The Violinist Joshua Bell and the Goldwater Rule: The Psychological Power of Context


Would you recognize one of the greatest musicians in a subway station?

music, subway



My wife and I just heard Joshua Bell play at a concert. He is probably the greatest virtuoso of our generation. Not surprisingly, he received a long-standing ovation, as he probably always does.

Except at a subway station.

Back in 2007, he donned a baseball cap and played some of his repertoire at the entrance to the Washington, DC subway station. The people, probably some who would pay big money to see him in concert, passed by: 1097 passed by, 27 gave some money, and 7 stopped for a while. It was part of a designed social experiment by the Washington Post. A symphony conductor had predicted maybe a hundred would stop.

About 7 years later, he spontaneously joined a busker there and got a bit more of a response.

What did the experiment mean? The rat race trumps musical beauty? Or did the music still stir the passersby without their knowing?

Surely all of us have been mistakenly identified—and mistaken others—in an unanticipated context.

In psychiatry, we must be careful of context, especially in an inpatient unit or emergency room. Researchers have pretended to be patients in those contexts and fooled many. It helps to know how patients behave in other contexts, especially in regard to personality disorders, one of the advantages of Zoom sessions.

Maybe this is some of the justification—or at least context—for the Goldwater Rule. Surely, most public figures—and perhaps most people—act differently in their public persona versus privately.

Watchers beware and be open to the unexpected!

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.

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