Loving and Hating In Audio’s High-End

I seem to be on something of a philosophical tear lately, and no, I’m not apologizing. I actually have been working on other stuff (like a review of a very expensive DAC and another on a rather affordable turntable), but between jags of actual writing, I think and ponder. Yes, I’m a ponderer. That’s me. Think it might be all that time spent in grad school? Hmm. If so, I’m sure my philosophy profs are sooo proud.

Today’s screed is a psychology-inspired PSA. You’re welcome, in advance.

There’s this phenomena called “cognitive dissonance” that I supposedly learned about in Psych 101. In my defense, that was a very distracting class. Anyway, the idea is this — your mind, when forced to hold two competing and contradictory ideas, will attempt to reconcile them by completely hosing you subconsciously. Thanks, mind!

The way it works is exceedingly complicated and not a little insidious, and it’s important to note that this process is entirely subconscious — the “victim” (aka, “you”) has little awareness and less control over the effect. Fun, right? I know! Cool!

Here’s an example: take two sets of pledges attempting to get into a fraternity. Haze the living crap out of one group and give the other one a free pass. When interviewed after initiation, the hazed pledges will score higher, to a man, on tests that measure how completely awesome it is to be a brother. It’s as if the effort had to be worth it — so it was!

The phenomena is relatively durable, too. Take two groups of buyers. Make one pay more — a lot more. That group, even when faced with evidence that everyone else in the entire world paid less, will continue to be the most outspoken in their love for that product. Interesting, no?

Here’s another permutation. Take a single group. The task happens to be non-trivially expensive along some parameter (time, money, effort, &c), and give each participant two options. For one of those options, add marketing literature and testimonials supporting the choice and make it more expensive than the other. That’s important. Here’s the fun bit — when told that the two things were actually the same thing, the buyers that chose the expensive things will still claim there are differences.

Neat, eh? I wonder if that has any relevance to purchases in audio’s high-end. Hmm ….

How you interpret this has everything to do with your philosophical leanings, I’m sure, but I’m not really making a statement (not here, anyway) about the Great Cable Debate or any other of your pet audiophile flame-wars. All I’m saying is that intransigence in the face of countervailing evidence seems a foregone conclusion. Thanks, mind!

We’re not quite done. While the haves certainly don’t have a lot of firm psychological ground to stand on, they’re not usually the ones tossing the stones, are they? Nope!

Interestingly, there is a far more common form of cognitive dissonance. Again, the basic idea is that when there is a mismatch between expectation and reality, the mind goes bananas; the greater the disconnect between the two, the harder the mind will attempt to bring the two back together.

Enter the fox. As the story goes, one day, a fox that spied a cluster of delicious, ripe grapes hanging from a vine. Desperate to get them to eat them all up, the fox goes about all manner of shenanigans. Failing all attempts, the fox finally gives up. But before he does, he decides that they were probably not worth getting anyway. I’m sure you’ve all heard this story, but the “sour grape” paradigm seems to fit the audiophile stone-throwers pretty much to a “T”, if you ask me. It’s not enough that the products they’re desperate to have are out of reach, they must also suck.

Again, I’m not accusing any particular person, group or argument of any major — or specific — offense. All I’m doing is showing off my classical education. Admittedly, that education was full of holes so big you could drive a pickup truck full of drunken yahoos through them, and I freely admit that Psych 101 class was filled with about 300 other students (mostly women, which pretty much explains my presence entirely), so I might not have glommed on to as many nuances as might be necessary to fully appreciate the fullness of the scope of application here, but I think I have the basic shape of things.

Moral of the story — when treading the dark waters Internet, remember that biases aren’t always straightforward, obvious, or even directly tied to something “subjective”. In fact, many of the folks you may find yourself reading, arguing with — or targeted by — are probably not even aware of the baggage their subconscious has loaded them down with. So, should you come across someone hating (or loving!) on someone or something, beyond all sense or reason, you should do what any logical, responsible, and reasonable person should: pop the corn and settle in for the show — just don’t forget to bring your own “grain of salt”.