On Friday, January 12, 2007, during the morning rush hour, a remarkable thing happened at a Washington D.C. metro station. Joshua Bell, an internationally acclaimed violinist, played six classical pieces on a $3.5 million Stradivarius violin. During the approximately 45 minute performance, 1,097 people walked past, but only seven people stopped to listen, and only one person recognized him. Most people hurried past, without even looking at him. He was, however, dressed in street clothes (jeans, a long-sleeve t-shirt, and a baseball hat) with an open violin case at his feet.

Article about Bell in the Washington Post
Video of Bell's performance in the subway

Street performers and subway musicians may be perceived as panhandlers, in need of help. Consequently, they may be treated as a nuisance, to be ignored, rather than a pleasure. Many of the people who walked past Bell that morning were undoubtedly in a hurry, on their way to work. They may not have noticed the music because of inattentional blindness (i.e., we may not perceive something dramatic because we are attending to something else). Others may have heard Bell, but ignored him to avoid having to empathize with him or help him. Although many psychological concepts can help explain why people failed to stop and listen, studies of helping behavior and the reciprocity principle seem to offer the most promising explanations.

Video demonstration of inattentional blindess

Research has shown that several factors influence decisions to help. First, people must notice the possible emergency and interpret it as such. Helping is more likely when people feel personally responsible and know what to do to help. It is also more likely when the potential costs of helping are low. In 1973, Darley and Batson found that 60% of 40 participants either failed to notice or ignored a victim in need of help. Most failed to help simply because they were in a hurry. In a later study, Shaw, Batson, & Todd (1994) found that participants tried to avoid feeling empathy for a homeless man when they believed the costs of helping were high. These studies, and many others, suggest that people will avoid and ignore those in need of help under certain conditions. In addition, the reciprocity principle may have led people to avoid and ignore Bell. According to this rule, people are required to repay what another has provided (Cialdini, 2001). People who noticed Bell may have ignored him in order to avoid an obligation. If they had stopped to listen, they may have felt obligated to give him money.

Joshua Bell made only $52.17 that morning (the one person who recognized him gave him $20). Of course, more people would have stopped to listen under different conditions: If they were told who he was or what he was doing, if they recognized his skill in playing Bach's "Chaconne," if he was playing at another time of day, or if he was simply well-dressed. It is tempting to think that we would notice Bell's music, and be one of the seven people who stopped, but chances are we would not. How many times has each of us walked past something so remarkable in such a banal location without ever realizing it? Given the ambiguity surrounding subway musicians, it seems unlikely that most of us, even those of us who have studied social psychology and know of Bell's story, would stop and listen if we encountered him in the subway tomorrow morning.

Cialdini, R. (2009). Influence: Science and practice (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Darley, J. & Batson, C. (1973). From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behaviour. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 100-108.

Shaw, L., Batson, C., & Todd, R. (1994). Empathy avoidance: Forestalling feeling for another in order to escape the motivational consequences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 879-887.

Weingarten, G. (2007, April 8). Pearls before breakfast. The Washington Post. Retrieved January 10, 2010, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html

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