September 14, 2004

Get up, stand up

Rose spotted a New York Times article today about another, not-as-traumatic-as-the-one-Peter-Gabriel-wrote-a-song-about-but-still-fairly-traumatic experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram. (In case you don't know all about the traumatic one, you can read about it here.) The experiment was on a subject Rose has had quite a bit of experience with: asking people for a seat on the subway.

Dr. Milgram set out to try it himself. But when he approached his first seated passenger, he found himself frozen.

"The words seemed lodged in my trachea and would simply not emerge," he said in the interview.

Retreating, he berated himself: 'What kind of craven coward are you?"

A few unsuccessful tries later, he managed to choke out a request.

"Taking the man's seat, I was overwhelmed by the need to behave in a way that would justify my request," he said. "My head sank between my knees, and I could feel my face blanching. I was not role-playing. I actually felt as if I were going to perish."

Back before Rose was receiving treatment for what turned out to be rheumatoid arthritis, she was unable to stand up on the subway, and often had to ask people for seats. She was never refused, though many people pretended not to hear her. The whole process was much easier when she had her cane with her, because then she could just ask for a seat, and look meaningfully at the cane, and people would get up without needing further explanation as to why a healthy-looking young purple-haired woman needed a seat more than they did.

She didn't experience the discomfort that Milgram's students did, but then, she actually needed a seat. It's presumably much harder to ask someone to give up their seat for science.

Posted by Francis at 10:31 AM

Hey Francis --

I am MAJORLY fascinated by Milgram's work and am (in fact) considering writing a play about him and his life's work. Are you reading the newish biography?

Posted by: Colleen at September 14, 2004 11:03 AM

I wasn't aware of a newish biography, but I've been reading more about him lately and getting more fascinated by him all the time. I should check it out.

And if you're interested in making that play a musical, let me know. (^_^)

Posted by: Francis at September 14, 2004 11:10 AM

Interestingly, I *did* find it felt pretty awkward to ask for a seat when I didn't have a prop -- as though I deserved it less because I'd decided to try the day without a cane, but turned out to have overestimated myself!

Posted by: Rose at September 14, 2004 11:34 AM

Yeah, it's hard enough just asking someone to move their crap off the seat next to them.

Posted by: Francis at September 14, 2004 01:26 PM

For Milgram's final experiment (published posthumously), he had his research associates cut in front of strangers in lines. In New York City. His hypothesis was that it would piss people off. He was right.

Every day I give thanks that I was not one of Milgram's research associates.

BTW, if you haven't seen the film Obedience, based on Milgram's most famous study, I highly recommend it. If you can't find it in the library, you can always sit in on my social psych class when I show it 11/22/04.

Posted by: Jenny at September 14, 2004 02:38 PM

Do you have any more information on Milgram's experiment on cutting in line? Cally did some experiments on that subject for a sociology class in college. It seems that it's OK to cut in line to join people that you are "with" in line, so she was using this to explore the notion of what counted as "with". The most salient result was that if you walk up to someone in line and kiss them, and stay in the line, you have clearly identified yourself as a "with", so the people you have cut in front of don't mind.

Posted by: Andy at September 14, 2004 03:11 PM

You can get full details of this (and other vaguely distressing studies) in The Individual in a Social World: Essays and Experiments. Chapter 4 is devoted entirely to the cutting in line experiment. It's relatively accessible for a social psych monograph.

Posted by: Jenny at September 14, 2004 04:07 PM