Pavlov’s Dog and Good Samaritans in China

In the late nineteenth century, Ivan Potrovitch Pavlov, a Russian Physiologist conducted an experiment in which a dog was fed when a bell was rung. After dozens of feeding along with the ringing, the dog started to have heavy flows of saliva on hearing the bell, even when the food was not present.

His famous finding was that the behaviours of animals can be established or altered using conditioned stimulus. An extended version of the experiment would be: if the bell comes with  assault rather than food, the dog will reasonably show fear and avoidance when the bell rings again.

Such a learning pattern exists among human society as well: in most societies the good Samaritans are blessed by the travellers they saved, appreciated by the public they served, and supported by laws they obeyed. Consequentially we associate the helping behaviours with the positive responses from the recipients and the society, and next time when we see someone in need of help, we are likely to stand out.

But if such behaviours induce injustice, liabilities and unfair punishment, we may want to think twice before taking actions. It explains why on the flight CZ3874 from Hefei to Guangzhou on the 29th of August, nearly everyone chose to remain silent and inactive during and afterward an incident in which an air flight attendant was insulted and beaten by a passenger who happened to be a government official.

In China, the good Samaritans are often extorted by the recipients of their kindness, disgraced by the public and punished by law.  Over the past decades, there have been many cases in which those who extended helping hands to immobile senior citizens were asked to compensate, the drivers who stopped and offered help to the victims of  previous hit-and-runs turned out to be held responsible to the accidents they were never part of, or journalists who tried to give the weak a voice ended up being beaten-up or fired.

With these conditioned stimuli, the Chinese society as a whole learned to greet the suffering with avoidance, the helpless with indifference and injustice with cowardliness. In 2006, the court ruled a good Samaritan to pay compensation of an old lady whom he tried to help, as the judge argued: “ who helped somebody like that unless they are at fault”?

Then in 2011, a toddler in Foshan, a Chinese city, was hit twice by vehicles and ignored by 18 passers-by. The 19th person, a lady who lived on rubbish-collecting, picked up mangled body of the little girl and called the ambulance. However, she was soon questioned voices saying that she did it for money and fame after she had received a money-reward by the government. More assumptions of ill-intention and questions on morality were thrown to her than to the 18 indifferent passers-by.

Some say that the Chinese society is facing some moral crisis at its core, but it is not true In the assumed experiment, the dog responded to the bell with fear and avoidance, saying the dog has anorexia would be a wrong conclusion. The stimulus is the key.

Categories: Human Rights & Social Issues

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1 reply


  1. Chongqing mother shoved into cement mixer after illegal land grab « China Daily Mail

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