Some Quality Biases

It’s so often that topics like “why film X is better than film Y” come up in conversations with friends. “Better” is an assessment of quality, something I’ve been thinking about ever since reading Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance” a few years ago.

According to Pirsig, quality is a “perceptual experience preceding intellectual thought”. If one’s to believe this, there can be no universal measure for quality; It must be an internal matter.

We often don’t consider our own personal biases when deciding whether something’s good or not (good meaning “high in quality”), but in this post I’ll describe some common ones I’ve encountered.


When something has been created in a complex way we often assume it’s because a great deal of thought has gone into its creation. This is especially true in programming where complex code can appear quite impressive. However it’s usually the simplest code that is the highest quality; that has been refactored.


It’s perfectly possible to dislike the themes discussed in a novel but still consider it to be well written. Conversely, it’s possible to like the content and think the writing poor. However this is usually not the case: more often we think of things we like as being well executed and things we don’t like as being bad. The same can be said of most of the arts.

It would be negligent of me to make no mention of “The Last of Us: Part 2”, which I wrote about here when I played it first. I’ve since played it several times and still do not believe that the story choices (as sad as they may be) make this game “bad”. Our feelings about a story make our perceptions about the quality of writing biased.


To see that other people liked or disliked something usually influences how we feel about it. In “How Art Can Be Good”, Paul Graham says:

And yet the Mona Lisa is a small, dark painting. If you found people who’d never seen an image of it and sent them to a museum in which it was hanging among other paintings with a tag labelling it as a portrait by an unknown fifteenth century artist, most would walk by without giving it a second look.