Busyness Leads to Hypocrisy: A Psychological Study

If you were a seminary student on your way to give a talk on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and you happened to walk right by someone in obvious pain groaning in an alley – what do you think you’d do?

I mean, think about it. You are walking a short distance, surely thinking the whole way about what you’re going to say and how you’re going to share insight on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. You’re then presented with a situation that’s practically straight out of the parable – don’t you think a little voice inside your head would chime in, “Hey, genius! Maybe you should practice what you preach”?

I’d like to think I’d stop and offer help, but part of me doubts I would. Because in a 1973 psychological experiment seminary students were put in that exact situation, and the results are surprising (and slightly disappointing).

The Experiment

A group of seminary students were asked to report to a room one at a time where they were given a subject on which to speak for 3-5 minutes. Half of the students were told to speak on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, while the other half were told to speak on the topic of possible occupations for seminary graduates. The students were given a few minutes to prepare their speeches.

Then, they were directed to walk to a different building where they would make their presentation. One group (the “high-hurry” group) was told that they should hurry because they were already a few minutes late for their talk. The “intermediate-hurry” group was told to head right over. The “low-hurry” group was told that they still had a few minutes before their talk but that they might as well head over and wait for a little bit.

On the way to the location where they would speak, an actor was positioned in an alley where the students would pass by. The “victim” was dressed in shabby clothes, appeared to obviously be ill or in pain, and coughed and groaned as the students walked by.

The Results

The seminary students preparing to speak on the Parable of the Good Samaritan did have a slightly higher rate of helping the victim, but the difference wasn’t significant.

By far, the most significant factor was the hurry of the students.
The “high-hurry” group had a 10% rate of offering help, the “intermediate-hurry” group had a 45% rate, and the “low-hurry” group had a 63% rate of offering aid.

The researchers even noted this humorous but sad fact:

“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!”

What Were They Really Thinking?

Particularly intriguing to me was the post-experiment interviews of the seminary students. For those who didn’t offer help, what was going on – or rather not going on – in their minds?

It’s an oversimplification to say that busyness kept them from offering aid. In the case of some, they noticed the man but didn’t fully digest the fact that the man was in need. They didn’t even consider at that moment that they were making an ethical choice – it just didn’t occur to them.

Yet for others, they saw the man and comprehended his need. They realized that they were making an ethical decision (although a hurried one), but they chose to continue on and give their talk anyway. The seminary students were led to believe that this talk was important, so perhaps they weren’t being callous. Maybe they just made the decision at some level that giving the talk was more pressing for them to do. Maybe they figured the victim wasn’t really that ill. Maybe they figured that someone else would be along soon to help.

It’s a sobering reminder of the negative effects of busyness on our lives and potentially the lives of others. Are you blinded by busyness? Are you so carried away with the immediacy of your own busy life that the “greater good” you sometimes choose is to ignore the needs of others around you?

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