Typically when I’m writing, I have my iPod plugged into the surround sound playing whatever I think matches my mood. On a bad day, anything by Nine Inch Nails works as an alternative to slitting my wrists or downing a bottle of Scotch, but on more mellow occasions, I’ll pick something like Steve Hackett, one of my all-time favorite guitarist, who became most well-known for his membership of the early incarnation of Genesis. But what caught my attention particularly this morning was how I also have music from other guitarist such as Steve Howe, a long-time member of the Prog band Yes; Steve Vai, the master of the seven-string guitar and a big buddy of David Lee Roth; Steve Hillage, a 70’s hippy icon who also dabbled in ambient music as a member of System 7, and Steve Winwood, who started off in the late 60’s with Blind Faith and went on to a solo career that continues up to today.
It didn’t take me long to add Steve Thorne to that list, another UK Prog-Rock crossover artist; Steve Rothery, the guitarist with Marillion; and Steve Miller or the Steve Miller band (Fly Like an Eagle). By allowing just a tiny bit of leeway, I can add Stephen Stills, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Steven Van Zandt.
Steve Thorne “Kings of Sin”
And these are just the ones I have on my iPod!
So, is there some magic mojo going on here? Is there something about being a “Steve” that predisposes you to being a good guitarist? Is that why I’m so piss poor at playing (I’m not called Steve)? I bet if I sit down long enough I can start dragging up other twangers called Steve to add to my sample.
Or is this, like last week’s cinnamon bun, some sneaky little phenomenon that appears miraculous but will turn out to be mundane? Sadly, the answer is “yes.”
The first thing that’s going on here is something called the Confirmation Bias. This is one of a series of what are called cognitive biases, which are processes going on in the brain that distort our view of reality . It’s nature’s way of keeping us permanently fooled. The dangerous thing about cognitive biases is that we are usually unaware of them, and in fact, will try our best to deny they even exist .
The confirmation bias is a tendency to look for, and incorporate, evidence to support a hypothesis, while simultaneously rejecting or ignoring any evidence to the contrary. It’s why flashlight-clutching Sasquatch believers still wander around at night in sub-zero temperatures to catch a glimpse – or preferably an autograph – or a mythical mountain man whose speculated existence hangs on the slimmest, flimsiest, weakest evidence than even a toddler could recognize as bogus. All one of these people needs is a rustle in the branches once every 16 years and “There it is… the S’quatch!”
So with my “Steve” phenomenon, what I have done is notice a small cluster of three or four Steve’s, sufficient to create a tentative hypothesis that “There is an abnormal number of guitarists called Steve,” and then support that hypothesis by finding a few other examples. Quod erat demonstrandum. Now hand me that Nobel Prize.
But not so fast, young Jedi. If there’s a confirmation bias going on here, we need to check my sample against a larger, more objective sample. Which is where Rolling Stone magazine comes in because they have, in fact, already created a Top 100 Guitarists of All Time list. And from that list, I created this frequency table of guitarist’s names that occurred more than once.
Well look at that! Steve does, indeed, appear to be the big winner among guitarist names, so maybe there is some mysterious force at work. Perhaps the name “Steve” when uttered over and over again is like a magic spell that turns the listener into a brilliant guitarist. After all, you hear your own name much more than any other during your life.
There is, however, one more check we need to do. Although we have established that the name “Steve” appears to be the most popular name for guitar players, is this the same for non-guitar players? Could it be that Steve is just a very popular name and that, alone, will skew the “steviness” of our sample?
According to the 2005 U.S. Census, the name “Steve” is actually the 18th most frequent boys’ name.  The most common is “James,” and both these names are in our list. However, the Rolling Stones list has “James” and “Jimmy” as two separate groups whereas the Census would have them both as “James.” So if we add these together, we find our guitarists now have “Steve = 6″ and “James = 5,” and that’s pretty much the same.
With James and Stephen being popular in the general population, seeing them as the top two in our player’s list is now not as mysterious. If I were to actually take the time to do some formal stats on matching the Rolling Stone Top 100 along with the 2005 Census, I’m betting we’d see a close correlation, but not enough variation to declare a miracle.
As a special treat, and a blast from the past, why not sit back for a couple of minutes to hear another Stephen from my iPod – Stephen Bishop.
 Here’s a link to a bucketload of biases. “Bucketload” is a statistical measure that’s less than a “shitload.” And a “shitload” is less than a “fuckload.” Although these are perfectly wonderful and expressive adjectives, students are recommended not to use them in formal essays and researchers should avoid them when submitting to a refereed journal. Some reviewers have no sense of humor. http://psychology.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases
 A reasonably short and readable book that looks at how cognitive biases can shape our self-perception is the 2008 Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. I’m tempted to also recommend Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the forerunner to his best-selling The Black Swan (2010), which is basically Fooled with a few extra chapters. Both of Taleb’s books are geared towards economic behavior but the cognitive biases are the same.
 If you’re thinking that just using the US Census is biased, you’re absolutely right! If I were wanting to publish this article on Steve’s in a journal, I’d have to look a number of different databases to create a more comprehensive “world” list. Half of my Steve’s are from the UK so I should use a UK database. However, as this is a blog post and not a refereed journal piece, I’m happy to take the criticism of weak design in my experiment by calling attention to it myself in this comment!