Nudging towards pro-social behaviour.

An influential study on the psychology of altruism and pro-social behaviour is The Good Samaritan Experiment, conducted by Darley and Batson in the 1970’s. In this classic study, seminary students were asked to give a brief talk in a building nearby. Some students were told that they were to give the talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan while other students were told that they were to talk about career prospects for seminary students.  Most importantly, the experimenters told some students they should hurry to the building (which neighbored the one they were currently in) as the guests there were expecting them a few moments ago.On their way to give the talk, each student (in the different conditions) encountered a person slumped over in the alleyway. The person had their eyes closed and was coughing occasionally, clearly in need of help. However, the students in the hurry induced condition were the least likely to stop and help, including those who had to speak on the Good Samaritan parable! (Darley & Batson, 1973).

To quote Darley and Batson (p.107)

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!

Even when their mind was occupied with thoughts on religion and ethics (considering they had to speak on the parable), the students failed to help. An outside observer may be quick to judge the students as being hypocritical. However, the Good Samaritan study demonstrates the unavoidable power of the situation that causes often well-meaning individuals to act in ways that are inconsistent with their beliefs. Moreover, personality variables were found to be insufficient predictors of pro-social behaviour. Darley and Batson (1973) provided a number of explanations for the students’ behaviour- one being the possibility that their cognitive abilities were focused upon the next task at hand and another being that they faced a moral dilemma of fulfilling their commitment to help the experimenter, who was depending on the student to get to the talk on time, versus helping the individual in the alleyway.

Another interesting phenomenon in the literature on pro-social altruism is the bystander effect (Darley & Latane, 1968) – the tendency of individuals to experience diffusion of responsibility in a situation that requires their intervention.  For example, in the presence of others, individuals are less likely to help a woman who is calling out for help, as demonstrated in the tragically famous case of Kitty Genovese* (details in reference).

bystander effect

When trying to raise awareness or funds in support for a cause, a charitable organisation should consider the power of the situation. When an individual is in a hurry, their potential tardiness is enough justification for them to avoid a plea for a cause. Volunteers with petition boards, awareness brochures and donation boxes are more likely to garner attention in a park, a square or other areas where individuals are less likely to be occupied with the cognitive load of getting somewhere in time. Subway stations should also be avoided –the minimal time interval between trains induces the feeling of hurry. Train stations and airports, on the other hand, may be useful places to target as the time spent waiting is more, especially during delays. Targeting areas that are less crowded can also help avoid the diffusion of responsibility that is characteristic of the bystander effect. When an individual encounters a charity collector on a busy road, they are likely to walk past him/her with the justification that there is a high probability of someone else on the same road having the time and interest to show their support (there are so many people after all…someone is bound to care enough!). However, this should be implemented based on the kind of behaviour the charity is targeting (encouraging people to volunteer/donate/awareness) as in some cases, targeting crowded areas can increase the social desirability of helping.

Campaigns can also go digital- individuals often turn to mobile applications when they are cognitively less occupied (or when they want a break from cognitive load). Apps increase the ease of making a donation and make it possible for individuals to donate at any time. When you see an NGO’s poster about a hungry child in Mumbai, the emotion caused by the poster may inspire you to support the cause. However the effort required to telephone them/make a donation personally/log into their website may make you procrastinate (yes, these are effortful things). An app that requires just one click to donate/volunteer will capitalize on the emotional arousal caused by the organisation’s already established marketing efforts. Having an app to work with will mean that the main challenge for the charity will be to convince people to download the app (there are numerous exciting ways this can be done). Once the app is downloaded, effective nudges to encourage support can be designed within the app itself (such as linking to social networking sites, using incentives within the app, etc. Facebook, for example, has played a massive role in increasing organ donations). For volunteers, this marks the end of facing endless rejection on crowded streets and instead, serves as the start of an innovative online campaign.

An example of an app that went viral is the Movember Mobile app which used social networking to allow men to share images of ‘their most ridiculous facial hair’ with their circle of friends on the app. This way, Movember went beyond supporting the cause. When activity on Instagram or Twitter is generally low (there’s actual data on this), push up notifications about the charity’s latest event calling out for volunteers and support, might just garner enough attention to secure a slot on the user’s weekend agenda, especially if this occurs when they’re waiting at a boring checkout counter line/at the airport etc. Sometimes, a simple nudge is all you need to spread the love 🙂


P.S- You might want to make sure THIS doesn’t happen to your volunteers-

(click to enlarge)

bystander image 2

*Apple has a restriction on charitable donations. However there’s still scope for these ideas to be executed within Android, Windows phone etc. If charities find it hard to give customers the option of donating on the app, the app can still be used to get people engaged with the charity, by using it for things such as volunteer signups.


Contains Kitty’s story- Darley, J.M., & Latane, B. (1968) Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility . Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.

Contains The Parable of The Good Samaritan– Darley, J.M. & Batson, D. (1973) “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behaviour. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100-108.


4 thoughts on “Nudging towards pro-social behaviour.

  1. theunforgivingminuteuk

    Interesting post. I’d never heard about the bystander effect, which, when you think about it, is quite counter-intuitive to how you thought people would behave. Also, an interesting thought about targeting parks rather than busy streets, although I wonder whether this would only increase the success rate rather than the total number of successful pledges/donations/signatures…After all, you’ll have more footfall through busy areas, and there’s evidence that points to people being more likely to make donations when they see other people doing the same thing.

    Separately, do you think the seminary students would have stopped to help if they had first recited the parable of the Good Samaritan before they made their way to the neighbouring building? Indeed, was there any difference in behavious between those speaking about the Good Samaritan and those talking about careers?

  2. karishmarajaratnam Post author

    Hello! 🙂 Yup, I definitely agree, targeting less crowded areas must be applied with caution. I had mentioned in the article that targeting crowded areas can increase the social desirability of helping i.e if people observe a crowd engaged in an activity, they want to do it too. I think it depends on the kind of behaviour you are trying to target. For example if it is a charity that has just launched an app, targeting less crowded areas may work to get people to download it/get on board, after which crowded areas can be targeted.That way the charity has a support base to work with and they are less likely to be a speck in the crowd. Also, crowded areas can be targeted for activities that remove the ‘helping’ aspect and instead encourage social connectedness (such with the movember app). When ‘helping’ is made salient, individuals tend to exhibit the bystander effect, waiting for someone else to help. If instead, a charity has a mini-event in a crowded area, where people are asked to come with their craziest facial hair and pose for polaroid photos (with a winner in the end)- this is likely to garner attention and increase social desirability of supporting the cause. Therefore its now an activity everyone wants to be a part of and helping is in the background. Basically I think lesser crowds would work for conventional ways of raising awareness and crowded areas for the unconventional.These ideas have to be empirically tested though!

    The Seminary students who had to talk on the parable were actually made to read the parable before heading off to give the talk. So even though they didn’t actually recite it, it was still made salient. Would be interesting to see if reciting/reading aloud makes a difference here though! 🙂

  3. Pingback: Simple nudge to spread the love | What is behavioral?

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