Piliavin, Rodin & Piliavin (1969)

Good Samaritanism: an underground phenomenon

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Background to the study

Social psychologists were prompted into investigating helpiong behaviour following the murder of Kitty Genovese who was stabbed to death over a period of 30 minutes in a New York neighbourhood in front of 38 non-responsive windows.

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AIM of the study

To investigate, under real life conditions, the effect on the speed and frequency of helping by:

  • the type of victim (drunk or ill)
  • the race of the victim (black or white)
  • the presence of helping models (helping if no one else did)
  • the size of the witnessing group
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Approximately 4,450 New York subway

travellers between 11am and 3pm during the period April

15 to June 26, 1968. Approximately 45% black, 55%

white. Mean number of people per subway car 43, mean

number of bystanders in critical area 8.5.

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Two particular trains were selected for the study. The trains were chosen because they did not make any stops between 59th Street and 125th Street. This means that for about 7.5 minutes the participants were a captive audience to the emergency.Therefore a single trial was a non-stop, 7.5-minute journey in either direction.

On each trial, a team of four students, (two males and two females), boarded the train using different doors. Four dif­ferent teams, whose members always worked together, collected data for 103 trials. Each team varied the location of the experimental compart­ment from trial to trial. The female confederates sat outside the critical area and recorded data as unobtrusively as possible during the journey, while the male model and victim remained standing. The victim always stood next to a pole in the centre of the critical area (See Figure 1). As the train passed the first station (approximately 70 seconds after depart­ing), the victim staggered forward and collapsed. Until receiving help, he remained motionless on the floor, looking at the ceiling. If he received no help by the time the train slowed to a stop, the model helped him to his feet. At the stop, the team got off and waited separately until other pas­sengers had left the station before proceeding to another platform to board a train going in the opposite direction for the next trial. Six to eight trials were run on any given day and all trials on a given day were in the same ‘victim condition’.

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Figure of the train


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The models (white males aged 24 to 29) were all casually, but not identically, dressed. There were four different model conditions used across both drunk and cane victim conditions:

Critical area - early: the model would stand in the critical area and wait until passing the fourth station before he helped the victim (approximately 70 seconds after the collapse).

Critical area - late: the model would stand in the critical area and wait until passing the sixth station before he helped the victim (approximately 150 seconds after the collapse).

Adjacent area - early: the model would stand in the adjacent area and waited until passing the fourth station before he helped the victim.

Adjacent area - late: the model would stand in the adjacent area and waited until passing the sixth station before he helped the victim.

When the model intervened, he helped the victim to a sitting position and stayed with him for the remainder of the trial.

A number of observations were recorded.

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The cane victim received spontaneous help on 62 out of the 65 trials, and the drunk victim received spontaneous help on 19 out of 38 trials.

On 60% of the 81 trials where spontaneous help was given, more than one person offered help. Once one person had started to help, there were no differences for different victim conditions (black/white, cane/drunk) on the number of extra helpers that appeared. The race of the victims made no significant difference to helping behaviour, but there was a slight tendency for same-race helping in the drunken condition.

It was found that 90% of helpers were male. Although there were more men present, this percentage was statistically significant.

It was also found that 64% of the helpers were white; this was what would be expected based on the racial distribution of the carriage

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Pilliavin et al developed the cost-reward model which states that witnesses to an emergency weigh by the costs and rewards of helping in order to determine their decision as to wether to intervene or not.

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