Busy Bystanders

Oh, the challenge of saying something interesting on a story known by many! We could spend a year on the Parable of the Merciful Samaritan and not approach the end of the conversation. So, this week I look at the story like a diamond–twisting it to see different facets reflecting myself back to me.

In 1973 John Darley and Daniel Batson published an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology entitled “‘From Jerusalem to Jericho’: A Study of Situation and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior.” You can access PDF’s of this article by searching the title. Here is a link courtesy the Greater Good Science Center: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/Darley-JersualemJericho.pdf .

There had been interest previously in the social psychology of helping (and non-helping) behavior. The interest became urgent in the aftermath of the murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese on March 13, 1964. Initial reports suggested that even though she screamed for help during the attack, as many as thirty-eight of her Queens neighbors failed to respond after hearing her cries. The number of witnesses was greatly reduced in subsequent investigations, and it is clear that one or more of the neighbors actually did respond to the cries for help.

Nonetheless, the story entered the popular imagination as a description of American urban callousness in the modern age. Social psychologists began to examine what they called the “Genovese effect”, or more frequently, “the bystander effect.” What might cause someone to ignore the suffering of another human being. More to the point, what sort of person might simply walk past another human being in need and fail to respond? Cue the 1973 study.

In short, the researchers recruited Princeton seminary students for a controlled experiment. The subjects completed a brief personality inventory with an emphasis on their religious perspectives. They received an assignment to give a brief talk in another building. Some were to talk about the Good Samaritan story. Others were to talk about seminary jobs. Some were told they were already later for their task. For others, there was more room in the schedule. On the way, they ran across a man slumped in an alleyway in some indeterminate state of distress.

As the subjects passed, the man moaned and coughed twice as they walked by. Responses were evaluated on the following scale:
0=failed to notice victim as in need
1=perceived need but did not offer aid
2=did not stop but helped indirectly (told the aide on their arrival)
3=stopped and asked if victim needed help
4=after stopping, insisted on taking victim inside and then left him.
5=refused to leave victim, or insisted on taking him somewhere

The subjects then went to their destination, gave their talks and completed a follow up questionnaire. The strongest correlation with willingness to help was made with the sense of hurry induced in the subjects. Personality type, task, priming with the story itself–none of these factors overcame the sense of time urgency the subjects experienced. It’s worth quoting the relevant paragraph from the article (apologies for the non-inclusive pronouns in the original–all the subjects were male):

“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. (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!).”

I’ve heard and preached sermons that raised questions about the motives, prejudices and fears of those who passed by on the other side. What if, however, they were simply in a hurry? That factor hits so close to home that I am bruised by the impact. One thing I will not miss about being a parish pastor is responding to relief calls from strangers. In most cases I had no access to funds with which to address the request. And in many cases, I was pressed for time, energy and patience as the requests came. I am ashamed to say that my responses correlated most clearly with my self-absorption and rarely had much to do with the merits of the request.

Of course, I am not relieved of any responsibility as I now reflect in my home office. The phone won’t ring with such requests. I will have the privilege of avoidance, if I choose to exercise it by keeping to myself. But a short trip almost anywhere in our city will bring me to the place of passing by on the other side. That will be the case at intersections and in front of stores, in parks and pavilions. I will likely “have something better to do” at the moment. Will I be neighbor or not? Will that depend on anything more than my sense of the scarcity of my own time? That is, indeed, one of the questions.

One thought on “Busy Bystanders

  1. No one is absolved of the matter of hurry and haste in the parable, not even the Samaritan. While it is true that he stops, helps, and is uncharacteristically generous, he nevertheless also must be “one his way” with a promise to return and settle additional costs on return. In crafting the parable Jesus inextricably links the matter of journey and disruption on the part of all, even the man “journeying from Jerusalem to Jericho.” That we are all on the move and in a hurry is a given. How we will interact on this journey is where the question of “neighbor” seems to reside.


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