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Why Do We Fail to See Beauty? Thoughts on the Joshua Bell Experiment

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

If you use Facebook, the Joshua Bell experiment might seem pretty passé to you. The video and corresponding story have been shared countless times across the social network, generating lots of “likes” and plenty of discussion. But the story has the potential to get us thinking about a very important question, which is why I’m exploring it here.

If you haven’t heard the story, it takes place in 2007 when the Washington Post decided to do a social experiment about people’s behaviors, perceptions of beauty, and priorities. They asked Joshua Bell – a world class violinist – to play classical music incognito in the Washington, D.C. subway station for about 45 minutes. They videotaped the event and observed people’s behaviors.

It turned out that only a few people stopped to listen to him, and only one person recognized him. The story on Facebook, which is not the Washington Post article but rather an anonymous summary and commentary, asks the reader, “If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?”

This is a fair question, but it’s important to realize that this was far from a scientific experiment. It was a journalistic project aimed to produce a good story (and it was a great story – in fact, it earned journalist Gene Weingarten a Pulitzer Prize). And because of that, we cannot possibly know why the majority of people who passed Joshua Bell in the subway did not stop and listen. You see, they were never asked.

Multiple theories have been put forth, of course – the primary one being that we, as a society, do not know how to spot and appreciate beauty when it’s right in front of us. Either we are too preoccupied, too busy (the experiment did take place during the morning commute), or too limited by our own stereotypes to give a subway musician a second glance.

These are all viable theories, but the truth is that these are all speculative; there are probably many answers depending on the person and his or her own unique circumstances. If you are at risk of losing your job if you don’t make it to work on time, will you really stop to listen to a musician, no matter how incredible he might sound?

On the other hand, I think the stereotype theory is an interesting one. How many are inclined to pass by a subway performer because they hold a negative stereotype about these folks? Unfortunately, assumptions about people based on appearance, socioeconomic status, or related variables are far too common in our society.

I’ve also seen reverse stereotypes at play in people’s reactions to this story. One Facebook commenter reacted with indignation, stating that the story tried to induce guilt about not appreciating famous beauty even though the real subway performer in his neighborhood was undoubtedly better than “some chump on an overpriced violin.”

I respect everyone’s right to his or her opinion, but this stereotype made me almost as sad as the more common ones about actual subway musicians. I happen to be familiar with the Bell family because Joshua Bell’s father was a professor in my counseling psychology program while I was a doctoral student at Indiana University. In my opinion, Joshua Bell is hardly a chump, but too often we stereotype all famous people as foolish, without talent, and undeserving simply because some famous people do indeed fit this bill.

In short, the takeaway from the Joshua Bell experiment is important but not new. “Stop and smell the roses” has been proclaimed for decades. Whatever our reasons may be, we really don’t take the time to see the beauty surrounding us. That’s why Ricky Fitts videotaped the plastic bag flowing in the breeze in “American Beauty.” That’s why I always stop to watch the deer in the backyard, even though I know they’ll probably be there again soon.

And that’s why the Joshua Bell experiment is still important, even if you think he’s a chump.

But I hope you don’t. Or at least, I hope you stop to listen to his music before you decide.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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