Looks Can Be Deceiving: The Representativeness Heuristic Displayed in Music Preference

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is one of the most commonly accepted phrases to prevent people from making incorrect stereotypical assumptions, but why do our brains automatically make these inferences without as much as a second look? Our biological process of thought is to immediately organize visual stimuli into categories based on how they correspond to our preconceived notions of similar situations. The motivation behind automatic classification is that the process is efficient and correct the majority of the time. It is also easier to access the similarity of two events than their individual probabilities.

A heuristic is a mental shortcut to evaluate a stimulus based on our prior experiences. As humans, we subconsciously use these every day. Without heuristics, all of our evaluating processes would be lengthy and deplete precious cognitive resources. This seems too good to be true right? We can immediately get answers on how to respond to any familiar situation. The draw back to this system is that heuristics are not always accurate, and can lead us to improper assumptions that, if not carefully analyzed, can nullify the validity of our conclusions. One of the most useful ways to predict an event’s outcome is using the representativeness heuristic that states that the likelihood of an outcome can be determined by how similar the situation is to a previously experienced prototype or category.

Have you ever walked passed a stranger and after they passed immediately categorized them based on what clothes they were wearing, their posture, facial expressions, skin color, attractiveness, or even hairstyle? This happens because our mind naturally utilizes the representativeness heuristic. Lonsdale & North (2012) analyzed this process of judging other people across a more specific circumstance in their study analyzing societal generalizations and music genres. The participants were given information about 10 fictional characters across three conditions. The first condition consisted of a description of the fictional character such as age, income, religion, and political views, the second condition consisted of a portrait photograph of the fictional character, and the third condition consisted of both the photograph and the description. Participants were told to analyze the information and make a generalization of what would most likely be the character’s favorite music genre.

The results demonstrated that all participants unanimously agreed on the stereotype of music genre for the character’s description. Although, all participants agreed on the same music genres for each character, there was a statistically significant difference in the confidence of character categorization into the music genre groups based on the experimental condition. Using a chi-squared test, Lonsdale & North found that participants given only the portrait made significantly less clear-cut judgments of musical taste compared to the participants who received only the description and those who received the portrait and description.

In this experiment, all the participants used the representativeness heuristic to categorize the fictional characters they have never even met based solely on their first impression from the given information. The fact that all the participants chose the same groups for the characters provides hard evidence that our brains are always applying this heuristic even though we may not notice it. If the characters were real people, statistically, the participants would have guessed their favorite genre correct the majority of the time, but there are always exceptions. The lower-middle class, 20 year old, African American could have a passion for opera music instead of hip-hop. The teenage boy with a green mohawk, piercings, and a leather jacket could love the tune of smooth jazz instead of the predicted heavy metal.

The representativeness heuristic helps us judge people and stimuli using minimal effort. However, we must be careful using this heuristic in our everyday lives, especially in a society that is extremely critical of stereotypes. Have you ever made an incorrect generalization about someone that led you to a feeling of embarrassment? A good way to process information but be safe from social ridicule is to use the representativeness heuristic and then double check the results with the system II processes. System II encapsulates the way of analyzing situations in a reflective, controlled, and rule-based manner. This type of interpretation will give us much more accurate results, but it takes more effort and time. If we find the perfect balance of using these two systems, we can achieve an efficient way of processing stimuli and limit the number of mistakes that we make of incorrect categorization.

Lonsdale, A. J., & North, A. C. (2012). Musical taste and the representativeness                              heuristic. Psychology Of Music,40(2), 131-142. doi:10.1177/0305735611425901




This entry was posted in PS253-2015. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.