Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Joshua Bell Experiment

As “a test of whether, in an incongruous context, ordinary people would recognize genius,” The Washington Post deployed violin virtuoso Joshua Bell as an anonymous street musician in a Washington, DC, commuter plaza. At his feet, open for donations, was the case of his $3.5 million Stradivarius.

In 43 minutes, Bell played six classical masterpieces. 1,070 people passed by with little to no affect. Seven people stopped for at least a minute. 27 people donated a total of $32, not counting the twenty-dollar bill Bell got from the single person who recognized him.

A fine piece of writing, The Post article describes the experiment and ruminates at length about what it might mean. I can’t improve on that, but I’ll add some commentary about a few of the numbers.

First, and this isn’t pretty, Bell’s response rate of around 2.5% is similar to response rates for direct-mail solicitations of credit cards, loan refinancings, and such.

Second, the article tells us that Bell plays concerts where the cheap seats go for $100. It’s easy to read that detail as an implied value for his commuter-plaza performance, as if the 97.5% of people who ignored him might as well have been walking past a hundred-dollar bill on the ground.

This presumes that because some people would pay $100 to see Joshua Bell, then that’s the value. It’s not. It’s the value to the people who paid $100, not the average passer-by on the street. Based on the experiment, the value of seeing Joshua Bell to the average passer-by was roughly three cents. (Don’t believe me? Divide the $32 Bell made by the 1,077 people that passed by.)

Of course, the people paying $100 are doing so for a formal performance, at a concert hall, with an admission fee, at a convenient time, knowing that Joshua Bell is the player. All of that is missing from the experiment. So how surprised should we be that most people ignored him?

Quibbles aside, the article is still a good, thought-provoking read. It’s gotten a lot of play in the blogosphere, suggesting that if the public can’t recognize anonymized genius, it can at least recognize interesting commentary about the public’s inability to recognize anonymous genius.

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