Underground Psychology

Researchers have been spying on us on the subway. Here’s what they’ve learned.

Spend enough time riding the New York City subway—or any big-city metro—and you’ll find yourself on the tenure-track to an honorary degree in transit psychology. The subway—which keeps random people together in a contained, observable setting—is a perfect rolling laboratory for the study of human behavior. As the sociologists M.L. Fried and V.J. De Fazio once noted, “The subway is one of the few places in a large urban center where all races and religions and most social classes are confronted with one another and the same situation.”

Or situations. The subway presents any number of discrete, and repeatable, moments of interaction, opportunities to test how “situational factors” affect outcomes. A pregnant woman appears: Who will give up his seat first? A blind man slips and falls. Who helps? Someone appears out of the blue and asks you to mail a letter. Will you? In all these scenarios much depends on the parties involved, their location on the train and the location of the train itself, and the number of other people present, among other variables. And rush-hour changes everything.

So it’s no surprise that, over the years, subways have regularly been the scenes of applied psychology experiments. Indeed, for a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as theories of “personal space” percolated through sociology, Edward T. Hall’s study of “proxemics” was having its heyday, and the field of environmental psychology was coming into its own, it seemed that any New York City subway rider might be some psychologist’s “confederate” and everyone else a possible bellwether of la condition humaine. A banal note from a 1969 article titled “Good Samaritanism: An Underground Phenomenon?” from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology captures the spirit: “About 4,450 men and women who traveled on the 8th Avenue IND in New York City, weekdays between the hours of 11:00 A.M. and 3:00 P.M. during the period from April 15 to June 26, 1968, were the unsolicited participants in this study.”

Although subway studies had their heyday in the ‘70s, they’re as old as public transit itself. The seminal urban sociologist Georg Simmel, in a famous passage from his 1912 volume Mélanges de Philosophie Relativiste, was struck by the new spatial and sensorial regimen that transit provided. “Before the appearance of omnibuses, railroads, and street cars in the nineteenth century, men were not in a situation where for periods of minutes or hours they could or must look at each other without talking to one another.”

By 1971, Erving Goffman, in his book Relations in Public, was noting that a ritual of what he called “civil inattention” had taken hold on the subway as in other spheres of city life: We acknowledge another person’s presence, but not enough to make them “a target of special curiosity or design.” Or, as the authors of the essay “Subway Behavior,” (in the book People and Places: Sociology of the Familiar) put it, “subway behavior is regulated by certain societal rules and regulations that serve to protect personal rights and to sustain proper social distance between unacquainted people who are temporarily placed together in unfocused and focused interaction.”

What much subway psychology seeks to understand, however, is what holds these rules in place, and what happens when they are violated. In one of the most well-known studies, social psychologist Stanley Milgram had students spontaneously ask subway riders to give up their seats. As Thomas Blass recounts in The Man Who Shocked the World, this experiment arose from the seeming erosion of a subway norm. As Milgram’s mother-in-law had posed it to him: “Why don’t young people get up anymore in a bus or a subway train to give their seat to a gray-haired elderly woman?”

Milgram wanted to know: What if you simply asked them to? And so students in his experimental social psychology class took to the underground to ask for seats, under a number of conditions (either with no justification, or offering a rationale like “I can’t read my book standing up”). People were surprisingly compliant—a total of 68 percent either got up or moved over in the “no justification” condition. The more justification that was offered, however, the less likely people were to stand up. Curiously, Blass notes, the most striking thing for many of the participants was just how difficult it was to ask for the seat (“I actually felt as if I were going to perish,” recalled Milgram). It’s not hard to imagine why; asking for help on a subway exposes one to both the risk of a certain stigma—and to the possibility of rejection. When the New York Times later replicated the Milgram study, less scientifically, compliance rates were higher. (Maybe New York really is the world’s most polite city!)

 The crucial context for many of the 1970s studies was the Queens murder of Kitty Genovese, whose cries for help were purportedly ignored by her neighbors. The Genevose story became the ur-narrative of uncaring urban pathology (even if its details were later called into question). The subway offered a perfect testing ground for the emerging subfield of “bystander studies.” The aforementioned “Good Samaritan” paper, for example, had a Columbia University student stagger and collapse on a subway train, “looking supine at the ceiling.” In some trials, the subject acted drunk; in others, ill. (People were more likely to help in the latter condition.) Interestingly, that study found no support for the so-called “diffusion of responsibility” effect—the idea, per the Genovese murder, that the more bystanders were present, the less likely it was that any one person would help. In fact, the reverse was found. 

Another Milgram classic was the “lost-letter technique”: Approach a stranger with a letter (sometimes stamped, sometimes not) and ask her to mail it for you. The number of mailed letters provides the success rate. One 1975 study by psychologist Roy Feldman stationed experimenters (both locals and foreigners) in the subway stations of several cities (Boston, Athens, Paris) and had them ask the postal favor. One interesting (if limited) finding: Greeks were less likely to mail a letter for fellow Greeks than for a foreigner.

One of the key tenets of “civil inattention” is the scrupulous avoidance of direct eye contact, and a number of studies have examined this variable. In one 1974 study, experimenters actively stared at people, then asked for help. Subjects were more likely to help when the person hadn’t been staring (echoing a long line of studies finding that people generally become uncomfortable in the face of an unprovoked or inappropriate gaze—unless, of course, the gazer is an attractive woman). Another paper, by Clark McCauley, et al., published in 1978 in Environmental Psychology and Nonverbal Behavior, looked at the overall willingness to make eye contact in a commuter train setting in a city environment (Philadelphia) and its suburbs. Commuters were more gaze-shy in the city (only 13 percent of passersby were willing in Philly, as opposed to 31 percent in Bryn Mawr). The authors attributed the results not to rudeness but to the overabundance of information available to process—as they put it, “interpersonal overload leads to social withdrawal.”

Of course, a passenger’s responses may depend on how long he’s been on the train: A study by Gary Evans, et al., linked the length of the commute to stress levels. The longer the voyage, the higher the levels of cortisol in the saliva of test subjects, and the worse they did on a “performance task” (proofreading). Other studies have shown that simply not having to make a transfer reduces stress.

Crowding levels matter too, though not necessarily in the way you might think. In another study by Evans and Richard Wener, higher stress levels were linked less to overall subway car crowding than to how densely the seats were occupied. More crowded trains also increase the chance of physical contact; a study by David Maines looked at seating position (specifically, elbows: “Elbow manipulation also becomes one way of expressing sentiment concerning the person sitting next to you”) and hand position on the straps, and found that incidental touching was more likely to occur among same-race, same-sex passengers. “Race and sex redefine physical distance,” he wrote. (With gender, it’s the lack of this distance, of course, that has led to “women-only” subway cars, from Mexico City to Mumbai.)

Has the era of the electronically immersed commuter, oblivious to all around him, lost in his playlists, signaled a decline in subway psychology? Not that I can find. One recent study conducted by officials at the Paris Metro—which looked at “missed connection” ads placed by urbanites looking for love in the city—found that the Metro “is without doubt the foremost producer of urban tales about falling in love.” The seats closest to the door, it seemed, offered the best opportunities for falling in love with the proper stranger. “The Metro is not the emotional desert, the social vacuum, that we sometimes believe it to be,” observed the chief of the Paris Metro. Indeed, whether bystanders or participants, we’re all part of an ongoing experiment.