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Piliavin Subway Study

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Piliavin Subway Study

Are people more likely to help a person (victim of a crime) who is drunk or ill? The Piliavin Subway Study of 1969 aimed to determine if bystanders are more likely to exhibit altruistic behaviour under these circumstances.

This research came about after 28-year-old Kitty Genevese was stabbed to death outside her building in 1964. After the murder, The New York Times reported 38 witnesses that didn’t call the police. The news report has been called into question since then, as it turns out no one saw the whole event from start to finish, and not everyone who heard her realised it was a cry for help. Some thought it was a lovers or drunken quarrel.

There are also disputes as to how many witnesses there were. However, at the time, the idea that so many people witnessed the crime and yet still failed to help shocked many and led psychologists to investigate why people don’t immediately jump to the rescue when they hear or see a crime taking place.

They put two theories forth to try and explain this phenomenon: ‘the bystander effect’ and ‘diffusion of responsibility’.

The bystander effect (Darley and Latané, 1968) suggests that people are less likely to help someone with other people around.

The reasons are:

  • If no one else is helping, the individual believes the situation is not an emergency.
  • They fear others will unfavourably judge them.
  • Diffusion of responsibility.

Diffusion of responsibility: If there are several bystanders, each bystander feels their responsibility decreases.

Piliavin et al. (1969) conducted a field experiment investigating these factors.

Piliavin Subway Study bystander effect diffusion of responsibility people in a crowd StudySmarterThe presence of other people creates ‘the bystander effect’ and ‘diffusion of responsibility’, Pixabay

Piliavin et al. (1969) Subway Study

The aim of the Piliavin study was to investigate whether subway passengers would be more likely to help someone drunk or ill and white or black. They also investigated whether the presence of a helper would influence others to help too. The researchers were interested in the subway passengers’ speed, response frequency, and the effect of race.

Procedure

Piliavin et al. conducted the study on a seven-and-a-half-minute journey between two New York City subway stations. The subway did not stop at stations in between. There were 103 trials conducted in total. In total, there were about 4450 participants.

Four researchers (two male and two female) got on the subway on each trial. The female researchers sat down and took notes. One male researcher played the ‘victim’ while the other male was a ‘helper’. Four males in total played the role of the victim (three white and one black). In 38 trials, the victim smelled alcohol and carried alcohol in a brown bag (drunk condition). In 65 trials, the victim was sober and carried a cane (ill condition). All the victim males took part in both conditions.

The study was set up so that the victim collapsed after the subway passed the first station, which took approximately 70 seconds. There were then two conditions:

  • ‘No help’ condition: The helper did nothing to help the victim until the train arrived at the destination station. The helper then helped the victim to his feet.
  • ‘Help’ condition: The helper assisted the victim. There were four different situations in the ‘help’ condition.

Critical area – early: The helper stood in the critical area and waited until after the train passed the fourth station to help the victim, about 70 seconds after the victim collapsed.

Critical area – late: The helper stood in the critical area and waited until after the train passed the sixth station to help the victim, about 150 seconds after the victim collapsed.

Adjacent area – early: The helper stood a little further away, adjacent to the critical area. He waited until after the train passed the fourth station to help the victim.

Adjacent area – late: The helper stood in the adjacent area and waited until after the train passed the sixth station before helping the victim.

Study controls

  • The victims all dressed the same and behaved the same way, so all participants were exposed to the same standardised behaviour.
  • The scenario took place between the same two subway stations in New York City.
  • Victims were always male.

Results

  • Ill condition: The victim received help before the helper assisted in all but 3 of the trials (62 out of 65 trials).
  • Drunk condition: the victim received help in half of the trials (19 out of 38 trials).

An ill person is more like to receive help than a drunk person. In both conditions, men were more likely to help than women. In the ill condition, there was no difference in the amount of help given to black and white males. In the drunk condition, the victim was more likely to receive help from those of his ethnicity.

Across the trials, in 60% of cases, the help received was from more than one person. After one person approached to help, the results found that two, three, or even more people quickly followed. However, the longer the victim did not receive help, the people were more likely to move away from the critical area or justify why they did not help.

Conclusions

The study found that more help was given and more quickly than ‘the bystander effect’ and ‘diffusion of responsibility’ would have suggested. Researchers observed no real ‘diffusion of responsibility’. The results could be due to the location where the passengers were in a subway, and there was no way for them to ‘escape’ or run away from the emergency, resulting in a higher level of assistance.

Piliavin et al. proposed a model that when someone witnesses an emergency, it prompts an emotional response, and they decide whether they help by a cost-reward analysis. Their motivation to help is to get rid of the unpleasant emotions while witnessing the emergency.

Subway passengers, StudySmarterSubway passengers, Pixabay

Strengths and weaknesses

Here we present the strengths and weaknesses of the Piliavin Subway Study.

Strengths

  • As this was a field experiment, the participants did not know they were part of a study, so they had no demand characteristics.

  • There was a large sample size of 4550 participants, so the study results are generalisable.

Weaknesses

  • Hard to control extraneous variables in field experiments; for instance, some passengers could have been present at more than one trial.

Ethical issues

As this was a field experiment, the participants could not consent before being in the study. Also, it was not possible to withdraw from the study. It may have been stressful for the participants to see someone collapse. If the participant did not help at the time, later they might have felt guilty for their inaction.


Piliavin Subway Study - Key takeaways

  • Two theories that explain why people don’t help when they witness a crime are ‘the bystander effect’ and ‘diffusion of responsibility’.
  • The bystander effect suggests that people are less likely to help someone when there are other people there, too.
  • Diffusion of responsibility states that if there are several bystanders, each bystander feels their responsibility decreases.
  • Piliavin et al. (1969) conducted a field study to investigate these effects. The study aimed to determine whether subway passengers would be more likely to help someone drunk or ill and white or black. They also wanted to know if the presence of a helper would influence others to help too.
  • They found that more help was given and more quickly than ‘the bystander effect’ and ‘diffusion of responsibility’ would have suggested.

Frequently Asked Questions about Piliavin Subway Study

Piliavin et al. (1969) conducted a field study to investigate ‘the bystander effect’ and ‘diffusion of responsibility’. They conducted a study on a seven-and-a-half-minute subway journey where either an ill or drunk man collapsed (played by a male researcher). Piliavin et al. were interested in the speed, frequency and the effect of race of people had on others coming to his assistance. 

The study has some ethical issues; as this was a field experiment, the participants could not consent before being in the study. Also, it was not possible to withdraw from the study. It may have been stressful for the participants to see someone collapse. If the participant did not help at the time, later they might have felt guilty for their inaction. 

Two female researchers sat in the carriage, spoke to the person next to them after the incident, and took notes of what the people around them said. Many women commented, ‘It’s for men to help him’ or ‘I wish I could help him – I’m not strong enough.’

The Piliavin study is reliable as there was a standardised procedure for each trial, so the participants all experienced the same thing.

The independent variables were the type of victim (ill or drunk), the race of the victim (black or white) and the influence of a helper or not. 

Final Piliavin Subway Study Quiz

Question

What is the bystander effect?

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Answer

The bystander effect suggests that people are less likely to help someone with other people around.

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Question

Why might the bystander effect occur?

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Answer

  • If no one else is helping, the individual believes the situation is not an emergency.
  • They fear others will unfavourably judge them.
  • Diffusion of responsibility.

Show question

Question

What is the diffusion of responsibility?

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Answer

If there are several bystanders, each bystander feels their responsibility decreases.

Show question

Question

What was the aim of Piliavin et al. (1969) study?

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Answer

The aim was to investigate whether subway passengers would be more likely to help someone drunk or ill and white or black. They also investigated whether the presence of a helper would influence others to help too.

Show question

Question

How many trials in total were conducted?

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Answer

103 trials.

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Question

Around how many participants in total took part in the experiment?


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Answer

Around 4450 participants.

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Question

What were the two conditions of the study?

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Answer

The ‘no help’ condition and the ‘help’ condition

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Question

What were the study controls?


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Answer

  • The victims all dressed the same and behaved the same way, so all participants were exposed to the same standardised behaviour.
  • The scenario took place between the same two subway stations in New York City.
  • Victims were always male.

Show question

Question

Who did the study find is more likely to receive help, an ill or a drunk person?

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Answer

An ill person.

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Question

In both conditions, who were more likely to help, men or women?

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Answer

Men.

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Question

In how many trials did people come to an ill person’s assistance before the helper?

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Answer

In 62 out of 65 trials.

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Question

In how many trials did people come to a drunk person’s assistance before the helper?

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Answer

In 19 out of 38 trials.

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Question

In what percentage of trials did more than one person come to the victim’s assistance?

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Answer

In 60% of the trials.

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Question

What did Piliavin et al. (1969) conclude from the study?

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Answer

They found that more help was given and more quickly than ‘the bystander effect’ and ‘diffusion of responsibility’ would have suggested. The results could be due to the location where the passengers were in a subway, and there was no way for them to ‘escape’ or run away from the emergency, resulting in a higher level of assistance.

Show question

Question

What was Piliavin et al. (1969) model of why someone helps another?

Show answer

Answer

When someone witnesses an emergency, it prompts an emotional response, and they decide whether they help by a cost-reward analysis. Their motivation to help is to get rid of the unpleasant emotions while witnessing the emergency.

Show question

Question

What were the ethical considerations of the study?

Show answer

Answer

As this was a field experiment, the participants could not consent before being in the study. Also, it was not possible to withdraw from the study. It may have been stressful for the participants to see someone collapse. If the participant did not help at the time, later they might have felt guilty for their inaction.

Show question

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