DoubleA Blog

January 28, 2010

Virtuoso in the subway. Or how we perceive the indigent?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Arsen @ 8:05 pm

A few years ago The Situationist blog covered the story about an experiment where Joshua Bell’s posed as a subway musician to see if anyone would appreciate his unquestioned talent in the art of violin-playing.  Bell is definitely one of the (if not the) most popular classical violinists living today. He’s featured in many popular films (e.g. he played pretty much the whole soundtrack of The Red Violin movie starring Sam Jackson), and regularly packs performance halls with adoring fans eager to hear experience his unmatched talent.

I like this piece for several reasons. One of which I should give at the outset because it is a bias of a sort. The great Bell got his music education at my alma mater, the beautiful Indiana University, Bloomington. Go Hoosiers!

But in this experiment, he was just another (appropriately dressed) subway musician. Although dressed accordingly, Bell still brought along his immense talent and ability, playing Bach’s Chaconne (one of the most difficult and beatiful pieces for solo violin).  And, of course, he didn’t forget to grab his $3.5 million Stradivarius violine (just to make sure that the quality of the instrument is controlled for). The question was whether anyone would give Bell the respect due his ability and quality of the music.  Turned out, almost no one did.  Seven people stopped for a minute, several dropped a buck into the violin case, but 1,070 completely ignored the guy (at least ostensibly).

Jon Hanson and Michael McCann used the experiment to demonstrate yet another manifestation of the robust impact “the situation” (rather than Bell’s personal abilities and talent) has on our perceptions.

No doubt the situation makes a huge difference. But there seems to be something particularly unsavory about this particular situation.  Could Bell’s “epic fail” in the subway have anything to do with our general attitude towards the poor people who ask for money?  Let’s get into this after the jump.

Hanson and McCann argue that the experiment proves that even our appreciation of music is subject to situational pressures.  To me, there are 2 directions from which “the situation” may alter our pereception of music:

1. When we see the artist in the subway, we are affected by his situation: he’s in the subway, raggedy clothes, no crowd around him ==> not worth our attention.  This, I think, is the situation that Hanson and McCann focus on.  It’s an informative one, in the sense that our evaluation of people doesn’t rise and fall solely with their personal abilities (i.e. the disposition).  It is directly subject to manipulation based on the perceived person’s situation.

2. When we see the artist in the subway, we are affected by our situation.  Whether we’ll notice him at all depends on our habits, how busy we are, how much change we got in the pocket, etc.  This is the one I want to focus on.

This is why I’m interested in this particular direction: if the claim of the experiment is that people don’t appreciate beuatiful music as much when we switch the situation a bit, I might agree, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.  Let’s say half of the people did notice the music and were privately enjoying it.  They just didn’t turn around and acknowledge it. Why would they not?  Simple (not really): they didn’t want to pay!  See, acknowledging that you’re appreciate the subway musician’s performance carries a certain social pressure with it: if you’re enjoying it, it’d be only fair that you pay the guy.

beggar angelThat right there taps into our very deep-seated protective cover: we (most of us, at least, me included) have an immensely strong aversion to acknowledging and giving money to the indigent.  This is why we move to the other side of the street when there’s a beggar on the sidewalk.  I think most people can relate to this very strong negative feeling we get in this sort of situations.  We often try to protect ourselves from the cognitive dissonance: we’re good people, we sometimes even give money to the charity, why are we so averse to giving a dollar to this guy? The dissonance makes us feel very guilty, and we come up with all sorts of nifty explanations – he screwed up his life on his own, made bad choices, probably an alcoholic, etc. etc. etc. We might look straight ahead, past the beggar, or we might give him a sneer to indicate our displeasure (which sneer also validates our response to blow right past the guy).

Next time you find yourself in that situation, try to track your thoughts, I’m sure you’ll find some resonance with what I said above. Beware, though, these thoughts flash extremely quickly, if you’re not paying attention, you’ll probably miss them and will enjoy the successful resolution of the cognitive dissonance in blissful ignorance of how the dissonance was resolved.

Given how strong this protective cover is, I might even convince myself that you’re not enjoying the music that much.  Or I might just stand, with my back turned to Bell, as if I’m not listening. But it’s quite possible that privately, I am listening, and loving it.

So what? What’s my point here? Not a 100% sure, but I think the point is that the situation doesn’t so much change our tastes in music, as much as it changes our physical response to it.  So, here’s a very crude step-thru of what I think happens:

1. We perceive the music (it goes into our ears)

  • Of course, here, the situation might prevent us from even going this far: e.g. if we’re running into through the subway to catch the next train.  But this doesn’t get at whether we like the music.

2. The music is then processed by whatever part of the brain is responsible for liking/disliking the music. Here we get a decision – up/down thumb.

  • I have no hard evidence that this happens before stage 3 except for the fact that the feeling of enjoyment (with subway artists) or pity (with street beggars) is the actual thing that creates that dissonance which forces us to come up with rationalizations and self-validating excuses. In other words, if we never got the enjoyment or the pity, we would have a

3. Then the whole bit (the music and the feeling we got in stage 2) goes into another processor – this one injects the situation into it.  Now we have the dissonance: I feel pity for this man; I’m a good person; yet I don’t want to help him (that’s the contribution of the situation to the mental analysis).

4. Then we resolve the dissonance using various tricks and succesfully exist the challenging situation.

I should say here that this is not in any way a “let’s all  point our fingers at jackasses” post.  These things we do are perfectly human. We all engage in them (myself included). We would hardly survive through the evolutionary process without these high-level cognitive self-protection skills. My point is only that it makes sense for us to inquire into (and perhaps understand) these processes.

Re comments: if anyone is reading this, I’d love to hear about people’s experiences of the sort I describe above. But it might be tough to say: “I just walked passed a homeless woman, felt like crap, but here’s how I resolved it.”  So feel free to post comments anonymously.

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