Good Samaritanism: an underground phenomenon? - Piliavin, I.M., Rodin, J. and Piliavin, J. (1969)


The aim of the study was to investigate factors affecting helping behaviour.


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.

Research Method

It is a field experiment using participant observation.


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 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.
  • Findings

  • 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).
  • 64% of the helpers were white.
  • More comments were made in drunk trials than in cane trials

  • Weaknesses

    Ethical concerns, debriefing, low level of control.

    Ecological Validity

  • 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.
  • Explanations

  • 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.
  • 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.

  • Participants had no idea they were participating in a study (mainly because they were old tapes)

  • Ethics

    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.

    Piliavin, I.M., Rodin, J. and Piliavin, J. (1969)

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