I recently listened to a great TED talk by Daniel Goleman who discussed the question of why, given all the opportunity to help people in our day-to-day lives, do we sometimes act, and sometimes not?
There was a study done at the Princeton Theological Seminary in which a group of divinity students were told they were going to give a practice sermon. Half of the students were told they were going to give a sermon related to the parable of the Good Samaritan. (As you probably know, this is the story of a stranger who stopped to help a man in need after several holy men, men supposedly overflowing with compassion and the will to do God’s work, simply passed him by on the other side of the road.) The other half of the students were given random bible topics to cover. Now the really interesting bit of the study came into play, one by one the students were told to go into a second building across the way in order to give their sermon and on this little walk between buildings they passed a man bent over and moaning and clearly needing some help. So the question posited by this scenario is whether or not those who had been concerntrating on the Good Samaritan story were more inclined to help the man in need. The answer was a resounding no. What they found to be the determinant factor was how much of a hurry the students felt that they were in, were they feeling they were late or not? If they did they were less inclined to stop and help.
Apparently the Harvard Business Review carried out a study, ‘The Human Moment’, into seeing how people could most successfully connect with others at work and what they found, somewhat unsurprisingly, was that to get the best connection with others, people need to put aside their mobile phone, close their laptop, stop their eyes glazing in a daydream and simply focus and listen to the person they’re engaging with. Our tendency to get on the phone abruptly in mid-conversation is endemic today, be it through texting or talking. I know I am guilty of this and I often catch myself doing it and silently berate myself, only to do it again at a later date. Neuroscientists are suggesting that when we really interact with someone there are special neurones which will fire that essentially allow us to ‘tune in’ to another persons feelings, as Goleman put it, a sort of ’emotional Wifi’ which allows us to feel greater empathy for things someone else might feel and so make us more inclined to want to help them if they need it. Indeed, it’s nice to believe that perhaps we are hardwired to help, rather than to ignore. But our lifestyle these days makes it so much easier to tune out, to become absorbed in ourselves, and that is perhaps why you, me and most others can literally walk past someone who is lying in a shop doorway at midnight in the cold and not bat an eyelid.
Goleman finished by talking about a time when he saw a man in the subway, lying slumped and half naked. Hundreds of people were just walking past without ‘noticing’. But because he had been doing a little work with a homeless outreach team, and perhaps this had softened his urban toughness a touch, he stopped to ask the man if he was ok. Instantly, immediately, a dozen or so other people then stopped as well. Someone went off to get some food, another to get a drink, they got him up and talked to him. He was now getting some help where before everyone’s blinkers had created a thick veil to smother their capacity to feel they ought to stop.
So it seems hopeful that we are a good, compassionate lot, we have just got to take a moment to look up from ourselves and slow down a touch and start noticing. Our innate compassion will do the rest.