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The Laboratory on Wheels

My latest Slate column is up — a survey of the various psychology experiments that have been conducted on subway systems (particularly NYC’s) throughout the years.

Here’s a fragment:

Although subway studies had their heyday in the ’70s, they’re as old as public transit itself. The seminal urban sociologist Georg Simmel, in a famous passage from his 1912 volume Melanges de Philosophie Relativiste, was struck by the new spatial and sensorial regimen that transit provided. “Before the appearance of omnibuses, railroads, and street cars in the nineteenth century, men were not in a situation where for periods of minutes or hours they could or must look at each other without talking to one another.”

By 1971, Erving Goffman, in his book Relations in Public, was noting that a ritual of what he called “civil inattention” had taken hold on the subway as in other spheres of city life: We acknowledge another person’s presence, but not enough to make them “a target of special curiosity or design.” Or, as the authors of the essay “Subway Behavior,” (in the book People and Places: Sociology of the Familiar) put it, “subway behavior is regulated by certain societal rules and regulations that serve to protect personal rights and to sustain proper social distance between unacquainted people who are temporarily placed together in unfocused and focused interaction.”

What much subway psychology seeks to understand, however, is what holds these rules in place, and what happens when they are violated. In one of the most well-known studies, social psychologist Stanley Milgram had students spontaneously ask subway riders to give up their seats. As Thomas Blass recounts in The Man Who Shocked the World, this experiment arose from the seeming erosion of a subway norm. As Milgram’s mother-in-law had posed it to him: “Why don’t young people get up anymore in a bus or a subway train to give their seat to a gray-haired elderly woman?”

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 17th, 2009 at 9:11 am and is filed under Etc., Traffic Psychology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “The Laboratory on Wheels”

  1. spiderleggreen Says:

    I pretty much only use public transport when I take the Light Rail(LRT) to the airport, but I have managed to get into quite a few conversations when I did. I think the “in” is in finding something in common that is obvious to both of you. One time a women had a bike that she hung in the space provided, then sat near me. I had an inkling that the bike was a Surly and asked her if that was so. She said yes, happy that someone knew something of her bike. That started a ten minute conversation that was very nice and didn’t break any of “the rules”.

  2. Yokota Fritz Says:

    Apropos to spiderleggreen’s observation: I wonder if bike people in transit are a little different? I regularly take my bike with me on transit, and we all get to know each other, sometimes fairly well even though we might have absolutely nothing else in common besides our transportation mode.

    John Murphy in San Francisco posted something along similar lines regarding some differences between BART and Caltrain riders: “Now, I am of the Caltrain ilk,” writes John, “where everyone helps each other out, we share a bond formed through numerous Caltrain disasters that have forced us to finish our commutes like the Israelites heading out of Egypt, where we rely on each other. The cyclists form a paceline and head to Millbrae BART. Those without bikes gather ’round the twitter and call cabs to split to various destinations, or offer rides in their own cars when a loved one comes to the rescue. This all seems very natural.

  3. Jeff Says:

    Hi Tom…very interesting article you’ve written here, especially since it rekindled my thoughts and interest in a small gem of a film from 1967 called The Incident. Of course, this would fall squarely in the middle of that 60s-70s heyday for analyzing social behavior on the subways.

    Though what’s even more interesting about the film (apart from starring a very young Martin Sheen and Beau Bridges) is how many of the elements you discuss manifest themselves here. It’s basically staged as a play, though many parts were actually shot on the NYC subway system late at night as to avoid the ordinances they were breaking to do so…anyhow, I don’t mean to ramble.

    If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth seeking out and deals with how a group of various people all react or don’t react in many cases to two street toughs who terrorize a subway car. The end result is well worth the experience.

    Thanks again for this article!

    The Incident http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061814/

  4. Tom Vanderbilt Says:

    Jeff, thanks for the tip — it’s now on my viewing list.

  5. john Says:

    Here’s my take on the psychology of almost-meeting– related to safe driving of course.

    http://bestdriver.blogspot.com/2009/02/gone-in-50-seconds.html

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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