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In Malcolm Gladwell’s Book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference he tells of a fascinating experiment: “Some years ago two Princeton University psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson, decided to conduct a study inspired by the biblical story of the Good Samaritan. They decided to replicate that study at the Princeton Theological Seminary ... Darley and Batson met with a group of seminarians, individually, and asked each one to prepare a short, extemporaneous talk on a given biblical theme, then walk over to a nearby building to present it. Along the way to the presentation, each student ran into a man slumped in an alley, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning. The question was: ‘Who would stop and help?’ Darley and Batson introduced three variables into the experiment, to make its results more meaningful. First, before the experiment even started, they gave the students a questionnaire about why they had chosen to study theology. Why did they want to learn about God? Then they varied the subject of the theme the students were asked to talk about. Some were asked to speak on the relevance of the professional clergy to the religious vocation. Others were given the parable of the Good Samaritan. Finally, the instructions given by the experimenters to each student varied as well. In some of the cases, as he sent the students on their way, the experimenter would look at his watch and say, ‘Oh, you’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago.’ In other cases, he would say, ‘It will be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head over now.’ So, these students had just been asked to think about why they were in Seminary, they were given a Biblical topic - some the actual story of the Good Samaritan and then some were told they were late and others were not.

I don’t know about you but if I had been asked who I thought would stop and help with these conditions I would of said, the students who entered the ministry to help people and those especially that were reminded of the importance of compassion by having just read the parable of the Good Samaritan and speak on it.

In fact, neither of those factors made any difference. ‘It is hard to think of a context in which helping those in distress would be more predictable than for a person thinking about the Good Samaritan, and yet it did not significantly increase helping behavior,’ Darley and Batson concluded. ‘Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way.’ The only thing that really mattered was whether the student was in a rush. Of the group that was, 10 percent stopped to help. Of the group who knew they had a few minutes to spare, 63% stopped.

What this study is suggesting, is that the knowledge that you have is less important than the immediate self-need you perceive. The words ‘Oh, you’re late’ had the effect of making someone who was ordinarily compassionate into someone who was indifferent to suffering. That tells me we’ve got to really work on this. When it comes to helping those in need and loving our neighbors, the greatest ability is availability!