Missouri S&T researcher finds another good reason to trust your gut — and your ear

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On July 16, 2018

Dr. Amy Belfi presents her research on “Rapid timing of musical aesthetic judgments” at Missouri S&T’s 2018 TEDx event.

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

Dr. Amy Belfi, assistant professor of psychological science at Missouri S&T, 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, Rapid timing of musical aesthetic judgments, which appeared in the July 16, 2018, edition of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, published by the American Psychological Association.

“‘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 — 10,000 milliseconds. 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 (i.e., 10,000 milliseconds), they tended to match up quite closely starting around 750 milliseconds. That is, 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,” Belfi concludes. “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.

Belfi’s co-authors include Anna Kasdan of New York University, Jess Rowland of Princeton University, Dr. Edward A. Vessel of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Dr. G. Gabrielle Starr of Pomona College and Dr. David Poeppel of New York University and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics.

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