Negativity Bias and the “Classical Music Crisis”


Marketing consultant, Mark Schaefer, discusses how Negativity Bias can have a profound effect on how we perceive industries and businesses in a world of social media. He uses the recent #McFail incident to illustrate how the bias operates:

And even when one of their social media experiments did not go as planned, the company had something like 79,000 tweets and 2,000 of them were negative. So on one of their worst days, they had a positive sentiment analysis of 97.5 percent. In any company I’ve worked for, that would be cause for celebration.

And yet the all headlines focused on the failure. It will probably be a case study discussed for years alongside the Gap logo debacle. That may not be fair, but it’s what we need to anticipate from our society as we lay our social media plans over this layer of Negativity Bias.

In other words, the insignificant number of negative tweets had a greater impact with regards to traditional news media than the far more numerous positive tweets. This simply tells what we already know, that negative news sells much better than positive news.

Placed in the context of the Classical Music Crisis, it should be no surprise that the Doom and Gloom talk has gone back for, well, centuries. One of the reasons I posted the “Classical music is the sum of all its institutions” blog is precisely because we have this tendency to focus so much on the small subset of institutions which happen to be making the news because of how poorly they may be doing at the time. Any good news about the field gets lost in the shuffle.

But why is that? Schaefer gives one possible reason:

One of the most interesting talks at SXSW was between Billy Corgan of the alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins, and author Brian Solis. In the talk, Corgan hypothesized that artists take less risks today because of a realization that one embarrassingly human moment will get tweeted and go viral — and possibly kill a career. Before the social web, these moments might be laughed about and become part of band legend, but today it can be career-defining. He wondered aloud about a world where artists would be nothing more than politically-correct robots.

But this is more of an Post hoc ergo propter hoc explanation. The Neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, puts the Negativity Bias in the context of evolution:

Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.

In the context of the small number of troubled organizations, which get the majority of press, this makes much sense especially as we can see how these have been discussed. These “failing” organizations (and often the failing is simply a temporary acute instance) are almost invariably referred to as “threats” to Classical Music, or as symptomatic of the “threat” of the industry as a whole to the evolution of Classical Music (or a narrowly perceived view of the future of Classical Music).

The overestimation of threats is easy to see. What about underestimating opportunities? Since much of the discourse has to do with how much this small subset defines the whole field, then the opportunities for change are informed by the subset to the exclusion of viewing the change that is happening (as well as the things that aren’t changing much while remaining to be successful). By defining the problem this way, it’s easy to see how we can easily underestimate resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). Talk about declining and aging audiences, and donor fatigue would fall apply here.

The thing is, this Negativity Bias works so well in conjunction with another related bias, the Availability Heuristic. When we use anecdotes to support a point, we’re using the Availability Heuristic Bias.  When we use immediate examples that come to mind, that’s the Heuristic Bias. If those immediate examples happen to be the ones supplied to us in Negative media portrayals of select organizations in trouble due to the Negativity Bias, then I think we can see pernicious feedback loop we have going for these kinds of discussions of Crisis.

This is not to say that talk about how healthy Classical Music is are any better–simply citing examples that come to mind about great things that are happening in the field, or about organizations which are doing well, definitively show that the field is just fine and peachy. This Pollyanna-ish viewpoint (also referred to as the Positivity Bias) is just as prone to the Availability Heuristic and as I said in my previous post the negation of both these viewpoints is perfectly compatible. Both the Negativity Bias and Positivity Bias can be amplified by the Availability Heuristic.

These are just both sides of the same coin which Philip Tetlock‘s research describes regarding experts’ (in)ability to make accurate predictions:

The aggregate success rate of Foxes is significantly greater, Tetlock found, especially in short-term forecasts. And Hedgehogs routinely fare worse than Foxes, especially in long-term forecasts. They even fare worse than normal attention-paying dilletantes — apparently blinded by their extensive expertise and beautiful theory. Furthermore, Foxes win not only in the accuracy of their predictions but also the accuracy of the likelihood they assign to their predictions— in this they are closer to the admirable discipline of weather forecasters.

The discourse about the field is constantly being defined by both these sides. And the problems and/or solutions to it are constantly being informed by small subsets of the whole field which tend to rely on information given us by biases which are systemic to the groups of people (Tetlock’s Hedgehogs) involved in the discussions.

As Stewart Brand states about Foxes versus Hedgehogs

Bottom line… The political expert who bores you with an cloud of “howevers” is probably right about what’s going to happen. The charismatic expert who exudes confidence and has a great story to tell is probably wrong.

We need more Foxes in these discussions, but until then, we probably need to stop giving so much force to the Negativity Bias.  We can’t control how often bad news gets near unilateral focus in the media, but we can control how skeptical we receive the news, especially as it pertains to making big and grandiose claims about the future of this industry.

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