Composers, Meet Identity-Protective Cognition

Composers, Meet Identity-Protective Cognition


In the recent article “How politics makes us stupid,” Ezra Klein writes about identify-protective cognition. The concept, developed by Yale law professor Dan Kahan, argues that the “most important psychological imperative most of us have in a given day is protecting our idea of who we are, and our relationships with the people we trust and love.” He argues: “[I]ndividuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values,” instead choosing facts that support them.

Kahan uses this theory, Klein writes, to challenge a political concept known as the More Information Hypothesis, or “the belief that many of our most bitter political battles” are based upon one side not having enough information to fully understand the issue. He explains that our inability to agree on some of the most pressing political issues such as climate change is not due to a lack of information, but to an individual’s effort to preserve a “preferred form of social organization.” It was hard to read something like this and not want to examine my beliefs about one of the things most central to my identity and therefore my social organization: music. How might composers and audiences be understood in this context?


Programmatic music against absolute music! Atonal against polytonal! Identity-protective cognition may be heavily implicated in these compositional ideologies. As most prominently manifested by Wagner against Brahms and Schoenberg against Stravinsky, to be a composer in the late 19th and much of the 20th century consisted of aligning yourself with one of these social circles. To stray from your camp was to jeopardize your social standing—and perhaps your livelihood.

After postmodernism, compositional ideologies, though they exist, are not nearly as fundamental to the existence of a social circle. We seem to have accepted all of the music that came before us as equally valid and deserving of a response. Without going into any quality problems that may have arisen as a result, it is clear that social circles are far less bound by compositional ideology. It follows that one’s ability to make a living as a composer should be less bound by them. If true, this illuminates just how delicate society’s notions of the canon may be if its boundaries are determined not by aesthetics, but through social structures.


Classical music programming–which, like all other industries, is more or less dictated by its market (audience)–encourages over-polishing a canon at the expense of creating new work. Is there a way to understand this in the context of identity-protective cognition? Beyond our seeming predisposition to favor repetition over the new, the continued reality of constantly performing the same group of masterworks with very little variation is heavily tied up in the social reality of the concert hall, the physical manifestations of which are literally built as shrines to the supposed creators of its canon. To enjoy newness, then, is to contradict the social foundation of the classical music industry itself. To me, this argument overpowers the More Information Hypothesis, which might suggest that better educated audiences would demand more new music. Either way, this logic forces me to confront an economic reading of music creation and performance. It is the intersection of audience demand with musical supply that creates a working market, and in the case of classical music, a canon.

In a way, however, this gives me hope for new music. It suggests that the acceptance of numerous compositional ideologies signals a shift in demand towards newness, and a social circle less committed to the practices of its parents. In other words, we may be in the early adoption phase for new music.


As Klein mentions in his article, pondering identity-protective cognition “is to stare into a kind of intellectual abyss.” The thought that any and every argument or claim we make should be constantly weighed for its motivating cognition is tiring, and it strikes me as a difficult task to regularly undertake. Nevertheless, it is one that seems particularly worthwhile from time to time if we, as artists, are to truly reflect the—inevitably social—human condition.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

One thought on “Composers, Meet Identity-Protective Cognition

  1. william osborne

    Thanks for this interesting a excellently formulated article. Historically, art has worked to both confirm and challenge identity-protective cognition. I like the thought of Jean Baudrillard who suggests that culture protects identity-protective cognition to the point that we live in a kind of virtual reality, and that new ideas can sometimes shatter those delusions. This theme was famously taken up by the film “Matrix” when Morpheus offers Neo two choices:

    Blue pill = blissful ignorance
    Red pill = facing painful reality, escaping from the Matrix

    NMBx is focused on artists who aspire to create red pill art that jars our sense of identity. And as you note, this often boils down to disputes of concepts within the field.

    This situation is further complicated because postmodern theory has suggested the differences between the blue and red pills are merely self-serving constructs of power. The red pill that was supposed to free us from the Matrix was all along just one of the Matrix’s dirty tricks. As a result no one knows which damned pill to take. Some even try to create a pomo Mickey Finn cocktail to cover all bases, and with the usual bad morning that follows. It will be interesting to see how the folks on NMBx having that discussion about quality sort all of this out for us…

    Baudrillard’s concepts were much more complex than these simple binaries describe. He felt resistance against power only strengthens it, because it is just a mirror image of that system’s delusions. When we challenge identity-protective cognition we only acknowledge and strengthen it. (And on a smaller scale, we note that the carriers of aesthetic party cards often refuse to even talk to members of the opposing camps. Acknowledgment would be too empowering. They are beneath the exchange of a word.)

    Baudrillard thus said the Matrix could only be destroyed through “singularities” – forms of thought so compelling and completely outside the norms of society that its conventions are shattered and the illusions created by blue pills come crashing down. These singularities are extremely rare in the history of art –those new perspectives that transform human existence without even intending to– and perhaps represent the most extreme manifestations of the red pill.

    Over the last 400 years we have only seen small singularities in music. It’s risky to try to list them. Perhaps the concepts of music theater developed by the Florentine Camerata, Monteverdi’s conceptions of the orchestra, the development of tonality by Bach, the sonata-allegro form of Haydn, the Wolf’s Glenn scene in Der Freischutz, Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic theory, Cages emancipation of sound. Who knows? By the standards of world history these were barely even blips. Even concepts of singularities define identity-protective cognition.

    When we really shatter identity-protective cognition, forms of social collapse are created whose results are difficult to predict. Buddha, Plato, Pythagoras, Jesus, Mohammed, Augustus, Galileo, Newton, Marx, and Darwin shattered our ways of seeing humanity and the world. Pythagoras probably came closest to creating such a change through music. He might be the only musician in history to have really challenged humanity’s perception of itself and the world in a fundamental way — and ironically, his music theory was mostly a mystical after effect of his mathematical thought.

    (Sorry, I went on a bit long, I know, but your post was thought provoking.)


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