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Followup on the Joshua Bell Experiment

June 4, 2012

Recently I wrote about the Joshua Bell experiment. In particular, I took issue with what some people seem to think this experiment tells us. I received a a valid comment from Carson Chow, and several others.  Quoting Carson:

Munch’s “The Scream” was recently sold at auction for over almost a hundred and twenty million dollars. Why would it’s value fall to zero if it were to be shown to be a forgery? Same painting, same canvas, same oils. I think the fact that we don’t notice street musicians is actually a generous interpretation. The truth is probably that most of us probably value Bell’s playing more because he’s famous.

As I said, this is difficult to argue with. But, I would like to propose a different way of looking at it: I think we make many judgments collectively. In particular, we do seem to have at least the capability to make better judgments as a group, than as individuals. We also have a capacity to internalize what our friends tell us, what we read in newspapers and blogs and hear on radio. A collective judgment about the quality of Joshua Bell’s playing may actually take into account many aspects that no individual evaluation could. And what if we adopt such a group judgment as our own? Once we adopt this group opinion, the next step is natural – our experience of his playing will be largely influence by this adopted opinion. I want to emphasize that there is nothing fake about the experience of seeing him play. Given these circumstances, we would perceive his playing as truly divine, partly because her is really good, but maybe even more because of our expectations that it will be such.

But what if we replace Joshua Bell with an inferior but capable player who bears his exact likeness? According to the above reasoning, our experience would be similar. This is because the experience of hearing him play is immediate, while the group judgment takes some time to form. Information needs to be integrated and spread through the group. If the above hypothesis is correct, after a few concerts the audience as a collective would change its evaluation of the fake Bell’s playing, and the subjective experience would change accordingly.

I am not really sure that this is what really happens. Group judgments frequently follow that of experts, and it is hence not clear that they are much better than those of individuals (see here for some interesting references in the social sciences). But perhaps it is wrong to view our judgments as completely individual. Our individuality is certainly an illusion at some level, as is our sense of self. Perhaps as a group we are far less shallow in our  judgements. And those judgments do belong to the individuals that make the group, and are experienced as such. The problem may therefore lie within us and the mistaken belief about the extent to which our judgments and hence our experiences are our own.


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  1. Do you recall Duncan Watts’s experiment where he recreated several simultaneous but isolated different music social networks and let people vote on the best songs? There was no correlation between the groups. What we like is random. Joshua Bell is certainly good but so are perhaps a few hundred other violinists that never made it. I do think there is some wisdom in the crowds like in Galton’s experiment where the average of a group guessed Elsie the cow’s weight. The majority of a large group is often right because of entropic reasons. There are just so many more ways to be wrong. However when it comes to art, I think randomness plays a large role. Heifitz and Milstein might be famous no matter what but after that I’m not so sure.

  2. josic permalink

    At least we agree that there are some performers who most would agree are truly exceptional. There are so many people who can play virtually anything nowadays, and I agree that it is becoming difficult to distinguish between them. The problem here is also that there is no ground truth. As Watt’s experiment shows, the decision making process itself shapes the “right” answer – the best musician (or song), is the one that we, as a collective, decide is best. That’s probably even more pronounced with songs than with performers.

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