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Explaining Joshua Bell

In January of 2007, the Washington Post asked world-renown violinist Joshua Bell to perform the 43-minute piece Bach piece “Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin,” in the L’Enfant Plaza subway station – one of D.C.’s busiest subway stations – during the heart of rush hour. Joshua was used to performing in front of sold out crowds, filled with ambassadors and state leaders, in the finest concert halls across the globe. He is generally considered one of the best violinists alive, and his talents pay him substantial dividends. However, as over a thousand morning commuters passed by Joshua on that cold morning in January, his credentials were humbly irrelevant. To everyone’s surprise, The Post found that, “of the 1,097 people who walked by, hardly anyone stopped. One man listened for a few minutes, a couple of kids stared, and one woman, who happened to recognize the violinist, gaped in disbelief.” Many were expecting Joshua to cause music pandemonium with his free subway appearance, but his performance garnered no more attention than any other street musician. Gene Weingarten, the author of the piece, went on to win a Pulitzer prize, but psychologists and laypeople alike were left asking the same question: why didn’t people stop and listen?

Bell’s Washing Post story is intriguing, unique, and mysterious, but the most interesting aspects of it are the psychological explanations that proceeded it. Psychologists love to explain things, and Bell’s story was ripe for the picking. So it’s no surprise that popular psychology literature has used his story in a number of ways to make a number of different points.


One instance comes from the 2008 New York Times Bestseller Sway, where authors Ori and Rom Brafman argue that people did not notice Joshua Bell because of a psychological phenomenon called “value attribution.” Value attribution is our tendency to attribute the value, goodness, or authenticity of something to its context instead of the thing itself. It explains why we would not recognize a million dollar work of art if it was not in a world-class museum or, conversely, why we would take a forgery to be authentic if it was placed in the MET. Like art, the Brafman’s contend that it because the DC commuters don’t attribute world-renowned musicians to a street preforming setting that Bell went unnoticed.

Another instance comes from the 2009 book The Invisible Gorilla, which is centered around the famous “Invisible Gorilla experiment,” done by psychologists Christopher Chabris & Daniel Simons. In it, subjects viewed a 30 second clip of two teams of four, one dressed in white and the other in black, passing around basketballs. The task was simple: count how many passes the white team makes. Most people got it correct – 15 passes. However, this is not what Chabris and Simons were testing. While the two teams are passing basketballs to each other, a student dressed in a full gorilla suit walks into the middle of the scene, stops, faces the camera, thumps his chest a few times, and walks off. When subjects were asked if they noticed anything unusual, roughly half said nothing of the gorilla. Chabris and Simons argue that people did not notice Bell for the same reason they did not notice the gorilla. That is, although it does not feel like it, “we experience far less of our visual world than we think we do,” as they assert.

Don’t think so? In a similar experiment, researchers approached pedestrians with a map asking for directions. While the pedestrians were busy looking at the map, two other researchers carried a large painting between the researcher asking for directions and the pedestrian providing assistance. When they passed, the researcher asking for directions crouched behind the painting, only to be replaced by a researcher who was carrying the painting. Even though the replacement researchers were of different, age, height, and in some cases, gender and race, many of the pedestrians failed to notice anything different (video here).

Joshua Bell illustrates just how difficult it is to understand brain and behavior. The descriptions in Sway and The Invisible Gorilla make sense – we do tend to assess things relative to their context and our attention is much more limited than we think – but they make you realize how complicated human behavior is. When psychologists try to describe human phenomena, their explanations come from a whole number of avenues. This is because unlike a math problem, human phenomena such as the Joshua Bell case do not have objective answers. 

Perhaps it is possible to describe human behavior in the same way that we describe an addition problem. What would such an explanation look like? Would it have to include every neuron and atom? What more can be said about Joshua Bell? Food for thought, you tell me.

  •  FYI The last paragraph was edited from the original post.

 ResearchBlogging.orgSimons, D., & Chabris, C. (1999). Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events Perception, 28 (9), 1059-1074 DOI: 10.1068/p2952

35 Comments Post a comment
  1. Perhaps Joshua Bell really isn’t that much better than the average street musician, at least in the forum of a subway station. It may be that he’s overrated, that they’re underrated, or both. But more to the point, perhaps the average subway traveler just isn’t there for the music.

    July 24, 2011
  2. sammcnerney #

    At least on paper Bell is better than the average street musician. But in the forum of a subway station, your right, he really isn’t.

    I think you nail it when you say that “the average subway traveler just isn’t there for the music.” We can talk about value attribution or attention blindness, whatever. At the end of the day, the commuters just didn’t care.

    July 24, 2011
    • “the average subway traveler just isn’t there for the music.”

      That is exactly it. Music in the subway is nice, but I am in the subway going from one place to another, not there to enjoy the entertainment. I’m not sure I would recognize Joshua Bell or his playing, particularly, although I trust I would recognize above average violin playing in the subway. I still might not stop because I use the subway for on thing – transportation. I have somewhere to be and I must get there. The value of a REALLY EXCELLENT entertainer on the subway is exceedingly low when I am preoccupied and focused on getting the hell out of the subway.

      July 24, 2011
      • Ben Evans #

        Thing is, if you would have known who the musician was and definitely that the violin was worth $3.5 million, you’re darn tight you would have stopped and told everybody at work who would listen why you were late. That’s the point of the story. Not if people go to subways to listen to music. Of course if you have no appreciation for classical music no doubt you have blown on by!

        August 17, 2011
    • Ben Evans #

      You right, Bell really isn’t much if at all better than the average street musician. Of course this on the whole refers to people with little or no clue when it comes to music. And if you don’t understand that then looks like the shoe fits.

      August 17, 2011
      • – So fracking baitueful Brit, you really knocked this one out of the park, like it was bottom of the 9th inning, last game of the world series. Bases are loaded, and this pitcher has been giving you trouble the whole series, you swing, and wham, give us this amazing, baitueful, lovely, intimate session. My favorite one is the b&w one where you just see her eye!

        February 7, 2013
  3. Mac #

    I find it rather disingenuous. ‘To everyone’s surprise …’

    The truth? It wasn’t surprising at all. If the researchers were honestly expecting mass pandemonium to be caused by their experiment during peak hour then they should be prosecuted – like anyone else who sets out to deliberately cause mass problems during peak hour.
    (eg: These musicians were charged with ‘misdemeanor conspiracy’ for a stunt which disrupted traffic flow: )

    The truth, of course, is that the results were exactly what was expected.

    Why are we pretending that it is a mystery?

    For a start – How many of the people passing would have actually had his music on their iTunes list anyway? The fact that ‘group A’ pays a lot for certain music doesn’t mean that ‘group B’ will show any interest in it. If you don’t believe me – try listening to Hindi pop music.

    You could pick any person who is famous in a tiny field and then feign horror when they aren’t recognised.

    You could connect Perrier bottled water to a public water fountain and then express disbelief that it doesn’t cause a mass panic when people drinking it suddenly realise that they are getting high quality bottled water instead of the normal tap water.

    July 24, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      I’m right with you. I dunno if you read the article in the post, but they asked Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra what he thought was going to happen, and he said that a crowd of 75-100 would probably gather… ridiculous of course.

      The fact is 1) nobody knows Bell and 2) nobody listens to classical music, at least not that many people. I was also not surprised.

      July 24, 2011
  4. As a violinist, I can tell you, Josh Bell is almost always exquisitely better than the vast majority of subway musicians. However, there are some extraordinary ones. That said, I tend to agree with the comments regarding people’s aesthetic interests. I think this points to a multifactorial set of “explanations” that would include herd mentality (no one else is listening), focus (what a day ahead at work is the train late?), aesthetics (who the hell is Bach anyway?). That said, it is disappointing how few people stopped. I would have, obviously, and asked him for a date, let alone an autograph.

    July 24, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Certainly is disappointing, I’d like to think that I hear great music when exposed, but maybe not. And I don’t think I can criticize that lay audience too much, especially those without any musicial training. On the other hand, if you do have some training with the violin I suspect that you would recognize Bell’s talents. In fact, there was one person that stopped and watched Bell for ten minutes before continuing on. The post caught up with him later and found out that he played violin for a number of years before giving it up (its in the original post article). Makes sense.

      July 24, 2011
  5. George #

    “When psychologists try to describe human phenomena, their explanations come from a whole number of avenues. This is because unlike a math problem, human phenomena such as the Joshua Bell case do not have objective answers.”

    According to whom? Just because ‘complete’ explanations of human behavioural phenomena (like the Joshua Bell case) would inevitably be hugely complex and multifaceted, this does not mean that they would not be “objective” in the same way that the solution to a maths problem is objective.

    July 26, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      According to me.

      And sounds like you are a little more optimistic. 1+1 only has one answer. But describing Joshua Bell? Seems there is just too much going on to reduce it down to an objective description that everyone would agree on.

      July 26, 2011
  6. Or to turn the question another way, if it were paul mccartney or Eddie van halen with some sort of disguise, would the music have made people stop? if it were a guy dressed as batman, maybe they would have stopped. There are a lot of engaged and knowledgeable comic book fans out there. If something is really close enough to our personal interest and we have a real appreciation for it, I think that people will stop. Without the musical chops, then our impressions are overwhelmed by the context and the fact we are going about our business.

    July 29, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      So we should dress van Halen up as Batman, and have him play at Comic Con?

      July 29, 2011
    • JMG #

      Supposedly Charlie Chaplin once entered a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest and actually lost to who the audience thought was a better impersonator.

      December 7, 2011
  7. JT #

    From this post: “In January of 2007, the Washington Post asked world-renown violinist Joshua Bell to perform the 43-minute piece Bach piece “Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin,”

    The Post might have asked him to perform this, but he did not: You should read the article.

    August 3, 2011
  8. sammcnerney #

    That is according to Ori and Rom Brafman, the authors of the New York best selling “Sway.” They said he began his performance with that piece, and also played a few other classical pieces.

    If he didn’t play this, do you know what he did play?

    August 3, 2011
  9. anna martina sodari #

    i sent an email to gene weingarten when the story was published and my take was that we do not give our best to ‘the man’. we save our best attention spans for our family and our selves, places where it is safe to ‘be’. and that is as it should be. best, anna martina sodari

    August 5, 2011
  10. You can really expect an excellent, marvelous and perfect performance with Joshua Bell. I really idolize him as a violinist. Thank you very much for sharing this article about him. I really enjoyed reading this post.

    May 19, 2012
  11. The social experiment that Joshua Bell did was very controversial and raised many eye brows because of the various opinions about the issue.

    September 30, 2012
  12. Sylvie #

    “of the 1,097 people who walked by, hardly anyone stopped”. Out of a random sample of 1,097 subway users at rush hour, how many know / like classical music? Maybe the experiment should be done again with a well known pop singer or rapper. The we can see whether the “value attribution” theory applies.

    January 5, 2013
  13. I just have listened this song on the itrnenet, and I alomost cry. This song is based on traditional korean music, so I think it’s very unique and awsome!!I’m korean student studying English just as most of korean. But when I listen this song, I feel proud that I , korean. Thank you very much for the songs and other videos.

    March 26, 2013
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