The role of congnitive dissonance in audio, or “how your brain influences what you hear”

Browse through any audio web site and you will likely find posts with comments like, “I just purchased XXX speaker cables and could not believe how they improved imaging.”  Or, “These XXX crossover caps  dramatically enhanced the top-end clarity of my speakers.”

After reading such rave reviews, you may feel inclined to open your wallet and “drink the kool-aid.”  And if you do, chances are very good you will hear similar improvements in your system.  But the source of these improvements may not be quite what it seems.  The human mind can play a critical role in your perceptions and what you hear will very likely be  influenced by your beliefs.

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume you view yourself as an intelligent, fiscally responsible individual.  And let’s say you just forked over $1000 for a new set of speaker cables.  Further, let’s say that you wasted that money because the cables made no audible difference.

On the one hand, your self concept is that of a fiscally responsible individual.  On the other hand, you just wasted $1000.  The two statements are not in alignment as the latter is in obvious conflict with your self-concept.   Your brain is not well equipped to handle this “dissonance,” but is well equipped to resolve the imbalance. From your brain’s perspective,  one or the other statement cannot be true and it will work to reduce or eliminate the conflict.

One way you might rationalize is to say that $1000 cables are better looking or will last longer.  But this is unlikely.  The more probable outcome is that you will indeed hear improvement in the performance of your system.  It is simply your brain’s way of reducing dissonance.

So when people make claims of hearing a dramatic improvement in system performance, are they telling the truth?  Of course they are – they actually do hear a difference.  But is it real?

I, too, have often fallen victim to this sort of bias.  When switching caps or speakers cables or preamps or amps, I have often perceived rather dramatic improvements in performance.  But, on at least a few occasions, I have tested the validity (as best I could in a simple test) of my conclusions and was surprised by the results.

As an example, I upgraded caps in one speaker and not in another of the same design.  I was certain that the high-priced caps increased the transparency of the top end.  I then set up both speakers so that an associate could play either one without my knowledge of which was playing. ( This, of course, is not a classic double-blind test by any means, but it is better than no test at all.)

If the upgraded caps did indeed make a “significant” difference, I should have been able to correctly identify which speaker was playing a relatively high percentage of the time.  But after reviewing the results of repeated tests, I was only able to correctly identify the speaker being played about half the time – no more accurate than flipping a coin.  Based on this simple test, it was obvious that any improvement was not all that significant in that I could not identify it with any degree of accuracy.

Cognitive dissonance is the brain’s way of resolving differences between one’s beliefs and reality.  If they are not in alignment, human nature is to resolve the dissonance so that we are once again in balance.  In audio, the danger is that we tend to hear what our brain’s require us to hear based on beliefs we hold. If you believe speaker cables or caps can make a huge difference, you are very likely to hear that difference whether it is actually there nor not.  If you feel a single driver speaker is vastly superior to one with multiple drivers, you will not likely notice a lack of top or bottom end extension. If you feel higher sensitivity speakers have more “slam,” be prepared for a kick in the gut.

This is not to say speaker cables or caps can’t make a difference, or that a certain speaker design can’t be superior to another (that is a topic for another discussion).  The point is that one must realize human hearing is highly influenced by the brain, and what you hear is very likely to be consistent with, and influenced by, your beliefs.  If you keep an open mind and test your hypotheses, you may discover an entirely new audio reality.

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