The more you have, the less you give. According to a 2002 Independent Sector survey, households earning more than $100,000 a year contributed only 2.7 percent of their income to charity, while those earning less than $25,000 gave a more generous 4.2 percent. New research shows that’s no accident. “The more money a person makes or has, the less generous, helpful, compassionate, and charitable he is toward other people,” says Paul Piff, a doctoral candidate in social and personality psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Piff started out by noticing that rich people are generally ruder. When he videotaped them in the lab as they got to know a stranger, people who had identified themselves as having more “would check their cell phones … or doodle without establishing eye contact. Whereas the individuals who identified themselves as having less, were more engaged: They would establish eye contact, they’d laugh more, they’d nod,” Piff says. There seemed to be basic differences in the level of social engagement and concern for others. So Piff and colleagues designed a series of experiments.
Given $10 worth of points and asked how much of it they wanted to share, rich people were less generous than poor people. In a trust game, they were less egalitarian and cooperative. To a latecomer to Piff’s lab, they were less helpful. This was true of those who reported higher incomes and those who came from wealthier families, but the researchers found that even when a subject felt temporarily higher ranking, it caused him to be less charitable.
So are the rich monsters? No, says Piff. They are just insulated. When he showed participants a short, compassion-inducing video about child poverty, the upper-class individuals became as empathetic as the lower.
This finding does not surprise Mark Kramer, managing director of FSG Social Impact Consultants. “We did a study for the Gates Foundation trying to look at what distinguishes highimpact donors,” he says. “What we found was that at some point, the donors who were highly effective had a firsthand experience where they directly encountered an issue of real urgency.”
Some nonprofits create such encounters on purpose. The Boston Foundation walks people through dangerous inner-city neighborhoods at night; the experience lends more immediacy to problems than does reading crime stats in the local paper.
Maybe that’s all it takes to make a wealthy donor as generous as a poor one. “Giving is emotionally driven more than rationally driven,” says Kramer. He advises nonprofits to “try to give donors firsthand experiences of the issues that they’re raising money to help solve.”
Paul K. Piff, Michael Kraus, Stéphane Côté, et al., “Having Less, Giving More: The Influence of Social Class on Prosocial Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 2010.