Today we conducted our final experiments of the semester in my Experimental Psychology class.
We broke up into three groups. One group redid a learning study we did earlier this semester and the other two, including mine, did field studies. My group re-did a 2006 study on the effect of attire and location on helping behavior. Basically I walked through Manhattan Mall and "accidentally" dropped an envelope to see how long the person walking toward me would take to alert me that I had dropped something.
We did the experiment under two conditions: first, I was dressed in full business drag – black skirted suit, multi-color (wine, black, red) dressy blouse, wine-colored pumps, black Coach bag; second I was dressed sloppy – black drawstring workout capris with green trim, old maroon t-shirt, small brown shoulder bag and blue flip-flops. I carried the same shopping bag in both conditions. Our hypothesis was that I would receive help more quickly when dressed in the business attire than I would when dressed in the casual attire.
In both conditions I walked through the mall and when I identified a target helper (someone solo and not carrying bags) I would scratch the back of my head to alert our team of three observers standing 25 feet behind me that I was about to drop the envelope. I'd wait until the target was 3 or 4 feet in front of me and then drop the envelope. One observer used a stopwatch to time how long it took for the helper to respond, which the other two observers noted on a response sheet. If the target didn't help, the other two observers would enter 10 seconds on the response sheet.
When I was dressed in business attire, I received more help. The 6 out of 10 people who helped me addressed me as "ma'am" (or "señora" in Spanish). After I changed into the casual attire, we started the same procedure all over again and I noticed something odd happening. Just at the point I was about to drop the envelope, the target would turn their head and look the other way. Then it hit me: this wasn't a coincidence. As the target got closer to me, they deliberately looked away. It was as if I were suddenly invisible. My heart sank when I realized this, and I had to take a momentary break to regroup. It wasn't that I took it personally, it just made me all the more cognizant of the people who probably get treated this way every day.
A total of 3 out of 10 people helped me. Although one of the 3 helpers -- a young woman -- was pleasant, nobody called me ma'am or treated me with any deference. It was more like "hey, you dropped something."
The interesting thing is that there wasn't a statistically significant difference in mean time to get help between the two conditions. The results were in the right direction, in that I did receive more help in the business attire, but it wasn't enough to confirm our hypothesis. That didn't make me feel any better, though.
The other group that did a field study had an experimenter dressed in two conditions ask for change for a dollar. She had a similar experience. When she was dressed up people chatted with her, a couple of guys gave her their business cards (she's quite pretty), people who didn't have change were very apologetic and some just gave her a couple of quarters if they didn't have a full dollar. But when she changed into jeans, a t-shirt, sneakers and a baseball cap worn backward, people reacted very differently. She was careful to ask the question using the same words, facial expression and tone of voice. But people literally backed away from her when she approached them. Nobody gave her a business card or offered her a quarter. She told me later she was also upset by the experience.
Look, I know it's New York and that it's important to be cautious with strangers. But you can stay aware of your surroundings and still treat people kindly. No matter what they're wearing.