Trapped In Cognition: The Plight of the Digital Age

Kyle Bylin (@kbylin), Associate Editor


If there is one thing to be learned from the last decade in the history of the record industry it’s this — that smart people make bad decisions.  But, had you kept up with and read through the numerous books, essays, and news articles published during these times the conclusion you would’ve likely arrived at is that these weren’t smart people at all.  That, in fact, these music executives were ‘out of touch’ and struggling dinosaurs, whose only exit from this world entailed the mass extinction of their kind and the destroying of the empires they created.  This, however, isn’t exactly true, at least not to the extent that many would have you believe or try to convince of you otherwise.  To be sure, a far more plausible scenario divulges that what these smart executives fell into are “cognition traps.”

These are, in the words of author Zachary Shore in Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions, “inflexible mind-sets formed from faulty reasoning.”  He goes on, “They are the stolid ways in which people approach and solve problems based on preconceived notions and preset patterns of thought.”1  What he argues is that cognition traps are the mental framework that leads smart people to blunder.  A distinction he makes is that a mistake is “simply an error arising from incorrect data,”2 where a blunder is “a solution to a problem that makes matters worse than before you began.”3  In effect, he explains, cognition traps have “nothing to do with lack of intelligence,”4 seeing as they seem to “flummox even the brightest decision makers.”5  Through the lens of these “traps” much insight is gained into the digital music revolution.

The first of which Shore calls “causefusion,” one he depicts as “any misunderstanding about the causes of complex events.”6  This type of cognition trap “leads us to oversimplify, often at our own peril.”7  Ten years ago, saying that file-sharing was responsible for the decline in sales the record industry suffered, in part, seemed like a logical conclusion.  And a hard one to argue against at that, due to the significant amount of unauthorized content that was being shared on the file-sharing sites and networks at the time, and, continues to be shared to this very day.  As a result, various smart people have “focused too finely on one particular cause while ignoring many other factors engaged in the process.”8  They focused on file-sharing, not the frequency of societal and technological shifts.

Initially, executives, journalists, and lawyers elevated single factors like file-sharing and pirates without seeing them as “enmeshed in a complex web of interactions,”9 of which technology and music fans are each just a part.  When, in fact, the rise of the networked audience, the fall of mass marketing, the fracture of the media landscape into niches, the end of the format replacement cycle, the explosion of alternate and immersive entertainment options, the convergence of top-down corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture of the Internet, and the evolution of social music in terms of listening habits and media sharing, garner a less novice and ill-informed approach to understanding the complexity of our times.  Yet, file-sharing, over these focuses, is still held solely accountable.

“The fallacy of a decline in CD sales being attributable to unauthorized copying serves the record industry’s political objectives extremely well, and thus while the correlation is false, it is advanced at every opportunity,” William Party argues in Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars.  “The decline is attributable to the industry’s inability to force consumers to buy albums.”10  Shore further notes, “Overempathizing one cause, rather than exploring the many parts engaged in a process or numerous possible risk factors for a behavior, is likely to produce solutions with consequences worse the original problems themselves.”11  Such is the case of the war on piracy. Since its inception not only has it completely failed to change mass behavior, it has also failed to bring forth more favorable circumstances at all.


Part of the reason for this failure relates to another cognition trap called “exposure anxiety,” which is the “fear of being seen as weak.”11  But, Shore maintains it is more than just a fear.  “It is a belief,” he writes, “that failure to act in a manner perceived as firm will result in the weakening of one’s position.”12  Back in 2003, had the record industry not began suing music fans, in a sense, what they feared is that, had they not done otherwise, they wouldn’t be taken as seriously.  That without demonstrating excessive force and the willingness to use it, music fans wouldn’t feel threatened enough by the record industry and would perceive them as being weak.  They would keep file-sharing.  Having fallen victim to the cognition trap, exposure anxiety drove the record industry to use excessive force.

In doing so, they also fell into a trap called “flatview,” which is “any rigid perspective that constricts our imagination to just one dimension.”13  The record industry saw anyone who filed-shared music as a pirate, as effectively displaying the unwillingness to pay for music.  They categorized music fans as those who were with them and those who were against them.  “Since complex problems typically contain shades of gray,” Shore explains, “the flatview trap limits our understanding of what we see, and therefore leads us to simplistic solutions.”14  Thus, the record industry’s flatview of file-sharers fed into their exposure anxiety and caused them to seize upon a “simple, though counterproductive, solution,”15 instead of seeking “creative plans that demonstrated moderation as well as resolve.”16

Consequently, by overreacting and using excessive force, what this did was ensure that the aftermath of campaign and the lawsuits would leave the record industry less secure than before the file-sharing began.  Their efforts to impede the illegal behaviors of fans, through the litigation, would not demonstrate their strength, but reveal their weakness.  And, in one fell swoop, the record industry only diminished the position they had sought to protect.  Contrary to whatever it is that the record industry thought would happen they found out that people don’t always behave like you expect them to and that, in general, mass behavior is incredibly hard to change.  Regardless of the situation, it turns out that much our efforts to regulate mass behavior in any meaningful way are often thwarted.

What disillusioned the record industry in this manner perhaps relates more strongly to a trap referred to as “cure-allism,” or “an almost religious belief in a theory’s universal applicability.”17  Shore says that, “It occurs when we take a theory that has worked well in some cases and we apply it to seemingly similar cases where the theory fails.”18  Relevant to this trap is the steady use of litigation by the record industry as an instrument to inhibit the spread of innovations and technologies that run contrary to their business model.  In the past, they actively used propaganda and lawsuits to see to it that anything or anyone that proposed a threat to their way of life became inundated with courtroom proceedings, but, these “measures” soon proved to be highly inefficient in the face of music fans.

For the reason that, cognition traps like “cure-allism [prevented them] from seeing specificity – individual, cultural, and historical,” Shore says.  “They [made them] forget that human beings are complex and that no single theory of their behavior will always hold true.”19  What makes this trap so seductive is that it “usually begins with theories that work, and work well on certain problems.”20  But, it’s when those theories, like lawsuits, are applied where they don’t belong that they can ruin lives, costing individuals hundreds and thousands of dollars.  “Many figured they would simply win in the courts and the CD-selling business would go back to normal,” Steve Knopper says in Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age.  As a result, critical years were lost and a gratuitous amount of money was spent.

All involved, as it would soon appear, fell into the cognition trap known as “mirror-imaging,” which is when the record industry assumed, consciously or unconsciously, that the other side, the file-sharers or “pirates,” would think and act like they and their previous opponents would.  That in fear of being brought to court, people would stop file-sharing.  But, what happened is that they failed to see the problem from the perspective of the fans themselves, and rather than realizing that they no longer wanted to buy whole albums, just singles, what the record industry did is they told fans in a patronizing way what’s good for them.  Music executives, and, artists included, mistakenly assumed that fans still loved albums in the way they loved albums, and soon became maddened that they didn’t.


In effect, though, many of the cognition traps discussed thus far bring us back to the prevalence of “static cling” in the record industry, one that “prevents us from recognizing or accepting a changing world.”21  This is why that, “Instead of soberly assessing [these] changes and adapting to them,”22 they strongly resisted.  The record industry’s longing for things to remain as they have always been is what has kept them from prosperity, and, rather than accepting their business is in fundamental flux, they launched “The Copyright Wars.”  Which are, from the perspective of Paltry, “an effort to accomplish the impossible: to stop time, to stop innovation, to stop new ways of learning and creating.”23  They are “wars to ensure that old business models are frozen into place,”24 left untouched by advances.

To paraphrase Jeff Gomez in Print Is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age, the record industry needs to  “realize that we live in a time of almost unimaginable change, and to think we can have such transformation in other areas of our lives but have [music] and [the record industry] stay the same, is naïve bordering on irresponsible.”25  He explains, “And of course, for [music] to change, the business models on which [the record industry] has been built on for the last century will also have to change.”26  Beliefs among executives that the current structure of their industry and its dominance over the marketplace represents the natural order of things fail to appreciate how abrupt and prevalent their creative destruction will be if they are to be maintained much longer.  Static cling, to date, has been hardest trap for them to overcome.

Rest assured, what’s to be learned here is that throughout the history of the record industry and their plight in the digital age, most prolifically chronicled by journalist Steve Knopper and music critic Greg Kot, some of the brightest and most talented executives in the world got caught in cognition traps and wound up defeating themselves.  Not for the reason that their intelligence was flawed or that their reasoning was inferior, but because this is “part of cognition traps’ seductive skill.”27  Shore enlightens, “Though at other times we might know better, once they take hold of our mind-set, they lure us into false beliefs and imprudent judgment.”28  They caused these executives to confuse the causes of complex events, to fear being seen as weakened, and to refuse to accept a changing world.

Many, if not all, of the blunders that have occurred over the last decade in the record industry came about partly from reductive thinking.  They happened when executives, journalists, and lawyers “oversimplified complex situations into metal sound bites,”29 by concluding that file-sharing was solely responsible.  Other times they happened because executives brandished anyone who wasn’t paying for music under their terms as the enemy, as someone to be waged war against, when, actually, many of these so-called “pirates” were paying customers, too.  In various instances they happened because the record industry “avoided thinking about how others would react to their solutions altogether,”30 ranging from their apocalyptic handlings of “the Copyright Wars” down to PressPlay.  

For those in the record industry who hope to avoid future blunders, what Shore argues is that they need to learn to embrace uncertainty.  Not so that they stop searching for solutions, but in the way that they need to keep reminding themselves and each other that their explanations are often based on insufficient understanding.  If they want easy answers like file-sharing — that’s what cognition traps provide.  But, if the record industry hopes to escape these inflexible mind-sets that cause them to blunder and  only produce solutions to their problems that make matters worse for them than before they began, what they need is to grow more comfortable with the uncertainty of our times — that way, their blunders wouldn’t be as great.  If, instead, they insist upon absolute certainty, if they remain trapped in cognition, blunders are more likely to occur. This, in turn, will only deepen their economic woes and further obstruct their path to salvation.

Additional Reading:

    Song Stories: A People’s History of Popular Music




1. - 9.  Shore, Zachary. (2009). Blunder. Bloomsbury Pub Plc USA
10.  Patry, W. (2009). Moral panics and the copyright wars . Oxford University Press.
11. - 22.  
Shore, Zachary. (2009). Blunder. Bloomsbury Pub Plc USA.
23. - 24.  Patry, W. (2009). Moral panics and the copyright wars . Oxford University Press.
25. - 26.   Gomez, Jeff. (2009). Print is dead. Palgrave MacMillan.
27. - 30.   Shore, Zachary. (2009). Blunder. Bloomsbury Pub Plc USA

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