Sunday, April 3, 2011

Several Cognitive Biases relevant to Art and Culture

There are hundreds of studies out there proving this and that about supposed human nature. One of the more interesting areas of study is in cognitive biases. These try to illuminate some of the many reasons why people decide to do things contrary to the way a machine would work.

Halo Effect

Has there ever been someone whose art you do not really find very interesting, but then you become friends and start to appreciate their work? This is an example of the halo effect, which is a cognitive bias wherein your perception of one attribute of a person affects other attributes. Physically attractive candidates are more likely to be hired, because that good quality makes people more likely to trust them and think more highly of their intelligence. This works in the reverse, too – something judged to have one negative trait will be treated as though it has many negative traits. The most common application of this effect is in branding. After the iPod’s success, Apple computers started flying off the shelves. A good impression of a company leads to a more positive view of all their products. After one Toyota model had a braking problem, the sales of all their cars plummeted despite no evidence of a problem elsewhere. To counteract this, Toyota splashed advertisements all over the globe at first apologizing for the problem then claiming to now have the most innovative and inspiring safe technology development program in the world, being used to help build more effective football helmets.

Confirmation Bias

This is the tendency of an individual to believe information that confirms their preconceptions regardless of the truth. George Bush once said, “If we do not succeed, we run the risk of failure.” And according to an email chain letter, John Kerry said it too. Tracing it back a decade, it was originally attributed to Dan Quayle. Yet, it was actually written by MAD magazine in 1991. Each of the other attributions were false, but they were fully believed by those who thought poorly of the candidates’ intelligence.

This bias can be seen in the effects of psychics, placebos, court juries, religion, horoscopes, shopping decisions, and critiques. If you believe one thing to be true,  you will more readily accept evidence that supports that truth than refutes it. This is related to the Halo effect, and is one of the more dangerous biases because once you believe something it is very hard to change your mind. If you believe the leader of your country is looking out for you, it may take a revolution like the ones in Africa and the Middle-East for you to notice your lack of civil liberties. If you are brought up believing in a god, you will likely find reasons to keep believing in it for the rest of your life, and will be more susceptible to religiously induced discrimination and extremism.  If you have a negative view of yourself, you will more easily believe negative criticism than positive feedback.

Dunning-Kruger Effect / Imposter Syndrome

It takes some confidence to call a thing finished. The Dunning-Kruger effect, named in 1999, suggests that the less informed someone is the less they are capable of giving an intelligent opinion on their relative skill in any given trade, and they will tend to overestimate their positive qualities and underestimate their negatives. This is known as illusory superiority.

Those who are more informed are more capable of finding faults, and often suffer from illusory inferiority: the underestimation of positive qualities and overestimation of negatives. This is related to and often causes the Imposter Syndrome, coined in 1978, which describes an inability to internalize accomplishments. Those affected by this phenomenon believe their success is more attributable to chance, good timing, or even the result of deceiving others into believing they are more competent than they believe themselves to be. The subjective nature of art means that artists are especially susceptible to this affliction, as many accomplishments cannot be quantitatively measured. 

"One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision."
            -- Bertrand Russell

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance is an extensively studied social psychological phenomenon. It is the discomfort one feels when facing conflicting ideas. Have you ever been unsure what to do next on a project, and decided to do something dramatic like to paint over it, cut it in half or burn it? The many possible options seem unlikely to help what you have deemed as an inherently flawed work, so you radically change it. Once you do, you are unsure if it is any better, but it would be difficult or impossible to undo your decision and you have decided you like it better this way, that the old version was hideous and embarrassing.

Cognitive Dissonance is especially visible in two parts of that process.

The work is unresolved, unsatisfying, and any changes you make are now having to make up for the work’s negative label. There is a dissonance between your desire to make something worth your time and your current negative opinion of the piece. This builds as you feel more and more certain that to continue would be a waste of your time, and to cut through that dissonance you feel that you have three choices: stop and call it done, which leaves a lingering feeling of disappointment; throw it out, which makes it feel like the hours spent on it were a waste of time; radically change it, which is a toss of the dice. More often than not, people will run the odds and make the change.

At that point, you are faced with a dramatically different piece. You are biased toward liking what you did, to justify having done it. Maybe it was done without thinking through all the options, and maybe it is not quite what you hoped would happen, but one thing’s for sure, you can’t go back to what it was. And so, to justify this decision, your opinion of the way it looked before the change becomes more negative while the outcome is viewed more positively. This is called post-decision dissonance, and it prevents a fair evaluation of the work and the decisions you have made.

The best way to compensate for this phenomenon is to notice the fourth option – to put it down, out of view, and come back to it another time. This is difficult to accomplish because the dissonance stays with you (like an unclosed parenthesis.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Artist's Statement

The effect society has on individual identity profoundly affects the meaning inferred from art. My work exposes the filters through which people see the world around them, and confronts the shifting factors affecting the viewer's perception of 'Fine Art,' by looking closely at the biases of brands, context and the many small economies within the art industry. It illuminates the fallout from an over-saturation of social media and the repercussions of post-industrialization.

My study of contemporary art’s role in society started with Duet (2007), an installation built to play a deconstructed violin left unfinished by the death of my grandfather, a violin-maker. This began my line of questioning about the many potential interruptions in any project, and as I studied the effects of post-modernity I discovered ever-shortening attention spans and an ever-increasing breadth of information, leaving many with the impression of the world as unintelligibly chaotic. A recent sculpture of mine, Saturated Identity Dissociation (2010),  reaches into the lasting psychological effects of this phenomenon, and many of my works reflect a healing process through the careful study of my environment as I seek to further understand and compensate for my own biases and neuroses. Occasionally this compensation requires parsimony in the presentation of directly visible information, while using bold and unusual aesthetic choices with a theatrical sense of intrigue to seduce the viewer into closer examination, such as sparse colored lighting. This approach can stimulate deeper personal identification, which develops a more complex relationship between the viewer and the object.

The most important aspect of each of my recent works is their concept, which defines their form. Because of this, my work includes animation, film, painting, drawing and photography, and my sculpture follows many different processes including 3d scanned plasteline objects manipulated and digitally fabricated into wood, plastic, plaster, foam or metal; hand and machine-carved wood and stone, hand and computer controlled plasma-cut steel, and many others. Each material and process is carefully chosen to emphasize the concept. 

My future interests are in immersive environments, which allow the freedom of loose narrative structures and a sort of collaboration with the viewers in the creation of their experience. I intend to look closely at the biases of brands and contexts as subjects to be considered in relation to both the white cube and alternative spaces. I find it challenging for me to create a body of work outside the sculptural context I am used to and look forward to the critical input this experience will have on my work.