Today, I experimented on my kids…

After some great opening lessons at the start of the semester, I was trying to figure out what lesson I should do with my high school youth group on Sunday morning. I was going to teach them about an experiment that has taught me a great deal about how to best live out my faith, but then I realized: they’d learn the lesson better if they did it themselves. So today, I ran the experiment on them.

Back in 1973, Darley and Batson performed a psychology experiment at Princeton Theological Seminary, in which they asked a group of students to prepare a sermon on either the Parable of the Good Samaritan or on Christian vocation. These students were then instructed to deliver the sermon in another building across campus. They were put into three conditions: high hurry (in which they were told they were running late), medium hurry (in which they were told to get there quickly), and low hurry (in which they had plenty of time). Along the path to the other building, there was a “victim” lying in an alleyway. The real experiment was designed to see how many people would, like the Good Samaritan, stop to help the victim.


An illustration of the parable from the Chinese artist He Qi.

Interestingly, being primed by reading the Good Samaritan didn’t improve your odds. Nor did your level of religiosity. The most important factor was simply: were you in a rush? In low hurry situations, 63% helped, in medium hurry situations 45% helped, and in the high hurry situation only 10% helped. To me, it’s a lesson that no matter how much scripture we read (or ethical philosophy for that matter!), if we are always in a rush and consumed with our own tasks, we will fail to implement it. Since Irvine kids tend to be pretty consumed with their homework, extracurriculars, and test prep, I thought it would be an important lesson for them to grow as disciples of Jesus.

I gathered them all into the room, and told them we’d be doing a special activity today. Our church has a large Chinese ministry high school group, but I work with the English students. So I told them we were going to start a “penpal” group with the other ministry, in order to help teach them English. They were to write a letter on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then they would go one by one over to another room to deliver it to a student there, with whom they would chat. Interestingly, many of them were instantly reticent – what if my English isn’t good enough? What if I make a mistake? What if I make them worse. (This may suggest a whole different lesson on self-confidence, considering how genuinely talented and brilliant most of them are.) But I cajoled them into it, and left the room to place my “plants.” I borrowed a 2nd grader from the children’s ministry and put her along the path. She leaned against a wall, grabbed her stomach, coughed loudly, and generally looked sickly and in need of help.

After about ten minutes, I started taking students one by one. Each time, I told them either “We’re behind schedule! Please hurry over!” or “There’s no rush. Just meander on over.” The breakdown was better than the group in the original study: 100% of our non-rushed students stopped to offer help, and 40% of those in the rushed group stopped as well. But the 60% difference was striking to the students, as was the discussion afterward. (It was also interesting to watch the students from afar, as a number of them walked just a bit past her, and then double backed a few steps away to check on her when she kept coughing.)

The three students who didn’t stop all gave their reasons, which I think are actually illustrative of the reasons why we miss the needs of others when we’re always in a rush. One said that he didn’t even notice her as he passed by (let those who have eyes to see see!). Another said that he saw her, but that there was another woman in a wheel chair passing by, so he just didn’t pay much attention. The last one – the actual sister of the fake victim! – said that she saw her, but was distracted when our pastor walked by at the same time. (Whether it was pure distraction or that she thought he would help because he’s an authority figure who would help was unclear.) In all three cases, I emphasized that the lesson to take away is not that these three students are bad people, but rather that any of us can miss out on the needs of others when we’re too consumed by our own perceived needs.

Sometimes what we need is not simply to learn the scriptures better, but rather to not let our anxiety distract us from the world around us. Only then can we follow the model of the Samaritan and truly love our neighbor as ourselves.