A co-worker recently made me aware of a 2007 social experiment done by The Washington Post in conjunction with Joshua Bell.  Naturally I had to investigate the truth of the e-mail I was sent and found an article on The Washington Post webpage that verified to validity (at least somewhat) of the e-mail.  Bell, a popular and incredibly talented violinist, was asked to dress modestly and play in a well-populated Washington, D.C. Metro Station during morning work rush hour.


The short clip published with the article portrays his beautiful artistry and the lack of public interest.  The experiment was to bring into question how people would respond.  The article written by Gene Weingarten presents a plethora of questions regarding the experiment:  “Do you stop and listen?  Do you hurry past with a blend of guild and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet?  Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite?  Does your decision change if he’s really bad?  What if he’s really good?  Do you have time for beauty?  Shouldn’t you?  What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?”


I think that humans are inherently drawn to beauty but the demands of time (especially during rush hour for work) and the overwhelming population of people looking for handouts causes a numbing effect.  The children encountered in the experiment displayed the inherent human desire to stop, observe, and appreciate beauty.  Each one of them tried but were pressed on by their rushed parents wearing blinders.


We rush through life running errands and working, so focused on the moment, that of course we miss the beauty of some situations.  Most people don’t have time to stop and listen to a musician in the metro or on the boulevard.  They have to get to work and maybe they were up late working on a project, or maybe they are going to school and had a night class or tons of homework, or maybe they have kids.  They may not stop to listen but they may wish they could.  I think that some people who see a musician sitting out with their guitar case open or a hat on the ground hurry past with a feeling of irritation because they are in a rush to get to work, where they bust their asses all day to make money to pay their bills and put food on the table; some bust their asses all day and don’t actually make enough money to pay all their bills or get a decent meal on the table.  These people walk past and may either see the struggle of the musician or feel as though they are being inadvertently asked to share their hard-earned money with someone who isn’t even trying to find a job but instead chooses to play music for money in a metro station.


The situation presents each individual with a personal moral struggle.  If it is a struggle of time, the decision will be made easily; they either want to be on time or don’t mind being late.  If it is a struggle with monetary lending, it will most likely depend on their upbringing and personal sense of morality and appreciation.  I have lent money time and again when money was tight because sometimes you just know it’s the right thing to do.  The fact is that a passerby does not know how hard up for money the musician is or what is going on/has happened in his/her life.  So each individual has to decide whether stopping to listen is gratitude enough for the beautiful music they are playing or if the dollar in their wallet might be better spent on the musician than on a candy bar at lunch.  I think the not knowing exactly the musician’s status is what trips passersby up and rather than choose optimism, they choose pessimism and assume the musician is looking for quick money for a quick fix.


Giving money in a situation like the one presented seems to me to be based on a sense of whether the individual has earned it as well.  If he plays horribly and creates a negative distraction to the passersby, I find it highly unlikely that individuals will stop to listen or give money, creating positive reinforcement for poor quality output.  If he plays exceptionally well, like Joshua Bell, clearly the odds do not increase that much – but they do increase.  If the talented musician played regularly in the same place and at the same time every day, I think that his odds would improve at least temporarily as more people used to seeing him might stop to take notice when they hadn’t before or give money when they hadn’t before.  But I also think the presumption of expecting money by putting out your instrument case, a hat, or a jar strikes negatively on passersby.


Despite all of that I think the most important question Weingarten presents in his article is as follows:  “Do you have time for beauty?  Shouldn’t you?”


Ideally, we would all have time for beauty.  But this is not the case.  As I stated before, there are copious reasons people do not stop to smell the metaphorical flowers.  I truly believe that if people made more time for the day-to-day beauty in their lives they would be happier, whether that time is spent listening to a violinist in the metro, walking through a park, observing the day through the office window, or spending time with children and family.