kind of funny –and scary– when you get such a sobering example of just how prone you are to falling for something like this.