The “Good Samaritan” Experiment Revisited

A powerful lesson for ethical leaders: excessive work pressure will destroy your team’s ability to recognise ethical issues, regardless of any ethics and compliance training you have given them
Many years ago (1973) psychologists at Princeton University conducted a psychology experiment, which has become famous as the “Good Samaritan” experiment after the bible parable, which it featured.
Like many psychology experiments which have become famous and in some cases notorious, the Princeton test involved a group of unsuspecting subjects (in this case forty Princeton theology students) who thought they were involved in something totally different.
The students were split into two groups; one was told they were preparing to give a talk on the Good Samaritan parable, the other group on potential vocations for theology students.
After some time each student was told they needed to head to the other side of campus to deliver their talk, and each was given a sense of urgency to get there – one third had time to spare, another was already late and had to rush, the third somewhere in between.
Part way along their route an actor was positioned in scruffy clothing and looking distressed. He had a script of statements to follow as each student passed expressing personal distress and some need for help.
As each student passed the experimenters observed whether each student stopped to offer help and if so, what kind of help they offered (form comforting words to refusing to leave the apparently distressed man alone).
In short, the experimenters recreated a modern day Good Samaritan scenario and looked at the theology students’ reactions.
One hypothesis held that those briefed to speak on the Good Samaritan parable would be more likely to stop and assist, as they had that ethical concept in mind.
You can probably guess the outcome: there was no meaningful difference in the number of Good Samaritan and vocation speakers who stopped. Apparently having in front of mind a directly relevant ethical example did little to influence the students to offer help. There was some evidence having the Good Samaritan parable in mind did influence the type of help offered, if help was actually offered.
However, the urgency which had been suggested to the students had a major impact on their behaviour: those in no hurry were 60% likely to offer help; those in the most urgent hurry only 10%.
The experimenters questioned the students after they arrived at the speech location.  This revealed that students in a hurry were less likely to have noticed the person in need of help, although in detailed follow up interviews they often had some recollection of seeing a person who, with hindsight, might have been in distress.  In other words, they didn’t consciously ignore the distressed person, but their hurry state narrowed their perception to the point where although they observed him, he state did not register – until prompted later.
The implications for ethical leadership are clear:
  • People under severe time pressure – stressed people – are unlikely to even register ethical issues;
  • Having an awareness of ethical behaviour – even immediately front of mind – does not really help people recognise ethical issues in daily life – although it may influence how they deal with those issues if they do recognise them.
In other words, don’t expect ethics training alone to significantly improve your business’ resilience to ethical risks.  You need to ensure staff and leaders have the mindfulness to be able to recognise ethical issues for what they are, rather than unconsciously “pass by on the other side”.