If you grew up going to church, the phrase “Good Samaritan” might ring a bell. In the Bible, Jesus tells his disciples the story of a man who was robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest and Levite passed by the man and failed to help. A Samaritan, however, provided aid to the man. Jesus instructs the disciples to act like the Good Samaritan - to provide aid to others even if you will not get a reward for doing so.
There are Good Samaritan laws that are put in place throughout the country - they essentially protect medical personnel and anyone who attempts to provide aid from being sued. Each state has different terms for these laws. But does the Good Samaritan Effect hold up in psychology?
What Is the Good Samaritan Effect (In Psychology?)
The story of the Good Samaritan continues to be told in churches around the world with the aim of influencing others to do good deeds. But in psychology, studies have shown that even those who know the story of the Good Samaritan don't always follow its teachings.
Examples of Being a Good Samaritan
Being a Good Samaritan looks like:
- Pulling over on the side of the road if you see someone struggling with a flat tire
- Offering someone a bandage after watching them trip and fall
- Picking up someone's grocery bill after they realize they cannot pay the full amount
- Trying to intervene and stop a violent crime
- Performing the Heimlich on someone who is choking across the restaurant
- Turning in a wallet that you find on the ground
Of course, not all examples of being a Good Samaritan may be regarded as such. Calling the authorities, or standing witness as the authorities pull someone over, may be considered being a Good Samaritan or not.
Darley and Bason 1973
In 1973, two psychologists wanted to put this story to the test. When are people more likely to be “The Good Samaritan?” What would hold them back? Were the priest and Levite motivated by external factors to ignore the man on the road?
The study that attempted to answer these questions is one of the more ironic and head-shaking studies in the history of psychology.
The Good Samaritan Study
John Darley and Daniel Batson conducted their study at, of all places, Princeton Theological Seminary. All of the participants in the study were working toward being some sort of religious figure. They knew the story of the Good Samaritan like the back of their hand. But Darley and Batson didn’t think that this would make the participants more of a Good Samaritan. One of their hypotheses was that “more religious” people wouldn’t be more likely than “regular” people to be a Good Samaritan. After all, a priest in the Bible story didn’t help the man on the side of the road!
The psychologists also hypothesized that external factors would make a difference in the participants’ willingness to help. If they were in a rush, for example, they would be less willing to help.
How Did The Study Work?
Darley and Batson gave all of the participants a task: they were to prepare a speech to give later in the day. One group of participants were actually tasked with writing about the parable of the Good Samaritan. The other group wrote about working in the seminary. All of the participants were told that they would be presenting in a different building on campus.
When it came time to give the speech, the researchers checked in with the participants. One group was told that they were in no rush and to take their time walking to the other building. The other was told they were in some rush to get there. The last group was told that they were running late and had to get over to the building fast.
On the way to the second building, one of the researchers posed as a man who was struggling on the ground, and clearly needed help. As each of the participants passed the man, he coughed. The researchers set up a scale from 0 to 5, dictating the degree in which people noticed and/or helped the struggling man.
So what did they find?
The Good Samaritan Study Results
The data did reflect the first two hypotheses. Even though the participants in the study were “more religious” than most, they weren’t all stopping and helping the man who was struggling. Some even ignored or stepped over him on their way to the second building. There was not a significant difference between the participants who wrote about the Good Samaritan and those that didn’t.
What did influence the participants was the amount of time that they had to spare. 63% of the participants who were not in a rush went over to help the struggling man. Only 10% of the participants who were late went to help him.
Good Samaritan Effect and Decision-Making
So what does this say about us? That we should take life at a more leisurely pace? Or that stories like the Good Samaritan don’t exactly do their job? It’s hard to say - we aren’t able to hear the participants’ inner monologue. After all, the participants who were in a rush may have been able to justify their decision by thinking that it was more important to be on time for the crowd waiting in the other building. Maybe they were so stressed about being late that they honestly failed to see or hear the man.
What we can conclude is that external factors may play more of a role than we think in decision-making and ethics. All of the participants in the survey knew about good deeds and the importance of being a good person. If they had been given more time to walk on campus, the ones in a rush may have gone over to help the man. The difference was an external factor - time.
Good Samaritan Vs. Bystander Effects
Another factor may have played a role in the results of the study: other people. If other people had been on campus as the participants noticed the man, they may have been less likely to stop. Studies on the Good Samaritan Effect and Bystander Effect show us that time is simply one external factor that prevents people from stepping in and helping another.
Studies on The Bystander Effect show we are less likely to help someone out if we are in a crowd. We tend to assign the responsibility to another person in the crowd and stand back. I have videos on my page that dive deeper into this topic. The first studies on the Bystander Effect (including the study of the Kitty Genovese murder) go back farther than the Good Samaritan Effect.
Studies are still trying to determine the top factors for helping another person out. Psychologists have found that any of these factors could keep someone from helping:
- The proximity of the needy person
- If the needy person appears to be “at-fault” for their condition
- What tasks need to be done (i.e. crowd control or calling for help)
- The person’s background or expertise
While more studies are being done on helping behavior, it’s likely that no study will be as ironic as the Darley and Batson’s original Good Samaritan study.