Is cognitive bias hindering your practising?

A “bias” is a mental inclination which is irrational, preconceived and/or unreasoned. Biases are inherent in human nature and we all have them, to a greater or lesser extent. Whatever your upbringing, intelligence and education, it’s impossible to completely eliminate biases from your thinking. An ever-evolving list of cognitive biases has been compiled by psychologists and behavioural scientists, identifying the many biases which describe specific traits of thinking and behaviour, from confirmation bias to the Ikea Effect, to name but two.

Biases distort objective consideration of an issue or problem by introducing influences drawn from our own social reality into the decision-making process that are separate from the decision itself. Usually we are unaware of the biases that affect our judgment because cognitive bias is all about the thinking patterns in our brain – literally the neural connections and pathways which are created and activated unconsciously. If we tend to a certain way of thinking, the plasticity of the brain carves neural pathways which reflect this (see my article on neuroplasticity) which means we invariably think in the same way, regardless of how open-minded we may think we are, because we just don’t have the connections to see something else. We also tend towards certain cognitive biases to avoid irreversible decisions or making mistakes

A musicians, cognitive bias can affect the way we practise and approach our music, yet we are probably not even aware that it does because we naturally tend towards that which is immediate, relatable, simple, quick and the least risky, which preserves the status quo and reinforces our current mindset and scope of experience. Some of these cognitive biases may have been created, unconsciously, by the influence of certain teachers or our professional training. In terms of practising, this may lead us to practise in the same way every day, because this way is the most familiar and the least risky. Thus, you may always start your practising with scales and arpeggios, or exercises like Hanon, because that is how you’ve always done it and it is familiar, safe and simple. We’d rather do the quick, simple thing than the important complicated thing, even if the important complicated thing is ultimately a better/more productive use of our time and energy. The “Anchoring” bias, for example – an over-reliance on an initial single piece of information or experience to make subsequent judgments – can limit our ability to interpret new, or potentially relevant information.

Unfortunately, this kind of mindset, continually reinforced by our cognitive bias, can make us less open-minded or receptive to new ideas or different ways of approaching our practising. If we practise in the same way every day, we may tend to practise on “autopilot” which can kill our enjoyment and productivity at the piano. Practice can become strained or monotonous because it’s too often primarily directed by an unchanging or unchallenged preconceived idea or goal. You may feel you’re doing a lot of practising, a lot of hard work, without noticeable or quantifiable progression. Unfortunately, many people practise like this because it is familiar, comfortable and relatively easy, but it can lead to an impasse or cul-de-sac in one’s music making which in turn breeds feelings of dissatisfaction or lack of motivation.

It can be tough but it is possible to beat your cognitive bias and adjust your mindset to find new, more creative ways to practise. Here are a few suggestions:

  • If you always begin your practising with scales and arpeggios and/or technical exercises such as Hanon, maybe try some exercises away from the piano to warm up hands, arms and shoulders. Warming up away from the piano also allows you to mentally focus on what needs to be done at one remove from the instrument. Penelope Roskell’s warm up sequence
  • If you really can’t drag yourself away from your beloved technical exercises, add more creativity and artistry to them by removing mindless, mechanical playing and instead aiming for musical playing which focuses on quality of sound, control, tone production, dynamic contrast, articulation etc.
  • Try not to get bogged down in the minutiae of your pieces and instead look at the bigger picture/narrative of the music. What do you think the music is about and how do you want to convey this meaning to your audience?
  • Practise in a mindful, self-aware way: be alert to nuances of dynamics, articulation, tempo etc. and how the music feels under the hands and fingers and indeed the whole body. Listen for details, self-evaluate, reflect, adjust, play
  • Seek inspiration from listening around the music you are working on, reading about it, discussing it with others, going to concerts

There are many online resources which encourage creativity, imagination and new thinking in practising, such as

Practising the Piano

The Bulletproof Musician

The Musician’s Way

Piano Playing Questions and Answers

Piano Portals