March 11, 2008 -- It's the kind of headline guaranteed to make everyone smile: "A Good Samaritan Saves the Day!" It could be rescuing someone who fell off a subway platform, or going after someone who broke through the ice of a frozen lake.
But it makes you wonder: For every hero who saved a stranger, how many other people saw the same situation and did nothing?
What drives someone to help an individual they don't know? "What Would You Do?" decided to find out, by conducting an experiment based on a famous research project conducted on seminary students at Princeton back in the 1970s.
ABC News placed ads in a newspaper and on the Web site Craigslist. The ad said we were looking for people to participate in an "on-camera tryout" for ABC News. Those who responded were interviewed on the phone, and those selected were asked to come to appointments over the course of two days.
When they arrived for those appointments, the volunteers met with an ABC producer who talked to them in general about the audition, but did not go into specifics about what they were to do. She explained that each person needed to have a topic to discuss before the cameras, and that she was going to help them select that subject. She then showed each of them a sampling of cards and asked them to pick one.
What appeared to be random was in fact not a choice at all. The topic listed on all those cards was the same: The Good Samaritan story from the Bible.
The story is about a man who is beaten by robbers and left for dead on the side of the road. Two religious men come by and ignore the victim. But a third man, an outcast from society, a Samaritan, comes along next and not only stops to help the man and care for his wounds, he takes him to an inn and pays for him to stay in a room there and have meals. Jesus instructs his followers to follow the lead of the Good Samaritan.
After our producer read the story to each person, they believed they were to give a short speech about it for their "audition." We told them our cameras were set up at a nearby studio and gave them directions for a very short walk to go there. They set off with the Good Samaritan story fresh in their minds. Following the directions took the volunteers through a small park. But they had no idea what would be awaiting them there: actors hired by ABC News.
Two men took turns playing a person in distress. They were seated on the grass directly alongside the path our volunteers were instructed to use. The actors were told to play men clearly in need of help, and both cried, moaned and rocked back and forth. They seemed to clearly need help. Who better to come to their aid than our volunteers, who approached with the Biblical story of helping one's fellow man echoing in their ears?
Would our participants stop to help? Carrie Keating, professor of psychology at Colgate University, expected they would. She predicted they would be suspicious of the situation, and likely to do anything to make themselves look good.
But Keating was in for a surprise: many of the 22 volunteers did not stop. They rushed right by the actors, proceeded to the studio, and gave the speech on the Good Samaritan. Their words were the complete opposite of their actions from just minutes before. How could this be?
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.