Are You a Good Samaritan?

The Princeton Experiment

Just as the Princeton researchers did, we divided our volunteers into two groups at the start. Everyone heard the Good Samaritan story but only half of the volunteers got something more: time pressure. That group was now facing a dilemma. In order to get their chance at something they really wanted -- a chance to be on TV -- they would have to hurry. And just as the Princeton researchers discovered, that made a big difference in their behavior.

Only about 35 percent of our volunteers in a hurry stopped to help our actors. But almost 80 percent of those who were not rushed stopped to help.

Since our volunteers thought they were rushing in order to do something they thought would be beneficial to them, perhaps it is not surprising that time pressure would influence them.

But the Princeton subjects were seminary students, one might expect to be as moral and ethical a group as one could hope to study. They also thought they were going to give a recorded talk, though it was described as part of a study, not a TV audition.

Still, the researchers found that being rushed changed people's actions. Time pressure was the only significant factor the researchers found that they concluded would determine if a particular seminary student would stop to help a stranger.

Keating says that other research since then has shown that it is possible to make anyone disregard the needs of others if enough pressure is introduced. She concluded that in our experiment, not stopping to help was not an indication at all of whether any particular participant is a good or moral person. She said any of us might act in the same way.

Expanding the Experiment

However, we found one other factor that may have been significant too, something the Princeton researchers did not include in their study: race. One of our actors was white, the other was African American. Regardless of whether or not our volunteers were rushed, our white actor was helped more than three times as often as our black actor.

Keating said that this result is also backed up by other research. She said those studies generally show in our society blacks are seen as more threatening than whites, and that this belief is held by people of both races.

In our study, among those who did not stop to help our African-American actor was a fellow African-American man. In an interview afterwards, the man told us that he did not stop because he thought the man appeared crazy and he was uncomfortable. He said he felt threatened, adding, "If you are scared of the person, the fear alone will deter you."

One white woman who did stop to help the African-American actor ran all the way back to her car to get a cell phone she'd left there in order to help the man, even though she suffers from asthma.

Far from being fearful of the man, her obvious concern for him, and disregard for her own well-being in order to help, was the most perfect demonstration of the Good Samaritan story.

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