Tuesday, July 29, 2008
The Evil of Hurry
Some time ago I ran across this behavioral experiment on Richard Beck’s blog. It is fascinating because it speaks to my main curiosity – the pathology of human “evil.”
In 1973, John Darley and Daniel Batson published one of the most famous papers looking into human behavior. The study was entitled: “From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior.” The “Jerusalem to Jericho” paper is of interest to me because the study centered on a modern-day recreation of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Here's a sketch of what they did:
The study involved seminarians preparing for ministry. The students were randomly split into two groups. The first group was asked to prepare a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the second group prepared a sermon that had nothing to do with helping others. The students were then scheduled to deliver this sermon at a given time and place. When they arrived at the place, they were told that the location had been changed at the last minute and that they were to go to a new location. At this point, the students were split into three groups. A third were put under strong time pressure, told that they needed to get to the new venue in a hurry. A third was put under moderate time pressure. And finally, the third group was told that they could take their time getting to the new venue. Along the route (an alleyway) to the next venue they had placed a person who showed signs of distress. Specifically, they were sitting slumped against the wall, head down and eyes closed. As the subject passed, the person would cough twice and groan. Basically, they showed signs of abdominal pain. As the students passed the key variable was recorded: Would they stop to check on the groaning person?
What a great study! A controlled simulation of Jesus' parable. Even the use of seminarians is a nice touch, echoing the priest and Levite in the story. Well, who stopped to help? There were three main predictions that were being tested:
1: Almost everyone will stop. These are all seminarians! They are good people, bound for the ministry. Most will stop.
2: Those who were thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan will stop. Half of the seminarians had a sermon about the Good Samaritan in their heads. Those thinking about Jesus' parable would be more likely to recognize the situation.
3: Those who were less hurried will stop. Those who have the time, help. Those who don't have the time, don't.
So, what is your guess as to the outcome? It was 3. The single biggest factor in helping was hurry. The relevant contrast is striking. No hurry: 63% offered aid. High hurry: 10% offered aid. Some seminarians in a hurry literally stepped over the groaning person on the way to deliver their sermon on the Good Samaritan!
So, here are some observations about this study:
First, virtue is contextual. We are a different kind of person when we are hurried versus when we are unhurried. There is no “real” you. There is “hurried you” and “unhurried you.” And, as your family, friends, and coworkers can attest, hurried you and unhurried you are really two very different people.
Second, the Jerusalem to Jericho study makes this observation: Most people pursue spirituality as a hobby. Life with God is a leisure activity that compliments our cozy suburban lives. It’s compartmentalized along with baseball, football, PTA, and work. Why do I say this? Because hobbies and leisure activities are what we pursue when we have “free” time on our hands. But when we have “stuff to do,” we tend to place our hobbies to the side. They are not allowed to interfere with our urgent agenda. If so, then the Jerusalem to Jericho study suggests that helping others, for many, is a hobby. It's something to do on weekends, when you have some spare time, rather than a central and urgent feature of your life.
Third, hurry is a form of evil, if evil is defined as lack of empathy for other human beings. Hurry turns us into self-interested, callous jerks. Love sometimes involves slowness.