The White Christmas Effect: Filling in the Missing Feedback

In the absence of data, people extrapolate.  In other words, if I’m not given feedback, I will tend to fill in missing information and invent my own reality.  This is a natural tendency, and one caused by our brain’s need to make sense of incomplete information.

In the 1960s, researchers described what they called the “White Christmas effect.”  At that time, the Bing Crosby version of this famous song was easily recognizable.  When the researchers played the song, yet turned down the volume to near-zero levels, some subjects still “heard” the song, although it was not actually audible. Some could even “hear” the song when researchers simply announced they were playing the song, but never actually turned it on.
Today’s game shows have taken advantage of this phenomenon in shows such as Don’t Forget the Lyrics, as well us subsequent copycat shows.  In each episode, contestants complete song lyrics for increasing amounts of money. As the music plays, the lyrics are displayed on monitors, and the contestant sings along karaoke-style.  The music stops and the lyrics are replaced by blank spaces.  The contestants’ challenge is then to complete the lyrics.
At this point, the brain goes on autopilot, completing the lyrics by relying on memory.  It’s interesting that those contestants who do the best tend to be those that don’t have to think about it, but can continue the lyrics as a natural flow.
This “filling in” effect is also noted in subsequent research.  More recently, researchers at Dartmouth used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the auditory cortex of the brain while their subjects listened to music.  Subjects were exposed to both familiar and unfamiliar songs.  These songs all contained silent gaps—brief periods in which the music was replaced with silence.  The gaps in familiar songs, the researchers found, were not consciously noticed by the subjects.  Conversely, when these gaps were introduced into unfamiliar songs, they noted a marked difference in the level of activity in the auditory association areas of the brain.
When presented with an informational vacuum, our brain tends to fill in missing pieces based on the information that we have available to us.  Sometimes that available information is flawed.  Even when that information is accurate, the “missing lyrics” we replace may not be accurate.
Nearly every day we deal with managers who leave employees without information regarding performance, their behaviors, results, important strategic information… the list goes on.  Keep in mind that in the absence of feedback, employees extrapolate to fill in the gaps with information from their memories, experiences, and past interactions.  Sometimes their filled-in “lyrics” may be correct. But more often than not, they are incomplete.
That’s why not every contestant is a winner.
Kraemer, D.J.M., Macrae, C.N., Green, A.E., and Kelley, W.M. (2005). The sound of silence: Spontaneous musical imagery activates auditory cortex. Nature, 434, 158.
Sacks, Oliver W.  2008  Musicophilia : tales of music and the brain / Oliver Sacks  Alfred A. Knopf, New York
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