Login processing...

Trial ends in Request Full Access Tell Your Colleague About Jove
JoVE Science Education
Social Psychology

A subscription to JoVE is required to view this content.

Analyzing Situations in Helping Behavior

Analyzing Situations in Helping Behavior


Source: Julian Wills & Jay Van Bavel—New York University

Social psychologists and personality psychologists both attempt to predict human behavior, but they focus on very different factors. Whereas personality psychologists focus on how personality traits, character, and individual differences affect behavior, social psychologists focus primarily on the power of social situations in shaping behavior.

We often underestimate the role that social situations can play in determining behavior. We often believe that people who smile are pleasant and happy, people who act rudely are mean, and people who stumble in the street are clumsy. Social psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated that these beliefs may be unfounded, and instead emphasize the importance of the social context in which behavior takes place.

Why are some people more apt to help people in need than others? Most of us would surmise it is a function of their personalities—some people are more inclined to help than others. However, psychological research shows that the social situation is often more likely to influence a person’s inclination to be helpful than their personality (which includes religiosity and ethics).

The classic experiment of Darley and Batson tested the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan in which a priest and a Levite—two pious, upstanding citizens—passed by an injured man in need, whereas a non-religious Samaritan stopped to help.1  

This video highlights some of the experimental techniques used by Darley and Batson in the difficult task of separating personality and situational factors when analyzing human behavior.


The American Psychological Association defines personality as the individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. The study of personality focuses on two broad areas: One is understanding individual differences in particular personality characteristics, such as sociability or irritability. The other is understanding how the various parts of a person come together as a whole.

Situational factors, also known as external factors, do not occur from within a person as with personality, but rather include the many facets of a person’s external environment.

Subscription Required. Please recommend JoVE to your librarian.


1. Participant Recruitment

  1. Conduct a power analysis and recruit a sufficient number of participants from a pool of seminary students aged 18-50.  
  2. Randomly assign participants to one of six experimental conditions detailed below.

2. Data Collection

  1. Since much of the experiment occurs outside, ensure consistent daylight and weather conditions while conducting the procedure with each participant.
  2. Ask them to complete a series of questionnaires that measure individual differences in religiosity (six total).
  3. Manipulate two independent variables: Type of speech that the participants are told they will have to give (speech type) and whether the participants are being rushed to give said speech (hurry).
    1. Variable 1: Speech type
      1. Tell half of the participants that they will be giving a speech on their career aspirations and that they are free to structure the brief 3-5 min speech however they like.
        1. Provide the participant 3 min to consider what to say.
      2. Tell the other half of the participants that they will be delivering a speech about the Good Samaritan parable.
        1. Give the latter group a copy of the Good Samaritan passage.
        2. Tell the participant that they are free to structure the 3-5 minute speech however they like.
        3. Provide them 3 min to consider what to say.
    2. Variable 2: Hurry.  Participants are told that the speech is to be delivered across campus.
      1. Low-hurry:  Tell a third of the participants that once they arrive to give the speech, they will likely have to wait a little while.
      2. Medium-hurry: Tell a third of the participants that once they arrive they will be giving the speech right away.
      3. High-hurry: Tell a third of the participants that they are already late for the speech and that they should hurry over.
  4. Dependent measure: En route to the second location, participants come across an individual who is lying in an alley in apparent pain and need of help.
    1. This person is in league with the experimenters (a “confederate”), is feigning pain, and is trained to observe and systematically record the participant’s behavior, quantifying the degree to which the participant helped.
    2. Specifically, have the confederate rate each participant on a scale of helping behavior (primary dependent variable) as follows:
      1=  Participant fails to notice them.
      2=  Noticed the participant but does not offer aid
      3=  Did not stop but helped indirectly, e.g., told someone else that an individual was in need of help
      4=   Stopped and asked if they needed help
      5=   Stopped and insisted on taking the individual inside to a safe location and then left
      6=  Stopped and refused to leave the individual’s side until help was obtained
  5. Debriefing: After arriving at the speech location, tell the participant about the exact nature of the study, including the deception involved, and the reasons for the deception.

3. Data Analysis

  1. Compare the degree of helping as a function of the speech type and the amount of hurry the participant was in.

Predicting human behavior is difficult. Researchers interested in personality often focus on how certain traits and character differences affect the way individuals behave, while those in the social realm hone in on the role of situational factors—based on one’s environment.

Both perspectives make sense: Say a driver gets cut off of the road by someone else. She might think that other person was rude and call him inappropriate names—attacking his personality.

Later that day, the woman gets a flat tire. Hoping that someone will eventually help, she notices the same ill-behaved guy pass by and quickly judges that he definitely won’t stop. Surprisingly, the gentleman does!

As It turns out, he was just running late beforehand and rushing to pick up his beloved cat from day care. This example illustrates the power that situational factors have over assessments of personality.

Using the seminal experimental techniques of Darley and Batson, this video demonstrates the impact of situational factors when individuals are placed in a setting where another person needs help.

In this study, participants are recruited from a profession where empathy is expected, such as the seminary, and asked to deliver a speech across campus. Both the type of speech and the amount of time in which they have to arrive are varied.

In the first manipulation, speech type, half of the participants are told to lecture about their career aspirations, whereas the others are given a copy of the Good Samaritan passage and asked to speak about this parable.

For the second manipulation, amount of rush, participants are assigned to one of three conditions—low-, medium-, and high-hurry—and given different instructions.

The third in the low-hurry group are told that they will likely have to wait to deliver their speech once they arrive. Those in medium hurry are told that upon arrival, they will be speaking right away. The last third—high-hurry—are told that they are already late and should rush over immediately.

While participants are en route to the second location, a confederate—feigning pain and in need of help—is trained to observe and record each participant’s behavior as they pass by.

Here, the dependent variable is the degree to which participants help out on a scale of 1 (failed to even notice the individual) to 6 (stopped and refused to leave until help arrived).

If the situation affects behavior, those with more time on their hands—in the low-hurry group—are expected to be more helpful than participants in a real rush, demonstrating that situational factors have an impact on helping behavior.

Prior to the experiment, conduct a power analysis to recruit a sufficient number of adult seminary students. Also, check the weather to ensure that there will be consistent outdoor conditions during testing.

Upon the participant’s arrival, escort them into a testing room. Ask each one to complete six questionnaires to control for individual differences in religiosity.

Next, inform the participant that they will be giving a brief 3-5 min speech. Depending on the assigned condition, vary the type of speech they should give: either on career aspirations or the Good Samaritan parable.

For the second manipulation, tell participants that they must travel across campus to deliver the speech, and vary arrival times in one of three amounts. "You are already late for the speech and should hurry over."

When the participant encounters the confederate pretending to be in pain, note that the actor should secretly observe the quality of their interaction. Once the participant is out of sight, have them record a score between 1 and 6.

Continue to act out in pain until all participants have passed by. Make sure to record the last score before leaving.

To conclude the experiment, meet participants where they were supposedly giving their speech and fully debrief them by describing the nature of the study, including the deception involved and reasons behind it.

To visualize the data, create a graph of the mean quantified scores of helping behavior. Then, plot the values as a function of the amount of hurry the participant was in and the speech type.

Notice that as the amount of hurry increased, the participants became less helpful to the person in need. Furthermore, the situation was a stronger predictor than the speech type. There were also no differences in religiosity as determined by the pre-experimental questionnaire.

Thus, despite the common belief that individual differences and personality heavily impact behavior, these findings show that situational factors can be far more influential.

Now that you are familiar with a classical design to examine the power of situational factors—like the social environment—when analyzing human behavior, let’s look at other complex circumstances where our interpretations are not always accurate.

Based on the attribution theory, people have a tendency to associate negative actions performed by others, like foreclosing on a home mortgage, to their personality—inferring that they are ignorant and lazy—thus undermining situational factors that more likely explain their condition. This is an example of making a fundamental attribution error.

Interestingly, if the same negative event occurred to oneself, the person is quick to blame the present situation and not their character. In part, this reversal is due to an inherent self-serving bias, which favors the self in a positive manner to avoid explanations that could threaten their own disposition.

In addition, imagine several people in a crowded store, where one individual observes an elderly man stealing an item. This person is quick to judge others for not helping out when they themselves did nothing. In this case, they assumed someone else would manage the incident—an example of the bystander effect.

Furthermore, some societies have gone as far as to enact laws that require a duty to rescue. For instance, if in another aisle a person was struggling to breathe and needed physical assistance, passersby could be found guilty of a federal crime since there was no apparent danger for them providing help.

You’ve just watched JoVE’s video on the impact of situational factors on helping behavior. Now you should have a good understanding of how to design, conduct, and analyze an experiment to study how social settings can influence an individual’s behavior, regardless of personality.

Thanks for watching!

Subscription Required. Please recommend JoVE to your librarian.


An analysis of variance revealed a main effect of situational hurry, such that as hurry increased, participants were less helpful to the person in the alley (Figure 1). That is, participants who were not in a hurry helped more, those who were in somewhat of a hurry helped less, and those who were in a big hurry helped the least. The type of speech participants were to give did not significantly influence helping. Moreover, there was no significant interaction observed between speech type and amount of hurry. Finally, the degree of helping was not significantly predicted by any of the individual difference measures of religiosity.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Average Amount of Helping Based on Speech Content and Amount of Hurry.
The amount of helping behavior (y-axis) is plotted for participants assigned to each of the three situational “hurry” conditions (x-axis). Red bars indicate participants assigned to give the helping-relevant speech (i.e., The Good Samaritan) whereas blue bars represent subjects giving the task-relevant (i.e., career aspiration) speech. The main effect of the hurry manipulation was significant at the conventional alpha = 0.05 level. Neither the main effect of speech type nor the interaction between speech type and hurry amount achieved conventional significance. Plotted values were reproduced from Table 1 in the original Darley and Batson article.1

Subscription Required. Please recommend JoVE to your librarian.

Applications and Summary

Seminary students are training for a profession where helping and empathy is typically expected. When asked to give a speech related to either helping or their career, the type of speech did not predict their helping behavior. Instead, the more students were asked to hurry, the less helpful they were. Moreover, individual differences in religiosity did not predict helping behavior. People tend to believe that individual differences and personality heavily impact behavior, but this study showed that situational factors can be far more influential.

Our interpretation of personality versus situational factors influences our actions and judgments on a daily basis. A principle of social psychology is the fundamental attribution error,2 which describes the tendency to attribute negative actions performed by other people to their personality, but negative actions performed by oneself to the current circumstances. A day-to-day example of this would be when someone attributes being cut off on the road to someone being a bad driver. While the person could be a bad driver, he or she may also just be in a hurry; situational factors could explain why the person is cutting people off on the road.

A much more striking example of an individual’s failure to see the significance of situations in shaping behaviors came in 2011. Wang Yue, a two-year old girl, was run over by a car in the street and dozens of people walking and driving by failed to help. The entire event was captured by a local video camera and Wang Yue eventually died from her injuries. We immediately think that the people who failed to help are callous, and indeed the Chinese media speculated that during the race to industrialize modern China, people had become more callous. But later video footage of the marketplace in which Wang Yue was run over reveals that the marketplace was brimming with noises, lights, and was generally busy. It might have been easy to fail to notice the little girl. Additionally, it is very likely that people believed that someone had already called for help.

These situations may have societal policy implications. Some societies have gone as far as to enact laws that require a duty to rescue. For instance in Canada, if you fail to aid someone in need of immediate physical assistance, e.g., a drowning victim, where there is no danger to yourself or a third person, you could be found guilty of a federal crime.

Subscription Required. Please recommend JoVE to your librarian.


  1. Darley, J. M., &  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, 100-108.
  2. Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. Advances in experimental social psychology, 10, 173-220.



Situational Factors Personality Traits Character Differences Helping Behavior Predicting Human Behavior Personality Assessments Darley And Batson Experimental Techniques Empathy Speech Type Time Constraint

Get cutting-edge science videos from JoVE sent straight to your inbox every month.

Waiting X
Simple Hit Counter