How likely are you to stop and help a stranger? Do you think that would change if the ethos you subscribe to is all about helping others? Here's an experiment that tested that very idea.

In 1973, a series of young Princeton students were sent across campus to give an important talk. Some of the time, the students were told they should get to the other side of campus without dawdling, as they only had a few minutes. The rest of the time, they were told they were already late, and people were waiting for them.

As they hurried across campus, they saw a man coughing, doubled over, on the ground in an alley. He was in need of help, apparently. He was actually a plant put in the alley by the researchers, who wanted to see if the students students would help the man. Overall, about 40% of the students did. The main variable was time. Of the students who believed they were already late, only 10% stopped to help the man. Some actually stepped over him to get on their way.

What made far less difference? All the students in the group were seminary students. They were on their way to give a talk, sometimes about seminary jobs, and sometimes about the parable of the Good Samaritan. While there was a difference in helping percentage between the people giving the Good Samaritan talk — 53% helped — and the jobs talk — 29% helped — it didn't have nearly as much influence as the amount of time the students believed they had.

There was one last condition. Before being sent to give the talk, the seminary students were asked to fill out questionnaires meant to find out what religious "type" they considered themselves to be. Some were more a priestly, spiritual type. Others identified themselves as a Samaritan type, who believed religion could improve the world. This had no effect on whether they helped the man.


To be fair to the study participants, they were young students under pressure. The researchers noted that the people who did not help appeared upset when they arrived across campus to give their "talk". That being said, the major factor that swayed their decision was time. So if you really want to help your fellow humans, schedule a good long chunk of the day in which to do it.

[Via From Jerusalem to Jericho]