- Good Samaritans are about as likely to emerge as victims than as heroes.
- People are more prone to act as good Samaritans in high-risk than low-risk situations.
- Arousal theory and moral identity theory may explain good Samaritans' motivations.
The phrase “good Samaritan” comes from the biblical parable of a traveler from Samaria who comes upon an injured Jew. The man had been robbed and beaten nearly to death. Two pious Jews had passed by and rendered no aid. But the Samaritan took pity on the dying man. He treated the man's wounds, took him to an inn, and paid for all expenses until the victim recovered. (The Jews and Samaritans were traditional enemies over religious and ethnic differences.)
No Good Deed
If you search for “good Samaritan” in Google News, you’ll find that the results are dominated by two kinds of stories: Good Samaritans who valiantly aided or rescued someone in distress, and good Samaritans who themselves became victims when they attempted to render aid. This latter type of story piqued my interest. Why do some people feel compelled to help others even at great personal risk?
Consider the case of a good Samaritan in Minnesota who witnessed a crash and rollover while driving on I-94. This individual stopped to render aid. The driver of the crashed vehicle, a 22-year-old woman, then carjacked the good Samaritan. Police gave chase and finally arrested the woman, but not before ramming the good Samaritan’s car and blowing the tires with spike strips. The stolen vehicle was totaled, but fortunately the carjacker did not harm the helpful motorist (although injury or death was a real possibility in this situation).
Another good Samaritan stopped to help some homeless people but left her car running. A few of them took this opportunity to steal her vehicle with her dog inside.
Psychologists have explored the question of why people act as good Samaritans through various theories, including social identity theory, the empathy-altruism hypothesis, and moral reasoning theory. These theories shed light on altruistic motivations. But what about people who engage in foolish or dangerous behavior to aid those in distress, such as the woman whose car and dog were stolen? Why do some people risk becoming victims themselves in order to help a stranger?
Obviously, some people act on impulse in an emergency without stopping to weigh the pros and cons. Others are drawn to the adrenaline rush of danger. And some, like the car and dog theft victim, are just too kind-hearted and trusting to foresee danger. But research has produced some interesting findings beyond these self-evident explanations.
One study found that people were more willing to take risks to save someone’s life than to save that person’s property. Specifically, the willingness to take risks increased as the severity of the situation increased. Contrary to what one might expect, the greater the danger, the more likely a bystander would act as good Samaritan. In a less dire situation, the same bystander would be more likely to do nothing at all (Weaver, Garcia, Schwarz, & Miller, 2015).
An earlier study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people were more likely to intervene in emergency situations when the potential harm was high, such as when someone was drowning, compared to situations where the harm was lower, such as when someone dropped their books (Fischer, Greitemeyer, Pollozek, & Frey, 2006). Similarly, a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that people were more likely to engage in risky behavior to help others when the situation was perceived as urgent and the potential harm was high (Aquino & Reed, 2002).
Arousal theory suggests that people are more likely to help others when they are in a triggered emotional state, such as fear or excitement. High-risk situations often incite these kinds of emotions and thereby make people more likely to help.
Another reason why people may act as good Samaritans in high-risk situations is that they place a high premium on their moral identity. People with deeply held moral values may feel a stronger sense of obligation to help others, especially when the consequences of not helping are severe. This can motivate people to disregard danger, even if they would not have done so in a low-risk situation.
Finally, it's worth noting that individual factors, such as personality traits and previous experiences, play a role in shaping people's willingness to act as good Samaritans in high-risk situations. For example, people who are high in empathy may be more likely to help others in distress, regardless of the level of risk involved. This is our dilemma as human beings—to be willing to help, even at some risk to ourselves, but to do so without doubling the tragedy.
“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” – Aesop
© Dale Hartley. Connect with me on social media.
Aquino, K., & Reed, A. (2002). The self-importance of moral identity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(6), 559-567.
Fischer, P., Greitemeyer, T., Pollozek, F., & Frey, D. (2006). The unresponsive bystander: Are bystanders more responsive in dangerous emergencies?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(4), 775-789.
Weaver, K., Garcia, S. M., Schwarz, N., & Miller, D. T. (2015). Inferring the importance of values from people's actions: The relationship between values and behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(1), 14-25.