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Thread: The Science of Snobbery

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    Default The Science of Snobbery

    The Science of Snobbery
    Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
    by Alex Mayyasi
    9 September 2013

    Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.

    That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.

    Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.

    Given the inexplicable, unintuitive conclusions of this research on wine, thinking about classical music promised firm ground to stand on. Despite the influence of class on classical music consumption and the fact that outsiders do not necessarily recognize and enjoy great music performances, no one believes that Beethoven and their 10 year old cousin play the piano equally well. Surely in just the same way a $2,000 bottle of wine and a $5 bottle are not indistinguishable?

    This past week, however, Priceonomics reviewed research that cast similar doubt on our ability to appreciate great performances of classical music.

    As we wrote in a more recent post, wine is not bullshit. But the reason that research can seeminglysuggest that our enjoyment of wine, certain foods, and classical music is BS can tell us a lot about snobbery and how we experience the finer things in life, the limitations of expert judgment in any field, and why marketing is so powerful.

    Watching Not Hearing
    Chia-Jung Tsay was an extremely talented young pianist. She performed at Carnegie Hall at age 16, attended prestigious conservatories, and competed in music competitions. But her success seemed inconsistent. During auditions, she noticed that she did better when she performed live or provided a video than when she submitted an audio recording.

    Tsay could have harbored dark suspicions about the judges for the rest of her life. But today she is also a talented psychologist and an Assistant Professor in Management Science and Innovation at University College London, so she set up an experiment to examine the role of visual cues in judging musical performances.

    [Tsay took the actual audition recordings of the top 3 finalists from 10 prestigious international classical music competitions and asked a group of participants to select the winners. One group watched a video audition, the second group listened to an audio recording of the same audition, and a final group watched the video audition with the sound turned off.

    As her study participants were untrained in classical music, Tsay expected them to do no better at choosing a winner than random chance. This proved true for the first two groups, who chose the winner less than 33% of the time. But to everyone’s surprise, the amateurs did significantly better than chance when watching only a silent video.

    Source: PNAS

    Tsay then replicated the experiment with professional musicians and found the same results. Despite their expertise, the musicians also did no better than chance at picking the winner based on audio or video recordings. But when they watched a silent video recording, they too performed dramatically better.

    Source: PNAS

    Expert judges and amateurs alike claim to judge classical musicians based on sound. But Tsay’s research suggests that the original judges, despite their experience and expertise, judged the competition (which they heard and watched live) based on visual information just as amateurs do.

    Looking Not Tasting
    The key to understanding the aforementioned wine research - without concluding that the entire wine industry is a massive conspiracy powered by snobbery to sell identical fermented grape juice - is that just like with classical music, we do not appraise wine in the way that we expect.

    In a follow up to our article on the price of wine, Priceonomics revisited this seemingly damning research: the lack of correlation between wine enjoyment and price in blind tastings, the oenology students tricked by red food dye into describing a white wine like a red, a distribution of medals at tastings equivalent to what one would expect from pure chance, the grand crus described like cheap wines and vice-versa when the bottles are switched.

    The research is popular, cited regularly in blog posts and articles that either call wine tasting fraudulent or (more commonly) conclude that when it comes to the enjoyment of wine, price tags and perceived prestige trump the physical product.

    To get a grasp on what this means, we related how we see the same confusion with food.

    Taste does not simply equal your taste buds - it draws on information from all our senses as well as context. As a result, food is susceptible to the same trickery as wine. Adding yellow food dye to vanilla pudding leads people to experience a lemony taste; diners eating in the dark at a chic concept restaurant confuse veal for tuna; branding, packaging, and price tags are equally important to enjoyment; and cheap fish is routinely passed off as its pricier cousins at seafood and sushi restaurants.

    Just like with wine and classical music, we often judge food based on very different criteria than what we claim. The result is that our perceptions are easily skewed in ways we don’t anticipate.

    Judging in a Blink
    It’s unclear what we should take away from these observations. What does it mean for wine that presentation so easily trumps the quality imbued by being grown on premium Napa land or years of fruitful aging? Is it comforting that the same phenomenon is found in food and classical music, or is it a strike against the authenticity of our enjoyment of them as well? How common must these manipulations be until we concede that the influence of the price tag of a bottle of wine or the visual appearance of a pianist is not a trick but actually part of the quality?

    To answer these questions, we need to investigate the underlying mechanism that leads us to judge wine, food, and music by criteria other than what we claim to value. And that mechanism seems to be the quick, intuitive judgments our minds unconsciously make.

    In a famous experiment, psychologist Nalini Ambadyprovided participants in an academic study with 30 second silent video clips of a college professor teaching a class and asked them to rate the effectiveness of the professor. When she compared the ratings to the end of semester ratings of real students, she found her participants had done astoundingly well at rating the professor off an initial impression - there was an extremely strong correlation of 0.76. Participants were just as effective when watching 6 second video clips and when comparing their ratings to ratings of teacher effectiveness as measured by actual student test performance.

    The power of intuitive first impressions has been demonstrated in a variety of other contexts. One experiment found that people predicted the outcome of political elections remarkably well based on silent 10 second video clips of debates - significantly outperforming political pundits and predictions made based on economic indicators. Chia-Jung Tsay’s analysis of classical musician auditions explicitly drew on this idea by providing participants with only 6 second clips of each performance.

    In a real world case, a number of art experts successfully identified a 6th century Greek statue as a fraud. Although the statue had survived a 14 month investigation by a respected museum that included the probings of a geologist, they instantly recognized something was off. They just couldn’t explain how they knew.

    Cases like this represent the canon behind the idea of the “adaptive unconscious,” a concept made famous by journalist Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink. The basic idea is that we constantly, quickly, and unconsciously do the equivalent of judging a book by its cover. After all, a cover provides a lot of relevant information in a world in which we don’t have time to read every page.

    Gladwell describes the adaptive unconscious as “a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings.” He quotes psychologist Timothy D. Wilson:

    “The mind operates most efficiently by relegating a good deal of high-level, sophisticated thinking to the unconscious, just as a modern jetliner is able to fly on automatic pilot with little or no input from the human, ‘conscious’ pilot. The adaptive unconscious does an excellent job of sizing up the world, warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated and efficient manner.”

    Our internal computers are powerful but unknowable. They can size up someone’s personality or skill at an occupation in seconds, but we can rarely articulate the basis of our judgments. The desired characteristics in a partner listed by speed daters, for example, rarely match the personalities of the person they connect with.

    But this unknowability also makes it easy to be led astray when our intuition makes a mistake. We may often be able to count on the price tag or packaging of food and wine for accurate information about quality. But as we believe that we’re judging based on just the product, we fail to recognize when presentation manipulates our snap judgments.

    In follow up experiments, Chia-Jung Tsay found that those judging musicians’ auditions based on visual cues were not giving preference to attractive performers. Rather, they seemed to look for visual signs of relevant characteristics like passion, creativity, and uniqueness. Seeing signs of passion is valuable information. But in differentiating between elite performers, it gives an edge to someone who looks passionate over someone whose play is passionate.

    Outside of these more eccentric examples, it’s our reliance on quick judgments, and ignorance of their workings, that cause people to act on ugly, unconscious biases - judging men to be better workers and managers than women, for example, or profiling minorities in police work.

    It’s also why - from a business perspective - packaging and presentation is just as important as the good or service on offer. Why marketing is just as important as product.

    On Experts
    So are we able to overcome the faults of our intuitions? Or are we forever susceptible to the manipulations of marketers, even in the enjoyment of the things we love and care about most?

    < read more >

  2. #2


    Interesting. It resonates a bit with this thread I started about the value of art. Whether or not there is an objective value to art, wine or...anything, which is recognized by "experts," I think many of these people are pretentious, socially-conditioned conformists.

    For example, take the recent discovery of a painting by van Gogh that was thought to be fake.

    "A previously unknown work by Vincent van Gogh, tucked away in an attic after the French ambassador to Sweden a century ago called it a fake, has been found to be real after all, a landmark discovery worth millions of dollars."

    The actual value of this work of art, for what it is, never changed. It was thought to be a "fake" (as if art painted by someone else is fake) and now suddenly because it's been revealed that it was painted by van Gogh, it's monetary value (and artistic value in the eyes of pretentious art snobs everywhere) has increased exponentially. Before this great revelation, it was probably considered a mediocre painting, at best, by a talentless fraud.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Vasilisa View Post
    So are we able to overcome the faults of our intuitions? Or are we forever susceptible to the manipulations of marketers, even in the enjoyment of the things we love and care about most?
    Not as long as society is dominated by SJs. That's how they roll - wait for an "authority" to declare what they should think, then think it.

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    It's mostly the placebo effect. You think it will be better, and so it does actually taste or sound somewhat better. Where somewhat is not very much at all.

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    I agree that much snobbery and pretentiousness lurk about wine, art and music, and other things considered hallmarks of "culture". We should consider the relationship between quality and enjoyment. One can have, for instance, a garment that is of very high quality, meaning the fabric is the right weight for the purpose, evenly woven, free of blemishes and puckers; the design fits the intended wearer well; the stitching is even and consistent; buttons, holes, and other features are regular and aligned; there are no defects in workmanship. Such a garment can still be unsuited to the wearer's tastes, or just plain ugly. The reverse is also possible. Quality and enjoyment, thus, do not necessarily go hand in hand.

    In this example of a practical item, it is easy to see the role of objective criteria in determining quality. For an item with primarily (or exclusively) aesthetic value, this is harder to see. We can speak about someone's skill as a painter or composer, but even this has a significant subjective component. Is it good if a painter can faithfully reproduce a seascape in watercolors, or does her accuracy show a lack of artistic sensitivity???

    Performance art is one step removed from this part of the process. We can look at a painting, though the artist is long dead. We cannot hear Beethoven's music, however, unless someone plays it for us. Skill comes to the fore again with a strong objective component: is the musician faithfully rendering what Beethoven put on paper? Beyond that, obviously, we look for the more subjective values of musicality and interpretation.

    So what does all this mean for snobbishness and the arts? First, if artistic quality has strong subjective components, statements by experts are simply educated opinions, not conclusive determinations. Second, by decoupling enjoyment from quality, we remove some of the basis for those pretenses. We can recognize something as valuable and worthwhile without personally enjoying it. (Oddly, this is how I feel about rap music!)
    Hope is the denial of reality. It is the carrot dangled before the draft horse to keep him plodding along in a vain attempt to reach it. We should remove the carrot and walk forward with our eyes open. -- Raistlin Majere

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    Senior Member Array Anaximander's Avatar
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    You guys ever read Nobrow? It's about how the lines between "highbrow" and "lowbrow" art and culture have been blurred in the age of mass marketing. Everything is basically a marketable commodity now, from the most generic platinum selling rock band to the indie band that sells 100 albums. It's all a commodity, prepackaged and ready for cosumumption. So snobby wine drinkers are just as much slaves to consumerism as the masses of bud light drinkers.

    I used to be very fascinated by aesthetics and how people define and value them in art, particularly in music. I remember reading a book about progressive rock (can't remember the title or author) wherein the author spends nearly an entire chapter explaining how Pink Floyd isn't a true progressive rock band because the members were never virtuosos on the same level as, say the members in Yes or early Genesis. His criteria for defining rock music as progressive had nothing to do with the music literally progressing the boundaries of modern music, but rather with how skilled the musicians were and how many notes they could play per second. That book reeked of snobbery.

    I really don't know how much this relates to the original post. Sorry.
    "There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere." (Star Wars Episode III opening crawl)

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