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At 10:00 a.m. on December 14, 1970, a sunny day in Princeton, New Jersey, the first batch of volunteers arrived for a psychology experiment. The participants were seminary students at Princeton Theological, studying religion in preparation for a life of spiritual service.
Upon arrival at the study administrator’s office, the participants were told that the experiment would examine career paths of seminarians. Each was asked to prepare a short talk on the topic and given some reading material for inspiration. Half the participants received a sheet of paper with questions and ideas about the best use of a seminary education. The other half received a copy of the famous New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan, who stops on the road to help someone in need.
All of this, unbeknownst to the volunteers, was mere prelude.
The administrator then informed each volunteer that, due to space constraints, they would have to walk over to a different building to share their talk. The participants were handed a map outlining a route that took them through an alley to the next building. One by one, the participants set out. Entering the alley, each participant encountered a startling sight: a pile of a man, slumped and motionless in a dark doorway, moaning in distress.
Here was the experiment: Who would stop to help, like the Good Samaritan, and who would pass him by?
The groaning man, a disguised member of the research team, noted the reactions of each seminarian. Some hurried past without noticing him. Others looked or nodded but didn’t stop. Some paused briefly to ask if the man was all right. And then there were a few “superhelpers” who guided the suffering man inside, refusing to leave until care had arrived.
Who stopped? Who rushed past? What determined whether a person took the time to help another human in need? Study directors John Darley and C. Daniel Batson had hypothesized that priming the students to think about the Good Samaritan would make them more likely to help—a demonstration of the power of scripture to inspire moral behavior.
However, analysis showed no statistically significant difference. Students who hadn’t read the parable helped (or neglected to help) in similar numbers to those that had. None of the other variables Darley and Batson tested—such as what type of religious beliefs the participants held—made a difference, either.
All except one: time. Students who were told to hurry to their destination were significantly less likely to stop to help a man in pain. Students who were told they had a bit of spare time to make the walk stopped more frequently and offered more substantial forms of help.
We are hard-pressed to imagine people more likely to stay and help than seminary students. And yet, even among those who devote their lives to serving others, the perception of being short on time kept them from helping someone in obvious need.
Decades later, with life moving faster than ever, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Time is one of the most significant barriers to social connection today. We believe ourselves to be suffering from a “time famine”: always with too much to do, and never enough time to get it done. The modern corporation enshrines this famine mindset. Workplace systems monitor how and where employees spend their days. Employees keep “time pies” to track their allocation of this scarce resource against specific projects. The perennial struggle for work-life balance often comes down to one problem: I simply don’t have enough hours in the day to do well at both work and home. Seventy percent of Americans eat lunch at their desks or don’t eat lunch at all. Lack of time—or our perception of lack of time—keeps us from connecting.
Our brains, like those of the Princeton seminary students rushing to another building, treat time as a central factor in deciding whether to spend time helping others. Hunger, fatigue, and injury are some of the other determinants of how generous we are willing to be, but time is the resource most precious today.
Ask doctors whether they have the time to interact with patients in the manner they’d most desire, and more than half—56%—will tell you they lack the time to treat them with compassion. Importantly, it’s often not objective lack of time but rather our subjective experience of a “time famine” that drives this mindset. Connecting rapidly requires addressing and overcoming that perception.
Building rapid rapport
Seminarians rushing from one building to the next didn’t stop to help a crumpled man in an alley because they had been told to hurry. That instruction—“hurry”—triggers a mental script. Our focus narrows. We move quickly, ignoring stimuli that could deter us from our goal—including social distractions. Hurrying is not inherently bad, but a never-ending time famine diminishes our quality of life and causes us to miss important opportunities. The trick is to disrupt this script to restore our sense of equilibrium. How?
Two distinct strategies can help us here. First, while we cannot add more hours to the day, we can make it feel like we did exactly that. A famous 2010 study by a trio of professors from Wharton, Yale, and Harvard examined four strategies for reducing our sense of time famine:
Giving people time back in their day that had previously been committed to a task
Asking people to spend that same amount of time on a task helping others
Asking people to waste the time
Asking people to spend that time on themselves
Only one of these interventions gave people the feeling of having time to spare—what the authors call “time affluence.” Want to guess which one?
The title of the article sums up its conclusion: “Giving Time Gives You Time.” When we help others–for just 30 or even 15 minutes–we experience that as time added to our day, rather than lost. Helping ourselves, by comparison, does nothing.
Internalizing this lesson takes practice. Start by challenging yourself to give time to others in moments when you feel time pressure not to do so. Afterwards, reflect on the experience by noticing the increased sense of time affluence that results. Start small and build—but start. Fight through the “hurry worry,” because it’s precisely when we feel least capable of helping others that doing so can do us the most good.
The second strategy addressing time famine does so by quantifying how long it actually takes to help. We have an unfortunate tendency to overestimate the amount of time needed, and therefore not to help at all. This is a particularly intractable problem in medicine: Healthcare clinics are so understaffed that workers there feel they can’t adequately care for any one patient, let alone all of them.
A number of interventions have been tested to teach physicians how to efficiently, but effectively, show compassion. Researchers at Johns Hopkins, for example, tested a script that cancer doctors can use to bookend their patient encounters.
At the start of the appointment, the oncologists say, “I know this is a tough experience to go through and I want you to know that I am here with you. Some of the things that I say to you today may be difficult to understand, so I want you to feel comfortable stopping me if I say something that is confusing or doesn’t make sense. We are here together, and we will go through this together.”
Then, at the end of the appointment, the doctors said: “I know this is a tough time for you, and I want to emphasize again that we are in this together. I will be with you each step along the way.”
Patients whose doctors share these words with them rated their doctors as warmer, more compassionate, and more caring. Perhaps more important, these patients have demonstrably lower levels of anxiety than patients whose doctors did not say these things.
The purpose of this study was not to demonstrate that compassion matters, however. It was to show just how quickly one can display compassion to a patient. All told, the script took an average of only forty seconds to deliver. Just ninety-nine words yielded significantly less anxiety for each patient.
Several other studies have reached similar conclusions. A Netherlands study on delivering bad news to patients found it takes only thirty-eight seconds to express compassion in a way that will lower the patient’s anxiety. A 2017 study found that every compassionate statement a doctor made, in increments as short as ten seconds, reduced patient anxiety by 4.2%, with a cumulative effect for each additional statement.
It’s difficult to imagine a scenario more consequential than delivering bad medical news. If harried doctors reciting a prewritten script can move the needle in just ten seconds, it follows that managers, call center agents, hosts, and airline stewards could expect similar results.
Try it for yourself, ten seconds at a time. As time starved as we may feel, the sad truth is that we waste anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours at work each day surfing the web or in other ways. Who among us cannot actually spare a few seconds to connect with a peer or customer or neighbor, with simple words of compassion?
Great job today. I know it’s been tough this past week. I see how hard you are working and I’m proud to be working alongside you.
I really admire how you are rolling with the punches. I want you to know you’re not in it alone. I’m here, too, and we’ll figure it out together.
Achieving time affluence requires challenging your own perception of time famine. Remind yourself to give just a few minutes or even seconds to someone else. Then notice—and enjoy!—the sense of expanded time that results.
We need each other. We need to matter to each other. We need each other to feel well, to be well, to live well, to work well. We need each other to succeed personally and professionally.
The barriers to connection presented by the modern way of life–lack of time, chief among them–are significant and will become even more so in the decades to come.
Overcoming this barrier requires that we fight our own perception of being starved for time, so that we can pursue the social behaviors that will, in fact, help us feel that we have time to spare. The work is challenging, but it is its own reward.
This article was adapted from Tomorrowmind: Thriving at Work with Resilience, Creativity, and Connection―Now and in an Uncertain Future (Atria Books, 2023).