Psychology experiments tend to produce disturbing results,

but I find them to be engrossing reads.

I recently came across a “Good Samaritan” study done by the Princeton psychology department in 1970.  The psychologists conducting the experiment wanted to know how differing approaches to religion, differing time restraints, and differing momentary thoughts affect people’s choice to aid others.

40 seminary students were used in the experiment (or only 40 of the students’ results were kept), in which they were tested, asked to prepare a speech, and sent to another building, passing a moaning/injured man on the way.


They were interviewed about their degree of religiosity and placed into three categories: those who are religious because it helps themselves, those who are religious because of its (religion’s) intrinsic value, and those who are religious because it brings meaning to their lives.

Half the students were told to prepare a speech about vocations for seminary post grads, and half were told to prepare a speech about the passage of The Good Samaritan.  They were then told that they would be giving the speech in another building.

One third of the students were told that they were running late and should hurry to the next building.  One third were told that they were right on time and to go on over.  One third were told that they were early, but might as well go anyways.


The largest factor influencing the choices of the students was not their view of religion or their momentary thoughts – those preparing a sermon on the Good Samaritan were not significantly more likely to help the man than those who weren’t – the largest factor influencing the students’ altruism was their sense of hurry.

Their conclusion:

A person not in a hurry may stop and offer help to a person in distress. A person in a hurry is likely to keep going. Ironically, he is likely to keep going even if he is hurrying to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan, thus inadvertently confirming the point of the parable. (Indeed, 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!)

Although the degree to which a person was in a hurry had a clearly significant effect on his likelihood of offering the victim help, whether he was going to give a sermon on- the parable or on possible vocational roles of ministers did not. This lack of effect of sermon topic raises certain difficulties for an explanation of helping behavior involving helping norms and their salience. It is hard to think of a context in which norms concerning helping those in distress are more salient than for a person thinking about the Good Samaritan, and yet it did not significantly increase helping behavior. The results were in the direction suggested by the norm salience hypothesis, but they were not significant. The most accurate conclusion seems to be that salience of helping norms is a less strong determinant of helping behavior in the present situation than many, including the present authors, would expect.

Thinking about the Good Samaritan did not increase helping behavior, but being in a hurry decreased it. It is difficult not to conclude from this that the frequently cited explanation that ethics becomes a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases is at least an accurate description. The picture that this explanation conveys is of a person seeing another, consciously noting his distress, and consciously choosing to leave him in distress. But perhaps this is not entirely accurate, for, when a person is in a hurry, something seems to happen that is akin to Tolman’s (1948) concept of the “narrowing of the cognitive map.” Our seminarians in a hurry noticed the victim in that in the post experiment interview almost all mentioned him as, on reflection, possibly in need of help. But it seems that they often had not worked this out when they were near the victim. Either the interpretation of their visual picture as a person in distress or the empathic reactions usually associated with that interpretation had been deferred because they were hurrying. According to the reflections of some of the subjects, it would be inaccurate to say that they realized the victim’s possible distress, then chose to ignore it; instead, because of the time pressures, they did not perceive the scene in the alley as an occasion for an ethic~l decision.


Non related articles:

Young Americans Reign in Their Dreams

Don’t just do something; stand there



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