The Psychology of the Good Samaritan

O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8).


While attending a legal ethics seminar last Saturday, I surprisingly had the most spiritual moment of my year.  A speaker there relayed the story of From Jerusalem to Jericho, an (apparently famous, but I had never heard of it) psychology study from 1973.  (A more readable journalistic summary is here.)  The authors specialized in research regarding what conditions prompt bystanders to help ailing strangers, rather than to ignore them.

The set-up was simple. At Princeton Theological Seminary, 40 theology students were assigned to prepare lectures as part of a final exam.  The exam occurred in a tight time frame: in 15-minute increments, instructors told individual students they needed to either leisurely wend their way across campus, or rush across campus, in order to make it to the building where their graded lecture would be recorded.  Half of the students were specifically assigned to speak on the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

But the lecture wasn’t the real test.  The real test was that as they darted across campus, each student would encounter a sick and distressed man, lying in their path.

Only ten percent of the students who had been told to “hurry” stopped to help. One student, in his rush, literally stepped over the suffering man without acknowledging his existence. (To be fair: 63% of the students who were told they had plenty of time to get across campus did stop and offer help.)  Interestingly, there was no statistical difference between those students speaking on the Good Samaritan, and those speaking on other topics.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this study.  These were seminarians.  Literally people who had chosen to dedicate their entire life’s study and vocation to Christ.  Literally people who had spent the last several hours studying one of Christianity’s greatest parables.  And still, they were so human, so inherently selfish, so subject to the never-ending pressures of manufactured urgency and all-important grades, that they couldn’t be bothered to stop to help.

I wince at how much that description applies to me.  My frenetic work schedule, my church attendance, my side hobby of reading religious works — what does any of it matter, if I can’t spare time to be kind?  If I don’t even notice the suffering around me?

Suddenly, Christ’s instructions to “preach nothing save it were repentance and faith on the Lord” (Mosiah 18:20) seem so wise.  We don’t need anything else.  Two painstakingly simple commandments – love God, love your neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39) – are hard enough.  As individuals, churches, and communities, I now believe we should have only one goal:  to narrow this “Good Samaritan” gap between Christian belief and Christian action.

*Photo credit, GoodSam11” by sbhland on Flickr.


  1. I’ve heard of this being done, even at BYU religion classes. I’m of a couple of minds on it. On the one hand, I completely agree with your sentiments. On the other hand, I don’t know that I can get on board with artificial spirituality tests.

    All that said, there a few strangers whose eyes have met mine over the years that I did not help, and that haunt my memories to this day. One particular young mother at a long snowy airport taxi line for whom I desperately wish I could go back and do the right thing. Alas, I am left to look forward and commit to help those who may yet come in my path.

  2. I’m of two minds as well. First is similar to yours in that how sad is it that as a Christian I get so busy that I don’t notice suffering.

    Second though is about having boundaries. I end up feeling dragged to the ground myself by other people’s endless needs that I am expected to stop and fix. I give and give and give. Sometimes, I need it to be okay to take care of my own needs. I need to be able to see the suffering, recognize that I would stop if I could, but that in this moment I have to look to myself not because I’m selfish, but because I’m aware that there is only so much of me to go around and I can’t solve everything and every problem.

    To put this back into the context of the research, what if one of the students who ran past the injured person was a single mom on the verge of flunking out of this class because she kept missing classes to take care of her kid and she believed this exam was her last chance to save her grade and her educational goals? Is it wrong in that situation for her to ask that someone else help the sufferer and she not be labelled a sinner because she ran past?

  3. The story would be better if the people that were told to rush and actually stopped and helped…and were thus late….if they in fact flunked the test as a result. Because rules are rules. And you get the blessings of service, but you also get the consequence of not accomplishing what was required. In all the stories we like to share, it ends up that the person who stopped gets the BEST grade, when in real life it’s often not like that. There are countless LDS persons, for example, that could have been noted athletes in the public sphere, but never attained that because of refusal to play in games on Sundays in sports leagues. But we don’t tell these stories. “Sarah decided not to play soccer on Sunday. As a result she never did play on the national team, although she very well could have given her athletic potential. But that was the cost of her decision. Now Sarah has three children and occasionally blogs.”

  4. Paul Ritchey says:

    Get me a study where the seminarians walk past a shooting, and we’ll talk. In the parable, the Samaritan rescued a man from what would have likely been death at the hands of further attackers, his wounds, or the elements in a remote place. That real, obvious risk should have outweighed whatever business most folks were on. On a busy college campus (equipped, no doubt, with its own emergency medial personnel), the needs of a sick man seem far less immediate.

    But if we refrain from stopping out of apathy, or contempt, or unreasonable suspicion, rather than because we have other important commitments, then shame on us.

  5. On the shooting point: Others studies have shown that more egregious suffering is often –less– likely to be responded to, particularly in crowds. There have been many famous examples in the news of people getting beaten, shot, killed, abused, and screaming “help me” where dozens can hear — and no one calls the cops or actually helps. It seems that (a) everyone is waiting for someone else to make a move, and (b) for ordinary people, seeing someone get punched or shot invokes a “freeze” reaction. Suddenly the “risk” of interfering for the bystander goes up dramatically — they could get punched or shot too, so their instinct is to run away.

    In other words, I’m not sure having the scenario be a shooting victim would actually make an enormous difference in the overall trends.

  6. I’ve been reading the book Imagine by John Burke. It tells the stories of people with near death experiences. They each recount how there was a “ life review” before God. I have been thinking so much on what my life review will be. And now this post. So many good thoughts and comments. I call myself a Christian. But maybe I need some serious soul searching. I have also at times been so overwhelmed with all the people who need me that I’ve felt I just couldn’t take one more persons needs. The scripture about Angels unaware. Hebrew 13:2 is on my mind today.

  7. I’m a little surprised that the first few comments are about problems with the study and not the main point of the post.

    The question of how right belief weighs against right action is an interesting one to me. As is the question of whether right belief is a necessary precursor to right action, and whether right action can create right belief. I’m comforted by the idea that right action is more important because action seems doable to me, though my sins of omission are many.

  8. I already know, from personal experience, that I don’t stop to help the stranger. I need to think about why that is. Thanks for the reminder.

  9. I know people whose first reaction is always to stop and help; I am not one of those. Too often, I will know about a problem, but until somebody says “Can you help?”, it’s like it never occurred to me. Usually, then, I am willing to jump in and lend a hand. I have to make a conscious effort to look for those around me that need help.without promptings from others. It is now a frequent topic in my prayers, and I am finding more opportunities to serve, I believe, as a result. But it is still not usually my first reaction..

  10. It’s about competing goods. Finishing the assignment is a good thing. Offering service is a good thing. What happens when two things are in conflict? Life is filled with such dilemmas, mainly in how we spend our most valuable resource: our time. Right now I’m sitting here on BCC with an NBA game playing in the background. I should probably be doing something better with my time.

  11. Well if you count BCC as “scripture study” and so long as the NBA game includes the Warrio—oh right, they don’t play tonight. Straight to damnation for you :-)

  12. Geoff - Aus says:

    Where I live I see no beggars on the street. I read blogs and comments from the US, about the worthiness of these people. I spent some months there last year and made a point of giving to each one I saw. I think because I live in a more caring country, and less likely to have rationalles for not helping ready.
    I think it would be interesting to do the same experiment in social democracies, and see whether the environment allowed people to be more caring.

  13. One of my colleagues did a study of the homeless and panhandling. Most of the money was spent on drugs and alcohol. Even giving a couple of bucks to a homeless person can be fraught with moral peril. Am I contributing to someone’s death as a result of giving them money, which might be used for their very last shot of heroin? Do you tell yourself, “The money I would have given this man, I’m giving directly to the local homeless shelter, where I can have more confidence that the money will go towards a purpose I endorse.” And so forth.

  14. I am reminded that even Jesus took one apart to fast and pray and strengthen himself. He had special friends, Mary and Martha and Lazarus. He praised the woman who anointed him with oil.
    The point I am making is that both are required, self-care, and care of others.

  15. I actually know–from a particular experience years ago that was called out and labeled–that I am someone who stops. I’d like to credit myself. (OK, I’m doing it right here. Admit it. Even though it’s not always and not even reliable enough to be proud of.)

    But the real credit goes to my father who told me at age 12 that from time to time there would be a need for an on-the-spot sermon, and that I should prepare a talk on the Good Samaritan that I could pull out on a moment’s notice. I have (figuratively) carried it in my back pocket for 50 years.

    I can’t remember ever giving that talk at a pulpit. But I can’t forget the lesson for myself. Maybe it just takes time to sink in. Or a father telling you that it’s important enough to make it a life’s work.

  16. “I end up feeling dragged to the ground myself by other people’s endless needs that I am expected to stop and fix. I give and give and give. ”

    Discipleship. He who descended below all things, allowed himself to be dragged to the ground out of pure love. That being said, he discerned what the true need was. He did not spend all his time feeding the poor, and when the poor asked for more food his answers pointing to the physical & spiritual turned them away in disgust.

    We ought not to give what is not needed, nor necessarily even what is asked or expected.

  17. Big wreck in front of me on a major interstate. I got out to stop and help. Didn’t end up doing anything (nothing was needed). Maybe this post influenced me, who knows.

  18. AF – What you say is true, but it is much easier to talk about theoretically than it is to live practically, especially for an LDS woman where saying ‘yes’ to all requests (especially within church settings) is seen as righteousness. I’m not arguing that it is righteousness, just that this is where our culture has us sitting at the moment (see Mormon Message Video “You Never Know” for an example of this).

    How do we change this? How do we let go (as a church) of all the minutia and fulfilling of minor needs to seek discipleship and the solving of greater needs? I’m open to ideas. The only thing that has really worked for me is withdrawing from the ward and making myself inaccessible (doesn’t work so well with work, extended family, and kids).

  19. I heard a most wonderful sermon on the Good Samaritan. Every character in the story was analysed in great detail. Modern analogies were offered. A Clinton supporter stopping to help a beaten Trumpster. The Good Samaritan was likened as a type of Christ who is always there to help us when in need. Except one character was not described. The robbers.

    I got to thinking about the robbers. Who would most likely rob and beat up a Jewish fellow at that time? Suddenly an unorthodox interpretation hit me. The robbers were probably Samaritans! Who else hated the Jews more? One of them returned out of guilt to try and make amends. That seems to better fit how I do things; blunder and then try to make amends.

    Then the next idea followed. If the Good Samaritan was a Christ figure, then is not the hand of the divine the ultimate source of all of our suffering? The problem of evil is solved. God is like a Samaritan robber who beats us up and then returns and bandages us and we are grateful for it.

    For better or worse, this happened in a Protestant meeting and the preacher is a good friend and he stands at the front of the church after each meeting to answer any questions. Since nobody else was talking to him, I thought I would share these thoughts with him. He was highly amused.

  20. Stephen M (Ethesis) says:

    What struck me about this study was how much of a difference it made if people were not pressed for time and in the collateral study how much of a difference it made if they had a prepared action plan.

    That suggests that if we want to care we need to prepare by having time and planning specific actions.

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