Does Susan have talent? How priming and expectations influence our judgments

Susan BoyleI have resisted getting on the Susan Boyle bandwagon for as long as possible, but I think the fact that her rendition of “I dreamed a dream” is now in the Top 10 YouTube videos of all time, warrants discussion about the tribal nature of the intertubes, but also the way that expectations, priming, and social proof influence our thinking.

Based on her performance on “Britain’s Got Talent”, she has a good singing voice – nothing spectacular (a few missing notes – but understandable given the situation), she can sing in tune, and draw out the emotion of this song well. In fact, she carried herself quite impressively against a fair bit of initial ridicule, and obviously knew that she could sing (as did the producers of the show). What is interesting though, is not that she is a good singer, but the response to her appearance on the show, from the audience in the hall, the judges, and the rest of the world via YouTube.

I think it is worth watching the video a few times, first to listen to how she sings the song, but then to see all of the other aspects of the appearance that have added to the “idea” of Susan Boyle. 

On first viewing, our response is a purely visceral one. We happily ride the waves of our emotion. But watch the video again, and this time listen to the way the background music creates an impression of the person. Then listen to how the audience responds to the preamble to the performance. Then watch it again, and listen and watch how the audience responds when she first appears on stage. Then watch it again, and listen to what the hosts, Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly (Ant and Dec™), say prior to the performance, and then during the performance. Look at how the producers label her, “Susan Boyle, Unemployed, 47”. All of these elements help to prime our response. Priming is a critical part of our evolution – it helps us to respond more effectively and efficiently to stimuli. If we have learned in the past what particular stimuli will lead to, then we are better prepared to conserve scarce cognitive resources for other learning experiences.

The issue is that in the first “wash” of the viewing of the performance, we are caught up in the excitement of surprise, and are carried along with the rest of the audience’s response – this is a form of social proof. Regardless of who you are, there is no doubt that you would have had preconceived notions of how Susan was going to sing.

Most people, it is easy to assume, would have thought that she was going to make a fool of herself. The music and the introduction helped to both prime and reinforce our initial attitudes. Others may have fought their initial response, and reserved judgment (one of the judges, Amanda Holden, seemed to be one of those who fought the impulse). While many people watching the YouTube video would consider the response of the audience to Susan’s initial appearance to be cruel and cold-hearted, it was not surprising, given all of the stimuli leading up to her appearance on stage. The actual presentation of the performance is also highly managed – look at the sweeping cameras, the music playing under when the judges are speaking, and the judges and audience coming to terms with their dissonance. It is reflective of the manipulation of the “reality” television phenomena – it is not reality, it is a drama; a construction of “reality”.

Judge, Simon Cowell

Judge, Simon Cowell

We then had to reconcile that expectation with the actual experience of what she was performing. In social psychology, this is called cognitive dissonance – trying to manage or rationalise an inconsistency to what we thought would happen to what we now are experiencing. The process might lead to confirmation bias, a denial of disconfirming evidence, and other processes that we have evolved to protect our ego.

We may not be aware of the actual reason for the dissonance, and may not be able to reflect on it with any real authority, but our ego would be searching for a reason this inconsistency in our initial attitudes and our attitude once she started singing. Many in that audience had cognitive dissonance – including the judges.

However, what then happened was that we may have questioned our initial response to Susan Boyle. Happily, Amanda Holden had the emotional maturity and security to admit that she felt uncomfortable with her initial attitude. Holden uses the term “we” [pronoun – first person plural] to show that she was just as guilty as the rest of the audience in pre-judging her performance. This is an important element of cognitive dissonance, and suggests a more sophisticated ability to reflect on our thoughts.

The ability to admit and reflect upon inconsistencies in our attitudes and behaviours is an important evolutionary process – those who can tend to make better long-term decisions and also report that they have happier lives. Interestingly, listen to both the male judges response – Piers Morgan says “everyone was against you”, rather than “I was” or “we were” against you, thereby deflecting some culpability, and Simon Cowell uses humour to divert attention away from (and manage) his initial judgment. If you watch Cowell closely, you can see that he is very much in control, creating a dramatic persona, and narrative, regardless of whether it was planned or unplanned. I suspect that Cowell is so seasoned at this role, that he is entire existence is now an “act” for television.

All very subtle, but these responses provide insight into issues around status and power – to admit a mistake would be to challenge your ability to make good decisions about people and situations. A key element of this issue is that this cognitive dissonance is connected to our self-concept – and in this case, we might see our actions conflicting with our positive views of ourself. But when this is challenged our rational brain rescues us, creating reasons (excuses) as to why we initially responded the way that we did.

The response that we have to Susan Boyle is real. But there is more to our response than simply how she sings. Our ego is managing a whole bunch of other factors, well before we make a judgement about whether she is a good, or bad, singer. Many people would like to think that they can make a judgment, uncomplicated by their emotions, but this is very difficult, particularly on a single viewing. But that’s okay; most of our day to day behaviour will be “gut” responses that are then managed by the great explainer, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

This is how it is in most of our choices. We may not be aware of all of these factors, but they are there, in the background, helping us to work out how to make our way in the big wide world.

So the answer is, Yes, Susan does have talent. But the funny thing is the show is not about talent. It’s about entertainment, and in this particular story, every psychological box is nicely ticked.


Epilogue: There is a lot more to talk about as the story unfolds. Stay tuned.

This entry was posted in Consumer Behavior, Human Behavior, Philosophy, Social Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Does Susan have talent? How priming and expectations influence our judgments

  1. Pingback: What’s the difference between H1N1, Facebook, Susan Boyle and “chk, chk, boom”? « tribalinsight

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