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Research proves the Gut (Selfishness) wins over the Heart (Compassion)

So what could that tell us over how we deal with the pandemic that is influencing our daily life and how we react on confinements, lockdowns and other restrictions. The continuous battle between the “I want or deserve” and the ‘WE need”

Let’s look at scientific proof of how the our inner instinct to survive (Gut Brain) will overrule our compassionate side (the Heart Brain) when there is a choice between compassion and following a selfish objective (even though the students of the Theological Seminary of Princeton, who carried out the research, said the results can be explained by compassion).

When I read this example in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, I was puzzled. [i]

Two Princeton University psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson, wanted to find out if people who study the good of humanity, and who dedicate their lives to that, would act in that way when challenged to choose between the Gut Brain and Heart Brain.
The main question was: “As the subjects study theology, would they behave in a way that demonstrates the theological principles of humanity, and choose to help another person (Heart Brain), or would they behave more selfishly and only care about their own objective (Gut Brain) if they had to choose between those two options?”

The research group of students were asked to prepare and deliver a presentation to another group of students. The presentation was supposed to be on a biblical theme. They had some time to prepare it, then they had to walk over to another building to present it.

There were two groups: one was not given enough time to reach the other building, the other one had enough time.

During the walk, they would run across a man, who was curled up with his head down, coughing and groaning, clearly in need of help.

What would the theological students do?

Would they listen to their Heart Brain and actually act on the content of their talk, namely stop and help the man, knowing that they would be late for the presentation? Or would they follow instructions from the Gut Brain, taking on the ‘me first’ attitude, ignore the man and go directly to the presentation?

To see if their beliefs would make a difference to the outcome, Darley and Batson introduced three variables into the experiment.

Before the experiment even started, they split into groups based on a questionnaire that asked them why they had chosen to study theology.

Was it for personal and spiritual fulfilment, or were they looking for a practical tool for finding meaning in everyday life? This was checking the Heart Brain connection.

After this, they introduced the topics for the presentation.

A neutral one: ‘The relevance of the professional clergy to the religious vocation’, and one that was all about the test: ’The parable of the Good Samaritan’. This was to determine if they had something to present about the good Samaritan, whether it would affect their behavior (as a story of the good Samaritan is all about this challenge they would face; to stop or not to stop to help).

The two topics were then shared across the two groups, creating four groups in total.

To create the time stress factor, the instructor sent the students on their way, while looking at his watch and saying, “Oh, you’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. You’d better get moving.”

In other cases, he would say, “You still have time, it will be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you may as well head over now.”

So, who played the Good Samaritan? Who do you think stopped for the man and who did not?

I assume we would all like to say that the students who entered the ministry to help people (Heart Brain) and who were also reminded of the importance of compassion by having just read the parable of the Good Samaritan (Heart Brain), would be the most likely to stop.

Here comes the beauty of the Gut Brain and Heart Brain, and how they show their real nature in deciding and communicating.

Surprisingly, neither of those factors made any difference.

Darley and Batson concluded, “It is hard to think of a context in which norms concerning helping those in distress are more salient than for a person thinking about the Good Samaritan, and yet it did not significantly increase helping behavior.”

You would laugh if you saw it in a comedy show: “On several occasions, a seminary student going to give his speech on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way.”

The real difference between those who stopped and provided help and those who did not, was the perception of the students of how late they were.

10% of the group that was late stopped to help, while of the group that had enough time to spare, more than 60% stopped to help.

The words “Oh, you’re late,” had the effect of turning on the survival part of the Gut Brain; the fear of being rejected or judged was enough to activate the survival mechanism and turn off the compassionate Heart Brain.

So coming back to the first question how could we overcome the pandemic and how much can we really trust the common sense of the individual to take measurements that will restrict him or her? 

Based on this research I have my doubts. 

I wonder how you would react in this example and what your thoughts are about the altruistic self discipline of people ? 

Cheers Christoffel 

PS Would you like to know what your 3 Brains (Head, Heart, Gut) preference is? Why don't you take the free test? 

If you like to learn more about 3 Brains and how you could coach or lead people better:

Warm Regards,


[i] 2002 by Malcolm Gladwell The Tipping Point. ISBN: 978-0-7595-7473-1


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