Last year, when gas prices hit their peak, it could easily cost $50, $60, maybe even $80 to top off your tank. Everybody was feeling the same pain at the pump.
Now, gas prices have flattened out somewhat, but a sagging economy and growing job insecurity means you still need to stretch every gallon as far as it will go.
So, would you help a complete stranger who's running on empty? "What Would You Do?" wanted to find out.
In June we positioned hidden cameras in a Yorktown Heights, N.Y. gas station. Next, we hired actors to approach people as they filled up their cars to see if they'd give them a few extra gallons. Our actors made it clear they didn't want any money, claiming they needed just five gallons to get home. Would the kindness in peoples' hearts be able to overcome the emptiness of their wallets?
You Can't Trust Everybody
We started with a male actor, Dan, who did his best needy-neighbor impersonation. Wendy Westberger felt for him, but wouldn't give him any gas. Instead, she offered him a few bucks to buy his own.
"I hope that if either my daughter or I got stuck in a jam like that, I'd hope somebody else would help too," she said.
Dom Mascioli couldn't spare a drop of gas for our beggar.
"You know, you can't trust everybody. If there was like $2 a gallon or $1 a gallon, you know, I would say yes, but not at $5.20 -- $4.29 a gallon."
Time and time again, we found it hard for people to spare any gas; the price was just too high. Our male actor had a success rate of about 30 percent. We wondered if female beggars would have better luck.
In Someone Else's Shoes
Our "damsel in distress," Laurie Strickland, stuck to the same script as Dan, but the results were staggeringly different.
"The data suggests that attractive people, especially attractive women, are very likely to receive help and receive it fast," said Carrie Keating, a psychology professor at Colgate University .
Peter Wilcox sprung to the aid of our female beggar. Wilcox not only filled her gas can, he took it over to her car in the pouring rain.
"If this was your daughter or your wife and it's raining and it's, you know, and I had to get home and she was -- you know... Put yourself in somebody else's shoes and how would you act? Or what if it was not a stranger but a relative, a friend, a neighbor? You know, everybody's somebody's cousin, uncle." Wilcox said.
He wasn't the only man to help our actress in her time of need. Rafael Otano, a recent immigrant to America, commutes 30 miles each way to work. He didn't even blink when it came to helping a complete stranger.
"You see one lady, one gas station, no gas. What do you do? Help. That's it. That's it," he said.
When we told Otano this was an ethical dilemma experiment staged by ABC News, he made an interesting prediction: He felt that even though he had given a stranger some gas, if he were in need people would be more afraid to help him because he is Hispanic. That gave us an idea. We enlisted Otano's help to put one final variable on our social experiment.
Afraid to Help?
Otano is not an actor by trade, but he tried his best to convince people he needed just a few gallons to get home. Surprisingly, he didn't fare as poorly as he expected, at least among men. Mark Loftus helped fill Otano's gas can.
"You know, sometimes you got to, you know, try and help somebody out. My motto is, 'You got to give it away to keep it,' you know," said Loftus.
Otano didn't have the same success with women. Not a single female helped him out.
One of the women he asked, Nina Comacho, said, "I thought maybe because I was a woman he thought I would cave in, because, you know, most men probably would say no."
She said she thought Otano was friendly, but she couldn't afford to help him.
For Otano, the rejection felt personal, but he told ABC News' John Quinones that it wouldn't cause him to lose his faith in people -- he still maintains his "esperanza," which is Spanish for "hope."