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Helping Strangers in Distress

Work in social psychology can have a theatrical quality to it. Take this well-known early-seventies experiment, for example.

Students at Princeton Theological Seminary were recruited to take part in a study related to 'religious education and vocations'. Each participant in turn was briefed to give a short talk over in a nearby building and to think about the talk as they walked across to give it. Some were instructed to talk about 'job possibilities' and the others about the Good Samaritan parable. In addition, each person was either told that they had a few minutes to spare or that they should hurry as they were already late.

I think you might guess what comes next. The real experiment took place as each student crossed to the other building through an alley. Just as in the Good Samaritan story, they encountered someone slumped over in audible distress (one begins to suspect that psychology and acting are interchangeable professions). Which of these future religious ministers would stop and help - surely those who had the parable foremost in their minds would be affected by it?

It turns out that the subject of the forthcoming talk was irrelevant - those who thought they had time to spare tended to stop and those in a rush did not (threequarters of those in the 'non-rushed' conditions but only one out of ten in the 'rushed' conditions). Having an inspiring story in one's head made no discernible difference to the likelihood of stopping.

What has this got to do with helping the environment?

This underlines startlingly how trivial the basis of our decision-making can be. Or, to put it more kindly, how easily a desire to do the right thing can be derailed by the urgencies of everyday life. In other words, things have to seem do-able.


Lindsay, Peter H; Norman; Donald A (1977) Human Information Processing Academic Press New york; London


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