Scott Adams on Bias

To me, Justin Timberlake sounds like a shockingly untalented guy with a lot of musical training. Why do I perceive him that way when millions of his fans do not?  One explanation is that I have excellent taste in music while the people who buy his albums do not. … The other explanation is that I am mentally defective. … I see this situation every day … People e-mail … telling me that Dilbert sucks, despite the fact it’s in 2,000 newspapers … The e-mail I have NEVER received goes like this: “I do not enjoy Dilbert, but since many people do, I assume the problem is on my end. Something is wrong with me and I am just writing to let you know I am defective.” … Describe the last time you disagreed with a popular opinion, about anything, and concluded that the problem is with you?

Hat tip to Eric Crampton.

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  • josh

    I honestly doubt the majority of the population likes Justin Timberlake’s music or Dilbert.

  • Is there some objective status to the enjoyability of Dilbert? It seems pretty obvious to me that no one has a “problem” because they like the comic and no one has a “problem” because they don’t like the comic. We’re talking about art here and whether something makes one laugh…how can we expect or seek homogeneous public opinion on such a subject? Aren’t people, you know…different?

  • michael vassar

    There are several instances of my doing this. The most obvious are in the cases of “high literature” like Ulysses where I tried reading it, didn’t enjoy it, stopped, and came back a few years later several times before I eventually found that I now did enjoy it. In pop-culture I haven’t put in as much effort, but I assume that people who enjoy Monty Python, for instance, are getting some enjoyment that I should be getting and am missing. I don’t feel this way when I think I understand what they are getting from something, as in the Matrix or professional sports. Likewise, in matters of fact, I take disagreement with reliable people as a stronger reason to revise my views when I don’t understand the reason for the disagreement.
    The weirdest case, to me, is things that I liked as a child, such as “The Transformers”, but can no longer relate to or even understand my own earlier enjoyment of. In cases like this my very reluctant tendency is to suggest that the hedonic treadmill is at work and my younger self calibrates judgments of enjoyment and matching enthusiasm and expression against a much lower standard.

  • michael vassar

    That’s a fairly sad thing to do though, as it arguably suggests that I didn’t enjoy my childhood as much as I remember doing.

  • I had assumed that my inability to distinguish between “great” and “competent” piano players (according to Emil Gilliam), and my inability to see that various forms of techno electronica are insipid and derivative (according to my Consort), reflected the fact that I was a cultural barbarian. But I still go on listening, because hey, I enjoy it.

  • Stan

    I’ve decided that when I can’t see the value of something such as Nascar, where millions across the country love it, I’m not looking hard enough. Same with Democrats.

  • Doug S.
  • I was fond of that Dilbert post myself. Then again, I do have several posts on my blogs about how my failure to enjoy something is probably my problem rather than the material’s. I wonder how much I sincerely believe that, and how much is just giving myself permission to really tear into other books. I know that I lack discerning tastes in many areas.

    The best version of “it must be me” I have seen comes from Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “Patent Pending.” It deals with a machine to record and play back experiences, a common enough sci fi idea. The inventor does not just record the experience of a fine meal; he gets the best gourmet he can find to record it, because the gourmet’s refined palate allows him to get so much more from the meal. Alas, it ends in tragedy when he applies the same idea to sex.

  • I’m a philistine whose tastes are frequently at odds with the majority, but I don’t feel any doubt about my opinions because it would be meaningless to doubt their accuracy. It’s an inherently subjective thing and it is as silly to wonder why you fail to react as other do as to insist that the flammable should not burn.

  • savagehenry

    As someone who listens primarily to punk and hardcore I’m definitely of the opinion the majority of people are defective when it comes to music. Ok, defective may be too strong of a word. I think most people when it comes to music are simply lazy and follow the trends because it is easier than going out and finding music that isn’t on the radio. Personally I hated music when all I knew what was on the radio.

    I don’t think generalizations like that work very well. With some things it might (like NASCAR). But as I said above specifically about music I think a good deal of trends become trends because it is easy to like them and people in general enjoy feeling like they’re accepted because of their preferences. It’s cool to like Justin Timberlake so I like him too is what I think is the driving force behind most trends. Is there a name for that kind of bias? Because it seems to be all around us so it’s worth noting.

  • Alan Gunn

    There are artistic sorts of things (Emily Dickinson, for instance) that I dislike, and when this happens I suspect that I’m missing something that others see. I also dislike NASCAR, and it’s never crossed my mind that the problem is me: it’s those yokels. This pattern may reflect a bias, of the snobbish variety, on my part. But perhaps not: I have friends, some of them highly intelligent and creative, whom most people would call yokels. So perhaps I’ve figured out that my yokel friends, smart though they may be, have standards for entertainment that I don’t share, and that art snobs, even though I don’t share all their enthusiasms, are more aware of some sorts of things than I am. Sometimes things that look like biases really aren’t.

  • We could probably hit 1000 comments on this post just trying to work out whether NASCAR is an example or a counterexample.

  • I agree with you savagehenry on the note about listening to radio vs finding new music. Regarding punk/HC, it’s like there’s an unwritten law against playing it on the radio (I know realistically it’s just abrasive and appeals to a niche audience). If you’re not already, you need to start using Pandora internet radio. I discovered tons of stuff I never would have heard of otherwise.

  • savagehenry

    I’ve definitely checked out Pandora before, it’s pretty neat but I’ve found that when it comes to some things it’s a bit off. Try entering pg. 99, my favorite band, and you’ll find it recommends things that most pg. 99 fans wouldn’t be caught dead listening to. I guess my tolerance for yelling and loud noises is much higher than most people, that and I enjoy shows where there is a serious risk of getting hurt.

  • NE1

    I am a fan of catchy music, but I have never found a catchy song via Pandora. Just loads of stuff to rate somewhere in between “ok” and “not bad enough that maybe someone who likes it knows of something worth listening to”.

    I like the general conclusion about the post (though I like Dilbert and dislike Scott Adams…) that it’s important to identify the niche wrt which you’re judging something.

  • The more you use Pandora the better it gets to know your tastes.

    NE1, I thought I recalled reading an attribute for catchiness, but looking up the list I only found this. I’m not really into “catchy” stuff as much (I doubt anyone who’s sat through O.V by Orthrelm several times, which I don’t recommend, is) which might explain why I like it more.

  • Well, that is pretty ironic, coming from a evolution ‘skeptic’ such as Adams. If all those scientists say it is so, maybe he should conclude the problem is him?

  • Doug S.

    I suspect that a lot of musical taste is determined by the “mere exposure” effect; you tend to like music similar to the music that you hear most often. (There seems to be an over-exposure effect of some sort, though, in that listening to the same piece of music for long enough often becomes annoying.) I have observed that my own tastes sometimes seem to change when I hear other people praising or denigrating things. Is that reasonable?

  • george weinberg

    I imagine there are vastly more people that don’t care for Timberlake’s music than do. If so, it would seem odd that the hundreds of millions of non-fans should feel somehow defective because he has tens of millions of fans. Similarly for dilbert.