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Lessons I Learned on the A Train

A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Judith Rodin graduationWhen I was 22, I learned an important lesson that would deeply influence my life. And it took less than 10 minutes.

I was in my first year of graduate training in social psychology at Columbia University. Three years earlier, a hideous crime had shaken New York. A young woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered in a quiet neighborhood in Queens. It turns out, a lot of the neighbors had heard her screaming for help, but did nothing. When this came out in the news, all over the city and country, people were shocked. They wondered why did no one help that woman, and what does that say about our society? Would they have done differently?

To help think about some of those questions, we designed a study that looked at the conditions under which people reach out to strangers in distress. On the A Train subway in New York City, there’s a stretch between 59th and 125th streets without any stops—66 blocks without the doors slamming open and shut, without passengers shoving one another, without the scratchy overhead announcements. Nine-and-a-half minutes without interruption.

We hired actors to pose as passengers. When the doors opened at 59th Street, the actor would enter the carriage, start to wobble, and keel over. One of us was at the other end of the car waiting and watching for nine-and-a-half minutes, marking in our notebooks, and wondering who would step forward to help. We watched while the majority of people hesitated, looked around, and then looked away. We were stunned at the inaction unfolding.

Our research showed that individuals don’t find it so easy to act with other people around. We second-guess, we hope others will step forward, or perhaps we question if there’s really anything we could do at all. But, when we think it’s up to us alone, we tend to recognize our responsibility, and then we act. If there was only one person on that train, or one of very few, the research showed the person in distress was more likely to get help.

In other words, what we found was that to act on a stranger’s behalf, one has to feel individual responsibility. And choosing not to act, well that was a clear choice in and of itself.

I’ve participated and designed hundreds of studies over the course of my academic career, but I will never forget this one. It’s why I so admire the people working around the world who feel compelled by that sense of personal and individual responsibility to act, and to act in big ways.

Because in just nine-and-a-half minutes, the same time it might take us to scroll through our Facebook feed or watch a cat video online, we can do something that matters. We can help someone off the ground. We can take that next step to bring a good idea closer to reality. Even if we’re surrounded by other people, we can take the lead. And if you need further inspiration, heed the advice of Billy Strayhorn and “Take the A train.” It might just change your life, too.

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