The Good Samaritan Experiment. No Time to Care?


The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Balthasar van Cortbemde (1647) Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons Licence.

The Good Samaritan Experiment. This is a really interesting bit of work for anyone involved in how care is provided.

Dave Snowden originally switched me on to it. Dr Rebecca Sharp picked it up again at the Bangor University Festival of Behaviour Change (#behfest16 link here) in a session about how ‘Good People do Bad Things’. Before I get onto the experiment, please consider the following situations, and try to keep them to mind:

  • A social worker with a packed caseload of children at risk,
  • A nurse working on a busy ward with ‘not enough hours in the day’,
  • A primary school teacher with a class of 35 kids, four of then with additional needs,
  • A young person, in full-time education, caring for a family member,
  • A home carer with a list of eight, ’15 minute visits’ between 10am and midday, and
  • A manager with 25 ‘reports’, an inbox with 240 unread emails and pressure from their  Senior Leadership Team boss to get all the annual performance appraisals done by the deadline.

Princeton University Theological Seminary 1973. The experiment was carried out by John Darley and Daniel Batson, and you can read the original Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper here: “From Jerusalem to Jericho”.

To set the scene there are a couple of things you need to know. First is the Parable of the Good Samaritan (see image from the Balthasar von Cortbemde above). If you are unfamiliar with the parable, have a look at Luke 10: 29-37, but the basics of the The Good Samaritan story are:

  • A man is travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho,
  • He is attacked by robbers and left for dead by the side of the road,
  • A priest passed by, ignored the man and went past,
  • A Levite passed by, and did the same, hurried on his way,
  • A Samaritan passed by, stopped and helped the man,
  • The Samaritan went as far as taking the injured man to a place of safety and paid for his care,
  • Jesus asks, ‘which three of these was a good neighbour?’,
  • Answer, ‘he who showed mercy, the Samaritan’,
  • Jesus then instructs people to ‘go and do likewise’.

The second thing you need to know is that the people involved in the experiment were attending the Princeton Theological Seminary. These weren’t Microbiologists, Lawyers or Chemists. They had more than a passing interest in Theology. They were likely to become involved in the world of religion themselves. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is likely to have meant something significant to them.

How the Experiment Worked: There’s a useful video that explains this below, but in shorthand:

  1. A group of 40 students are carefully selected to avoid bias and other ‘contamination’,
  2. They are split into 2 groups, and each group was asked to prepare a lecture, which they will have to present,
  3. One group has the topic of the Parable of the Good Samaritan,
  4. The other group is talking about job opportunities for people studying theology,
  5. They are then told that the lecture is to be delivered in separate building, a distance away,
  6. They are given times to get to the building;
    • small amount of time (they will have to rush),
    • reasonable amount to time,
    • plenty of time, absolutely not need to rush.
  7. On their way to the venue, it has been set up so that they will encounter a person in distress. Someone who is coughing and has abdominal pains (an injured traveller?).
  8. The whole point of the experiment is to observe their reactions to the injured traveller.  Do they ‘pass to the other side of the road’ or do they stop to help?

Who stops to help? Before revealing the results, what do you think?

  • Does ‘framing’ The Good Samaritan Story beforehand have an impact? Do the people going to deliver that lecture behave differently to the people going to talk about jobs?
  • Does time pressure have an impact? Do the people in a rush behave differently to those with plenty of time on their hands?

Here is the video from Bo Bennett at  (worth watching for the last sentence)

The Results. Hopefully you’ve watched the video, but just in case:

  • Framing of The Good Samaritan Story. There was no difference between how the people who were giving a lecture about jobs and those giving a lecture about the Parable of the Good Samaritan, responded to the injured traveller.
  • Degree of Hurrying. I find this interesting, some people were in such a rush that they literally stepped over the person in distress. Getting back to the test groups, the percentage of people who offered help were:
    • Low Hurry – 63%
    • Intermediate Hurry – 45%
    • High Hurry – 10%

Pause for a Moment and Think About This. For people in rush, only 1 out of 10 people stopped to help someone on distress. Even for those people with plenty of time, almost 4 out of 10 also passed straight by.

There are some interesting implications of this research. Thinking about those people I mentioned earlier (the Nurses, the Teachers, the Home Carers, the Manager etc), what does it mean to be in a big hurry? Do the pressures imposed by the ‘system’ and world around you reduce your capacity to care?

One Final Thought. What about robot carers? Completely rational machines that are programmed not to be rushed, and to deliver the care that is needed. Could they be more caring than a human under time pressure? Shirley Ayres will have a view on this, are robots the future of care?

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Is ability to care, linked to the ‘time available’ to care?
  2. If you are working in a highly time pressured environment, is your ability to care reduced?
  3. Would ‘giving more time’ automatically mean a greater level of caring?

Image Source: Parable of the Good Samaritan by Balthasar van Cortbemde (1647)

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

4 Responses

  1. Fascinating – as with your all your blogs! It will take a lot of sophisticated programming to ensure that a robot will know when a patient just needs their hand to be held, to identify and respond to the cause of distress in a patient unable to communicate their needs when it could be anything from a fear of unfamiliar surroundings to severe pain or hunger.
    Certainly for the short term I’d prefer to see us address the demands on healthcare professionals’ time to ensure they have time to care, time to feel empathy, so that means a) providing them with the tools to help them do their jobs efficiently and b) ensure the culture of an organisation recognises the social and financial value of ensuring that staff have time to ‘care’.
    Then by all means keep developing the robots – there’s no doubt they have a role to play.

  2. Jess

    Hi Chris
    I found this research very interesting. I am currently in my society and culture class and we were investigating this experiment. I like the funny pictures! Thank you for your insight into this. It has taught my peers and I a lot.

  3. Hannah

    Hey Chris,
    This article is very insightful and really expanded my knowledge on this experiment. I appreciate your time and effort you put in this article to benefit my education.
    Thanks 🙂

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