There’s been a palpable shift in the mood at the statehouse. Fatigue and worry have started to creep into the tenor of floor debates, committee discussions, and whispered conversations in the many alcoves of the People’s House. Chit-chat in the cafeteria now sometimes includes exasperation and impatience at a legislator’s inability to see another’s inherent brilliance and his own obvious idiocy. There is still laughter and collegiality, to be sure, but I’ve noticed that compassion is losing its footing.
In the legislative lounge last week, I overheard a testy exchange about the House debate on the proposed budget. Putting aside the merits of the specific arguments, my attention was drawn to the voice and tone of the participants. The sourness of the remarks made for an unpalatable cocktail of irritation and touchiness; it assuredly would never have actually changed anyone’s mind. But we are all feeling the clock ticking down, and it shows.
I recently learned that perceived time constraints—not surprisingly—shape not just our moods but our willingness to be compassionate. A famous study conducted at Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1970s revealed that personality has little to do with whether we will individually choose to be compassionate; we choose compassion when we believe there’s time to do so.
Social psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson researched what causes some people to act as Good Samaritans when others choose to turn away from someone in need. The researchers drafted 67 seminarians at Princeton Theological. Some were told to deliver a short speech on why they chose to go to seminary; others would speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The students were instructed to deliver their speech in a hall a short distance from the building in which they’d gathered. The researchers planted an accomplice along the path between the two buildings who was instructed to slump over and groan as the seminarians passed by.
Many did not stop to assist the unknown confederate; some even stepped right over the seemingly ailing man. You might assume that the ones who did stop were all the ones about to give a speech on the parable of compassion. Not so. Overwhelmingly, the ones who stopped to help were the ones who felt in less of a hurry. Unknowingly, the students had received slightly different directions. Some were told they were late to deliver their speech. Others were told that the assistant in the other building was ready for them, and the rest were told that they could move to the other building at their leisure.
Only 10% of those “in a hurry” stopped to help. But 63% of those who did not feel rushed stopped to assist, and 45% of those told they were in a slight hurry paused to help. The situation was also a factor. Less than a third of the seminarians who were to deliver a speech on their reasons for entering seminary stopped to help, while more than half of the Good Samaritan speakers stopped.
We often attribute compassionate behavior to a person’s innate capacity for empathy. But this and other studies reveal that situational components have much more of an effect than personality. Social psychologists refer to this as the “fundamental attribution error”—our tendency to give more weight to internal traits to explain another’s behavior in a situation rather than looking to external influences.
What a relief! We all have an opportunity to expand our capacity for compassion. The first step is to become more aware of the external pressures we feel—time and situation—and make a conscious effort to value the human experience over simply being run by the clock.