By Paul Lanigan
What happens when Joshua Bell, one of the world’s finest musicians goes incognito in a busy subway in Washington’s business district? What happens when a musician who can command $1,000 per minute, takes his priceless Stradivari, dons a baseball cap, occupies a corner in a busy Washington subway, and puts on a virtuoso performance for people who would normally think nothing of paying $150 a ticket to see him perform in a tuxedo.
You can watch this secretly recorded video on YouTube, but you probably suspect what happened next. Nothing. That’s right! Here’s this world-renowned musical genius, playing masterpieces on a priceless Stradivari and he might as well have been a street busker improvising with a fiddle
You’re probably thinking that it was a busy metro station and the travelers were under pressure to get to work and therefore paid little attention to the music. Perhaps that’s true. Read on and you might find yourself thinking again.
Consider for a moment, the process that scientists go though to have their papers published in their relevant journals (e.g. The Scientific Journal, The Lancet, etc.,). Typically a paper is submitted to a panel of scientists who are chosen because of their expertise in a specific field. The editor of the Scientific Journal, for example, then decides whether or not to publish based on the recommendations of the panel.
In 1982 two psychologists had a suspicion about how papers were chosen. They selected from each of the twelve well-known psychology journals an article that had already been published. Furthermore, each of the chosen articles had been penned by psychologists from one of ten of the most prestigious psychology departments in the US such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc..
Here comes the interesting bit. They changed the names of the authors to entirely fictitious ones. Furthermore, they changed the affiliation of these fictitious authors to lesser know universities.
After combing through the articles to alter any references to the original author or their affiliated university, they retyped the papers and submitted them for publication in the exact same twelve journals that had originally published them!
Of the twelve journals, only three spotted that they had previously published the article. Of the remaining nine publications, eight rejected the articles (88%). Additionally, of the panel members consisting of sixteen experts and eight editors who examined the re-submissions, every single one stated that the paper they reviewed did not merit publication.
This instance suggests that in deciding whether or not an article deserves to be published or not, the decision makers pay more attention to the author and the standing of the institution to which they belong than they do to the content.
It could be argued that the reviewing panel favored submissions from more eminent scientists from prestigious universities. However, the panel of experts was very specific in their critique. They criticized the organization of thoughts, the supporting statistics used and the conclusions reached.
The most plausible explanation is that both the original acceptance and subsequent rejection were down to inference. The first thing the reviewer reads is the name of the author and institution he or she belongs to. If the reader regards them highly, then he or she will be biased to look at the paper in the best light possible. Positive points are highlighted and negative elements such as organisations, statistics used, etc. are often discounted or even ignored.
On the other hand, if the reader is not biased positively, or worse still, biased negatively before ever reviewing the paper, he or she is more likely to look for flaws and be more sensitive to what is bad than to what is good.
In 1969, Jerry Kosinsky’s novel ‘Steps’, won the prestigious American National Book Award for fiction. Some time later, a prankster retyped the contents and submitted the manuscript, sans title, and under a pseudonym to 14 different publishers, including the one that had originally published it! Not only did any of the 27 of the so-called professionals it was sent to not recognize the content, all 27 rejected it.
So what does this all mean and what can we learn from this?
People favour the familiar and the comfort in certainty, even if certainty promises mediocrity. As Malcolm Gladwell highlighted in his best seller BLINK, when faced with choices and decisions, we tend to make assumptions. We do this by what Gladwell refers to as “thin slicing”; a subconscious process of taking small amounts of information like a brand, recommendations by friends, body language, speaking tone, etc., and we extract meaning that help form our decisions regardless of the content. In doing so, the medium becomes the message.
If you tell me that you published an article in your local newspaper, what meaning do I derive from that? If you tell me that your article was published in the Harvard Business Review, do I make different inferences about the merit of your article?
The ugly truth is that perception matters more than content. Style is more important than substance. If, in the words of David Sandler, selling is a Broadway show put on by a psychiatrist, then perception is the warm up act.
As for Joshua Bell, well he’s still giving sellout concerts but listen closely the next time you hear a metro busker strum his six-string, you never know who it might be.
Illustration by Rob Green