Cognitive Daily

Yesterday, we conducted a poll asking how often our readers would give money to truly talented street performers. The poll was in response to a Washington Post experiment where world-famous violinist Joshua Bell performed in a subway station for 45 minutes and only earned $32, an amount that would pay for less than a third of a seat at one of his concerts.

One objection to the Post experiment is that Bell wasn’t in a very good location: he was at the entrance to the station, during morning rush hour, when people have the least time to stop and listen. Our poll tried to determine what might have happened had he been in a spot where people are more likely to have time to listen: we asked how often readers give at least $1 to truly talented street performers, when they’ve got at least 5 minutes to listen to them. This graph shows our results:


Almost 50 percent of respondents said they’d give money at least 50 percent of the time! Our 176 respondents would have given at least $80.80 — that’s a lot more than the $32 Bell actually earned during his performance, when over 1,000 Washingtonians passed by. But there are some problems with our “study”‘s method.

First, people might claim to be more generous than they really are. I’d say that’s a significant problem, but it’s at least partially countered by the fact that there is no opportunity for respondents to say how much they give — surely some people will give even more than $1 for a truly impressive performance. If these two factors balance each other out, then when you scale up our response to match the 1079 passersby during Bell’s actual performance, he would earn a whopping $495.36!

That’s still not much compared to what Bell earns for a real concert, but it’s definitely enough to keep him in caviar for a few days.

But there’s another problem with our results: the response rate. On a typical day, Cognitive Daily is visited by around 4,000 different people — but only 176 responded to our poll. Perhaps the people who responded to the poll are disproportionately generous to street performers. Now, the 4,000 number is a bit misleading, because most of those visitors are following links from other sites — which lead directly to other articles. Fortunately, we also have statistics for the number who viewed the main page yesterday, and for those who went directly to the poll post. Combine those two figures, and a total of 836 readers saw the poll, which means 660 people didn’t bother to respond.

I think you can make a good case that these people are so ambivalent about street performers that they probably fall in the “never give money” camp. If you add these responses into the data and recalculate, Bell’s theoretical earnings from 1079 passersby drops to $104.28, or an hourly rate of $138.70 — not bad, but Bell may want to switch to domestic caviar, and he’ll almost certainly have to pawn his $3.5 million Stradivarius.


  1. #1 Alan Kellogg
    April 12, 2007

    What street musician? I’ve got a train to catch, some clod has filled up my voice mail with his spam, and my ears are still ringing from the jackhammer at 42nd and 33rd. I’ve got time for a puffed up fiddler? Was there even a fiddler there when you say he was there? Never saw him. is this some kind of prank?

  2. #2 Commenter2
    April 12, 2007

    I’d like to see this experiment actually done somewhere. Of course, there you run into other problems. For one:

    How does one objectively grade the “talent” of a performer? There is a good deal of mathematical accuracy that is necessary in music, but once you’ve mastered the nuances of rythm, tone, and the idiosyncrasies of your instrument, you get into the subjective “feeling” of a piece. How do you judge that?

    Popularity doesn’t work so well, as it involves a lot of luck and also because you want the “talented” player to go in without the help of a reputation. I suppose you could have a panel of experts review the musician, but that might not prove a perfect barometer. The audence of American Idol doesn’t always agree with Simon and the other music experts at the judges’ table.

    I think if one were actually to do the experiment, it would teach us a lot about cultural conditioning in addition to telling us if people actually pay attention.

  3. #3 Remis
    April 14, 2007

    I’m quite sure that there’s so many people that judge talent not based on what they see or hear, but in prejudices… that makes “anyone playing in a big venue more talented than that looser I saw playing in the street last night”… “if he was THAT good, why was he playing in the street instead of being on the radio?” common replies (and indeed, they are)

    Interesting experiment :-)… have you guys done something on the line of comparing record sales between classic rock bands vs. one-hit wonders that everyone liked yesteryear but nobody remembers right now? Reviewing a list of “classic” one-hit wonders is an interesting experience… a shameful one, but interesting anyway xD

  4. #4 Caledonian
    April 15, 2007

    Talent, especially in the arts, is only of value to people who desire to experience what it can produce.

    If the people entering subways aren’t interested in listening to violin music just then, it won’t much matter how good the performer is. If they don’t care for violin music in general, it won’t much matter how good the performer is.

  5. #5 Travelin Monty
    April 16, 2007

    Are you kidding me??? He’d be making $40/hr as a street performer. $80k/year… for an 8 hour day! That’s more than 90% of wage earners make in this country!!

New comments have been disabled.