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Hurrying past our neighbors?

In 1973, two Princeton psychologists published a study that should give us pause amidst our hurry. The study subjects were seminary students, Christians preparing for a career in ordained ministry. They had signed up to serve in churches, help the poor, alleviate suffering and be “professional Christians.” Yet, when experimenters told the seminarians to hurry, they were much more likely to ignore human suffering that the experiment placed right in front of them.

In Luke’s gospel, a lawyer reiterates the traditional Jewish imperative to love God and love one’s neighbor. He then asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with an allegorical story about a man who was robbed, beaten and left naked and bleeding. A priest, a powerful religious leader, switched to the other side of the road to avoid the sketchy-looking man. A Levite, a member of the Jewish elite, does the same. Then, along came a Samaritan—a persecuted minority who was viewed as a second-class citizen by the Judean society in which Jesus preached. When the Samaritan saw the injured victim, “He was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn and took care of him.” Jesus finishes the story by asking, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

The Princeton experiment made clever use of the Good Samaritan parable. All subjects were told to prepare a talk; half were to base their talk on a text about future careers of seminary students, and half were given the parable of the Good Samaritan. After a few minutes to prepare, experimenters told the subjects to walk to a nearby building to give their talk to a professor’s assistant. A third of the subjects was told they were running late and needed to get moving (the “high-hurry” condition); the next third was simply told that the assistant was ready for them (“intermediate-hurry”); the last third heard that they would have a few minutes before the assistant would be ready (“low-hurry”). On their short journey to the nearby building, a stand-in Jericho, every seminarian passed by a faux victim who “was sitting slumped in a doorway, head down, eyes closed, not moving.” The experimenters instructed the victim to cough twice, groan and keep his head down as the subjects walked by.

Of the 40 seminarians in the study, only 16 offered the victim direct or indirect help, which ranged from telling the professor’s assistant about the victim to taking the victim inside and insisting on taking him to the infirmary. The other 24 subjects—60 percent of these ministers-in-training—walked past the clearly distressed victim without offering help. Seminarians who had just prepared a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan weren’t statistically more likely to help than those who had merely prepared a talk about career options. What made the difference? Hurry. A majority (63 percent) of the low-hurry subjects offered help, 45 percent of intermediate-hurry and only 10 percent of high-hurry. The difference between means proved significant in an ANOVA test.

The study’s authors summarized the results by saying, “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 … even if he is hurrying to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan, thus inadvertently confirming the point of the parable. (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 story of the Good Samaritan exemplifies Jesus’ call to enter into relationship with our neighbors, especially the marginalized and the suffering. Yet when told to hurry, aspiring pastors rushing to give a talk on the parable literally stepped over a man in need. What does this experiment mean for Christians and all who value love of neighbor? It might imply that what we hear in church and read in the Bible doesn’t affect our actions. That possibility raises tough but worthwhile questions for people of faith. Being in a hurry kept these seminarians from helping a neighbor in need; can we be better at recognizing and addressing suffering if we avoid being in a hurry? Could it be that leaving earlier for my classes and appointments would give me the space to be a better Christian?

A more modest schedule might help. But at Duke—and perhaps in modern American society—we live in a “high-hurry condition.” This study suggests that we’re predisposed to walk past hurt and suffering around us. I’m not sure what to do about it, but it’s enough to give me pause amidst the hurry.

Andrew Kragie is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday.


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