Being a Good Samaritan: Psychology of Helping

Good_Samaritan_(Watts)Perhaps you’ve heard the parable, The Good Samaritan. You can read the exact story in the Bible[1]  Luke 10: 29-37 if you must know. (ever heard of it?), but the gist of it is that a traveler had been attacked by robbers, stripped of his clothes, beaten, and left on the side of a road between Jerusalem and Jericho. This man, clearly, was in need of some kind help. In the parable, a priest first walks by the man and avoids helping him. Then a Levite[2]  I’ll just quote Wikipedia here to give definition: “In Jewish tradition, a Levite is a member of the Israelite Tribe of Levi, descended from Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah.” Got it? walks by and also fails to help.

Then, in a twist of cinematic proportions, a Samaritan walks by, and this guy lends a helping hand! For context, it’s worth knowing that Samaritans and Jews had a generally nasty relationship, so it’s all the more surprising that it was the Samaritan who helped this man (and not the priest or the Levite).

This parable raises questions about when and why people help each other. It seems ironic that two religious men would fail to show compassion whereas an unlikely stranger is the one who saves the day. Could that possibly happen in everyday life or is this merely a parable meant to illustrate a point?

“From Jerusalem to Jericho”

Years ago, two Princeton social psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson, took inspiration from the parable of the Good Samaritan and conducted some research to test the limits of people’s good will. They published their results in a 1973 paper titled From Jerusalem to Jericho.”

bible-706641_640They wanted to test a couple things that might influence helping behavior. First, they tested whether thinking religious thoughts would have any effect on helping. You might reasonably think that religious thoughts would inspire altruistic behavior. After all, so many core religious teachings urge compassion and generosity. The Good Samaritan parable, however, would suggest that religious thought offers no particular benefit to helping. The priest, likely ruminating on any number of religious thoughts, showed little interest in helping the man.

In addition, though, they tested the effects of time pressure on our likelihood of helping others. In the parable, perhaps one reason why the first two people didn’t stop to help the man was that they were in a greater hurry and couldn’t bother themselves by stopping to help. As Darley and Batson write, “One can imagine the priest and Levite, prominent public figures, hurrying along with little black books full of meetings and appointments, glancing furtively at their sundials.” So maybe being in a rush is detrimental to our desire to help people.

Darley and Batson tested these questions not by analyzing scripture for further clues but by putting people into these various conditions, making some people rush and others take their time; making some people think more religious thoughts and others not necessarily so. Could this affect helping responses in the modern era?

Testing the Good Samaritan Hypotheses

In their study, Darley and Batson examined the behavior of Princeton Theological Seminary students. A student would arrive for the study, and he would be given a first set of instructions. As far as the participant was concerned, this was a study on the “vocational careers of seminary students,” and they were being asked to prepare a 3 – 5 minute talk about being a minister.

For half of the students in the study, the talk they were asked to prepare was just about what it means to be a minister and what kinds of jobs involve ministry to some degree. The other half of the students were also given the story of the Good Samaritan, which they would incorporate into their talk. These two versions of the activity were used to get some people really thinking about religious issues related to helping people–shouldn’t that make them more likely to help someone if they see that need?

After they worked on their talk for a bit, the assistant would come in and ask the student to finish working in another room because space was tight in the building they were in. The student was given a map pointing them to a building across campus. Sometimes, though, the assistant would say, “It’ll be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head on over.” In other words, there was no rush. Other times, the assistant would say, “The assistant is ready for you, so please go right over” … a little more rushed. For still other students, the assistant would say, “Oh, you’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. We’d better get moving.” In other words, “You’d better hurry up! You’re late!”

Along the way, however, the researchers had staged an emergency, which they refer to in their paper as “the incident.” An actor was “sitting slumped in a doorway, head down, eyes closed, not moving.” The actor coughed as the students would walk by him. Basically, it looked like this guy could use some help.

Hurrying Prevents Helping

walk-2021_640So do the seminary students help this poor guy? Each time one of the participants would pass the “victim,” the actor would rate the participant’s response using a 6-level scale.

The lowest score a person could get meant that he “failed to notice the victim as possibly in need at all.” A bit higher on the scale was “stopped and asked if victim needed help.” The highest score was “after stopping, refused to leave the victim and/or insisted on taking him somewhere outside experimental context.”

First, let’s look at whether it mattered that some of the students were actively thinking about the religious virtue of helping others. Amazingly, it didn’t matter at all. Students who were on their way to give a talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan were no more likely to give help than students who were going to give an unrelated talk. Even though you’d expect that this should have made a difference, there is no evidence of a difference in helpfulness between the two types of talks. In fact, Darley and Batson note: “on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!

Hurrying, though, did affect helpfulness. Students who were in a hurry were much less helpful toward the man in need, compared to students weren’t in any rush to get to the other building. When people were too concerned about being late to their meeting, they either didn’t notice or failed to give aid to someone who could have been dealing with a serious emergency.

Social Psychology of Helping

So, we’ve solved the mystery of the Good Samaritan! Or have we? Well, it’s not much use to speculate on the underlying psychological processes of the characters in this parable, but the research that it inspired does give us interesting insight into everyday social psychology. It’s worth knowing how much something as silly as rushing to get to another building (even when we’re doing so to inspire others to be compassionate!) can get in the way of helping other people.

In some sense, you might take this as a cue to slow down and not rush through life. But even if you still like to treat everything with a sense of urgency, pause a moment if you see something wrong. That quick pause might be enough to take you from rushing-to-get-a-good-seat guy to hero-with-a-key-to-the-city guy.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  Luke 10: 29-37 if you must know.
2.  I’ll just quote Wikipedia here to give definition: “In Jewish tradition, a Levite is a member of the Israelite Tribe of Levi, descended from Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah.” Got it?

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