Mood affiliation and group loyalty in the arts

Some food for thought as we navigate public debates about gun control, taxation, and the value of the arts (emphasis mine):

 [T]he study presents both observational and experimental data inconsistent with the hypothesis that political conservatism is distinctively associated with closed-mindedness: conservatives did no better or worse than liberals on an objective measure of cognitive reflection; and more importantly, both demonstrated the same unconscious tendency to fit assessments of empirical evidence to their ideological predispositions. Second, the study suggests that this form of bias is not a consequence of overreliance on heuristic or intuitive forms of reasoning; on the contrary, subjects who scored highest in cognitive reflection were the most likely to display ideologically motivated cognition. These findings corroborated the hypotheses of a third theory, which identifies motivated cognition as a form of information processing that rationally promotes individuals’ interests in forming and maintaining beliefs that signify their loyalty to important affinity groups.

To put that in Cowenspeak, both sides are guilty, the smart are guiltiest of them all, and the desire for group loyalty is partially at fault.

When I was in college and shortly afterwards, my hometown Boston Red Sox were locked in a dire rivalry with the ascendant New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers may have had the better pedigree, having racked up 26 baseball world championships including four between 1996 and 2000, but we surely had the better story: no World Series title in 86 years, despite a dozen or more excruciatingly close calls, bad breaks, and missed opportunities. In the early 2000s, when both teams were among the best in the sport, every Red Sox game against the Yankees, no matter how early in the season, was high, high drama. The players felt it too, getting into several on-the-field fights and various wars of words in the press. Every time one of these would happen, Red Sox fan websites and bulletin boards would light up with the indignity of it all, painting the Yankees as the “Evil Empire” and lampooning their greedy, entitled, cheating ways. I felt like I couldn’t even talk to people who were Yankees fans and avoided them like the plague (which was easier living in New York than you might think). It felt so good, so comfortable to be among a crowd of people “on my team” – people united around a common enemy, cheering and booing the same events, occupying the moral high ground with me. So comfortable that it was easy to overlook the things that my team did that were rather like the very things I was booing the enemy for – like spending lots and lots of money to try and buy a title, or relying on the contributions of stars who may have been using performance-enhancing drugs. “It’s different,” I would tell myself about these transgressions, when I bothered to think about them at all. The fact is, I was a Red Sox fan first, and nothing would (or likely ever will) change that.

It’s one thing to be a die-hard fan of a sports team. My mood affiliation with other Red Sox fans creates instant community whenever I visit Boston again, and provided for some of the most thrilling moments of my life when they finally won it all while vanquishing the Yankees in dramatic fashion in 2004. But more and more, lately, I see us following political developments with all of the nuance of the guys in the bleacher section wearing body paint on their chests. Defeating the other guys takes precedence over all other priorities, including careful consideration of facts on the ground. I know I don’t have time to thoroughly research every political issue that comes  up on my radar. So instead I rely on filters to do the hard work of reporting and interpreting the news for me. I imagine most other people are in the same boat.

As mainstream, reporting-driven news media loses power and influence, it’s becoming easier and easier to process information inside a bubble with its own facts, talking points, and agendas – a bubble made up of like-minded people as surely as the sports bar outside the ballpark. This has been true on the right for years with talk radio and Fox News, and increasingly on the left as well. Social media like Facebook, providing as it does an ideal platform for advocacy via images, video, and sound bites, only turns up the volume. Bright spots like Nate Silver’s election projections aside, it’s hard to find filters who share your values (especially when those values are distant from the political center) yet allow those values to remain subordinate to the pursuit of facts and truth.

We see this phenomenon in the arts as well. I’m not just talking about descending upon Capitol Hill to root, root, root for more NEA funding, or circulating online petitions decrying cuts in arts education. To my mind, any time we attempt to universalize the “uniquely human” experience of the arts or its capacity to “heal the soul” – any time we imply that people are living a spiritually impoverished existence because they don’t regularly get to the gallery or the symphony – any time, in short, that we assume that people we don’t know are just like us – we are committing the sin of mood affiliation. And if you think you’re too smart to fall into that trap, the study quoted above suggests that you’re wrong – because the smartest people are the ones least likely to see the trap coming.

Why is that? If I may be permitted a bit of speculation here, I’d say it’s because smart people can rationalize anything, and I would guess are more likely than others to trust our own instincts and reasoning. If we can always rationalize new information to fit a predefined narrative about who’s right and who’s wrong, well then, we never have to be wrong. And it sure does feel nice to be right all the time.

That’s why, officially, Createquity takes no position on the value of the arts. I wouldn’t have created this site and be doing what I do if the arts hadn’t had a profound impact on my own life. But I can’t rely only on the experiences of the other people at the ballpark with me to know what it’s like for folks who root for the other team – or who don’t follow sports at all. Posts like our Arts Policy Library analyses and our Uncomfortable Thoughts pieces are intended to provide a perspective on the arts that is independent of a rooting interest, other than an interest in reality. That’s a high standard to hold to, but I hope you’ll hold me and the site to it.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted December 29th, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Only one problem, Ian. You’ve defaulted to the conventional, prescriptive definition of “the arts.” Saying people are impoverished if they don’t attend the symphony is snobbery. But stipulating that beauty, meaning, and creativity in all forms (not just artworld-approved) are essential to human life and well-being (as proven by their universality)—that’s just stating the facts. As is calling it a social good to support the means to take part. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    • Posted December 29th, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      Hmm. Well. On the one hand, 1) if a discipline-based definition of the arts is “conventional,” then I think that’s justification for using it. The purpose of language is to convey commonly understood meaning, after all. BUT 2) I agree with you that concepts such as beauty, meaning & creativity have a much stronger claim to essentialism than dance, music, or paint. Of course, then you have to be okay with (and I know you are, but others may have difficulty with this) the notion that the arts – as conventionally defined – are not the only source of such things.

  2. Posted December 29th, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s important to interrogate the conventional definition though, Ian. Especially when it conveys a snobbery that holds back the cause people are pursuing. My suggestion: either don’t use it or enlarge it when you do. Happy new year!

  3. Posted December 29th, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Well, I can hope it’s this: renewing our understanding of the importance of beauty and meaning to any sort of civil society, and investing accordingly. But maybe it’s just my pet cause.

  4. Posted December 31st, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    It’s not only how smart you are at getting information but what you do with that information that is important.
    Suggesting (Ian, I’m not exactly sure you are) that political conservatism with it’s archaic view of women and LGBT people, it’s proclivity for religious dogmatic thinking, it’s militaristic notion of empire, should be considered as smartly as liberal thinking on those issues is just more mainstream populism, a recent ultra conservative idea to begin with.

    Conservative populism wants you to talk about art in vague, bright-sided speak where everything is beauty and everyone is creative because that language doesn’t really mean anything or rather it doesn’t cause anything to happen.
    Instead we should be talking about the impoverished consequence of, and telling people how they are impoverished, by never having been able to hear the sound of the orchestra bass drum in the pit of their stomach, or what it feels like to have live instrument sounds producing musical rhythms from another time and place.

2 Trackbacks

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    [...] on the value of the arts.”  I’m not faulting most of what Ian wrote– I agree with his critical look at “mood affiliation,” but I believe it neither desirable nor possible to disentangle the concept of “value” from the [...]

  2. By Are you in the mood for art? | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY on February 7th, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    [...] David Moss had a great post late last year that caught my attention. He starts out with a quote describing a recent study by [...]

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