How perceptive are we?

Many of us walk around everyday immersed in our own stuff.  We get caught up in task after task, shut down during our commute, focus on what might happen tomorrow, or spend our time re-running the events of the last day.  Others are filled with anxiety checking their Blackberry every minute waiting for the next shoe to dropped or trying to predict every possible scenario in the (still yet fictional) unavoidable fight they know will happen when they get home (Never mind the self fulfilling prophecy principle at work here.  That’s a whole other blog post.).  The big question is what we miss…
The Place: Washington, DC Metro Station –L’Enfant Plaza

The Date: January 12, 2007

The Time: Morning Rush Hour

The Situation: A man played the violin for approximately 45 minutes.   He played six Bach pieces.

Each commuter had choices to make as they passed by:

  • Do I stop and listen?
  • Should I spare some change?
  • Am I annoyed by this street performer?
  • Should I feel guilty that I do not want to give money?
  • Is he good? Bad?

What Happened: During that time approximately 1100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.  After 3 minutes a man noticed there was a musician playing and he slowed down his pace, stopped for a few seconds, and then continued on.

4 minutes later:

The musician made his first dollar because a woman threw the money in his hat without even stopping for a moment.  She just continued to walk.

6 minutes:

A man leaned against the wall and listened to the music, after looking at his watch began to walk off.

10 minutes:

A little boy, approximately, 3-years old stopped, but his mother tugged at him to come along.  The child stopped to look at the performer again, but the mother tugged hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head the entire time. This occurred with children several times. Each parent forced their child to move on hurriedly.

45 minutes:

During this entire street concert only 6 people stopped and listened for even little while. Close to 20 people gave money but did not stop to listen.  The musician earned a total of $32.

The End:

When he finished playing there was no applause or recognition.  It was as if no one noticed.  He was invisible.  Just silence.

The Real Deal:

This was an experiment put on by the Washington Post.  In fact, they won a Pulitzer Prize for the story.  No one knew that the violinist was Joshua Bell a famous and extremely talented musician.  He played for forty five minutes on a handcrafted 1713 Stradivarius violin he purportedly purchased for $3.5 million dollars. Three days prior Joshua Bell sold out a Boston’s Symphony Hall where the seats can sell for more than $100.  Only one person at the subway station recognized him.

So what do we miss?  This was a social experiment.   Most opportunities occur at inopportune times.  Can we recognize what is right in front of us? Do we recognize a great candidate for a job when we meet them out of context?  Are we aware of our next great product when the inspiration tries come out during a major deadline?  What great employee efforts do we miss and not recognize when we are afraid of health of the company?    How does this play out with our families?

If we do not have the ability to appreciate one of the most talented musicians in the world, how much are we missing?

Why not take a few minutes and see what others missed…


8 thoughts on “How perceptive are we?

  1. Pingback: Valuable Internet Information » How perceptive are we?

  2. Perhaps the study could effectively demonstrate the value of marketing to the proper audience and making sure that the perception of others does not become our reality.

    If you are a concert violinist playing a multi-million dollar instrument you must market yourself accordingly and avoid being lumped in with the street performances of local students.

    Your poor perception of me is not your fault.

    • Thomas,

      An interesting perspective. And quite right from a marketing standpoint we should all be aware of these issues. I am still, however, taken by the fact that some people are more aware than others. Some people are more perceptive than others even during inopportune times. Those people see opportunities that many of us do not–making them more successful than most.

  3. Excellent point. In this fast-paced world, people don’t take the time to slow down a bit and really see what is in front of them.

    Another thing that I took from this experiment is regarding expectations. In the experiment, people made assumptions based on the situation. A few of the assumptions that people might have made are: he is homeless, he is not worth listening to, he is not anyone important who deserves recognition. All of those assumptions were made simply because the expectations that people had were not met. I’m sure that if the musician had been driven there in a limo, wore a tuxedo, and had a camera crew filming him, the reaction from people would have been very different.

    You asked, “Do we recognize a great candidate for a job when we meet them out of context?” I would also ask, “Do we recognize a great candidate for a job if s/he doesn’t meet our expectations?” For example, say there is a candidate who has a great resume, but when you meet him for the in-person interview, he is much shorter than anticipated or has a disability. While neither situation should change how the candidate is viewed, you have to wonder if it does. With experiements like that showing how people react when faced with X situation, I think it’s a valid question.

  4. The experiment reminds me of Pavlov effect. Perceptions and reflexes can be conditioned and made to happen in a pattern. More than not recognizing a Maestro, the phenomenon consisted in, responding to the stimuli conjured up by circumstances of a homeless and jobless artist asking for help. The perceptions were influenced by the situation that met the eye. Unlike a concert where the discerning music lovers gather with an expectation to listen, in a railway station, people keep moving on with varying responses to the stimuli that meet their eye with a different objective altogether. The experiment shows that people act according to objectives in their mind. They understand the situation when the objectives and usual conditions for such objectives are aligned. A misalignment blurs objectives and therefore, creates an uncertainty for the reflex and choice of responses. And when the experiment targets people just managing competing demands on their time and resources, of which, reaching the work place in time is certainly one that influences all choices of responses till that objective is met, the best musicians going unnoticed is quite normal. Even in a concert, it takes more than music to reach the discerning audience who gather with a clear objective of being immersed in music. Objectives condition individual and organizational behaviour – creative forces that can go beyond objectives to spot opportunities and tap into them, are rare and need to be nurtured by creating a space for them in the organization.

  5. Great article. I find few people notice much outside of the immediate – their behavioural shorthand kicks in & judge by context. Groupthink is also at play. It may be normal, but I live in hope that it need not be so!

    It also reminds me of another experiment I read about. Some book extracts were sent to various publishing houses under the names of unknown authors seeking interest for publishing. All were rejected. The extracts sent were, however, taken from recent prizewinning or shortlisted novels, which had just had their titles &/or the character names changed, but they were otherwise word for word. Now whether you like the writing style is one thing yet it also says that perhaps either these creative professionals hadn’t read these apparently inspiring examples of literature, simply did not recall them in any way whatsoever (which says something in itself), or if I’m generous, in one respect anyway, perhaps hadn’t read the extracts from the unknown names at all.

    The article gave an example of individual behaviour – yet here we pay these professionals to be discerning, right? So are we unconciously asleep, or are we willfully so? We need to use shortcuts for the modern world – how much are we losing?

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