Study: Poor Are More Charitable Than The Wealthy

Huge charity commitments often get headlines — like the ones Bill Gates and Warren Buffett collected for convincing 40 billionaires to donate at least half of their fortunes. But Paul Piff, a psychology researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, tells host Guy Raz about his studies, which show that poor people are actually more charitable than the rich.

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GUY RAZ, host:

And speaking of charity, 40 billionaires announced this past week that they'll give at least half their fortunes to charity. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett unveiled the list, which also includes Larry Ellison, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and George Lucas. The total promise so far: $125 billion.

So you might assume that when it comes to giving, the rich are generally better at it than the rest of us. That's what Paul Piff, a psychologist at U.C. Berkeley, also thought. So he carried out a study and just published his findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Paul Piff, welcome to the program.

Mr. PAUL PIFF (Psychology Researcher, University of California, Berkeley): Thanks so much for having me, Guy.

RAZ: So that question, you know, who's more generous, the rich or the poor, how did you set out to answer it?

Mr. PIFF: Well, we started out by recruiting adults and had them fill out an online questionnaire that essentially asked them to tell us what their socio-economic status was.

Now, when we brought them into the lab, we said: You're going to play a game in which you're given 10 credits, which are going to be equal to cash at the end of the experiment, and we're interested in knowing how many of those credits you want to give, if any, to a partner that you'll never meet and who'll never meet you.

RAZ: Now, you knew, obviously, the socio-economic backgrounds of all these people. What did you find?

Mr. PIFF: So interestingly and possibly counter-intuitively, we found that people who were actually ranking themselves as relative high in their socio-economic status were less inclined to give points away than were people who ranked themselves as relatively lower in social class.

So essentially, people who have more, or who identify themselves as having more, were or tended to give less in this just very simple task of generosity toward a stranger.

RAZ: Was it on an order of magnitude? I mean, was it a significant difference?

Mr. PIFF: It was, absolutely. It was a statistically significant difference, and what we found was that the lower-class people, or the relatively lower-class individuals, were inclined to give away 44 percent more of their points or their credits.

RAZ: Forty-four percent more.

Mr. PIFF: Yeah.

RAZ: Why do you think that people who self-identified as richer were less generous than people who identified as poorer or middle class?

Mr. PIFF: Across these experiments, the main variable that we find that consistently explains this differential pattern of giving and helping and generosity among the upper and lower class is feelings of sensitivity and care for the welfare of other people and, essentially, the emotion that we call compassion.

So it's really compassionate feelings that exist among the lower class that's seen to provoke these higher levels of altruism and generosity toward other people.

RAZ: Were you surprised at what you found?

Mr. PIFF: You know, I had expected this pattern might pan out given the earlier that we've done on the effects of poverty on people's behavior toward others, but the findings that we had across experiments and across contexts in many ways speak against hundreds of years of economical thinking about how people would behave toward others when they're in need.

So I think it's really an interesting counter-intuitive pattern of results that really speaks against certain intuitions that we might have about the behavior of the wealthy or how the wealthy might act toward others.

RAZ: That's Paul Piff. He's a psychology researcher at U.C. Berkeley. His team's findings that the poor are more charitable than the rich were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Paul Piff, thanks so much.

Mr. PIFF: Thanks so much for having me, Guy.

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