The story of violin virtuoso Joshua Bell playing incognito in a Washington DC subway — where virtually no one stops to listen — is circulating again by email.

The story is true.  I couldn’t help writing about it on this blog’s first “Off Topic” post.

But as with most experiments, whether informal ad hoc or formal medical ones, people must take care to separate the experiment from the conclusions that can (or can’t) be drawn from them.

People love an incredible story —  in this case, especially the observation that every child who went through the station tried to stop and listen.

But here’s the problem with it:  it was a set up.  Whether by deliberate design or not, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.  In Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book The Tipping Point, he discusses research that speaks to this, that the most important factor in whether people stop is if they have a few moments to spare.  It’s not about beauty or character, need or greed.  It’s just about whether people are pressed for time.  And these people in the DC subway were chosen because of their time vise.

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell discusses a study by Princeton psychologists on a group of seminary students.  Researchers asked each aspiring theologian to prepare a short talk on a Bible-based theme, then to give the talk at another building a short walk away.  On the way to their presentations, each student came across a sick man in an alley.  The psychologists wanted to find out who would stop and help, and what factors (especially of character) would predict who would take the time to lend assistance.

In some cases, the researchers even gave the seminary students the topic of the Good Samaritan to talk about!  To some, he’d say they were late and expected to start already, and to others he’d say they were early but might as well start heading over.

It turned out that none of the factors they studied (such as talking about the Good Samaritan story from the Bible right beforehand) had any effect.  The only thing that did was whether the student was in a hurry or had time.  There the difference was huge. Other research has backed this up.

I have trouble believing the Washington Post reporter who set up this “experiment” with Joshua Bell didn’t know any of this when he designed it — and it’s not really an experiment if you already know the outcome.  Even if he didn’t know to start, he should have done his homework.  (And if he didn’t do his homework, was it really such a severe indictment of people’s poor sense of beauty, or just a stunt with a predetermined outcome?)

He proposed it as a test of whether people would recognize beauty out of context, but if he had been genuine about it, he would have gone to, say, a park near where poor day laborers gather, or asked Bell to play anonymously and out of the way at a picnic for underprivileged kids or at a garish amusement park or in disguise at a farmer’s market.  He didn’t do any of these things, because he likely knew or suspected he wouldn’t get the outcome he wanted for this story, i.e., Bell would have drawn crowds.

In the Bell subway “experiment”, the only people who stopped were the ones who perceived themselves as having a few moments, just as research would predict.  Young children, one must note, live in the time warp of childhood and always think they have time for something interesting.  To make it a test of whether people recognize beauty out of context, the reporter should have put Joshua Bell in a jarringly different context, where people had maybe other (less “beautiful”) diversions, but had at least some time to stop if they wished to.

Just to put this in context:  There is an orphanage in Cambodia that educates and supports Cambodia’s garbage dump children.  The rescued kids were so grateful, they organized a program to bring books and a day of happiness to children at the dump from which they had come.  I was not surprised to hear that the children at the dump treated these books like wondrous, precious treasures.  They don’t need an education to recognize or be hungry for beauty in the midst of squalor and despair.  I’m willing to bet Mr. Bell’s violin playing would be received with equal gratitude and wonder by these most destitute of the poor.  (But you’d have to design such a visit with the same circumstantial sensitivity as by these children who returned.)

The subway story filled me with cynicism about the reporter rather than people’s capacity to recognize beauty.  Shame on him.

It’s still a good story, though.  But poor Joshua Bell!