Field of Science

The not-so-good Samaritan

The parable of the good Samaritan is an entrancing one for psychologists interested in religion. The parable espouses the virtue of helping anyone in need - including strangers. Since Christians are taught that this virtue is a key part of their religion, you might expect that the more religious people might be more likely to help strangers.

In fact, research tends to show that this is not the case. Religious people tend to be more likely to help friends and people in their group, but no more likely to help strangers.

There's a problem though. Religion can mean many different things, and in particular one kind of religion, commonly known as 'fundamentalism', is strongly linked to another trait known as 'right-wing authoritarianism'. Perhaps this is distorting the picture. If only we could tease out ordinary religion from fundamentalism, then the pro-social effects of religion might shine through.

That's the challenge taken up by one of my favourite psychologists of religion, Vassilis Saroglou at the Université catholique de Louvain. Along with his colleague Joanna Blogowska, he quizzed Polish students about their religious beliefs (how important religion was in their life, how often they prayed, etc) and their fundamentalist beliefs (whether the Bible is literally true, etc). They also asked about their 'Right Wing Authoritarian" attitudes ("Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us").

Before asking about their beliefs, however, they put a scenario to them:
...participants read a short text presenting the case of a female student who participates in many after-class activities as well as prepares for her exams. After having fallen asleep on a bus, she was robbed of her bag containing all of her books and notes. As a consequence, she cannot successfully prepare for one of the exams, and in spite of her explanations to the professor, she fails
For half the participants, the female student was described as being a feminist.

So, do you feel sorry for the student? Would you be willing to help her? Is what happened her fault, and something that will teach her a lesson? They asked 12 questions along these lines, and used them to measure how prosocial the participants were.

The more religious students were in fact more likely to say that they would be willing to help the girl - so long, that is, as the girl was not a feminist. If the girl was described as a feminist, the religious were no more likely than the non-religious to say they would help. They were prosocial, but in a limited way.

Religious fundamentalists were the same. In fact, it turned out that the limited kindness of the fundamentalists could be entirely explained by their religiosity, and had nothing to do with their fundamentalism.

Right-wing authoritarianism, on the other hand, had no effect on willingness to help, regardless of whether or not the girl was described as a feminist.

Fundamentalists were more likely than the ordinary religious to think that the feminist girl was unhappy (they were more likely to say that experiences a lot of disappointment, fear, and rage, and less likely to say that she experienced hope, courage and kindness). Right-wing authoritarians also were more likely to think the feminist girl was unhappy, but that was simply because they were more likely to also be religious fundamentalists.

Blogowska and Saroglou  conclude from this that:
These results extend to fundamentalism the findings of previous research showing that religious people’s prosociality exists but is limited and does not extend to targets who threaten their values such as homosexuals (Batson et al. 1999), sexually promiscuous people (Mak and Tsang 2008), and foreigners (Pichon and Saroglou 2009).

However, RF differed from religiosity and paralleled RWA by showing negative attitudes in emotions attributed to the feminist target. This finding is in line with the idea that RF, like authoritarianism, implies prejudice towards outgroup members.

In a second experiment, the religious were more likely than the less religious to say that they would help a friend in need, but they weren't more likely to say they would help a stranger. Again, the fundamentalists were similar, but this could be explained simply by the fact that they were more religious.

Right-wing authoritarianism had no effect on willingness to help a friend but, unsurprisingly, such people were actually less likely to help strangers than liberals.

According to Blogowska and Saroglou, what this means is that religious fundamentalism is not simply right-wing authoritarianism in religious clothing. Fundamentalists, unlike right-wing authoritarians, are more pro-social to friends and non-threatening people who could be considered members of their own group.

Blogowska and Saroglou also found another interesting gem. They asked their students straight out whether they practised universal love - whether they were willing to help all people, regardless of who they were. Of course, both the ordinary religious and the fundamentalists were more likely to say that they did.

Even though they had just given the game away in the answers they gave just moments before!

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Oh, the sweet, sweet irony. Reminds me of the time in California I was told by someone that they love everyone, except (of course) the n***ers, the c**nks, the homos, the lezos, the lefties, the greenies, etc. etc. etc.

  2. The big problem with this study is of course that people were filling out a form rather than performing an action in the real world.

    In the 70s, Darley and Batson created an experimental setting in which subjects—all were students at Princeton Theological Seminary—“encountered a shabbily dressed person slumped by the side of the road.” Three conditions were used as independent variables. (1) Some of the subjects were on their way to give a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan; others had been assigned a topic unrelated to altruism. When encountering the slumped-over person, the former group were not more likely than the latter to stop and offer help. What we would now call “priming” was ineffective. (2) Subjects had previously been interviewed on their religious commitments. These, too, were uncorrelated with helping responses. (3) Some of the subjects were told (p. 104), “Oh, you're late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. We’d better get moving.” Only this condition had a significant effect on the subjects’ behavior. The authors concluded:

    "A person not in a hurry may stop and offer help to a person in distress. A person in a hurry is likely to keep going. Ironically, he is likely to keep going even if he is hurrying to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan, thus inadvertently confirming the point of the parable. (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!)"

    Darley, J. M., and C. D. Batson, C. D. 1973. “‘From Jerusalem to Jericho’: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 27:100–119.

  3. Nice post,here's a funny video about the good Samaritan

  4. Roy, fair point. In fact, they acknowledge that in the paper - and Saroglou has written about it before. In the second experiment, they try to limit the problem of 'socially desirable responding' by putting a bunch of distracter scenarios to the participants, so that they don't guess the true purpose of the experiment.

    But for me the interesting thing is that the religious do not, in fact claim to be altruistic towards out-groupers. They don;t respond as their religion tells them that they should!

    And that's just in a pen-and-paper exercise. In real life, the difference may be even more stark.

  5. Did this study survey huge numbers of people, or just testing the waters at this stage?

  6. Anon, there were around 70 in each study, which is roughly typical for this kind of study. Psychological researchers seem rarely if ever to calculate statistical power to justify their choice of sample size, so I don't know if it was adequate.

  7. An interesting study on the relationship between fundamentalism and in-group/out-group thinking. To what extent to we perceive ourselves as morally responsible to or for those who are not like us?

  8. I'm interested in this blog in that it actually missed the point of the parable. Jesus was enforcing the fact that religious people are more likely to walk passed a person in need. Both the people who ignored the injured man were religious leaders of sorts. Jesus was affirming the need for our expression of faith to have real legs on it rather than just be a mental or academic stance in our heads. The Samaritan who actually ended up helping was a man who was despised and disregarded by society. Real faith shows itself in our actions and not just in our pious attitude. It seems that Jesus taught very clearly on the psychology of people and religion and helped them to set the sights on what really matters and what really makes a difference in the lives of others. Awesome teacher!

  9. I work at Catholic Charities and we want to put a huge banner on a wall of our homeless sheleter. We really like the image in this post of the Good Samaritan. Do you know where I can purchase a high resolution file of it? Or who the painter is?

  10. "you might expect that the more religious people might be more likely to help strangers."
    Anyone who reads the Good Samaritan (Luke 10, if anyone is interested) wouldn't expect any such thing... after all, the religious people in the story are the ones that did not help the stranger.
    (talk about "irony"...)

  11. I have to agree with Doug above...hasn't this blogger missed the *whole* point about the story of the Good Samaritan, ie that Christ was showing the hypocritical capabilities of religion?

    Next issue- would have to see the definition of a "fundamentalist". After all, one man's fundamentalist is another man's liberal, and such terms are often just used to linguistically discredit people who disagree with you.

    Third- my experience in the charitable sector is that more often than not, as CS Lewis said, those who believe the most about the life to come are most passionate about changing this life. It's only anecdotal evidence but I have encountered a great many people linked with the think tank I worked for who had "embarrassing" views...and yet none could deny they had spent their lives and all they had on behalf of the needy. Complex indeed, but this says far more to me than a methodologically dubious study.

  12. Ed C, the article explained that "Fundamentalists" were defined as those who believe the Bible is literally true. Research studies are expected to provide clear definitions of how people are classified, they can't just decide that some people are "fundamentalists" for no reason. Besides, there are Christians who describe themselves using this term, it's not a term someone made up to discredit them.


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