Revisiting the 1970s Milgram experiment on the New York subway.
Thirty years ago, they were wide-eyed, first-year graduate students, ordered by their iconoclastic professor, Dr. Stanley Milgram, to venture into the New York City subway to conduct an unusual experiment.
Their assignment: to board a crowded train and ask someone for a seat. Then do it again. And again.
“As a Bronxite, I knew, you don’t do this,” said Dr. Jacqueline Williams, now an assistant dean at Brooklyn College. Students jokingly asked their professor if he wanted to get them killed.
But Dr. Milgram was interested in exploring the web of unwritten rules that govern behavior underground, including the universally understood and seldom challenged first-come-first-served equity of subway seating. As it turned out, an astonishing percentage of riders - 68 percent when they were asked directly - got up willingly.
Quickly, however, the focus turned to the experimenters themselves. The seemingly simple assignment proved to be extremely difficult, even traumatic, for the students to carry out.
“It’s something you can’t really understand unless you’ve been there,” said Dr. David Carraher, 55, now a senior scientist at a nonprofit group in Cambridge, Mass.
Dr. Kathryn Krogh, 58, a clinical psychologist in Arlington, Va., was more blunt: “I was afraid I was going to throw up.”
More than three decades later, the memories are still surprisingly vivid, testimony perhaps to the trauma of their experience and an unintended postscript to a rare study on the delicate subway order.
Two weeks ago, a pair of reporters who set out to replicate the experiment struggled with similar inhibitions. The incredulous reactions they got from riders were the same as well. But they also stumbled upon convincing proof that New Yorkers have mellowed with time. The results were far from scientific, but, remarkably, 13 out of 15 people gave up their seats.
“Uh, O.K., ” said one man, holding hands with his girlfriend, before getting up. “I’ve never heard that one before.”
A construction worker sneered to a male reporter, “If you were a woman, then… .” He got up anyway.
Another woman, who sprang up from her seat, twice asked the reporter, who kept her eyes fixed on the ground, if she was O.K.
Dr. Milgram, who died in 1984 at age 51, got the idea for the experiment from a conversation with his mother-in-law, who complained to him one day that no one had offered her a seat on the subway. “It occurred to me: What would have happened had she asked for a seat?” he said in a 1974 interview in the magazine Psychology Today.
He suggested the experiment to one of his graduate student classes, but the students recoiled. Finally, one student, Ira Goodman, volunteered to try it with a partner. But instead of coming back after 20 trials as he had promised, he returned with only 14. When Dr. Milgram asked him what had happened, he said that it was just too difficult.
Dismissing his students’ fears, 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.”