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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.

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