The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference From Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (p.163-5):

Some years ago two Princeton University psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson, decided to conduct a study inspired by the biblical story of the Good Samaritan. …[The experiment] is an important demonstration of how the Power of Context has implications for the way we think about social epidemics of all kinds…

Darley and Batson met with a group of seminarians, individually, and asked each one to prepare a short, extemporaneous talk on a given biblical theme, and then walk over to a nearby building to present it. Along the way to the presentation, each studnet ran into a man slumped in an alley, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning. The question was, who would stop and help? Darley and Batson introduced three variables into the experiment, to make its results more meaningful.

The duo gave each seminarian a questionnaire to complete beforehand about why they wanted to study theology, they varied the subject of the talk to be given — some even including the subject of the Good Samaritan. Lastly, they varied the instructions given to the students.

In some of the cases, as he sent the students on their way, the experimenter would look at his watch and say, “Oh, you’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. We’d better get moving.” In other cases, he would say, “It will be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head over now.”

If you ask people to predict which seminarians played the Good Samaritan (and subsequent studies have done just this) their answers are highly consistent. They almost all say that the students who entered they ministry to help people and those reminded of the importance of compassion by having just read the parable of teh Good Samaritan will be the most likely to stop. Most of us, I think, would agree with those conclusions. In fact, neither of those factors made any difference. “It is hard to think of a context in which norms concerning helping those in distress are more salient than for a person thinking about the Good Samaritan, and yet it did not significantly increase helping behavior,” Darley and Batson concluded. “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 only thing that really mattered was whether the student was in a rush. Of the group that was, 10 percent stopped to help. Of the group who knew they had a few minutes to spare, 63 percent stopped.

This much may not be a surprise to many of us… I in fact recall hearing sermons on the Good Samaritan proclaiming the fact that we don’t tend to help people, especially if we’re in a hurry or if it’s othewise inconvenient. Saying it doesn’t change our behaviour though. But Gladwell’s conclusion helps drive this home for me:

What this study is suggesting, in other words, is that 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 behaviour.

That’s really it, isn’t it? The single most important factor is not what we believe or how convinced we are of the virtue of helping others… it’s simply the context in which we act and how it affects us personally. It’s relative. On the day I read this, I wrote Gladwell’s conclusion in my Moleskine, followed by the question, “…and we’re concerned about philosophical relativism?”

Wow. The evangelical church has been concerned about relativism for some while now, as a great evil… they argue for absolute truth. Not that the question of truth is irrelevant, but perhaps we should be just a little more concerned about behavioural relativism rather than philosophical relativism. Let’s see… “love God, love your neighbour” …probably behavioural. Hmm. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” That’s probably behavioural too. I imagine if we looked, we might perhaps find some principle about it mattering less what we say and more what we do — not that we have every one of the facts straight about Jesus, but that we give a cup of water in his name because we are his disciples. If we looked.

Who are you? Perhaps it depends who you’re with, and what challenge is before you. Which kind of relativism is a greater peril, philosophical or behavioural?

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