Would you help someone if they were in distress?
Christine Crumpler and Lindsey Bartholomew


Piliavin et al. initially became interested in the effects of helping behavior after the murder of Kitty Genovese:

Social Psychology Research

Before this study was conducted, many lab experiments were conducted to study the the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility,
but they lacked ecological validity, as none of these studies reflected how a subject would react in a realistic situation.
Jane Piliavin
Jane Piliavin

  • "Bystander effect" - The more people that are present, the less people come to someone's aid.
  • "Diffusion of responsibility" - Explains the bystander effect in that a person feels that either others are responsible for taking action or that action has already been taken in a situation.
  • "Helping behavior"- Voluntary actions taken to help others.
    • Not to be mistaken for altruism, in which a person has no regard for external or internal reward. Helping behavior, conversely, may or may not be for a reward.

The Study

Three minute summary:

  • This study was conducted on a Subway that traveled from Harlem to the Bronx between 11am and 3pm between April and June 1968.
  • It is a field experiment using participant observation.
    • This leads to a high level of ecological validity, as it reflects a real-life situation.
    • On the other hand, this experiment has a low level of control.

Research Method


The aim of the study was to investigate factors affecting helping behaviour.external image subway_newyork_sm.jpg
The factors they were interested in included:
  • The type of victim (drunk or cane)
  • The race of the victim (black or white)
  • The speed of helping
  • The frequency of helping
  • The race of the helper.
  • The presence of a model


This study included about 4450 men and women riding the subways during the time of the study. They were about 45% black and 55% white. The trains that were used during the study were chosen because they traveled a nonstop, 7.5 minute journey - thus, the passengers were forced to witness the "incident" for that consecutive amount of time.


Observers and confederates sat in a critical area (where the incident occurred) and an adjacent area (the area directly next to the incident) in the car of a subway.
Critical and adjacent areas of the subway

Critical Area

Two men during each trial.
  • Victim: Three white males, one black
    • Drunk condition: Smelled of alcohol and carried a bottle covered
      with a paper bag
    • Cane condition: Appeared sober and carried a black cane
  • Model: All white males, came to the victim's aid to "model" helping behavior
    • Early condition: Helped the victim about 70 seconds after the collapse
    • Late condition: Helped the victim about 150 seconds after the collapse

Adjacent Area

Two women during each trial, recording data as unobtrusively as possible. Some of their recordings included:
  • Total number of passengers who came to the victim's help
    • These passengers' races, sexes, and locations
  • The races, sexes, and locations of every passenger in both the critical and adjacent areas
  • How long it took for someone to help
  • Comments from passengers on the train.
    • The observers also tried to evoke responses from their neighbors.

Results and Conclusions


  • Helping was surprisingly high - much higher than any previous laboratory studies.
  • The race of the victim did not matter, except for the drunk condition.
  • 90% of those who helped were men.
  • Helping was so high, the model was rarely used.
  • Most people who didn't help made comments about their size or physical strength as a reason (especially women).
    • "I wish I could help him - I'm not strong enough."
    • "You feel so bad that you don't know what to do."
  • 64% of the helpers were white.
  • More comments were made in drunk trials than in cane trials


    • Diffusion of responsibility did not occur. The diffusion of responsibility hypothesis states that the more people that are present, the less helping behavior occurs. In this experiment, the fastest help came from the largest groups.
      • Why? Piliavin et al. created a theory to explain this behavior, called the Arousal: cost-reward theory.
      • This theory states: That the observation of a situation will create arousal (the type depends on the situation), which will then cause the subject to choose a response based on a "cost-reward analysis" by the individual. These include: Costs of helping, such as effort, embarrassment and possible physical harm. Cost of not helping, such as self-blame and perceived censure from others; Rewards of helping, such as praise from self, onlookers and the victim; Rewards of not helping, such as getting on with one’s own business and not incurring the possible costs of helping.
      • Thus, we do not act out of pure altruism, but as a means of reducing feelings of unpleasant arousal.


  • Strengths: High level of ecological validity, large sample size, generalizable, true-to-life situation.
  • Weaknesses: Ethical concerns, debriefing, low level of control
  • As a field experiment, this study has a naturally high level of ecological validity. In addition, it models a realistic situation in which people are able to behave as they would in their everyday environment.
  • Ethical Concerns: Participants cannot give their consent, and are not aware that the "victim" is a confederate and they are not actually witnessing an emergency. Another issue is debriefing - the participants were impossible to debrief, and the incident may have left them distressed.