Understanding Stradivarius


You’ll often hear me complain about my Facebook feed but this time I have nothing but thanks for the people who brought my attention to two very interesting experiments. The first one occurred in Washington, D.C. and the second one in Bucharest.

I highly recommend you read both of those articles fully (first one is in English, second in Romanian) but the summary is that in each case a very talented violinist, playing on their own personal Stradivarius, stood in a busy metro (subway) station during the morning rush hour. Both artists were dressed in ordinary clothes and seemed to be “ordinary” street musicians (aka busking) with the instrument case at their feet, hoping to receive donations from the people on their way to work.

The Washington experiment happened in 2007 and the Romanian in 2009, set up to be a direct copy of the first. But what was the purpose of this experiment?

[The violinist's] performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

Later there is this line:

The event had been described to [the violinist] as a test of whether, in an incongruous context, ordinary people would recognize genius.

And it is from this point forward, in both the American and Romanian experiments, that dozens and dozens of incorrect conclusions are drawn. And that is exactly why I am writing about these two events here today. If I we were doing this “live” this is exactly where I’d pause and ask you for what conclusions you have drawn from this and then discuss it.

In the American piece, there is an underlying thread that the vast majority of people “failed to appreciate” the “genius” of this guy’s playing. The title of the article itself is an allusion to Matthew (Matei) 7:6, implying that beautiful and precious things should not be wasted on the unworthy. Besides one person who recognized the musician for who he was and one guy who studied violin professionally the only people who seemed to spontaneously “appreciate” the music were a small child (whose mother insensitively pulled him away) and a low wage employee at a nearby pastry shop.

In the Romanian piece, there is a great deal of bragging about how the musician made more money (which isn’t exactly true, see below) and how more people stopped to listen and how this means that at least some people in Romania have a deeper appreciation of fine arts and culture. As a kind of “ego boost” for Romanians, the tone of the article is appreciated I’m sure.

But what’s interesting is that in both articles, before the experiments began, an “expert” was consulted to make a prediction about what would happen. And in both instances, the experts were wrong. So why were the experts wrong? And why did the vast majority of the people in both experiments fail to “recognize genius”?

The secret to understanding this is right here:

Placing the open case at his feet, [the violinist] shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

Why did a very rich musician put money in his instrument case? Certainly he doesn’t need any donations from people traveling on the subway! Well he probably put the money in there because that’s what real buskers (street musicians) do.

But why do street musicians do that in the first place and why is it a “shrewd” (smart) move? The answer lies in the fact that human beings (as well as cows, horses and dogs) are social animals. Humans are very aware of what other humans are doing and usually respond by imitating that behavior, known in some circumstances as an information cascade.

Putting “seed money” in a case is a very weak demonstration of group social behavior because 1) most people probably know the artist (even in this case, when he doesn’t need the money) put some of it in there himself and 2) nobody is actually viewing others putting the money in. Therefore it’s sort of a “second order” example of group behavior.

Now let’s perform a thought experiment. Let’s build a time machine and go back to the morning of the experiment and do it over again. It’s the same artist, the same time of day, the same passengers, everything. The only difference is that this time a few confederates of the newspaper pass by and throw money into the instrument case. Would more people passing by put money into the case?

Now let’s do a second experiment. Let’s repeat it all over exactly the same only this time instead of putting money in the case, the newspaper hires a few confederates to stand around and listen raptly to the musician play. Let’s imagine, in fact, there are a total of 10 confederates all standing around listening to the music. Would more passengers stop and listen (and even possibly donate money)?

The answer, of course, is yes in both cases. I myself have proven this on a number of occasions in Romania (where there are more pedestrians and therefore more things happening on the streets). I’ve long noted that at walk-up fast food places there are either no customers whatsoever or a large group of them bunched up at the window. Could an information cascade be generated intentionally? Well if I stand and stare at the menu or else just engage the workers in conversation (but don’t actually order anything) every single time a couple of people suddenly stop and come up to the window as well.

Likewise, my friends had a bar here in Unicorn City for years. And I used to get there right when they opened in the evening so I could chat with them. But I’d notice over and over that people would enter, see the bar was empty, and then turn around and head out. So a couple of times I and my friends would sit at the tables to talk and play chess and invariably people would come in, see us there seated at the tables (as if we were also customers) and then sit down and stay. Regrettably, no matter how many times I pointed this out to them they never quite understood that intentionally “seeding” the bar with “customers” would increase their “retention rate” of total strangers walking in, looking for a place to order a drink.

It is nearly impossible to break an information cascade. Stanley Milgram (who by the way was half Romanian) is very famous for his “obedience to authority” experiments. But he also studied information cascades extensively as well. In one such experiment, he had people fill out lengthy forms (in what they thought was a job application) in a room. After a while (fake) smoke would begin to pour underneath the door, simulating that there was a fire in the next room. If the person was alone, they would always go to the main office and alert people there that there was a fire.

But if three people were in the room (filling out forms) and two were confederates, and the two confederates noticed the smoke but did nothing, the third person would usually sit there and ignore the smoke even when it was extremely thick and making him choke. This is sometimes called the Genovese effect, which describes a situation where a large group of people witness something (including someone being murdered) and no one reacts simply because of how difficult it is to break an information cascade. In other words, if nobody else is doing something to help the victim (or worry about the smoke, etc), it’s very difficult to suddenly “break ranks” and do something different to what the rest of the group is doing.

And now we come full circle to the violinists. Only a single adult in the American experiment was able to break the information cascade and this was likely due to his intense focus on the art of violin playing itself. You’ll note from the article that he was very bewildered and anxious because he was breaking rank from the group behavior but persisted due to his intense personal feelings about violin music. In the Romanian experiment, arriving to work on time is less of a pressure than federal workers in America (and God knows I’ve been one of those commuters on the Washington metro years ago, so I know) and so more people managed to stop and listen (and donate some money). Notice this:

In jurul lui Alexandru, sapte persoane asteptau sa le vina randul pentru a-si exprima generozitatea.

In other words, seven people “stood in line” to donate money. Once one person stopped and then two then it was exponentially easier to join the “listen and donate money” group social behavior rather than the “hurry by and ignore” group behavior.

I’ll add here that the American actually earned 52 dollars (roughly 200 lei) but because $20 of that was from someone who recognized him personally, the newspaper didn’t count it. Nonetheless, it is true that once some Romanians were able to stop moving and queue in line and donate, the Romanian experiment generated both more attentive listeners and more donations. As much as I’d like to think it has to do with Romanians’ appreciation of culture, I think it’s more about fundamental human social behavior.

And now we can tie this all together with the larger picture, which is the country we’re living in now in 2012 and we can set aside the case of violinists playing in subway stations.

Everything I do, from this blog to my books to my documentary to my appearances in Romanian media is precisely to break those information cascades, primarily the one that says “Romania is a terrible country to live in”. Somehow, some way, that is the group consensus that all Romanians have arrived at. And that is is exactly why I put myself out there in the public eye, occasionally being the butt of jokes, and definitely not for financial reward. I do it because once a second perspective (mine) comes into play, suddenly a third and a fourth and a fifth etcetera can be possible.

In fact, last week I ran into a print journalist I know here in Unicorn City. And he told me that ever since we had first met, I had really opened up his mind. Once I expressed my viewpoint that Romania is a good and wonderful country (or can be), suddenly he began realizing that there were other perspectives on things. And since our first meeting he has gone on to looking at the entire political and cultural perspective in this country in new ways. Sometimes it takes just a single person who has a different perspective to open your mind to new ideas.

It’s true that sometimes I get bogged down in negative thinking or wear myself out from a punishing work schedule. Or heck, sometimes the complaining and the whining just exhausts me. But I’m rested now and feel better and so this idea that positive ideas contrary to the group consensus can have real impact is what fuels me to do all that I do, including a couple of new projects I have in the works.

AND NOW YOU KNOW!

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Categorised in: A few of my all-time favorite posts that I've written, FAQ, Money, probability and predicting the future

6 Responses »

  1. very very interesting.

  2. Multumim ca ai rabdarea si puterea sa ne deschizi ochii. M-am temut citind posturile trecute ca incepi sa ti-o pierzi. I know it was “scolding of righteousness”. O meritam pe deplin si cred ca din cand in cand poti sa o repeti.

    • Aww,how lovely !We thank you,Nely for th bauteiful words :3.You’re an amazing creature ;)! Mayba sometimes you can visit us :o3. But don’t tell us.Make it be a huge surprise! Maybe in one of your holidays,who knows ? :)I love you and your wonderful book and please write as much as you can,because you rock! <3

  3. i know that romanians have a negative image in the western people eyes;so negative,that the most romanians begin to believe that!

  4. Also, the average Romanian I would argue has been more exposed to classical music and the arts than the average American. It’s just a matter of education and cultural values (perhaps a really strong desire to emulate the West? perhaps the fact that the elites are concentrated in large cities, as opposed to the US where they are spread out, or live in suburbs?) Also, like you said, Romanians tend to have more free time to be exposed to such things, whereas in the US there is more emphasis of “gettin’ ‘er done” and work is the first priority, rather than such trivial pastimes as standing around to watch a street performance. Also, the guy in DC didn’t choose a very “touristic” metro station, so the target audience was probably just residents and commuters…

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