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

Published: Friday, May 25 2012 11:30 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

Enlarge photo»

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.

Before the actor participant showed up, the real participant would be shown one of two videos. One video was designed to increase compassion and charitable awareness by showing scenes of suffering children and the like. The other video was neutral and just showed a quiet conversation from the movie "All the President's Men."

The actor participant would arrive late, flustered and distressed. After separating the real participant and the actor participant into different rooms, the test-giver would ask the real participant if he wanted to take on a greater share of the tasks to make it easier for the distressed actor participant.

The lower income participants helped out regardless of which video they were shown at the beginning of the test. Higher income people, however were different.

If a higher income person had only been shown the neutral video, they didn't help out much. But if they saw the compassion video, higher income people helped out as much as the lower income participants. "Seeing suffering makes them concerned about their partner," Kraus says.

It was all about noticing. The lower income people always noticed the distressed partner's need. The higher income people noticed when primed to notice.

Educating for compassion

This ties in with Atkinson's experiences in charity work in Salt Lake City. "When people find out about a need with a certain charity, or a cause, they are more than willing to give," she says. "People in the upper and middle class, if I give them information about something in which I am involved, and if I show them what the outcome would be from their donating, they usually give."

She also thinks poor people are quick to help because they know small things help. "They know that even a small amount of giving can make a huge difference," she says. "They know it is going to make a difference because they have experienced the difference themselves."

Carrie Roberts says that for poor people it isn't about tax deductions or tax shelters or trying to get something out of it. Roberts is the founder CEO of For the Charitable Community, Inc, which helps with networking, training and support for the non-profit sector. "They are giving because they want to give," she says. "They are not as organized, there are not strategies around it. People are more likely just to help each other out."

One of Roberts' clients is a free medical clinic. She said people with lower incomes will often try to volunteer or donate or do things to pay back the clinic even though the clinic charges nothing. "People regularly go beyond what they could or even they should be doing," she says. "It surprises me sometimes."

Wary for good and bad

Kraus said people with lower income are familiar with resource scarcity and how vulnerable it makes them. They worry about all the external factors that can immediately affect their lives. There is no cushion. There is no emergency fund.

People who have a lower income are always wary of possible threats to their precarious position, Kraus says. They are always on the lookout for negative emotions.

But such awareness makes people more generous. "Because you notice other people in need a lower class person may say, 'I know what it is like to be in need. We need to help those other people out. It is wrong to turn a blind eye,'" Kraus says.

And without the constant threat to financial, social and familial survival, middle and higher income people just don't notice things.

And, to Kraus, this explains why wealthier people are not jerks. "They're just focused," he says. "They are checking their cell phone. They are thinking about places A, B and C they need to go to today. And they are trying to check off their to-do list. If you were just to slow down a little bit and consider the people around you and their emotional experiences, you would become aware of other people's distress and you would probably be more likely to help people when they need it."

Learning to notice

And to get people in higher classes to notice, they need to have things brought to their attention — like how the sensitizing video in the study put higher income people in a charitable sensitive mindset.

Atkinson places a lot of the responsibility for creating more awareness on the non-profits. "I am constantly amazed at people's generosity once I've shared with them what the needs are," she says. "It may be in donation of money. It may be in donation of material goods. If we don't educate people, if we don't let them know what they can do, why they need to do it and how they can do it, then we can't say to people they are not very generous."

But being aware doesn't come in a day.

Kraus said he would like to think working on the study changed him. "But my profession is so self-focused," he says. "It is all about the next study that you are doing and answering emails and keeping projects in line. I regret I am a victim of my education and upbringing. … I spend a lot of time doing research and a lot less time than I should, probably, thinking about other people."

Atkinson, however, isn't discouraged.

"Everybody has enormous power to help another individual," she says. "They don't have to be Bill Gates."

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com, TWITTER: @degroote, FACEBOOK: madegroote

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS