Lessons from the Princeton Seminary Experiment: People in a Rush are Less Likely to Help Others (and Themselves)

Vincent van Gogh's The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix)

In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37 in the New Testament,) a Samaritan helps a traveler assaulted by robbers and left half dead by the side of the road. Prior to the Samaritan, a priest and a Levite pass the injured traveler and fail to notice him. Conceivably, the priest and Levite’s contempt was because they didn’t sincerely follow those same virtues they espoused as religious functionaries. Possibly, they were in a hurry or were occupied with busy, important—even religious—thoughts. Perhaps the Samaritan was in less of a hurry since he wasn’t as socially important as the priest or Levite and was therefore not expected to be somewhere.

The Princeton Seminary Experiment

Inspired by the parable of the Good Samaritan, Princeton social psychologists John Darley and Dan Batson conducted a remarkable experiment in the 1970s on time pressure and helpful behavior. They studied how students of the Princeton Theological Seminary conducted themselves when asked to deliver a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The students would were to give the sermon in a studio a building across campus and would be evaluated by their supervisors. The researchers were curious about whether time pressure would affect the seminary students’ helpful nature. After all, the students were being trained to become ordained priests; they are presumably inclined to help others.

As each student finalized his preparation in a classroom, the researchers inflicted an element of time constraint upon them by giving them one of three instructions:

  1. “You’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago…You’d better hurry. It shouldn’t take but just a minute.” This was the high-hurry condition.
  2. “The (studio) assistant is ready for you, so please go right over.” This was the intermediate-hurry condition.
  3. “It’ll be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head on over. If you have to wait over there, it shouldn’t be long.” This was the low-hurry condition.

As each student walked by himself from the preparation classroom to the studio, he encountered a ‘victim’ in a deserted alleyway just like the wounded traveler in the parable of the Good Samaritan. This victim (actually an associate of the experimenters) appeared destitute, was slouched and coughing and clearly in need of assistance. The seminarians were thus offered a chance to apply what they were about to preach.

“Conflict, rather than callousness, can explain their failure to stop.”

Researchers were interested in determining if their imposed time pressure affected the seminarians’ response to a distressed stranger. Remarkably, only 10% of the students in the high-hurry situation stopped to help the victim. 45% of the students in the intermediate-hurry and 63% of the students in the low-hurry situations helped the victim.

The researchers concluded, “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… Thinking about the Good Samaritan did not increase helping behavior, but being in a hurry decreased it.”

In light of their training and calling, the seminarians’ failure of bystander intervention is probably not due to indifference, self-centeredness, or contempt. (Compare with the plot of the series finale of American sitcom Seinfeld, where Jerry and friends are prosecuted for failure of duty to rescue.) The dominant cause is time pressure. Most of the students who believed they had enough time to stop did so. In contrast, the vast majority of those who thought they were late did not stop to help. In other words, the perception of time pressure or “having limited time” resulted in behaviors incongruent to their education and career: the devotion to help others. Time pressure triggered these well-intentioned students to behave in ways that, upon reflection, they would find disgraceful. The weight of a time constraint caused the students to put their immediate concern of being on time before the wellbeing of someone in need.

White Rabbit in the Disney Musical Alice in Wonderland

We’re in such hurry that we don’t stop to help ourselves

“I’m Late, I’m Late for a very important date,
No time to say hello. Goodbye.
I’m late, I’m late, I’m late, and when I wave,
I lose the time I save.”
White Rabbit in the Disney musical “Alice in Wonderland” (1951)

The Princeton Seminary Experiment offers an even more personal lesson. As the researchers in this experiment expound, when we speed up and feel rushed, we experience a phenomenon known as “narrowing of the cognitive map.” That is, we miss details, we are not present enough in the moment to notice what is really important and we do not make the most beneficial choices for ourselves.

As we make our way through life, not only do we not stop to help others—we also do not stop to help ourselves. We neglect our own needs. We fail to nurture ourselves. We surrender, we settle, we lose hope. We compromise ourselves and become what we often settle for.

Our noisy world and busy lives constantly make us hurry as somebody always depends on us being somewhere. We constantly rush from place to place as if our lives depended upon it. We rush while doing just about everything. We are at the mercy of commitments often imposed by others.

Life moves quickly. And we’ll have missed it.

We fail to nurture ourselves We’re too busy, we’re too hurried and we’re too rushed. When people place demands on our time, our first resort is to cut out that which is most valuable. We are so busy meeting deadlines that we cannot make time for our loved ones. We abandon physical exercise to get to meetings on time. We avoid medical checkups critical to our well-being. We engage in behaviors that can put ourselves at risk for negative consequences in the future.

As our world continues to accelerate and our pace of life picks up speed, the clock’s finger turns inescapably. Life moves on by quickly, and soon enough we’ll have missed it entirely.

Idea for Impact: Be ever-conscious of the fact that time is the currency of your life

The German theologian and anti-Nazi descendent Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) wrote in his “Letters and Papers from Prison”, “As time is the most valuable thing that we have, because it is the most irrevocable, the thought of any lost time troubles us whenever we look back. Time lost is time in which we have failed to live a full human life, gain experience, learn, create, enjoy, and suffer; it is time that has not been filled up, but left empty.”

Make the best use of your time. Interrupt your busy life to help yourself by living more fully in the present. Nurture yourself. Your needs belong to the top.

Comments

  1. Venkatasubramanian says

    An excellent article.
    I have almost been always in a high – hurry situation…….
    This article has made me realize the same.
    Have to do something about it.

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