Elevator Experiment Elicits Empathy

Public Announcement: Seeking Subjects for an Experiment

In the 1950’s, social psychologists in a University town advertised for research subjects. The article in the local newspaper invited anyone who was willing to give an hour of his or her time would be paid $4.00 plus 50¢ for travel expense. Minimum wage was $1.00 per hour in the mid 1950s. 

People came to the Psychology building on the University campus at the appointed times. Participants filled out forms at the reception counter, sat down, and waited their turn.

Photo by Sharon Mollerus

A research assistant in a white lab coat appeared. Three people were called and escorted down a corridor to an elevator. The assistant gave instructions to all three to go to the fourth floor, turn right, and go to room 415 where a researcher would meet them with further instructions. They boarded the elevator. 

A research assistant in a white lab coat appeared. Three people were called and escorted down a corridor to an elevator. The assistant gave instructions to all three to go to the fourth floor, turn right, and go to room 415 where a researcher would meet them with further instructions. They boarded the elevator. 

The doors closed and the elevator began to ascend. With a protesting screech, the elevator car went dark and came to a stop between floors. Now the real experiment began!

Reassurance from Strangers

Only one person in the elevator was the experimental Subject, The other two had scripted roles to play for the real experiment. Each plant had been instructed how and when to respond. There also were observers in a room on the fourth floor recording the conversation from the dark elevator.

The unwitting Subject is to speak first, “Have you been in this building before? Does this happen often?”

Plant Number 1 hears the emotion in the Subject’s voice and says, “Now don’t worry. I am sure someone will notice and get us out.” 

After a few seconds go by, the Subject speaks again. “Isn’t there an alarm button to push and let someone know we are stuck?”

Plant Number 1 responds more firmly, “Don’t get yourself all upset. Just take a breath. It will work out!”  

The Subject and Plant Number 1 go back and forth a few more times. The Subject’s voice quality and the words being used indicate escalating anxiety. Plant Number 1’s voice is increasingly firm and matter of fact.

Plant Number 2 suddenly screams loudly, “I can’t take this anymore! Will you two just SHUT UP!” The elevator is now silent. Then Plant Number 2 begins to pound loudly on the door, “Help! Help! I’m trapped. Get me out of here!” 

Plant Number 1 is heard to say with a stern voice, “You are not helping by getting upset! Just get a grip on yourself!” 

The Subject speaks to Plant Number 1 with a stronger tone of voice. “How can you be so insensitive? Both of us are concerned for our safety. Don’t you care at all? The brakes could fail and the elevator would crash!”  

Plant Number 2 voices agreement with the Subject against Plant Number 1. “You really are a heartless person!” Suddenly the elevator lights come on and the elevator continues to the fourth floor.

The door opens to a person in a white lab coat matter-of-factly directing the Subject to room 411 and the other two individuals to room numbers 414 and 416. The experimenters do not want the Subject to become suspicious about the setup before they collect the final information.

The Subject fills out other questionnaires. A research assistant in a lab coat interviews and debriefs the Subject, including informing him or her of the real experiment. The Subject is thanked, paid for participating, asked if he or she wished to be informed of the results of the experiment, and is dismissed.    

Be Mindful of Your Reactions

Take a moment to be aware. What did you think about the story? How did you feel? Could you identify with the Subject? How might you have responded when the elevator stopped between floors? 

The researchers of the 1950’s did not know much about social interactions, interpersonal dynamics, or neurological findings in contrast to twenty-first century research. Experiments of this nature were feeble attempts to learn about us humans. From growth in technology and the understanding that came with experience, scientists have since learned how to ask questions and better understand human behavior.

The original hypotheses and findings are not what interests me about this experiment. The interaction between the Subject and Plant Number 2 has insights that apply to marital communication and conflict. 

The Elevator Car of Marriage

Marriage can feel like being trapped in an elevator with each other. One spouse may voice concerns and express emotions about real circumstances. The other spouse may remain matter-of-fact without any display of emotion or concern about those same issues. 

The discussion becomes a conflict not because of disagreement that there is a real problem. The actual conflict does not arise from the different views of how to solve the problem. The actual issue for both partners is how the existence of the problem makes each feel. 

One partner expresses anxiety openly; the other partner may keep the feelings silent even from him or herself. Both may feel shame for their true feelings. That feeling of shame implies to each that they are in some way flawed.

What will bring them together to weather the storm? In one couple, she struggled with feeling lonely as he struggled with fear of being close and getting hurt. His conversations showed no empathy towards his wife’s feelings

John Gottmann, a marriage researcher, noticed the importance of attunement. Attunement is to be in harmony or to be at one with each other. It was evident in the elevator experiment that the Subject could relate to or be in harmony with the emotions of Plant Number 2.

When two people are in an anxious situation and can express their feelings honestly with each other; they no longer feel alone. Attunement reduces the intensity of the circumstances. It brings an added sense of hope that the situation can be endured. The Subject became quieter by the time the elevator reached the fourth floor.

Action Step 

The next time you and your spouse are in conflict, look at your spouse and connect on the emotional level. Stay reflective of your spouse’s emotions and reassure him or her that you are with them. Set the problem aside momentarily and stay connected emotionally. As you do, the intensity in your relationship will subside.

Thank you.

Lowell Routley
Photo by Sharon Mollerus

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