In the early 1970s, psychologist Stanley Milgram set out to study the phenomenon of people giving up their seats on the New York public transit system. Remarkably, nearly 70% of people gave up their seats when asked directly. These results could be attributed to the faint looking askers who were so nervous and embarrassed by the task that they indeed looked like they needed to sit down.
For Milgram, the subway was a place to study “social dictates that help maintain order but go largely unnoticed until they are violated.” And sociologists M.L. Fried and V.J. De Fazio note, “The subway is one of the few places in a large urban center where all races and religions and most social classes are confronted with one another and the same situation.”
The most compelling example Milgram’s study produced was that of a young graduate student asking an elderly woman for her seat. The elderly woman had ostensibly earned the right to a subway seat by virtue of her years and perhaps her gender. When asked to give up her seat, the woman snapped, “If I were standing and you were sitting, I think it’d be very reasonable to ask you for your seat, but I’m not going to give you my seat.” The article’s account continues, “The woman’s neighbor, a man, was so embarrassed for [the grad student] that he immediately offered him his seat instead. Another man lectured him on his manners.”
Think of the debate over carbon emissions between developed countries and developing countries. How dare the developed world ask the developing world to give up their right to pollute. How audacious of the developing world to ask that the developed world give up its seat as polluter that it has rightfully earned.
Milgram’s research reveals that the way the question is asked and by whom can have an impact on the response. While developed and developing countries debate who should be able to pollute and how much, neighbors are selling their right to pollute through cap and trade systems and NGOs are lecturing parties on their manners.
Originally posted: 2/26/10