The Good Samaritan Experiment offers a possible answer. Hurrying prevents helping! Good, moral thoughts about norms of behaviour do not necessarily translate into good deeds. Dispositional factors are relatively weak predictors of what we do. Situational ones, such as the speed of our daily lives, on the other hand, play powerful roles in shaping our actions. Even caring people who are in a hurry may experience a narrowing of their cognition and may fail to respond adequately in an emergency. We could speculate, perhaps, that the slowing of our lives during the lockdown months has somewhat awakened our innate Good Samaritan by allowing more time for acts of individual and collective kindness.
The iconic Bystander Apathy Experiment gives a similar answer to the same question. In an emergency situation, we typically experience the ‘bystander effect’. We assume that someone else will intervene; the larger the number of bystanders, the likelihood of intervention decreases. When many people are around, we may feel less responsibility to take action, or we may fear embarrassment for behaving inappropriately. It is also likely that we may fail to perceive the situation as an emergency if no one else seems to be reacting. Can the bystander effect explain our slow responses to COVID-19 in February and March? What if it turned out to be a false alarm like other viruses before? What if humans could adapt automatically to it and we have taken measures too extreme? As a result, might it not be better to wait and see?
So what are heroic acts in an emergency? It seems that people are more inclined to take action when they understand clearly that a situation is critical, when they realise that they are in danger themselves, when they feel personally responsible, and when they believe that they have the right skills to succeed.
These and many other important psychological experiments of the 20th and 21st century can be explored using Senate House Library’s exciting multimedia collection published by Alexander Street Press – Psychological Experiments Online.