September 14, 2004
Psychological Controls on the Subway ++
In 1975, Dr. Stanley Milgram's mother-in-law complained to him that no one had offered her a seat on the subway. "It occurred to me," he said in a later interview, "What would have happened had she asked for a seat?"'
That conversation sparked a fascinating experiment, where Dr. Milgram sent his first-year graduate students into the subway to ask riders to give up their seats. As it turned out, when asked 'Excuse me, may I have your seat?' an astonishing 68% of riders offered them. And when two reporters repeated the experiment a few weeks ago, 13 out of 15 riders gave up their seats when asked.
But even more interesting was the effect on the students themselves. Such a bold violation of subway etiquette made the students so anxious that some of them became physically ill. As one former student recalls:
"I really did feel sick to my stomach...Afterwards, I thought, 'I wonder if that wasn't helpful because the person must have thought: "This person looks sick. She needs the seat."
Even Dr. Milgram himself was not immune from the overwhelming guilt of taking a seat that didn't belong to him:
"I was overwhelmed by the need to behave in a way that would justify my request'My head sank between my knees, and I could feel my face blanching. I was not role-playing. I actually felt as if I were going to perish."
As it turns out, there are laws of the subway that we are psychologically conditioned to obey. If students today were sent to ask the homeless guy on the F train to please, please, stop it with the off-key singing, would they be able to? -Emily