Empathy and Time

When presented with an individual in distress, why do some stop to help while others pass by?

The classic Judeo-Christian parable of The Good Samaritan tells us of a man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who, upon encountering a band of thieves, was stripped, beaten, and left for dead. Soon, a handful of individuals pass by on the same path and are forced to make the decision of whether or not to stop and help. 

Upon noticing the man, the first two passers-by, religious figures of the day, make the conscious decision to pass by on the other side. It isn’t until a Samaritan, a political “enemy”, passes by that our journeyman receives compassion. 

We don’t have any insight into the personal lives of the three passers-by or their reasons for being on the road to Jericho that day. Regardless of the reasons, their past, or their current mindset, the parable brings up important questions: When presented with an individual in distress, why do some stop to help while others pass by? Is it something about the individual or are there external forces that influence empathy?

In 1973, a research team at Princeton University set out to answer these questions. Researchers recruited students from the theological seminary, individuals who had dedicated their lives to church service, and recreated a modern day Good Samaritan scenario. 

Thinking that personal background and individual “religiosity” might influence their decision, students were first asked to answer questions regarding their upbringing and reasons for pursuing religious careers. 

On the day of the study, participants were asked to present to a particular building on campus where they were tasked with recording a short lecture on a given topic. Said lecture was to be given in a second building on campus and, in route, each participant encountered a man in distress, slumped over in an alleyway. 

Researchers introduced two other variables by manufacturing both the mindset of the participants and their internal level of urgency. Half the participants were given the task of speaking about seminary jobs while the other half were tasked with speaking on the Good Samaritan itself. In addition, participants were told either they were late and therefore needed to hurry or that they had plenty of time. 

Of all the variables–personal background, mindset, or urgency–which one(s) best predicted whether a participant would stop to help? All three appear plausible. At first glance, I figured those thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan, at a minimum, would stop and help. 

When all was said and done, only one variable remained standing–time. Those that felt rushed were much less likely to stop despite all other variables. Some in route to speak on the Good Samaritan went as far as stepping over the distressed individual. 

Students of medicine, like students of the seminary, dedicate their lives to serving others. While we come from varied backgrounds, with different reasons to pursue medicine, we share the same desire. We want to solve the world’s medical problems. We want to end human suffering.  We want to take care of people.

The modern physician must try to balance their time between patient care and an ever-increasing list of non-patient centered tasks and duties, many of which promise increased efficiency, better data, and better patient outcomes. In reality, what many of them do is push direct patient care, face-to-face patient care, further down the list of importance. Is our desire to take care of people getting buried along with it?

With so many things biding for our time, with so many tasks to complete and boxes to check, are we becoming less empathetic? Beginning in medical school we are taught that time is valuable, that we must learn how to become efficient history taking, physical exam performing, machines.

I’ll never forget one of my first standardized patients, you know the actors who medical students practice their skills on. This one was a new patient, obese, with uncontrolled diabetes, heart disease and increasing anxiety. My task? Get a detailed medical history, perform a head-to-toe physical exam, address all the preventative medicine guidelines, educate on his list of medical issues, and adjust his medications, among a list of other things. My time? 15 minutes. You better believe empathy was the last thing on my mind.

Like the Priest and Levite on the way to Jericho, or the seminary students in 1973, how many individuals in distress do we pass by because we don’t have the time? How often do we knowingly or unknowingly ‘pass by on the other side’? All too often I’ve witnessed kind, gentle, and compassionate people become cold, hardened, and short, all in the name of time. We would do well to slow down, not only to smell the roses, but to notice those around us in need.


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