Looks matter. We choose politicians with strong chins. Taller men make more money. Products that sell best are sleek and cute.
Some may call it shallowness or superficiality, but really, it’s no surprise that we act this way, considering how well-developed our visual systems are, especially compared to those of our other senses. Most of the occipital lobe (back part) of our brain is dedicated processing the color, shape, contrast and motion of visual stimuli. Other parts of the brain are responsible for naming objects and categorizing them. There is even a brain region for recognizing biological vs. non-biological motion, and a region dedicated to distinguishing faces from one other (although how specific this “fusiform face area” is to processing faces is still a matter for debate). We are visual creatures.
Of course, in many domains, visual information does actually matter. Maybe we want our products to be good-looking since we have to stare at them all day. Maybe we associate people’s good looks with other good qualities, like intelligence (we do: this is called the “halo effect”). But visual information doesn’t matter when we’re judging music – so how can it possibly affect our judgment there?
A new study in PNAS by University College London researcher Chia-Jung Tsay shows, shockingly, that judging live music depends more on visual information than we thought. Participants were asked to view videos of 3 finalists from 10 prestigious international live music competitions and to try to guess what the final rankings of the finalists were. This is an EXTREMELY hard task, since all of these musicians were very good at their craft. Here’s the twist – people were asked to make these judgments on the basis of 1) video alone, 2) audio alone and 3) audio & video together. People who watched video alone of the performers did better than those who only listened to audio – this is kind of crazy, but perhaps not so surprising. Even more crazy was that people who watched video alone did better at ranking the performances than those who had access to both audio and video footage! Although almost everyone in the study claimed that sound was a more important factor in ranking live music performance than sight, it was almost as if the audio was distracting people from making the correct choices. Even more shocking – this effect was true for both novices and music experts. But then again, I guess music experts are the ones making the rankings in the first place. So, it might be – and probably is – the case that visuals during live music performance contribute greatly to deciding the winners of these competitions.
Scary, right? But before you start sulking, worrying that the quality of music doesn’t matter at all, remember that these videos were of finalists, all of which were incredible at performing live music. When these decisions are so hard, and when there’s so much uncertainty, we might default to making judgments based on vision, because vision is our most developed, and usually most reliable sense. These situations of uncertainty are not all that common in everyday life, but it is these situations that teach us about how we process and interact with the world around us.