Generosity on the Tube

26th June

Social behaviour is characterised by behaving to others in different social situations and places that is either positive, i.e. pro-social or negative, i.e. anti-social. There’s also a third possibility, which would be neutral behaviour but some would say that this is anti-social in that withdrawal of oneself or doing nothing is by definition, a negative choice or act. Then again, there may be situations and places where this is actually a positive act.

Travelling on public transport often places us in such a position that we choose the third neutral option, very often this is about whether or not we either accept or offer a seat on a crowded train. Transport for London helps people to make that decision through its allocation of certain seats at the end of a row of seats as prioritised for elderly, disabled or unwell passengers. The rules for this are made explicit in written and illustrated notices above the seats. Sometimes, because I am obviously of a certain age, i.e. I have white hair, I am offered one of these seats. I have to make an instant decision as to whether or not I accept depending on the length of my journey, my luggage situation and the person offering me a seat.

Recently I was standing in the aisle of a packed train where the prioritised seats were all taken up by seemingly able, fairly young individuals and I noticed a pregnant young person making for an empty seat mid-carriage. Another woman got there just before her and, impulsively, I asked her if she’d mind if the pregnant woman could have it. She didn’t mind at all and very graciously made way. Now as someone who has lived and travelled in London for many decades and contributed to the estimated 13 billion + tube journeys a year I knew full well that it was a risky thing to do and may not have turned out as well as it did. However, I was glad I did ask and nobody had a problem about it.

What happened next was fascinating to me as a psychologist because the minute the pregnant woman sat down a young guy in one of the prioritised seats jumped up to offer me his place. I accepted, feeling a bit embarrassed but grateful nevertheless as I had to travel another fifteen stops and the train was getting more and more packed. When I went to sit down a man who looked as though he was in his late forties moved towards the vacated seat but luckily for me I got there first. Then yet another guy jumped up and offered the young woman who’d given up her seat to the expectant mum and then a young woman offered her seat to the guy whom I’d beaten to it. He declined her offer but it felt as though she was making a point to the rest of the carriage. Never mind, I got to rest my weary bones!

I was left pondering about this chain reaction of generosity to random strangers and wondered what it said about the complexity of human social behaviour. The big question I’m left with is “what are the triggers for generous, even altruistic behaviour and how much information do we go on when we decide to act like this to strangers?”

Social Psychology is full of naturalistic studies of people’s behaviour to others but as most researchers in the field would acknowledge, there are many factors and influences at play. There’s a bit of an unspoken rule amongst frequent tube travellers in our packed capital and that is that you try to avoid direct contact wherever possible. I’ve heard many from outside London commenting upon this and drawing the conclusion that Londoners are a cold and unfriendly lot. Knowing my fellow capital dwellers as I do I know this isn’t the case for all and sundry but I do think it would be a good thing if everyone tried to be just a little more aware of and in tune with their travelling companions. The benefits would be many, from noticing strange and different behaviour of the thankfully very rare people who mean others or even themselves harm to simple, random acts of kindness between everyone.

One last thought: In a recent study commissioned by The Samaritans’ campaign, ‘Small Talk Saves Lives’ led by Dr Lisa Marzano, lead psychologist behind the campaign, potentially suicidal people talked about the railways as being places that were easily accessible, quite impersonal and remote, and where they felt unlikely to be interrupted. Maybe risking a brief interaction might be the difference that makes the difference?

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