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The Parable Of The Good Samaritan

The term “Good Samaritan” finds its root in the New Testament, in the Parable Of The Good Samaritan

The Parable describes the fate of a Jewish traveler who is stripped of his clothing, beaten up, and left half dead alongside a road. First, a Jewish priest and then a Levite pass by the injured man, but both avoid helping the man. Eventually, a Samaritan comes along and notices the traveler. Although Samaritans and Jews despised each other, the Samaritan helps the injured man.

Jesus is supposed to have narrated this Parable in response to a question by a follower, “Who is my neighbor?”- to illustrate that the one who shows mercy to help others is a true neighbor and a good Samaritan.

The Princeton Seminary Experiment

In the 1970s, Inspired by this Parable of the Good Samaritan, two psychology researchers from Princeton University conducted a social experiment at the Princeton Theological Seminary. The purpose of the research was to understand how human nature changes when under time pressure. 

The research involved a group of theology students giving a sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan to supervisors who would then grade them.

On the experiment day, the researchers got the students to assemble in a hall on one end of the campus. Then, one by one, the students had to walk across the campus to deliver their sermon at a studio in front of a few supervisors waiting to evaluate them.

As the students waited in the lecture hall for their names to be called , the researchers introduced an element of time pressure by giving them one of three specific instructions.

  1. “Haven’t you started yet? You are already late. The supervisors were expecting you a few minutes ago… You’d better hurry.” This was a high-hurry message given to one set of students. 
  2. “You can go right over. he (studio) assistant is ready for you.” This was the medium-hurry message given to the second set of students. 
  3. “The earlier student is still giving his sermon. It’ll take a few more minutes before they are ready for you. But, you might as well head over to the studio. Even if you have to wait, it shouldn’t be long.” This was the low-hurry message given to the third cohort of students. 

Now, as each student walked across the campus to the studio, the actual experiment started. At an isolated vantage point in the route, the researchers placed an associate dressed up like a homeless destitute, coughing, and in need of help- much like the wounded traveler in the Parable of the good Samaritan.

How would the students of the high-hurry, medium-hurry, and low-hurry cohorts react to the distressed stranger on the campus- this was the crux of the experiment.

Time Pressure Makes us more self-absorbed.

The results were on predictable lines but very revealing. 

  • The students of the high-hurry cohort barely noticed the victim as they rushed across to give their sermon. Only 10% of them stopped to help the victim. 
  • The situation was much better with the medium-hurry cohort. About 45% of the students stopped to help the victim.
  • In the low-hurry cohort, almost 63% of the students noticed the victim and helped out.

The researchers concluded in their report, “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.”

Lessons From The Experiment

The research authors say that when we speed up and feel rushed at anything we do, we experience a phenomenon known as the “narrowing of the cognitive map.” As per this, when our mind is in any sort of response pressure, we miss obvious details, and we are not present to observe or notice what is important. As a result, we tend to make mistakes and don’t make beneficial choices for ourselves. We are also less prone to help others even if we can.

When we are too busy, too hurried, and too rushed, life moves very quickly. When our environment demands our time, our natural response is to cut out the most convenient, often the most valuable. In meeting the crazy-busy deadlines, we miss making time for our loved ones. We unconsciously sacrifice the good routines in favor of the urgent and busy. 

As we emerge from the throes of the pandemic, I have no doubt that the pace of the world will accelerate, and with it the pace of our life will also pick up speed. Life will move quickly, and we should be careful not to get stuck on the highway of busyness. Instead, we should learn to navigate the busyness at a pace that is our own. 

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