There is a now famous experiment about what will or will not make us a “Good Samaritan.” I like it because I like experimental ethics and experimental economics.  It also has practical lessons.

The propositions

Two professors at Princeton decided to try out three different hypothesis:

  1. Your orientation towards faith and religion might make a difference (do you participate for gain or for other reasons).
  2. Focusing your mind on the idea of helping might make you more likely to help.
  3. Being in a hurry might make you less likely to help.

What they did

File:Balthasar van Cortbemde - The Good Samaritan.jpgThey recruited people who were training for the ministry, seminary students.  They gave them personality tests (to let them sort on orientation), then they had them start in the library and go to the chapel.  Between the library and the chapel it was planned that they would encounter a man slumped in an alleyway.

In the library they were either assigned to prepare a sermon or talk about jobs in the seminary or to prepare a sermon on the story of the Good Samaritan.  When the preparation period was finished, some were told they were late for the presentation, some were told that it turned out they had some extra time but should head over to the chapel anyway.

They then passed a man sitting slumped in a doorway, an actor, who moaned and coughed twice as the student walked by.  For some the slump actually put the man in the path of the seminary student and stepped over him on the way to the chapel.  (They would later be questioned about the man).

Reactions were graded on a scale of 1-5

0=failed to notice any need
1=perceived need but did not offer aid
2=did not stop but helped indirectly (told the someone on their arrival at the chapel about the man)
3=stopped and asked if actor needed help
4=after stopping, insisted on taking the actor inside and then left him.
5=refused to leave actor, or insisted on taking him somewhere

When they arrived at the chapel, they gave their presentation and then were given a questionnaire to answer.


File:Hiroshima Street Scene with injured Civilians.jpgFirst, what you had on your mind, preparing to give a talk on finding a job or on the Good Samaritan did not make a difference on whether or not someone helped.  Exactly.  Focusing on the Good Samaritan made absolutely no difference on whether or not someone would act like him.

Second, approaches to religion turned out to make no difference.  The first experiment reflected that if you saw “religion as a quest” you were less likely to help and that otherwise approaches to religion made no difference at all.  Later analysis appeared to have disproved this as a correlation.

Third, whether or not the student was in a hurry had a marked impact.  With spare time, people were more likely than not to help (63%).  People in a hurry were only 10% likely to help.

Other studies and research

There has been a fair amount of related research by behavioral economists.  Some of it is because they just don’t trust other disciplines (a number of “famous” experiments do not replicate when performed by economists which leads to fun discussions).  Some of it is because the area is fascinating.

File:Puddling and leveling.jpgWhat they learned was:

  1. People are more likely to help others if they see someone else helping.  Actions speak much more louder than words in creating a social norm for how to act.  The difference is dramatic.
  2. People are more likely to help others if they have practiced helping others, either with someone (such as a mentor) or in roleplays or training. Direct first aid training and skills, for example, make it much more likely that someone will render first aid.
  3. In addition to skill training, role playing (as hokey as it often looks) actually works.
  4. People are more likely to help if they have time.  Just setting aside time to help makes it much more likely someone will help.

Take away points

Inspirational or hortatory sermons and admonitions are worthless.

If you want people to do anything, you need to have them practice doing it.  You want someone to report a sexual offender, stop and render aid, visit the needy, minister to the afflicted or act in a Christlike fashion when it is not convenient you need to have them practice and to see or hear of others practicing and doing (so that it doesn’t hurt for someone to bear their testimony of helping someone else — it is actually more useful than having them preach a sermon on helping someone else).

But above all, you need to make time.


  • What do you think?
  • How would you improve and change the way we minister to each other?
  • What has worked for you to help others in large or small ways?
  • What other thoughts do you have on this topic?

Published paper on the study is Darley, J. M., and Batson, C.D., “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior”. JPSP, 1973, 27, 100-108.

You can read a nice summary here.

Other than an image I created myself from a book reviewed earlier, images are from wikimedia commons.