Thoughts on Cognition, Bias and the ‘U.S. Orchestra’ Readership Poll


To get a pulse on what our readers might be thinking in terms of current affairs in the American symphony orchestra scene, a poll was posted last Wednesday with one simple question:

What do you think is at the root of the current labor issues in the American symphony orchestra scene?

The poll ran for about 36 hours, and the final results were:

Complexity and conjecture

I am not an industry analyst nor am I pretending to be one. Fortunately though, we have people like Drew McManus to offer news, thoughts and analysis for the American orchestral field, and from sources like these it not a huge stretch to surmise that symphony orchestra conflicts are complicated, to say the least.

Putting this entire commentary into perspective then, most of what I have to offer on the topic-at-large is conjecture and opinion. This being said, let’s not get terribly excited about where this line-of-thought is going.

Perspective and bias

With data from a previous Horn Matters survey, we can safely say that our general readership in terms of experience, breaks down like this:

  • Professional 41%
  • Student 30%
  • Enthusiast 24%
  • Other 5%

Given that about 40% of our readers are professionals in one realm or another, it was encouraging to see music education recognized as a top factor in the poll results.

However with a little creativity and thought, any one of the five poll answers could have been supported with a logical argument or personal anecdote. There really was no right or wrong answer in this poll.

With this, we move closer towards a central, core issue — bias and prejudice in the classical music business.

Prejudice and skewed answers

Most people will not admit that they are prejudiced and that some of their opinions are skewed.  A few may actually be proud of being prejudicial, but generally speaking people want to think that they are fair and impartial towards others —  that we are good, kind and just.

To admit prejudice and bias is to admit that maybe we are not as good as we think. Letting in this possibility can wreak havoc on our sense of self, and so for some it is much easier to just close the door, turn off the lights and pull the drapes in terms of critical thinking.

If however, we put our pride and fear aside we might not have to dig too deep to find the roots of a prejudicial thought; and by admitting it, we may even have a chance to overcome it and look at complex issues with a more open mind.

Looking above from 30,000 feet

Nailing down a single cause for the “American orchestra problem” into one sentence is of course a bit ridiculous, if not downright impossible.

The poll answers however did have an ulterior motive and each answer was skewed with a purpose.

Generally speaking, the answers forced upon the poll takers reflected positions, instead of interests.

An error in cognition

Prejudice is an error of cognition. In it we equate inaccurate or incomplete information as total fact; first over-generalizing and then attributing negative feelings, beliefs and attitudes to a topic at hand.

For example, saying that executive board members are ignorant or that union strategies are out-of-date, is a little like saying that French horn players miss notes and make clams.

While there may a kernel of truth behind the thought with examples to point to (and how that makes good fodder for humor), the sentiment does not necessarily translate across-the-board to every circumstance as reliable fact.

Apples are not oranges

At a group level, psychologists might call this an ultimate attribution error — a prejudicial, cognitive error in which a perceived behavior in an instance is attributed to a whole group and all of the members of that group.

So, if you took the readership survey and had a hard time picking an answer, this could loosely be interpreted as a sign that you are perhaps thinking more deeply about this topic.

If however, your answer was more immediate and decisive, perhaps now might be the time to be thinking about personal bias and more directly, how it might be clouding a clearer view of the big picture.

In the grand scheme of things, ideas and interests are more productive and interesting to work with than positions and platforms. While at this particular moment the profession may seem incapable of embracing mutual interests — such as in the interest-based negotiations process — we can most certainly think and dream about it perfectly well.

University of Horn Matters