Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Confirm your bias

I liked this WaPo story on many levels.

First, it's just interesting to see what happens when you take a fantastically talented, world class violinist, and have him busk. Classical violinist, Joshua Bell, busked in a busy subway station in DC incognito. People pay ~$100 to see him perform in concert halls -- will they give him a dollar (or even notice) if he plays on a street corner?

Second, the predictions people made before finding out about the story reveal wonderful prejudice. This is not to say that prejudice is wonderful, but their quotes were so stereotypically prejudiced, that I wonder how honest the reporter has been in 1) selecting their quotes, and 2) actually quoting from real life.

Some examples:
Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked the same question. What did he think would occur, hypothetically, if one of the world's great violinists had performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people?

"Let's assume," Slatkin said, "that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don't think that if he's really good, he's going to go unnoticed. He'd get a larger audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening."
Of course he would get a larger audience in Europe! But is it because Europeans are more likely to be unemployed, or not care about getting to work on time, or because they are more cultured, and sensitive to all things cultural? That question remained unasked, so we must speculate. But I loved the "of course".

Next example:
Souza was surprised to learn he was a famous musician, but not that people rushed blindly by him. That, she said, was predictable. "If something like this happened in Brazil, everyone would stand around to see. Not here."
Yes -- because in Brazil people are.... what exactly? She leaves it unclear, but whatever it is, in Brazil they would without a doubt stop and listen in a large crowd.

In my experience, and as this article shows, it is very difficult to predict how you will act in an unusual situation, and even harder to predict how others will act. People like to believe that certain groups (those refined Europeans, those vibrant Brazilians) are more cultured than others, but in reality, people are people the world over.

Lastly, I also enjoyed, and would recommend the little video clips embedded in the article. They illustrate just how remarkable Joshua's playing was, and how remarkable it was that people passed without noticing.


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