In 2007, the Washington Post put together a one-day social experiment to test whether or not “in a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”1 The idea was to take a masterful musician at the top of their respective genre, place them in a Washington DC subway station, pass them off as a regular street musician, and see if their mastery could cut through the iron curtain of a metropolitan morning commute.
They chose Joshua Bell as the performer. A child prodigy of a violin player, Bell is world renowned musician whose albums receive consistent critical acclaim, who’s technique is lauded, and who regularly sells out venues world-wide.2
Bell modestly setup in the DC subway near an exit, opened his violin case, and began to diligently play his priceless Stradivari violin (built in 1713). Choosing to play one of the most respected, difficult violin pieces ever written (Chaconne), Bell held nothing back despite his uncommon forum. And what unfolded as he did, surprised even him – barely anyone seemed to care. Surprising right?
The Framing Effect
This story is written to be a head scratcher. How is it that someone with such profound talent, who regularly brings in hundreds of dollars per ticket, can go unnoticed by hundreds of people?
Bell and WaPo’s experiment is an example of the Framing Effect: that without the proper perspective and environment, things struggle to maintain their accepted or perceived recognition and value.
While Bell normally sells out Carnegie Hall for hundreds of dollars per ticket, in the DC subway, he can apparently only hope to scrape together about $35 in an hour. Not bad, but also not Carnegie Hall. Nir Eyal covers the Framing Effect briefly in Hooked by stating “the mind takes shortcuts informed by our surroundings to make quick and sometimes erroneous judgements.”
Does it though? Certainly. Is this the story to convey that? I’m not so sure.
Stories like this grab our attention quickly, give us a smug sense of disbelief, and then fly under the radar of scrutiny because of an engaging narrative. We go about our day grabbing our six-dollar cold brew, then quickly pass along a story like Bell in the subway onto the first person we see that day. The story feels impressive, so we want to impress ourselves by impressing somebody else. A few wild hand gestures later, and this story flows along like a zombified narrative – a virus of information. This happens probably about the same time in the day we start telling ourselves (and maybe this same person) that the cold brew doesn’t actually taste like burnt toast and cigarettes.
What Actually Surprises You?
This narrative ruffles my non-existent feathers. It feels like a story which adds fuel to the fire of social signaling. Headlines, best-selling books, and prolific YouTube videos inundate us at every click of the internet and every reverberating bubble of the proverbial water cooler. We redistribute ideas, stories, and fact, often with pretty limited questioning and verification. Anyone who has worked in an office knows that both the discussions on the project and the conversations at the bar after work are both basically a giant game of adult telephone. Except now, depending on the time of day, we’re all drunk, exhausted, and indifferent.
While not as easy as doing nothing, it doesn’t take much to start asking questions and challenging the vortex of digital and social information that swirls around us.
What do we think of these things? Are we really surprised by what is being presented? Is the communicated purpose visible in the information?
Take the great subway let down Bell experienced. WaPo wanted to see if beauty itself can transcend anything, in this case: the tedium of life, a subterranean transit platform, ambient noise, and the compulsive urgency of the morning commute. The results? Incredibly disheartening and disappointing.
But were they really?
The selection of classical music as the genre? Not exactly an especially popular or ubiquitous form of music, even prior to the dramatic rise of streaming platforms (and therefore the increased expansion of options).
A solitary violin player? What average person knows what a particularly talented orchestral musician sounds like in the 21st century?
Playing in the morning during the daily commute in the subway? Most people are expending all their energy to either stay awake, have a series of internal arguments with themselves regarding work in which where they finally tell Susan off, or to resist the oddly compelling whisper that says “wouldn’t it be crazy if you threw yourself in front of this train?” And if you’re like me or the asylum escapees I spend time with, it’s probably all three.
In the WaPo article detailing this experiment, they go on to make contingency plans in anticipation of a crowd forming. Anticipating a crowd would form? The hardwiring of routine coupled with the reality that the morning commute is a rare moment of blissful solitude for many daily grinders makes this assertion almost incomprehensible. Many people are running to catch a train they always catch. Plus, once people are off the train, most are rushing out of the subway to get back to daylight before something drips on them. There certainly aren’t people stopping to speak with the vagrant railway musician.
Am I aware that this criteria is exactly what Bell was hoping to transcend? Of course. But that’s what makes it so odd. The approach feels entirely disconnected from reality. Where Bell and WaPo thought a crowd would form and had concerns of crowd control, any average person who actually embarks on the daily grind knows that’s ridiculous.
I don’t know that how the experiment unfolded adds up to erroneous judgement or a framing problem. I don’t know how many people when offered tickets to Bell in his proper venue would even end up going. I suspect not too many. I most likely wouldn’t. Also, that’s precisely why we have venues. So that an artist and their fans can rally around their shared movement in the proper forum, with a specific date, place, and time. You know, like how society works. People don’t go to events that don’t resonate with them. People rarely pay attention to information that doesn’t interest them.
Besides, it’s not like it was Lady Gaga was down there whipping around ribeye steaks3 as Bad Romance echoed through the corridor. And even if she was, plenty of people would just skip by. A crowd would certainly form, but would the narrative still focus on all the people that didn’t stop to let their morning monster out? Some people wouldn’t care and some wouldn’t know who she was. That wouldn’t be news. And that sentiment is only amplified by picking the obscure or niche, as we see with Bell.
Some Things Just Make Sense
All this is simply to say: question everything. You can walk away from the subway symphony in awe that people could pass up such a marquis talent, or you can be grounded in the reality that of course they did. Why would they not?
I can see the allure of socialites and classical music fanatics using this example to pontificate on the sophistication of the working everyman, but isn’t that the kind of pseudo intellectual mental masturbation we should avoid like the plague? A violinist playing statistically lesser-known music doesn’t attract a crowd in a subway as hard-working people go about their standard routine with finite, scheduled public transit – this is a story? A surprise? Not to most people actually using the fucking subway. Or with any common sense.
To be fair, the article this originates from is an entertaining read that addresses much of what I discuss here. Addressing that beauty is in the eye of the beholder4, questioning the validity of the original expectations, and the very concept of using an antiquated idea like classical music being some panacea for sophistication. And, some people in the subway that day who were later contacted for an interview did notice the talent but most just needed to get on with their day or fell into routine. The article touches on the societal implications of the daily grind as well.
But to even express shock at the lack of a crowd forming or have the inclination that some sort of deficit of intelligence or sophistication could be at play here, is misguided. The presence of common sense and asking questions is imperative in a story like this, because otherwise we can take a distillated summary of this event and feign being flabbergasted at the idea such beauty could be ignored. It was a man in the subway with a violin. Not that crazy.
We have to build the habit of digging a layer beneath the surface of everything we commit to memory, and which may alter our perspective. The responsibility doubles if we go to pass information on to others. Doing this also develops a sense of trust in yourself and your common sense. Going through the reps of simply thinking more ends up making us feel good and forming a process for future information. It makes us think better.5
It’s commendable when people run experiments or try to do something interesting – it’s worth doing. But it’s equally important that we question what’s in front us and avoid the blind acceptance and redistribution of ideas. It may be almost impossible to have an original thought, but your collective experience and perspective is inherently unique. Flexing the muscles to question reality and form independent opinions helps shape a stronger world view.
We can either choose to be birds or fires. We can consume and regurgitate stories like worms from the soil. Or we can use common sense and critical thinking to break down information into something more collectively useful, like the transformation of wood into heat and light.
The irony of writing this article is not lost on me. You may think I missed the point entirely or am just flat out wrong. Even likelier, you were with me for most of the article until this last incoherent rambling about birds, worms, wood, and fire.
Either way, you’re probably onto something. At least to some extent, right?