falco / Pixabay
Source: falco / Pixabay

This is the story of my all-time favorite psychology study, with enormous implications for what it means to be human.

Setting: Early 1970s, campus of Princeton University in New Jersey.

Two behavioral scientists, John Darley and Daniel Batson, were interested in studying the psychology of prosocial behavior. Why do people do good things for others?

To examine this question, they decided to study students at the Princeton Theological Seminary. In other words: Princeton students who were studying to be priests. You kind of figure that these folks should have goodness down!

The basic point of the study was to see if dispositional or situational factors are more influential in determining prosocial behavior. In other words, when someone is kind to another, is that because he or she has some innate qualities within that lead to kindness—or because some situational factors simply determine and allow for kind behaviors.

So they set up an epic study. Across three days in late Fall, they had a bunch of seminary students come to a building, meet with a researcher, and fill out a bunch of surveys. The surveys partly addressed if the students were religious primarily for intrinsic or for extrinsic reasons (with “intrinsic reasons” being like “I am motivated to do good in the world” and “extrinsic reasons” being like “I really want to get into Heaven.”). Then the participants were told that they needed to prepare a brief talk about the Good Samaritan from the Bible—which is a story about how a hapless victim on the side of the road was just passed by from a bunch of holy individuals—while a non-holy Samaritan took the time to stop and help the fellow out. The content of the story becomes relevant, as you’ll see.

Participants were all told that they needed to walk to a nearby building to meet up with another member of the team and then to give their sermon. They then, by random chance, were determined to be in one of three conditions. They either were told that they:

A. had plenty of time, and were early.

B. were on-time, but should head over now so as not to be late.

Or

C. were running late, and really needed to skedaddle.

Then comes the fun part. The situation was rigged—and all participants found a fallen stranger in a narrow alleyway. The “stranger” was really a confederate of the participants—and his role was to seem sick on the ground and in need of help. The catch was that the alleyway was only four feet across … so to not help this guy, you had to step over him!

Results

I learned about this study in about 1995—and its lessons have shaped my approach to life ever since. Here are the essential findings:

Dispositional factors had no bearing on helping behavior. In other words, people who reported as religious for intrinsic reasons were no more likely than others were to stop to help.

The “time-constraint” variable mattered a ton.

63% of participants in the “early” condition stopped to help the stranger.

45% of participants in the “on-time” condition stopped to help the stranger.

10% of participants in the “late” condition stopped to help the stranger.

Lessons of The Good Samaritan Study

This study has such dramatic implications for what it means to be human. First off, the overall amount of “helping” was low - with MOST (60% of) participants being, actually, NOT willing to help the “victim.” This is, of course, ironic, because the participants were

A. Princeton students studying to be priests

AND

B. about to give a talk on the lessons of the Good Samaritan from the Bible!

And that’s not all! The participants who claimed that they were interested in working in the clergy for intrinsic reasons, because they felt a strong motive to help others, were no more likely to actually stop and help the victim than were other participants.

On top of this, it turns out that a simple-seeming situational factors, whether one was in a hurry or not, played the dominant role in determining what that person would do.

Bottom Line

When it comes to human behavior, we have a strong bias toward thinking that people do what they do because of internal traits that drive their behaviors (see Ross & Nisbett, 1990). Don’t be fooled by this general social-perceptual tendency! In reality, dispositional factors are relatively weak predictors of what we do - while situational factors, which often seem benign or inconsequential, play powerful roles in shaping our behaviors.

Want to know what makes for prosocial, helpful, and kind behavior? I say don’t look inside the person—look to the situation. And when you see a fella in need, take a minute and lend a hand.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my dissertation advisor, Becky Warner, for introducing me to this research—back in the day—and to my awesome alumnae, Christina Lee Harte, for reminding me today of how important this study is.

References

Darley, J. M., and Batson, C.D. (1973). From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1973, 27, 100-108.

Ross, L., & Nisbett, R.E. (1991). The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.

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