Staring Hitchhikers

Will hitchhikers get more rides if they stare at oncoming drivers or if they look away? A 1974 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology attempted to answer this question:

A field experiment was conducted in which a single male, a single female, or a male-female couple attempted to hitch rides at four different traffic locations, under conditions in which the hitchhikers either stared at or looked away from oncoming drivers...
In the stare conditions, E stared at the driver of the target vehicle and attempted to fixate on the driver's gaze and maintain this gaze as long as possible until the driver either stopped his vehicle or drove on. In the comparison conditions, E looked anywhere else but at the driver. Thus, on some trials E looked in the general direction of the car; on other trials E looked at his feet, the road, the sky, etc. Es were specifically instructed to neither smile nor frown, and to maintain a casual (neither rigid nor slouching) body postural orientation while soliciting rides.

The two hitchhikers were described as, "both 20 years of age and both dressed in bluejeans and dark coats. The male had short, curly blond hair, and the female, straight, shoulder length blond hair. Both could be described as neat, collegiate, attractive in physical appearance, and of an appropriate age to be hitchhiking."

A hitchhiker in Luxembourg - Aug 1977 (source:
(not one of the hitchhikers in the study)

Staring is often interpreted as a threat. So the researchers anticipated that staring at oncoming drivers might result in fewer rides. But the opposite turned out to be true. Which is a useful tip to know if you ever need to hitchhike. But what really helped get a lot of rides was being a single female. From the study:

it seems that the effect of attempted eye contact and sex of hitchhikers were such that a staring female got the most rides and a nonstaring male the least, with a staring male and a nonstaring female in between.

Contrary to popular belief and hitchhiking folklore , it was no easier for a male-female couple to hitch a ride than a single male, and a mixed sex couple was less successful at soliciting rides than a single female hitchhiker. Although the generality of this conclusion is limited by the fact that it is based upon results obtained by one male and one female E, it is probably the case that couples are less successful hitching rides because of space limitations in the cars they approach. That is, it is more likely that the driver will have room for one additional passenger than that he will have room for two or more additional passengers in his car.

Incidentally, the experimenters never actually ever got in a car with anyone: "After a motorist stopped to pick up one of the hitchhikers, he was politely thanked and given a printed description of the nature of the experiment. No driver expressed any discomfort when he learned that the hitchhiker did not actually want a ride."
     Posted By: Alex - Mon May 04, 2020
     Category: Science | Experiments | Psychology | 1970s | Cars

A staring female got the most rides? Shocker!
Posted by Virtual in Carnate on 05/04/20 at 07:35 AM
Hitchhiking is one of those things you just don’t see anymore... though I can recall a time when people did it regularly. Today, an attractive young woman hitchhiking alone would be unimaginable.
Posted by Brian on 05/04/20 at 08:29 AM
Brian, that depends where. Hitchhiking is much more common in Israel than in the U.S.

It would be interesting to know the gender of the driver and whether there were other people in the car. Were people more likely to stop for a single female because they were attracted to her or because she was considered less threatening than a single male? I can imagine the conversation between a couple if the male driver suggested stopping for a female hitchhiker.
Posted by ges on 05/04/20 at 10:01 AM
My uncle would always pick up female hitchhikers out of chauvinism; it was his way of protecting women from cruising perverts.

I picked up hitchhikers three times (late 60s, early 70s): one lone female, two women, and two guys. Sadly, no great stories came out of these experiences, just some time spent awkwardly with strangers who weren't great conversationalists. They all were at the exits of gas stations on the edge of town and only needed a ride to the next town.

I've always wondered about hitchhikers who are out on the highway far from the nearest town. Did they really walk twenty miles without catching a ride? Do they camp alongside the road? How bad are they at planning that they wind up in the middle of nowhere with no way to get back?
Posted by Phideaux on 05/04/20 at 01:22 PM
I once picked up a hitchhiker on my tandem bicycle.
Posted by Joshua Zev Levin, Ph.D. on 05/05/20 at 10:24 AM
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