The Good Samaritan Experiment: Why do people help each other?

Problem

You’re on your way to enjoy a free period when you see someone has dropped all of their class supplies. There are papers and notebooks scattered all over the floor, and they’re struggling to pick them all up. You think to yourself, should I help them? You make up your mind and decide to help the other student, but why? 

Here’s Why

You may think you helped the other student because you’re a kind person. However, it’s actually because you had the time to spare. People are more likely to help a stranger in need if they aren’t in a hurry. If you had been late to class or on your way to an important meeting, it’s likely you would have ignored the other student. Personality doesn’t really affect helping behavior. While you may still be kind, the real cause of helping behavior is most likely because you had plenty of time. 

The Good Samaritan Experiment

The Good Samaritan Experiment was conducted in 1973 by John Darley and Daniel Batson at Princeton University’s Theological Seminary with participants who were studying to become religious leaders. The researchers hoped to discover whether helping is more motivated by personal characteristics or by the environment. 

In the experiment, the participants were first asked to fill out surveys assessing whether their motivations for being religious were intrinsic or extrinsic. They were then split into two groups. Half the participants were told to prepare a speech on job opportunities while the other half were told to prepare a speech about the Good Samaritan, a Biblical story about a victim ignored by several holy people and eventually saved by someone considered an enemy, the Samaritan. The participants were told to travel to a different building to give their speech. 

Unbeknownst to the participants, the researchers had assigned them to one of three groups. Some participants were told that if they left immediately, they would be early, others were told they would be on-time, and the remainder were told they were already late. Along the path to the building, each participant ran into a stranger who had fallen in an alleyway. The stranger coughed and moaned, signaling that they needed help. 

How It Works

So, which of the participants decided to help the stranger? Overall, 40% of the participants offered some help to the stranger. When the participants believed they were early for their speech, 63% of them helped the stranger. In moderate hurry situations, when participants believed they would be on time, 45% of them helped the stranger. In high hurry situations, only 10% of people helped the stranger. Even when people were on their way to give a speech about helping, they were less likely to help if they were in a rush. 

Why Care?

Initially, the results of this study can be disheartening. How could so many people be so self-centered that they would neglect a person who clearly needs help? Darley and Batson believe that the participants only ignored the stranger because arriving to give their speech on time would help the experimenters. Conflicting obligations, rather than cruelty, could explain low helping numbers in high hurrying situations. 

It is important to keep the Good Samaritan Experiment in mind when you see someone who needs help. It is natural to worry about upholding obligations and promises. But, if you slow down for a minute, the situation becomes clearer. More often than not, people will understand lateness or absence caused by offering help to someone suffering. Don’t let being in a hurry stop you from doing something good.

Think Further

  1. When you are deciding whether to help someone, what factors do you consider?
  2. How has “hurriedness” impacted your decisions to help others? 
  3. Based on this experiment, what can we do as a society to encourage helping behaviors?

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  1. Cunningham, M. R. (1979). Weather, mood, and helping behavior: Quasi experiments with the sunshine samaritan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(11), 1947–1956. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.37.11.1947
  2. Guéguen, N., & De Gail, M.-A. (2003). The Effect of Smiling on Helping Behavior: Smiling and Good Samaritan Behavior. Communication Reports, 16(2), 133–140. https://doi.org/10.1080/08934210309384496
  3. McManus, Ryan M et al. “What We Owe to Family: The Impact of Special Obligations on Moral Judgment.” Psychological science vol. 31,3 (2020): 227-242. doi:10.1177/0956797619900321
  4. Shenker, Israel. “Test of Samaritan Parable: Who Helps the Helpless?” The New York Times, 10 Apr. 1971, https://www.nytimes.com/1971/04/10/archives/test-of-samaritan-parable-who-helps-the-helpless.html.