In a recent issue, I asked what makes one person kinder than another and postulated that kindness takes skill. Sometimes we are less kind than we would like, because we don’t know “HOW” to be kind. In today’s post I discuss another prerequisite for kindness that I believe is underappreciated – kindness needs a period of time to take root and to be regularly initiated. More specifically, I discuss how the degree to which we feel rushed in our everyday life influences the helping behaviors of individuals.

I’d like to tell you about an experiment I read about many, many years ago and the lesson that has stayed with me all this time.

The year is 1973. Two young psychologists from Princeton get their study published in a prestigious journal of psychological research*. The inspiration for their study was Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan as found in the Gospel of Luke (and only in the Gospel of Luke).The researchers were not shy about acknowledging the inspiration for their study. The first part of the study’s title is the imaginative phrase “From Jerusalem to Jericho.” The titles latter half refers back to the more customary verbiage found in journals of social psychology: “A Study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior.”

What did this study set out to explore? The authors conducted their study in a seminary –a school for priests-in-training. This allowed them to explore the seminarians’ religious views as part of the study without raising eyebrows. In the first part of the study, the researchers had the study subjects complete questionnaires in a certain building on campus. For the second part of the study, the subjects were to present a short talk in another building.

The true intent of the study was to investigate these seminarians’ behavioral responses to what they encountered while walking from one building to the other. A member of the research team was positioned by the side of the road that connected the buildings and pretended to be a person in distress. Each time a study subject approached, this shabbily-dressed assistant slumped, moaned and coughed. Each subject was rated on their response. Zero was given to those seminarians who failed to notice that the victim was in distress. A score of one was given to those who noticed but did nothing. The scores then ranged up to a score of 5. This highest score of 5 was reserved for subjects who not only stopped to inquire about the victim’s welfare and offered to help, but also refused to leave him until help arrived.

What did the researchers find? They found that the subjects in a hurry to get to the other building (because they were intentionally given little time to get there) were more likely to pass the person in distress without stopping to help, as compared to subjects not in a rush. Wow, how much time a person has directly impacts their caring behavior.

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Another astounding result of this study relates to two other variables studied that were found not to make a significant difference in whether the seminarians stopped to help. One, the researchers tested whether the assigned topic for the seminarians’ talk correlated with the likelihood of their helping behavior. Half these seminarians were assigned an unrelated non-helping topic to discuss and half were assigned the parable of the Good Samaritan. The topic did not make a significant difference to how many subjects stopped to help! Second, the researchers assessed whether the subjects’ “religious personality” type made a difference in whether they stopped to help or not. It also was found not to make a difference.

What implications does this have for us? As physicians, we are in a profession that is categorized as one that works the longest hours per week. Also, irrespective of profession, life only seems to get more and more hectic. If you feel you’re in a continual race, whether a rat race or not, you are not alone.

My question for us, for you and for me, is how do we slow down enough to enjoy this gift of life? To have enough time to focus and be present? To have the wherewithal to spend meaningful time with family and friends … and patients? To become the kinder person we strive to be?

* From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A Study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior. John M Darley and C. Daniel Batson. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1973, Vol 27, No.1, 100-108

Until next time,

Dr. Jack


Elvis Has Left the Building

Most idioms we use originated hundreds or even thousands of years ago. For example, I recently presented “Apple of My Eye” which has been in use since at least since the 9th century CE. But some idioms began recently, within our lifetimes. Their staying power is unclear and it is interesting to consider whether people will use this idiom a hundred or a thousand years from now.

“Elvis has left the building” has come to mean the show is over, that something important has finished and there is nothing more we can do. It’s time to go home. This phrase originated in the 1950’s by public address announcers at Elvis concerts to let the crowds know that no further encores will occur and that they can begin to disperse. In the later years of his career, this phrase was sometimes also used by his backup singers to calm and disperse the crowds that often refused to leave and became increasingly raucous.

Since then, this phrase oftentimes is used humorously or ironically, as in a person caught in an argument having no more points to make. Sports announcers sometimes use this phrase when one team scores and is in the lead late in the game, making the other team’s chances of winning nil.

Of course, sometimes this phrase includes a note of sadness. Because of Elvis Presley’s later years of near constant intoxication with uppers and downers and then the ultimate death by overdose, this idiom can also connote a sense of irrevocable loss.