The fleeting encounter between
motorist & hitchhiker

David S. Alcorn and Spencer J. Condie

Department of Sociology, Humboldt State University

Each year in the United States literally thousands of individuals, especially youth, take to the highways in an attempt to solicit free transportation to their respective destinations. Despite inherent reciprocal dangers to both the hitchhiker and the motorist, the universal practice of hitchhiking not only persists, but, indeed, has flourished within the adolescent subculture.

Theoretical Framework

We sought to investigate the social psychological dynamics underlying the interpersonal attraction between strangers in a fleeting social encounter. Through participant observation this field test avoided the artificiality of laboratory experiments or other studies which focus upon intentions of subjects rather than their actual behavior in a real-life setting. Our specific focus was upon the motorist who, despite potential dangers and complicity in violating the law1 patronizes the hitchhiker. Indeed, the hitchhiker would be doing a great deal more hiking than hitching if his counterpart, the motorist, would not offer transportation.

The theoretical approach of this study incorporated the assumptions of balance theory and related concepts and findings from small group research. A basic premise of balance theory is the “thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior tend to organize themselves in meaningful and sensible ways” (Zajonc, 1960) and that attitudes and behavior reflect a “tendency toward a balanced state” (Heider, 1958). It is assumed that balance is obtained when there is a high congruency in the perceptions of interpersonal similarities and these perceived similarities in turn induce feelings of interpersonal attraction (Layton and Insko, 1974).

Newcomb’s (1953, 1961) theory of balance within interpersonal relationships holds that the similarity or summary, dissimilarity between persons engaged in social exchange is the foremost determinant of attraction or repulsion, respectively. For Newcomb, initial attraction is more closely related to perceived than to actual agreement. It is through the communicative processes that individuals tend to bring into focus the judgments made on the basis of appearance alone.

Although the relationship between motorist and hitchhiker is of a transitory nature, lacking the permanence which characterizes social groups, small group research provides some explanatory insight into the phenomenon of hitchhiking inasmuch as group cohesiveness is often operationally defined as interpersonal attraction. Previous research indicates that members of highly cohesive groups (a) are strongly motivated to contribute to the group’s welfare, to advance its objectives, and to participate in its activities (Cartwright and Zander, 1968); (b) exhibit less tolerance for, or greater rejection of, deviants (Schachter, 1951); (c) exert greater pressure for both conformity (Lott and Lott, 1961) and uniformity (Back, 1951); (d) define a range of issues on which conformity is expected (Thibaut and Kelley, 1959); and (e) share a similarity between group members’ backgrounds (Seashore, 1954). In summary, Lott and Lott (1965) contend that the research data “support a positive relationship between the degree of interpersonal attraction existing among persons and their consequent uniformity with regard to particular opinions, attitudes, judgments, or other behavior.”

From their research on social exchange behavior, Thibaut and Kelley (1959) assert that interpersonal judgments (such as those made by a motorist who encounters a hitchhiker) involve the calculation of rewards and costs contingent upon the outcome of the attractiveness of a relationship. In light of the previous discussion, it follows that there is no obvious motive or reward for a “freak” motorist to pick-up a “straight” hitchhiker, the costs are simply psychologically prohibitive.

We predicted that perceived similarities would induce a social attraction between the motorist and the hitchhiker and that a commonality of attitudes and values would be inferred from the hitchhiker’s appearance and mode of dress. These value judgments must operate within a few seconds, thus forcing the driver to make his decision quickly. Therefore, it was assumed that there would be little hesitation on the part of the motorist to patronize the hitchhiker who had an appearance similar to his own, while there would be a greater reluctancy on the part of the motorist to offer transportation to a hitchhiker who was dissimilar in his appearance. This consciousness of kind implies the selective perception of resemblance as individual minds play “upon one another in such a way that they simultaneously feel the same emotions, arrive at the same judgments, and sometimes act in concert” (Timasheff, 1967:84).

We expected to find a strong positive relationship between the general appearance and values of the motorist and the hitchhiker. Yablonsky (1968), Suchman (1968) and others have attributed a certain “hang-loose” ethic to hippies and adolescent subculture generally. We also posited that legal non-conformity, as measured by the incidence of drug or alcohol usage and traffic violations, would be significantly greater among hippie motorists in the presence of a hippie hitchhiker than among conventional motorists in the presence of a “straight” hitchhiker. The implication was not that one group is more or less law-abiding than the other, rather that the stereotypical, non-conventional appearance of the hippie hitchhiker would convey an approbation of legal non-conformity.


In order to test the similarity-attraction assumptions of balance theory (Layton and Insko, 1974; Touhey, 1974; Stephen, 1973) the senior author assumed the role of a hitchhiker. The independent variable was manipulated by changing the researcher’s appearance, a technique employed by Gelfand, et al. (1973) in the study of individual reactions to shoplifters in various modes of dress. In the first phase an effort was made to communicate to the approaching motorist the image of non-conventionality by dressing in sandals, tie-dyed T-shirt, grubby work pants, and a railroad engineer’s cap. The hitchhiker was unshaven, with shoulder length hair, and carried a canteen, sleeping bag, and backpack. Forty rides were obtained in this long hair phase.

During the second phase of the research the hitchhiker altered his appearance to that of a conventional “straight” by dressing in slacks, sportshirt and/or sweater, loafers and being clean shaven with moderately short hair. In this context the hiker carried a small athletic bag and a windbreaker jacket. Thirty-five rides were obtained during the short hair phase.

Motorists were classified into three categories: conventional, contemporary, and hippie. Conventional motorists were attired in conservative, traditional clothes with males wearing short hair and well-trimmed sideburns and females wearing conservative apparel and well-styled hair. Contemporary motorists wore the latest fashionable attire with males wearing their hair moderately long. Hippies were typified by extremely long, unkempt hair, and general grubby attire.

All rides were solicited from motorists traveling on the interstate freeway systems near large metropolitan areas in Arizona and Utah during daylight hours only. The hitchhiker traveled in excess of 5,000 miles and spent over 100 hours in interaction with motorists. All rides were accepted by the hitchhiker, thus eliminating a biased selection of motorists.

After the hitchhiker had entered the motorist’s vehicle and had established rapport with him or her, the researcher unobtrusively interviewed the motorist utilizing a structured interview schedule committed to memory. The interview elicited information regarding the motorist’s background characteristics, previous hitchhiking experiences, and varied motives for picking up hitchhikers. At no time was the researcher’s true identity disclosed. Responses were recorded in the form of field notes on the roadside immediately after the ride.


It was hypothesized that the affinity of a given motorist toward offering transportation to a given hitchhiker is contingent upon perceived similarities in attitudes, values, and behavior as inferred from the appearance of the soliciting hitchhiker. This hypothesis was supported by the strong positive relationship (G=.64) between the appearance of the hitchhiker and the motorist (Table 1). Ninety-three per cent of the hippie motorists provided rides to the hippie hitchhiker, whereas contemporary motorists were about evenly divided in terms of their patronage of either hippie or straight hikers. Two-thirds of the rides provided to the short-haired hitchhiker were by traditional motorists. Although traditional motorists are more likely to pick up straight hitchhikers, and hippie motorists are more inclined to offer rides to their youthful counterparts on the road, traditional motorists do appear to allow for greater diversity among those whom they patronize than is the case with the hippie motorists. There appears to be a vicarious identification with the hitchhiker evidenced by the remarks to some of the conventional motorists: “I picked you up because you reminded me of my nephew who hitchhiked from Virginia to Arizona to see us last summer,” or “You remind me of my son who hitchhikes between home and college.”

Table 1

The Similarity-Attraction Effect Between Motorists and Hitchhiker

of Hitchhiker
Appearance of Motorist
Hippy Contem. Tradit. Total
  f % f % f % f %
Hippie 13 93 18 53 9 33 40 53
Straight 1 7 16 47 18 67 35 47
Total 14 100 34 100 27 100 75 100

gamma = .64 z ≥ 2.902 p ≤ .0019

By contrast, the rigidity of the selective perception of hippie motorists is illustrated by the following comments in response to the question “Who do you pick up?”:“l won’t pick up straights, you can’t trust them”; “I only pick up our type of people”; “I will pick up straights only if they don’t look too old or look like greasers, I really prefer freaks.” It is apparent that hippies are extremely cohesive and share an intense consciousness of kind, a finding consistent with the research of Klein and Crawford (1968) who suggest the negatively sanctioned behavior tends to strengthen the cohesiveness of deviant groups.

Table 2

The Relationship Between the Appearance of the Hitchhiker and
the Degree of Hitchhiking Experience Among Motorists

of Motorist
Appearance of Hitchhiker
Long Hair Short Hair
f % f %  
Never 4 10.0 7 20.0  
City 2 5.0 5 14.3  
Intrastate 12 30.0 15 42.8  
Interstate 11 27.5 5 14.3  
Transcontinental 11 27.5 3 8.5  

Total % 40 100.0 35 100.0  

gamma = -.48 z ≥ 2.06 p ≤ .0197

As predicted by balance theory we also found that the affinity of a given motorist toward offering transportation to a given hitchhiker was contingent upon a history of hitchhiking experiences on the part of the motorist. Regardless of the appearance of the hitchhiker, the vast majority of all motorist s (85 per cent) had experienced some hitchhiking themselves. This lends further support to the implicit assumption of balance theory regarding social attraction or empathy with the experience of “being on the road” which the motorist shares with the hitchhiker. One may infer that motorists who patronize the hippie hitchhiker have had greater personal hitchhiking experience as evidenced by the fact that 55 per cent of this group of motorists had long-distance (interstate and transcontinental) hiking experience in contrast to 23 per cent of those who offered transportation to the straight hitchhiker.

Despite the potential dangers incurred when female motorists pick up male hitchhikers, six females provided rides to the hippie hitchhiker while five females patronized the straight hitchhiker. Those females who picked up the long haired hitchhiker stated “I had a certain feeling you’re okay,” or “I have two brothers who hitchhike.” Other responses of females who patronized the straight hitchhiker included: “My father has hitchhiked all over the United States” and “You looked like a neat guy, but I won’t pick up strange looking people or dirty hippies.”

Legal Nonconformity

The strong relationship (G=.79) between the motorist’s appearance and his legal nonconformity while in the presence of the “hippie hitchhiker” validates the assumed imputation of ascribed values and attitudes to a given appearance. Twenty-one motorists (28 per cent of the total) broke some legal statute, e.g., speeding, drinking alcohol, or smoking “pot,” etc., in the presence of the hitchhiker. Of these 21 motorists, fifteen (71 per cent) broke the law in the presence of the “hippie hitchhiker,” who was perceived as approving of their behavior. While hitchhiking with short hair, the relationship between the conventionality of the motorist and subsequent legal nonconformity was much less pronounced (G=.17).

Table 3

The Relationship Between the Appearance of the Motorist and Observable Conformity to the Law Controlling for Hitchhiker’s Appearance

Appearance of Hitchhiker
Long Haira Short Hairb  
Appearance of Motorist
Hip. Cont. Trad. Total Hip. Cont. Trad. Total TOTAL  
f %

Nonconformity 10 4 1 15 1 2 3 6 21 28
Conformity 3 14 8 25 0 14 15 29 54 72

TOTAL 13 18 9 40 1 16 18 35 75 100

agamma = .79 z ≥ 3.41 p ≤ .0003 bgamma = .17 z ≥ .289 p ≤ .389

Waiting Time

The nemesis of any hitchhiker is the seemingly endless waiting between rides. The hitchhiker’s anxiety is especially heightened with the onset of darkness or an impending storm without a prospect of a ride in sight. Interminable long waits of up to three hours accounted for the extremely large standard deviation reported for the hippie hitchhiker (Table 4). The average waiting time of 11 minutes as a short-haired hitchhiker was significantly shorter than the average of 33 minutes as a long-hair hiker (t = 19.47; p < .001). At no time did the researcher wait longer than 30 minutes between rides as a short-hair hitchhiker.

Possible alternative explanations for this time difference are that hippies pick up hippies exclusively and also constitute a small proportion of the total population. As “drop-outs” (Yablonsky, 1968), it can also be assumed that there are more hippie hitchhikers on the road and fewer hippies with “wheels.” Therefore the competition for rides is disproportionally higher among this group than for straights, who appeal more to the conventional motorist. One hippie motorist verbalized this same perception: “I only pick up freaks; they’re in more need of rides.” Another such motorist exclaimed: “I help no straights, they will get rides by their own people!”

Table 4

The Difference of Means Between Time
Spent Waiting for Rides

Appearance X¯
of Hitchhiker N Minutes sd t p

Long Hair 40 33 40.2
Short Hair 35 11 9.1

Total 75 19.47 .001

Discussion and Summary

We sought to investigate the interpersonal attraction which tacitly sustains the enterprise of hitchhiking. Based on the assumptions of balance theory we hypothesized that motorists will be more inclined to patronize only those hitchhikers whose appearance is congruent with their stereotypical conceptions of “acceptability”; that is, a similarity of values, attitudes, and experiences.

Implicit in balance theory is the assumption that interaction with “birds of a similar feather” reinforces one’s own values and beliefs and is, therefore, much more rewarding than interaction with someone whose values are alien to one’s own. When the initiation of an interpersonal realtionship involves several alternatives, one tends to associate with those who espouse similar values in preference to those whose beliefs are considerably different (Touhey, 1974; Berschied and Walster, 1969; Festinger, 1954). Illustrative of this assumption is the fact that a number of hippie motorists expressed a preference for hippie hitchhikers “because you can rap with them.”

In all probability the motorist will never encounter the same hitchhiker again. However, in light of Homans’ (1974: 22-23) stimulus proposition of social exchange:

If in the past the occurrence of particular stimulus, or set of stimuli, has been the occasion on which a person’s action has been rewarded, then the more similar the present stimuli are to the past ones, the more likely the person is to perform the action, or some similar action, now.

The similarity of experience also supported balance theory inasmuch as eighty-five per cent of all motorists had done some hitchhiking during their lives, thus demonstrating a certain similarity with the plight of the hitchhiker.

A methodological weakness of this study was the fact that we studied only those who stopped to offer a ride rather than all motorists per se. Thus, we cannot infer any conclusions regarding the experiences of motorists who do not stop for hitchhikers or their attitudes about hitchhiking. This same methodological problem was inherent in Graf and Riddell’s (1972) study of stranded motorists. However, our conclusions substantiate their experimental hypothesis that “from the point of view of a potential Good Samaritan the greater the perceived similarity between himself and a person in need of help, the higher the probability that he will offer such help.”

A crucial link between the “implied evaluation” assumptions of balance theory (Aaronson and Worchel, 1966; Byrne and Griffitt, 1966) and our methodological approach was the underlying premise that values and beliefs could be readily inferred from one’s appearance. While the data strongly confirm a degree of initial similarity - attraction between hippie motorists and hippie hitchhikers and straight motorists and straight hikers, respectively, such findings do not, in and of themselves, allow one to conclusively infer the value congruency of either hippies or straights. One dimension of those values was the degree of legal conformity. Three-fourths of the hippie motorists engaged in illegal behavior of some sort in the presence of the long hair hitchhiker. On the other hand, only fifteen per cent of the contemporary and traditionally - dressed motorists engaged in legal nonconformity, which consisted primarily of traffic violations (speeding).

Because conventional motorists tend to greatly outnumber hippie motorists, and due to the fact that there are more hippie hitchhikers on the road, the average waiting time as a hippie hitchhiker was three times longer than as a straight.

In conclusion, the data support the contention of balance theory and related social psychological concepts that there is, indeed, a “strain toward symmetry” in interpersonal relations when stranger meets stranger in a non-experimental setting. The degree of balance or symmetry in the values of two individuals during their first encounter is initially determined by a perceived similarity in appearance to which a certain set of values and beliefs are imputed. This initial social attraction is further facilitated by verbal communication which tends to confirm or refute the inferences drawn from one’s appearance. In the case of hitchhiking there is an intense consciousness of kind between motorist and hiker, and this value congruency provides the impetus for the persistence of this form of institutional deviance (Horton and Leslie, 1974: 142). Rather than constituting a random phenomenon, it was demonstrated that hitchhiker patronage follows a rather highly predictable pattern.


*Paper presented at the Annual Meetings of the Pacific Sociological Association, Victoria, Canada, April 17-19,1975. Final Version August 18, 1975. The authors gratefully acknowledge the helpful criticisms and comments of Professors Bruce Chadwick, Stan Albrecht, and Kenneth Higbee.

  1. ^Hitchhiking is expressly prohibited in all but six states: Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Vermont.


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This article was originally published in ‘Humboldt Journal of Social Relations,’ Vol. 3, No. 1 (Fall/Winter 1975), pp. 56-61 The text was extracted and converted to html5 by Robert ‘prino’ Prins, who bears all responsibility for any errors that might still be present, please notify him if you find any.