Acts of kindness are largely influenced by situational factors, not simply dispositional ones.
In the Bible, Jesus tells a story of a Samaritan who helped a man who just had the bjesus beaten out of him by a gang of ancient thugs, while a priest and Levite just passed by. This story has become known as the parable of the Good Samaritan, often translated as good people help and bad people don't. However, social psychology demonstrates that things aren't that simple.
It is 1973 at Princeton Theological Seminary. Forty students took part in an experiment which was ostensibly a study on religious education and vocations. In one building, they completed a questionnaire, then they were instructed to go to another building to give either a talk on jobs or a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The participants were told to hurry, but to different degrees. On the way to the second building, a confederate (actor who is part of the study) was hunched over in the alley, in plain sight, in clear need of help. Did these participants help?
First the researchers found that it didn't matter whether the participants were going to talk about vocations or about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Second, the "hurry variable" was significantly correlated to the helping behavior, that is, the more the participants were in a hurry, the less helping behavior they demonstrated. In fact, only 10% of those who were in the "high hurry" category offered aid to the suffering actor (who probably was really suffering with the fact that he had to resort to taking scientific study gigs in New Jersey). Those in less of a hurry offered more help—as many as 63% of the subjects in the low hurry condition.
The sample size of 40 participants is relatively small, especially when divided up into three hurry conditions (slight, medium, and extreme hurry).
It was suggested that distraction and pressure of speaking could have caused the participants not to be consciously aware of the suffering actor—at least not fully process the situation. Although, in a post interview the participants did claim that they were aware of the victim as someone "possibly in need of help."
We are all too quick to apply dispositional labels on people for their actions or lack of actions, while ignoring the situational factors that are so influential in behavior. We need to stop and think before being too hard on ourselves or on others for actions and behaviors.
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