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?
Hmmm. I think your thoughts were more lucid and complete than mine were!
There may be some relation to situational ethics, but I don’t think we’re talking the same thing. Situational ethics defines what’s morally right according to the situation… in this example, none of the students (presumably) would argue that it is morally right not to help, but it was situationally inconvenient. What it illustrates is not that so much that our ethics are determined by context, but that our actions are. And we don’t seem to have a lot of trouble rationalizing the fact that our actions don’t match our ethics… or our intentions, as there’s probably a lot of overlap there.
I don’t think the people who did the study (which Gladwell cites) were concerned at all about the decision-making process, and I don’t think I am either on the basis of the preceding. An inquiry there would likely yield a detailed explanation of exactly how each student could rationalize not helping when he clearly held the belief and value that he should. I know this fairly certainly, because it’s exactly what I’d do! ;^)
But do you, personally, hold the value that you *should* stop and help every time you see a need? And what about the *need* to keep one’s commitments? I’d say that these folks were provided with competing needs and they had to choose one. *How* they chose would be extremely relevant to me.
For instance, I have a friend for whom time is not important/relevant. It doesn’t enter her decision making process. I, on the other hand, find it to be the height of rudeness to keep someone waiting (thus not valuing his/her time) and as such it would have a huge impact on my choice of action. Whether you consider which need is more pressing, or which you are more capable of meeting, or whether you are so focused that you don’t notice, or whether you simply don’t want to stop is quite relevant, I think. I honestly don’t believe that any one of us is capable of meeting all the needs we believe we *should* stop to meet. So the basis upon which we make the choice seems to me far more practical a place to begin. :-)
Ah, now I get your gist a bit better. No, I don’t think it’s our individual responsibility to meet every need… I generally think that the Holy Spirit will “highlight” the situations we’re supposed to get involved with. otoh, there are a lot of times where we just don’t seem to get any guidance at all, and in those times, I think we default toward not helping when perhaps we should reach out more at those times too.
I also follow your notion of people to whom time seems unimportant… I know some of those myself. So yes, it’s important to be on time and meet those committments… provided we don’t make the default assumption that an intervening or complicating factor that forces us to make a choice couldn’t be God.
Now for the big question. If you think we should be concerned about behavioural relativism are you then advocating the existence of “absolute behaviour” as the alternative? And what would that look like?
Cindy-lu, you’re just not letting me get away with anything here, are you? ;^)
I think the point isn’t so much that there’s a programmed behaviour that’s absoulte for every situation. I think the point is that behaviourally, we already act otherwise, recognizing easily that for situations with any degree of complexity, it’s just not that simple. It’s simple that you stop your car at a red light… but there’s a slight complexity if there’s an ambulance behind you with lights and siren on, prompting you to go through the red light.
Perhaps it’s a non sequiter for us to have thought that there would be a theoretical version of absoluteness when we realize there isn’t a practical one. Just asking the question, mostly… it’s something to think through, to challenge our assumptions and see if they survive or not ;^)
Frankly, I’m just SOOO enjoying being able to hash through things with someone who’s a thinker – like me. Jude keeps telling me to stop trying to make non-thinkers think. And maybe she’s right. I’m getting a pretty big lump on my forehead from banging my head against that particular brick wall. Thanks for thinking and not taking it personally. That, alone, is refreshing.
Oh, and I did read that article on Simple Church. I’ll wait for an appropriate post to ask some of my questions. :-)