Trust your gut … and your ear

Within seconds, we make personal choices daily, from what clothes to wear to what music to play in the car on the way to work. A Missouri S&T cognitive neuroscientist says these gut-level decisions are important, and that intuition tends to be accurate in revealing our true preferences.

Amy Belfi, assistant professor of psychological science, and her research team set out to determine how quickly people make accurate aesthetic decisions.

Belfi studies music cognition and perception, or the ways music influences our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. She’s the lead author of a study on the topic, which appeared in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

“Aesthetic judgments are subjective evaluations based on how pretty or ugly something is, or whether an observer likes or dislikes the object,” says Belfi. “Intuitively, people might think aesthetic judgments require deliberate, contemplative thought.”

The research covers a series of four experiments where listeners rated how much they liked or disliked a variety of musical excerpts, ranging in duration from 250 milliseconds to several seconds. Musical pieces also varied based on genre (classical, jazz, electronica) and familiarity of the music.

“Our experiments showed that listeners can accurately identify how much they like a piece of music quite quickly, within hundreds of milliseconds,” says Belfi. “When we compared listeners’ judgments of shorter excerpts to their judgments of the longest excerpts (10 seconds), they tended to match up quite closely. Listeners were accurately able to determine whether or not they would ultimately like a piece of music within 750 milliseconds. Some genres, such as electronic music, were judged even more quickly.

“We suggest that such rapid judgments represent initial gut-level decisions that are made quickly, but that even these initial judgments are influenced by characteristics such as genre and familiarity,” Belfi says.

“Your initial decisions really mean something,” she adds. “While limited to aesthetic judgments of music, in this case, the results of our research suggest that our intuitions tend to be quite accurate.”

Belfi believes the research will be used by other experimental psychologists who study music cognition, decision-making and preferences.

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