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We're all Good Samaritans... until we need to take action

The Good Samaritan Experiment.jpg

In our minds, most of us are good people. We do a lot of good things and we help a lot of people (sometimes this goes unnoticed). And when we don't? Well, usually we have our difficulties. Or we just didn't know; the people that needed help didn't ask - if they did we would surely do what we can.




Well, John Darley and Daniel Batson (read more about the study here) from the Princeton Theological Seminary put this to the test in 1973:

  1. 40 theological students (i.e. students studying to become Christian Pastors) were selected for the experiment, split into 2 groups. 

  2. Each student in group 1 was told to prepare a short talk on the Parable of the Good Samaritan (a story from the bible where a Samaritan man showed great compassion in helping an injured stranger) 

  3. Each student in group 2 was told to prepare a short talk on job opportunities for those who studied theology 

  4. Students had to deliver their talk at a separate building, some distance away. 

  5. Students were given varying times to reach the next building:

    • high hurry (small amount of time; have to rush to reach in time)​

    • moderate hurry (moderate amount of time; have to move at a moderate pace)

    • low hurry (more than enough time; will reach with time to spare even at a slow pace)

  6. On their way to the venue, each student encountered a person slumped in the doorway in distress. This person is an actor assigned by Darley and Batson, who would moan loudly and cough, appearing to suffer from serious abdominal pain. (this person mirrors the injured stranger in the Good Samaritan story in the bible). 

So would the students stop to help the man in distress? As theological students, all of them should be familiar with the parable of the good samaritan. Even more so for those in group 1 who were about to give a talk on the good samaritan parable! Would they stop to help the distressed man, just like the good samaritan in the parable? How much of a role did the time they had to travel affect students?



  • There was no difference between groups 1 and 2. Students 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 a talk about career opportunities. In both groups, about 40% of students offered help.

  • The degree in which participants had to rush played a much more significant role in determining whether the students would stop to help the distressed stranger:  

    • For those in a high hurry (having to rush to the other building), only 10% stopped to help the stranger.

    • For the moderate hurry group - 45% stopped to help the stranger

    • For the low hurry group, 63% stopped to help the stranger. 


The results certainly suprised Darley and Batson, who noted, “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!” Or if I can surmise more bluntly:


"Seminary students chose to violate the
lesson from the parable of the Good Samaritan,

so that they can be on time to give a talk about the same parable."


So pretty gloomy results, with a large dollop of irony on top. But there is some redeeming news: most of the folks who did not stop did appear aroused and anxious when they arrived at the next building. This suggests that the folks did not simply ignored the "victim", but had an internal conflict between helping someone and completing their task. 

As we have examined extensively over these pages, our brains have some innate wiring: we are geared toward survivial - we constantly worry about what will happen to us, and try to reduce the amount of risk that we face. Our brains are wired to prefer efficiency over accuracy - when we are faced with a dilemma, we tend to pick the easier option.  

Completing the task we have at hand is the simpler and much less risky option: we might potentially suffer a loss if the task is not completed, but we don't lose anything if we don't help someone. And it's easier to follow instructions than to think independently.

My own belief about human altruism is this:

- We are not 

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