LIFE at the bottom is nasty, brutish and short. For this reason, heartless folk might assume that people in the lower social classes will be more self-interested and less inclined to consider the welfare of others than upper-class individuals, who can afford a certain noblesse oblige. A recent study, however, challenges this idea. Experiments by Paul Piff and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, reported this week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggest precisely the opposite. It is the poor, not the rich, who are inclined to charity.
In their first experiment, Dr Piff and his team recruited 115 people. To start with, these volunteers were asked to engage in a series of bogus activities, in order to create a misleading impression of the purpose of the research. Eventually, each was told he had been paired with an anonymous partner seated in a different room. Participants were given ten credits and advised that their task was to decide how many of these credits they wanted to keep for themselves and how many (if any) they wished to transfer to their partner. They were also told that the credits they had at the end of the game would be worth real money and that their partners would have no ability to interfere with the outcome.
A week before the game was run, participants were asked their ethnic backgrounds, sex, age, frequency of attendance at religious services and socioeconomic status. During this part of the study, they were presented with a drawing of a ladder with ten rungs on it. Each rung represented people of different levels of education, income and occupational status. They were asked to place an “X” on the rung they felt corresponded to where they stood relative to others in their own community.
The average number of credits people gave away was 4.1. However, an analysis of the results showed that generosity increased as participants’ assessment of their own social status fell. Those who rated themselves at the bottom of the ladder gave away 44% more of their credits than those who put their crosses at the top, even when the effects of age, sex, ethnicity and religiousness had been accounted for.