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Violinist at the Metro Experiment: The Perception of Beauty

Introduction

On Friday, January 12, 2007, Joshua Bell, a world-renowned classical violinist, began to play in a Washington D.C. metro station. Bell was wearing jeans, a long sleeve tee-shirt, and a baseball cap. Thousands of people rushed by in the midst of their morning commutes, unaware of the prodigal musician standing just feet away from them. 

Explanation

This was part of a study of human behavior by the Washington Post, and was meant to reveal the attention, or lack thereof, people pay to beauty. What makes something beautiful? Is something always beautiful, or is beauty situational? 

Violinist at the Metro Experiment

The Violinist at the Metro Experiment, conducted by the Washington Post, examined the role of perception and human behavior when assessing beauty and helping others. 

Experiment

Joshua Bell arrived at the Washington D.C. metro station, L’Enfant Plaza, at 7:51 AM on a Friday, right in the middle of rush hour, in the center of federal Washington. He began to play a series of incredibly complex pieces on one of the most valuable violins in the world. As he played, people seemed not to notice, very few even looked in his direction, less threw some change in his open violin case, and fewer still actually paused to listen to his music. 

This result is certainly not what most people would expect from an experiment such as this. A world-renowned violinist playing a multi-million dollar violin in a busy metro station filled with educated people certainly should attract more appreciation, or at least attention. So why did people disregard Joshua Bell?

There are two primary explanations for the reaction of the public towards Bell and his violin playing. The first concerns how beauty is perceived in any given situation. The second involves helping behavior in humans, or more specifically, how we assess situations in which we assume help is being asked for by another. 

Perceiving beauty is not as straightforward as one may expect. Situational factors play an enormous role in the final verdict regarding the beauty of the subject at hand. 

Beauty is all about perception. If something which is widely agreed to have beauty is placed in an unassuming setting that does not highlight its worth, it will take a lot more for people to recognize it as beautiful. Joshua Bell was dressed casually, in a commonplace setting, at an inconvenient time, so people simply did not notice the beauty that was occurring as they rushed off to work that morning. 

Another factor likely at play in the reaction (or lack thereof) to Joshua Bell’s performance was the way humans exhibit helping behavior, and the cost-benefit analysis that humans use, consciously or subconsciously, when deciding whether or not to help. When some people were walking through that metro station that day, they immediately saw Bell as someone looking for help, in the form of cash thrown into his open violin case. 

People seeking help are often perceived as a nuisance by others. They intentionally ignored Bell by maintaining walking pace and not making eye contact, so that they could avoid empathizing with, or assisting him. The reciprocity principle was also likely involved in this ignorance of Bell by the public. If they had paused and enjoyed his music, they would have felt indebted to him for that. In return, they would have felt obligated to help him, which in this instance would mean leaving some change in his case. 

At the end of his forty-three minute performance, Bell had made $52 and some change. During those forty-three minutes, 1,097 people passed by, seven people stopped to listen, and only one person recognized him (and gave him $20). Had people noticed his incredible skill, who he was, or the quality of his instrument, more people likely would have gathered to appreciate his performance. However, helping behavior and the perception of beauty worked against the commuters acknowledging and appreciating Joshua Bell’s performance. 

Applying It

Being aware of how you assess the world around you is a great way to begin appreciating it. When you are in a familiar setting, and are focusing only on the task at hand, important moments can easily pass you by. Just by looking up and actively seeking the beauty in your environment, you will expose yourself to so many new experiences. When you pass someone on the street asking for help, don’t automatically shut yourself off and ignore them. Taking the time to enjoy the small things that occur in your daily life, and to acknowledge your fellow human beings, is sure to result in new opportunities. Who knows? You may be the one to stop and listen to a world-class violinist in a metro station. 

Think Further

  1. What are some other psychological factors that could have influenced the reaction of the public towards Joshua Bell?
  2. Can you think of a time when you missed something special simply because it wasn’t being presented to you as important?
  3. What role does helping behavior play in the way you interact with others?

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  1. Herrera, Nicholas, Ph.D. “Helping Behavior and Subway Musicians.” Psychology Today, Jan 2010, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/personality-and-social-interaction/201001/helping-behavior-and-subway-musicians.
  2. Norris, Michele. “A Concert Violinist on the Metro?” NPR, April 2007, https://www.npr.org/2007/04/11/9521098/a-concert-violinist-on-the-metro.
  3. Weingarten, Gene. “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let’s find out.” The Washington Post, April 2007, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/pearls-before-breakfast-can-one-of-the-nations-great-musicians-cut-through-the-fog-of-a-dc-rush-hour-lets-find-out/2014/09/23/8a6d46da-4331-11e4-b47c-f5889e061e5f_story.html.