Pay It Forward: Can you guess this experiment’s result? “Good Samaritan Experiment” is so famous that it shows up in books from college texts to Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

Today’s questions are:
Can you guess the result?
Do you agree with the findings?

Princeton psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson designed the experiment, based on the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan—the timeless story of how a stranger helped a man who had been beaten and robbed on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Yesterday I told our personal story of a modern-day Good Samaritan who came to our rescue and how we were able to pay it forward and aid someone else.

Such stories of kindness inspire us—but do they move us to action? That’s what Darley and Batson wanted to measure. They recruited 40 theology students to participant in the experiment. Some of the students were told to prepare a short talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Others were asked to prepare a talk on another subject unrelated to the theme of helping. The participants’ experiences also varied in the last thing each was told before leaving the preparation area for the building where the talks were to be given. In sending off some students, the person conducting the experiment would look at his watch and say, “Oh, you’re late. … Get moving.” In other cases, the students were told they would arrive early, “but you might as well head over now.”

Along the way to the new location, each student traversed an alleyway and encountered a poorly dressed man slumped by the side of the road. The man would cough and groan when the student came near, clearly in pain and in need of help.

So who helped?

Darley and Batson found that most people who hear about the experiment predict either all of them, because they’re seminary students, or those who had freshly thought about the Good Samaritan. But these factors didn’t matter.

How hurried a student was turned out to be the best predictor of who helped. About two-thirds of the seminarians in the “low hurry” situation helped. But only 10 percent of the “high hurry” group stopped. Even Darley and Batson were surprised to find that some of the hurrying students actually stepped over the poor man on their way to give the talk!

Here’s how Malcolm Gladwell interprets the experiment: “The convictions of your heart and the actual contents of your thoughts are less important, in the end, in guiding your actions than the immediate context of your behavior.” Gladwell concludes a couple of pages later that this actually is good news, because time-related stress is a “tipping point” that people can potentially control.

But that’s Gladwell’s interpretation. Do you agree?

Darley and Batson are cited everywhere, but do you buy their findings?

How has hurrying affected your life?

Please, take a moment to leave a Comment below.

Originally published at, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.

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