Thursday, October 29, 2009

Fiddling while commuters rush by

A young musician is in a Washington DC metro station. He wears jeans, a long sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. It’s Friday morning. A violin is in his hand. The case is open at his feet. A few coins and dollar bills are inside as seed money to stimulate contribution. At 7:50 am, he begins playing. He continues for 43 minutes. During this time, he plays through six classical pieces, including the stunning Bach Partita in D minor. His music resonates through the entire metro arcade.

About a thousand people pass by. Almost all ignore him. Twenty three of them glance momentarily and wait. Seven people stop to listen for more than a minute. He collects a total of $32.17.

The violinist is Joshua Bell. He is one of the great musical virtuosos of our time. He sells out concert halls. He plays to capacity audiences all over the world . Now, here he is, in the Washington Metro, playing an 18th century Stradivarius violin, and just seven people stop to listen for more than a minute. (Interestingly, according to Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten, who concocted this Pulitzer-prize winning experiment, every time children walked by the performance, they tried to stop and listen. And each time, a parent swooped them up and kept walking.)

What does this experiment show us? It depends on your perspective. Are we too busy to appreciate beauty? Was Bell just a bad busker?

One lesson to draw from the story is how much we can learn from well-designed, rigorous real-world experiments. When the reporter first proposed the experiment, he anticipated that the music would draw a throng, perhaps even create problems with crowd control. Instead, he learned that only a very few classical music fans (and children) would stop to enjoy the music. No focus group or interview would have provided the same insight. More importantly, the experiment demonstrates the central role of context in generating a reaction, whether it’s a crowd of commuters or shoppers. Humans have a hard time assessing product quality on its own merits; rather, the environment powerfully shapes decision making. Imagine if someone were to set out a cheap folding table in downtown Chicago displaying piles beautiful couture shirts with a hand-lettered sign selling them for $10. Most likely, people would ignore the display on their way to Macy’s or Nordstrom, because there would be no cues, such as designer labels, admiring sales associates, or piped in classical music, alerting them that these shirts were in fact valuable. For stores, carefully designed research could help figure out what in the environment causes shoppers to line up and what makes them walk on by.
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