“I would have helped but…”
What would you do if you…
I have a feeling most of us would hold the door open for the man with packages. But the other two situations are more complicated.
Psychologists have long studied the issue of when we more likely to ignore the suffering of others and just walk on by and when we are likely to stop and help. Of course there are sociopaths and narcissists whose upbringing and genetics have contributed to a pathological lack of compassion for others. But the studies of helping behavior don’t focus on these outliers. Rather, they focus on ordinary people like you and me whose intentions are generally good.
While there are many factors that contribute to a lack of compassion, studies have identified one factor that is usually under our control:
Being in a hurry.
It turns out that we are less likely to help others when we feel rushed or when we are late for an event. In a classic 1973 study by psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson, a group of seminary students from Princeton Theological Seminary are told to report to another building on campus to deliver a lecture about the parable of the Good Samaritan. A more appropriate topic could not have been given, as you will see.
The seminarians were divided into two groups: Group 1 was told they had plenty of time to get to the building. Group 2 was told they were late. On their way to the lecture hall, a confederate of the researchers played a person in distress, slumped in a doorway and visible to all (similar to question 1 above). Sixty-three percent of the students in Group 1, the group with time to spare, were more likely to stop and help. But in Group 2, the group who had been told they were late, only 10 percent stopped to help. Darley and Batson concluded that “…ethics becomes a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases.” Most of us are neither psychopathic nor selfish, but hurried lifestyles can erode our empathy and our willingness to help.
This study was small (40 students), but it has been replicated many times with variations, according to Steve Casner, who describes the study in his entertaining and helpful new book, Careful: A User’s Guide to Our Injury-Prone Minds. Casner details other surprising factors that contribute to lack of empathy, including noise, crowds, excessive heat, living in an expensive city, being hungry, and "the bystander effect"—the feeling that other spectators will take care of the problem so you don't have to.
Are you in the “hurry habit?” I know I am. As I was reading the research, I guiltily realized how often I ignored others just because I was working my way down my to-do list. If you, like me, would like to cultivate more compassion for others, slow down!
Unfortunately, "hurrying is one of the most psychologically difficult behaviors to turn off or control," according to Casner. And if you are rushing to get somewhere, you might not even notice when others need help, let alone stop to figure out how to help.
Nonetheless "the hurry habit" can be modified with a little strategy and determination. Here are nine ideas for how to put on the brakes—literally and figuratively:
The Problems with Helping
A friend was walking along the street when he saw a cyclist crash into a signpost. The friend ran to help but was overcome by the sight of blood and fainted on top of the cyclist. Both men had to be carted off to the hospital. (They recovered.) Moral: Know your limits.
In any helping situation, you will need to use your judgment. Can you truly help or would you just be in the way?
You have the right and responsibility to take care of yourself. Putting on your own oxygen mask first, as they say in air travel, is often a good rule of thumb for daily life. If you could be harmed by helping, call 911 or someone who knows how to get the job done or just find a way to protect yourself.
The Positives of Helping
Your brain will reward you with a refreshing spritz of feel-good chemicals when you help others.This feeling—dubbed “the helper’s high”—will encourage you to stay on the path of compassion. Have you ever felt it? It’s a wonderful feeling.
Overcoming the “hurry mentality” will not only help you become more compassionate. You may reap other benefits—a safer lifestyle, lower blood pressure, and more relaxation. You may even find yourself enjoying life more because you can take time to savor each moment.
© Meg Selig, 2017
Casner, S. Careful: A User’s Guide to Our Injury-Prone Minds, Riverhead Books, NY, 2017.
McGonigal, K. “Find Your Courage and Compassion with One Question."
Selig, M. “Use Psychology to Handle These 7 Sticky Situations.”