Do the rich lack compassion compared to the poor?

by Stephen Tall on August 10, 2010

A month ago I asked the question, Can we get more people giving, AND increase total charitable giving at the same time?, pointing out that poorer people are relatively more generous than richer people:

… survey after survey both in the UK and in the US (here and here) has shown that, as a proportion of their income, the poor who give to charity are much more generous than the rich, giving away up to 4.5% of their income.

Further evidence to that effect emerges from a recent Economist article (hat-tip: Wall Street Journal’s Welath Report blog) which cites two experiments undertaken by the University of California, Berkeley.

Here’s the first as relayed by the WSJ:

To gauge their socioeconomic status, [115 volunteers] were shown a ladder with ten rungs, with each rung representing a different level of income, education and occupational status. They were then asked to place an “X” on the run they felt corresponded to their place in their community.

They were brought into a lab and told that they were going to play a game in which they would get 10 credits. The credits would be converted to cash at the end of the experiment. The volunteers were then asked how many credits they would be willing to give to a partner that they would never meet or know.

They found that people who ranked themselves at the bottom of the ladder gave away 44% more credits than those at the top.

And here’s the second as told by The Economist;

In follow-up experiments, the researchers asked participants to imagine and write about a hypothetical interaction with someone who was extremely wealthy or extremely poor. This sort of storytelling is used routinely by psychologists when they wish to induce a temporary change in someone’s point of view.

In this case the change intended was to that of a higher or lower social class than the individual perceived he normally belonged to. The researchers then asked participants to indicate what percentage of a person’s income should be spent on charitable donations. They found that both real lower-class participants and those temporarily induced to rank themselves as lower class felt that a greater share of a person’s salary should be used to support charity.

Upper-class participants said 2.1% of incomes should be donated. Lower-class individuals felt that 5.6% was the appropriate slice. Upper-class participants who were induced to believe they were lower class suggested 3.1%. And lower-class individuals who had been “psychologically promoted” thought 3.3% was about right.

There are a number of reader comments in response both to the WSJ blog-post and the Economist’s article, which make fascinating reading for a fundraiser, as they are the unvarnished views of many of the kinds of people we will approach for a donation:

… poor people know what it’s like to not have money, therefore is [sic] more compassionate vs rich people who tell the poor to eat cake.

The rich are constantly defending themselves from rising taxes and “government enforced charity”. … When I was younger I felt more giving but now as my salary grows and I move upward in the taxation bracket I feel less inclined to be charitable. I feel this way because I have already given to the poor, just not with my consent.

Perhaps this shows the rich are out of practice at generosity – they only move in circles where genuine need rarely exists and have forgotten how to act.

Maybe a rich person is more selfish because he/she has neither the need nor the expectation of reciprocity?

I think that the better-off believe that they deserve their wealth, and it is consistent for them to believe that the worse-off deserve their poverty.

Or as one commenter sums up the arguments:

– The rich are rich because they are cheap
– The rich lack compassion for the poor because they don’t experience poverty.
– The rich lack comapassion for the poor because the poor are unlike themselves
– Neo-conservative values have tilted us toward “Greed is good.”
– But the rich give more. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet redeem us all.
– The rich believe people get what they deserve
– The rich enjoy their relative societal position
– … even more so the larger the difference
– Overreliance on subjects from the developed world skews research.