Here’s Drake Bennett:
In a set of experiments carried out in 2005 by the economists Nina Mazar and Dan Ariely, of MIT, and On Amir, a marketing expert at the University of California at San Diego, subjects were given a timed test of general-knowledge questions and paid for each correct answer. They varied the setup of the experiment and found that people would tend to cheat when given the chance, but that the risk of being discovered did not deter them. Even more surprisingly, the experimenters found a way to limit cheating that had nothing to do with the threat of getting caught. When they asked subjects to write down as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember before taking the test, it virtually eliminated cheating.
This doesn’t mean that an awareness of religion magically leads to moral behavior. Instead, it suggests that many of our ethical decisions – to cheat or not to cheat – can be primed by subtle cues and contexts. (In this sense, the Bible is just another cue capable of reminding the students to be moral.) Take the infamous experiment performed by John Darley and Daniel Batson. Their experiment was inspired by the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan.
The experiment was simple. Darley and Batson recruited a group of seminarian students from Princeton, and asked each one to prepare a short talk on a specific Biblical theme. Then, the students were told to walk over to a separate building and give their talk. This is where the experiment got interesting. While they were making their way to the other building, each student ran into a man crouched over in pain and groaning for help.
To make the study more meaningful, Darley and Batson introduced a few other variables. Each student was surveyed on why they decided to study theology. Were they looking for spiritual meaning? Or did they want to help others? Then, Darley and Batson varied the subject of the talk that the students were supposed to deliver. Some were told to say something about the existence of God. Others were told to discuss the Trinity. Still others were told to talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Finally, as the students were given directions to the other building, a few of them were told by the experiment that they were late, and “that they had better get moving”.
So which students helped the man in need? You’d assume that the students who had just prepared a lecture on the Good Samaritan parable would be more likely to stop and help. Or that the students who entered the church to help others might be more likely to actually help others. But you’d be wrong. As Darley and Batson wrote, “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.”
According to the data, the only variable that mattered was whether or not the students were in a rush. While only 10 percent of those who were told to hurry offered help, 63 percent of those who had a few minutes to spare offered aid.
There are a few take-away lessons from this experiment. The first is that the speed of modern life isn’t always amenable to altruism. We are all so rushed that we don’t have time to help each other. The second lesson is that religion and religious thoughts are no guarantee of moral behavior. (Shocking, I know.) The Darley and Batson study demonstrates that our ethical decisions are often determined by a wide range of inputs – many of them below the surface of self-awareness – and that knowing how to do right is no guarantee of doing the right thing.