Key Study: Piliavin (1969) – Field Experiment

Travis DixonSocial and Cultural Psychology

In this video you might see some factors that influence bystanderism. But as these aren’t published studies, we can’t use these as evidence so following the video is a study that we can use as evidence.



What factors can you see influencing bystanderism the following field experiment by Piliavin’s?

Background Information

Much of Darley and Latane’s research into factors influencing bystanderism was conducted in the laboratory, so Piliavin et al wanted to see if similar results would be gathered in a real-life situation. Earlier research also focused on situational factors surrounding the would-be helpers, but what about the characteristics of the victim (i.e. the person in need)? Would you be more likely to help someone of your own race, or would it not matter? If you’re female, would be willing to help a male stranger, and vice-versa? Piliavin et al put some of these questions to the test in their field experiment in 1969.

The Study


The research was conducted over a six week period in New York City in 1969. Four teams of researchers were assembled to gather data on a specific train line between Harlem and the Bronx between 11am – 3pm on weekdays. The typical demographic of race on this line at this time was 55% white and 45% black commuters. Over the six week period, the researchers conducted 103 trials.

The research teams consisted of four members:

  1. Victim (there were three white victims and one black, all dressed identically)
  2. Model (the person that would help after a designated period of time)
  3. Two observers (the researchers gathering the data)

A typical trial followed the same pattern: the research team would board a train carriage on the Harlem – Bronx line, two each at different doors. They would take the train between 59th – 125th street (and vice versa) which was a 7 ½ minute journey. 70 seconds into the journey the victim would collapse and lay on his back and stare at the ceiling, either waiting for someone to help or for the model to intervene. The model would wait either 70 seconds or 150 seconds (two different conditions) and if no-one had helped by that time they would help the victim into a seating position. If no-one else on the train had come to help the model by the time the train started to slow for the next stop they would help them to their feet and exit the train together. The researching team would then cross the platform and repeat the process going in the other direction (6 – 8 trials were run per day on average).

There were two different conditions for the victim besides their race:

  • Drunk: they smelled of alcohol and carried a bottle in a brown paper bag
  • Injured: they were carrying a cane


Drunk vs. Injured

  • 95% of people helped the injured victim
  • 50% of people helped the drunk victim
    • In total the victim got help 79% of the time

Race (black and white)

  • When the victim was white, there was a 68% chance that the first helper would be white
  • When the victim was black, there was a 50% chance that the first helper would be white

Interestingly in the drunk condition victims were mainly helped by those of their own race.


  • 90% of the first helpers were males (they made up 60% of the passengers in the “critical areas” of the carriages)


  • If the model intervened after 70 seconds, they received more help from others than if they waited 150 seconds.

Number of bystanders

  • If there were 7 or more passengers in the critical area they helped more than if there were only 1 – 3 passengers.