Psychoacoustics again, again, and again

Today's addition to my ongoing Psychoacoustics Archive comes courtesy of Ben Goldacre.

When listening to the exact same recording, apparently being played by similar-looking but differently-attired female violinists, evaluators consistently thought the music was better when the performers were more "professionally" attired.

This turns out to be an entirely uncontroversial finding. Until I read this Bad Science post, I didn't know that orchestra auditions are now usually blinded (the auditioner plays behind an opaque screen). This is because unblinded auditions have repeatedly been demonstrated to create unfair discrimination, even when frank racism is not involved. Even listeners who apparently honestly don't consciously believe that, for instance, women are worse musicians than men, will often rate female performers lower. And that's before you even start to consider attire and physical attractiveness. (Witness the recent global astonishment when an unattractive woman, apparently against all that science and art has ever told us, turned out to have a decent singing voice.)

The evaluators in this latest study were just music students and professional orchestral musicians, though, not audiophiles. I'm sure audiophiles would have done much better.

10 Responses to “Psychoacoustics again, again, and again”

  1. Stuart Says:

    This just makes me think that the next iteration of X Factor should include a screen that raises after the act and then you get to pick which of the three now silent contestants actually performed. I think we should call it Too ugly to sing.

  2. Daniel Rutter Says:

    For pop performers - even the strange, stunted, Very Very Abridged Edition Of The Song So We Can Pack In The Hours Of Padding That Reality TV Viewers Seem To Love versions - their appearance is part of the package. Heck, appearance is about all many of them contribute to the performance, as they mime along to autotuned vocals that might have originally been sung by Brian Blessed for all anyone can tell, backed by a band who can't even be bothered with the pretense of plugging in their instruments.

    Appearance is vitally important for a lot of "real" musicians too, of course. Quite apart from fireworks-and-flying-inflatable-pigs stage shows, there might be one or two complaints if an Iggy Pop show was performed on the other side of an opaque curtain. And, with certain notable exceptions, there's what you might call pressure against casting a black dude to play Sherlock Holmes, and giant strapping women who want to sing Mimi, and four-foot-tall Rhinemaidens, et cetera.

    A similar argument was apparently put forward by the racist orchestra auditioners of days past, too - actually, in the context of the time it made some sense, of the horrible-circular-logic sort:

    "Our upper-class audience is, of course, entirely white. They would be terribly, terribly distracted from the music if they were to see a Negro or a Chinaman in the orchestra. Why, they might even judge the music as sounding worse, because they presumed we've been hiring musicians from the lesser races in order to save money!"

  3. Alan Says:

    In a similar vein (self delusion):
    I topped up my car tank with Premium (95) instead of the usual cheap 91 blend.
    I "felt" an improved performance from the moment I drove out of the station, even though my rational self insisted the new fuel was still mixing with the old, and had probably barely made it to the fuel pump.

    God help me if I ever buy 98 blend. Can I blame speeding on my fuel blend ?

  4. dr_w00t Says:

    Can't the same thing be said of almost any walk of life? This study goes some way to proving that it's an ingrained human trait to be judgemental, but surely that's as obvious as the proverbial nose-on-your-hideously-misshapen-face?

    We all know that attractive people are granted opportunities beyond what their abilities might otherwise dictate, and personal presentation (dress and grooming) are a part of attractiveness.

    My wife is Korean, and over there it is customary (i.e. requisite) to include a photograph with a job application. There are professional services available to re-touch your photo to make you more attractive (paler skin, less blotches, firm up that double chin, etc). When I ask my wife about it, she acknowlegdes that being shallow and superficial is "bad", but whatayagonnado - it is what it is (to paraphrase).

    So does this study mean that I shouldn't feel bad about being a racist, sexist bigot?

  5. j Says:

    As an aside:
    Brian Blessed needs to release an album.

  6. corinoco Says:

    I think you'll find a true audiophile could tell what time, on what day, in what geographic place the tree that made the tuning pegs of the second violinist's violin was felled.

    As for judgmental society; I'm a shorter than average male, but not short enough to be amusing or make a living by being short. For some reason people expect architects to all look like Cary Grant or Patrick Swayze (and of course, be a famous female architect... not, not her, the other one); I get to see a lot of weird double-takes and get to face comments like "I expected someone taller" and "You don't look like an architect". I have never yet replied with "That's ok, you don't look like a bigot" but one of these days I might snap.

    Aside 1: The grammar for sentences like the first above confounds me; it might need more (or less) punctuation. Vague quote from uni lecturer regarding my thesis: "Use less commas; use more semicolons."

    Aside 2: So that would be an entire album of "NOOOOoooooooo!", with maybe some quips from Avon thrown in for good measure?

    Aside 3: I'd actually buy and listen to that album.

  7. Paradroid Says:

    @corinoco And of course you replied "That should be fewer commas." ;)

  8. Matt Says:

    For some reason I find myself nostalgic for the 80's, when it was still okay be a pop star and physically unattractive.

  9. Leonard Says:

    Interesting - I remember a few years back sitting outside our local church listening to the first sermon by the new preacher guy, because I instinctively KNEW that seeing him could influence my judgement. Everyone thought I was nuts - many still do! Kinda like that....

  10. derrida derider Says:

    I'm a labour economist by trade. There actually is quite a bit of clever experimental research on the impact of physical attrativeness on employment. It turns out that well-qualified, hard-working, smart, short, ugly people of both sexes get paid on average less than tall beautiful idiots in the same job. Dan Hamermesh is the go-to person if you want to check that out further.

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