Posted by Jay Livingston
Social context is everything.
OK, maybe not everything, but it counts for much more than we usually realize. Listen to a comedian tell a joke. If it’s in the middle of a good set and the audience has been laughing, the chances are you’ll laugh. And if someone asked you why you laughed, you'd probably say it was because the joke was funny. Let the same comedian tell the same joke in exactly the same way in a dead room, and it won’t seem nearly as funny, maybe not funny at all. That’s why nearly all TV sitcoms include an audience laugh track. (In the old days, they didn’t bother with an audience but merely dubbed in “canned laughter.”)
Read a quotation about politics and rebellion. If you’re told that the author is Thomas Jefferson, you’ll be more likely to approve of the quote and see its essential wisdom. If you’re told that the quote is from Lenin, you might reject it. If asked why, as with the joke, you'd attribute your reaction to the content of the quote, not the context.
Listen to a Bach composition for unaccompanied violin. If you’ve paid $50 or more for your seat and the soloist is someone like the virtuoso Joshua Bell, you might give him a standing ovation and demand encores. But if you hear the same piece played by some guy in the subway station, his violin case on the ground open for contributions, you might toss in some coins to encourage him as you hurry off to work. You might think, “This guy’s not bad, but he’s no Joshua Bell” . . . even if it is Joshua Bell.
Which is who it was — at least that's who it was if you were going through the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in Washington, DC one Friday morning last January around eight o’clock. And he was fiddling on a 1713 Stradivarius. (Just in case you didn’t know, that was the golden era for Strads, and Bell’s is worth more than $3 million.)
The experiment (or stunt) was hatched by the Washington Post, and reporter Gene Weingarten published an excellent article about it recently in the Post’s Sunday Magazine. It’s a bit long (7000 words) but worth reading. The two video clips that accompany the article require a very fast connection. But in them you can see and hear Bell playing the E major partita. This is no self-effacing performance. He’s playing the hell out of it. And nobody stops to listen.
Most commuters just walk by.
A few toss some money in Bell’s violin case.
Bell netted $32.17 in 43 minutes.
As usual, the experts underestimated the importance of context. Remember the Milgram obedience experiment? Before he ran the experiment, Milgram asked psychiatrists how many people would be obedient to the end. Their estimates were in the range of 0.1% to 1%. In fact, 65% of the subjects went on delivering more and more severe shocks right to the end. The psychiatrists were focusing too much on the individual (“What kind of person would do such a thing?) and ignoring the power of the situation.
Similarly, the editors at the Post focused on the central person. Joshua Bell playing in the metro station for free? Omigod!.
In preparing for this event, the editors at the Post magazine discussed how to deal with likely outcomes. The most widely held assumption was that there could well be a problem with crowd control: In a demographic as sophisticated as Washington, the thinking went, several people would surely recognize Bell. Nervous “what-if” scenarios abounded. As people gathered, what if others stopped just to see what the attraction was? Word would spread through the crowd. Cameras would flash. More people flock to the scene; rush-hour pedestrian traffic backs up; tempers flare; the National Guard is called; tear gas, rubber bullets, etc.
Of course, nothing of the sort happened. This seems like a close cousin of the “fundamental attribution error,” in which we attribute all cause to the individual and ignore the power of situational cues. The Post editors were thinking that the commuters would be influenced by greatly by Bell's performance and hardly at all by the context. But just as the audience affects whether we think the joke is funny, we take our cues for how great a violin performance is from the surroundings.
The whole set-up —playing for contributions in a metro station — affected not just the commuters’ thoughts and actions; it also affected Bell, much to the journalist’s surprise.
“At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.” This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.Weingarten is a journalist, not a social scientist. He is surprised because he attributes too much to the personal traits he assumes Bell possesses and too little to the social context.