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Subway Psych 101

Apparently, all those hours you spend on the subway have provided psychologists with a wealth of insight. Those of us who have lived in cities with rapid transit have read the Craigslist postings about hilarious transit experiences and transit etiquette; we’ve seen the “missed connections” section in the Georgia Straight and other newspapers. A casual ride downtown on a Saturday night can provide endless comedic fodder for your next dinner party. So it’s not surprising that subways have long been places for sociologists and psychologists to study human behaviour.

As Tom Vanderbilt recently reported for Slate, researchers have long considered subways ideal places to observe social interaction, as places where people of all classes, ethnicities, and religions must confront each other. In the early 1900s, mass transit offered a new and unique sensation, as people were suddenly forced to look at others for minutes or even hours at a time without speaking to them. “Subway psychology” seeks to understand what keeps the subtle social rules of the subway in place: rules such as giving up a seat for an elderly person or breaking eye contact after a few seconds. To explore these rules and their boundaries, several experiments have taken place over the years.

One experiment, the “Good Samaritanism: An Underground Phenomenon?” from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1969), had a Columbia University student stagger and collapse on a subway train, “looking supine at the ceiling.” In some trials, the subject acted drunk; in others, ill. People were more likely to help in the latter situation, and surprisingly the more bystanders that were present the more likely it was that someone would offer help. Social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted several experiments on subways. One had students ask passengers for their seat on a crowded subway, and found that 68% of passengers gave up their seats without a problem while the rest offered reasons why they couldn’t (they were reading a book, etc.) Other experiments had a researcher ask a passenger to mail a letter (sometimes stamped, sometimes not) for them, and the number of letters mailed provided the success rate.

Several researchers have tried to determine the effects of eye contact: one 1974 study had a researcher stare at a passenger for several seconds, then ask for help. They found the passenger more likely to help if the person hadn’t been staring at them. A 1978 study found that people were more likely to avoid eye contact in the city than the suburbs, which doesn’t seem that surprising.

I’ve certainly noticed a few differences in transit psychology among the cities I’ve lived in. Avoiding eye contact is a must in Toronto, but not Vancouver, where people seem more friendly and will even smile at strangers who glance their way. Vancouver bus riders often yell out, “Thank you,” to the driver as they get off the bus. Toronto subway riders are a savvy lot, knowing exactly where to stand on the subway platform for the opening doors and which side the door opens at each station. Vancouverites don’t have that option: the Skytrain is not always the same length; cars are added or taken away, so it’s impossible to know exactly where the doors will open. There are some obvious demographic observations: during the day you will see a range of young and old, white and non-white, women and men; at night you’ll find yourself mainly travelling with high school and university students and on some routes, more visible minorities. This in itself creates a different social atmosphere during the day (family-oriented, polite, businesslike) compared to night (more casual, more complaining about transit service, and occasionally more of a party atmosphere).

Perhaps one of the most understudied areas in transportation is how it facilitates and constrains social relationships, including romantic ones. Many of my friends have met boyfriends, girlfriends and even spouses on public transit: a few years ago a Calgary couple were married on the Calgary Transit bus where they had first met. The shared ride to work each morning or home each evening, in our world of hurried meetings and endless work stress, contributes valuable social time to our busy schedules. In a study of “missed connections” on the Paris Metro, officials stated that the Metro “is without doubt the foremost producer of urban tales about falling in love.” Public transit is also an often-used reason to start or break off a relationship: TV characters on Friends and Seinfeld routinely vetoed or ended relationships because of a complicated or lengthy subway commute. Elaine once said when breaking up with a boyfriend, “I’m gonna be brutally honest with you now… it’s a bitch to get here. It’s two subways. I have to transfer at Forty-second Street to take the double-R.”

The next time you hop on a local bus, streetcar, or subway, take a look and listen…you’ll be surprised what you learn about human behaviour and relationships.


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