Studies try to find why poorer people are more charitable than the wealthy

Published: Friday, May 25 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

Volunteers serve steak dinners and all the trimmings with gifts for all guests for homeless and low-income individuals and families at St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen with food provided by Catholic Community Services, steaks by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and steaks cooked by Grand America Hotel and volunteers Sunday, Dec. 25, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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BERKELEY, Calif. — It didn't make the wealthy look so good.

A 2009 national look at charitable giving by McClatchy Newspapers showed the poor give a higher percentage of their income (4.3 percent) to charity than rich people (2.1 percent).

"We thought, 'Wow, that's kind of surprising,'" says Michael W. Kraus who was studying at the University of California, Berkeley at the time and who is starting as an assistant professor in the psychology department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign beginning in July.

The survey led Kraus and his colleagues at Berkeley and the University of Toronto to conduct several experiments to see if the McClatchy analysis could be replicated; to see why people who are in lower classes appear to be more generous than people in higher classes

"Wealthier people are not jerks," Kraus says. "They're not."

The recent study, "Having Less, Giving More: The Influence of Social Class on Prosocial Behavior," included several tests to try to isolate and analyze the generosity of lower class versus higher-class people — the rich attitudes versus the poor attitudes. It was a way of seeing if the results of the national survey were isolated or if they could be replicated in a more laboratory-like setting. The results could have implications on how non-profits look for contributions — and on how people who want to be more charitable can move in that direction.

Psychological studies typically bring people in (usually university students) and test them in a variety of ways — often obscuring the real purpose of the test. In the "dictator game" subjects were surveyed about their perceived social standing. They were then given 10 points and told they could give points to another unseen anonymous test subject. They were told the more points they had at the end of the test, the more money they would be given for participating in the study. Those who were ranked lower in social standing gave more of their points away.

Another study manipulated peoples' feelings about where they fell on the social class continuum — telling them to compare themselves to either people at the bottom or the top. Again, the more people perceived themselves as in a lower social standing, the more generous they were when allocating charitable donations.

A "trust game" showed lower class people were more trusting and egalitarian — and more concerned about the welfare of the other players in the game.

Notice them not

Pamela Atkinson, a community advocate and a member of the Deseret News Editorial Board, says, "I was a trifle surprised at the results of that research."

She often has rung a bell around Christmas time for the Salvation Army donation kettles. "I noticed that there really was a preponderance of lower income people who were putting money into the kettle," she says. "Very often it was families. And the kids would get excited and the parents would give them money to put into the kettle."

But Atkinson was reluctant to say this meant wealthier people were not generous. "I didn't judge the people who kept on walking," she says, "because I have no way of knowing if they hadn't already contributed already online or by check."

Kraus was also puzzled by the results. The last test mentioned in the study, however, gives some clues as to why the poor may give more, percentage-wise, of their substance.

This test partnered two participants and asked them to divide up and finish a set of tasks. The catch was the second "participant" was really an actor.

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