"Stop! In the Name of Love" is a golden oldie, a classic song by the Supremes that skyrocketed to the charts in 1965 and is still adored by fans today, whether they can carry a tune or not.
Would you be embarrassed if you were singing the song badly in public? Not if you were an an actress hired by ABC News to purposely sing poorly for a hidden camera experiment.
If our actress, Ambre, was a contestant on "American Idol," Simon Cowell wouldn't mince words. But will ordinary people be equally honest? We decided to find out.
New York City's Bryant Park is an oasis in the busy city just steps away from Broadway. As Ambre approached people and asked whether they would listen to her sing, she asked that they tell her their honest opinion. But of course, Ambre gave her worst screechy, squeaky performance.
One woman in a group of three sat and listened. Afterward, she told Ambre, "I thought it was great!" Her male companion piped up as they quickly got up to walk away. "It was good!," he said, after Ambre asked whether she was ready for her audition. "I think you're ready."
Next, Ambre approached a woman walking through the park. She too told Ambre her performance was great and left quickly.
According to Colgate University psychology professor Carrie Keating, there is no one best policy on how to react in this situation.
"You have to sort of use some fairly subtle intuitive processes to try to figure out whether the person standing in front of you is actually asking for honest feedback or whether they're asking for emotional support," she said.
Ambre also approached two women who were visiting from Texas. As she belted out the song completely off tune, they began to laugh over her squeaking.
Ambre stopped and asked them whether they were laughing at her and whether she was bad.
"It's bad," said Belinda Palacios, who then apologized for her brutal honesty. She asked Ambre what she did for a living. Ambre said she really wanted to be an actress or a singer. Palacios began to laugh, shaking her head. Ambre asked whether she could sing again. "No! No, no, no, no," said Palacios, who has heard quite enough.
Peter, who listened with his wife, Zofia, heard quite enough too. He abruptly stopped her after just a few off-key notes.
"What do you do during the day," he asked. Ambre said she had just finished school and wanted to become a singer. Peter asked her whether she thought about composing as opposed to singing, and as he walked away advised her to "try writing."
Ambre sang again for an man passing through the park. There was a limit to the agony he would endure. He held up his hand as she sang and said, "OK, that should do it." He asked Ambre what she wanted to hear. She asked him whether he thought she'd be OK to go to the audition and make it. "I don't think so, I hate to say it," he told her.
"I want to tell her the truth," he said. "If that's all she's got, I don't think she's gonna make it."
So Ambre tried again with more bad singing to a couple visiting from Germany. Chalking up the tone deaf performance to a case of nerves, the couple offered some free advice. "Try not to be so nervous. Or get drunk and try again."
Would the response be any difference if our singer was a guy?
At first, people fled as he approached them, but then a mother and daughter agreed to listen. Jason began croaking out "You Really Got Me."
"Louder and more energetic!" advised the mother, as she pumped her arms for emphasis. "Like that, feel it, feel it!" Jason might have been worse than Ambre, but he seemed to inspire support.
When Jason began to sing again, the mother suggested he pretend that she and her daughter are the girl and that he is singing to them. "And you're singing to her, like I really want you, I want you forever, don't ever want you to leave me. You know, just get into it. Real good. Like powerful strong." Jason continued singing, going so far as to kneel before them.
"Right, something like that," said the mother. "Right, that's the way rockers do it! Right like that! Right like that!"
The ABC News team told the woman that it was all part of a report on honesty and that we wanted to know what she really thought of his singing.
"I think I was being very honest," she said. "Because he felt that song. And I felt it for him."
She told us she thought he could make it as a singer, and if he didn't do well she would have told him. "I'm a very honest person."
Jason approached a mother and daughter visiting from Houston. It seemed no matter how badly he sang, it was music to someone's ears. He asked whether there was anything he could do to improve and the daughter said no, it sounded really good and she'd vote for him.
We asked her what she really thought.
"Well, he was good. … I like to encourage people," she said. "Because if you told somebody you're really terrible, they may not ever try again, you know? And I think as long as you keep plugging for it and you really want it, you'll get there."
Over and over, people seemed to find any way to avoid telling Jason he's bad.
Jason approached a couple sitting down to have some lunch. Rather than get up and leave, the woman turned this chance meeting into a performance workshop.
"You know what's missing? I want you to talk to the girl. The girl is not there. The girl is right here. … You want the girl to come to you. You have to send that energy out to her."
When we approached to break the news that this was all an experiment, we weren't totally shocked to learn that the woman May Maderino was an actor, playwright, singer and voice teacher. Too bad this wasn't for real.
So…what's going on here? Weren't they both equally pathetic?
Keating said maybe it's because our society judges women much more harshly than men.
"If an essay is written and signed by a woman and the same essay is signed by a man, often times that essay will be judged more favorably with the male signature at the bottom of the page," she said. "Our expectations effect our perceptions."