In recent years, social and behavioral scientists have shown increased interest in understanding how a person’s socioeconomic status (SES) affects their willingness to give to others. A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports suggests that the answer depends on the context of the giving — people with higher SES are more generous with their money but less generous with their time.
While past studies have attempted to understand how social status predicts prosocial behavior, the findings have been mixed. Some of these studies suggest that people with higher SES tend to give more than people with lower SES, while other studies suggest the opposite. The researchers behind the new study proposed that this link between SES and altruism depends on the situational context and how strongly it activates social norms surrounding redistribution.
“Since Marx and Weber the interplay of social classes and status groups has been considered an all-important factor regarding the cohesion of modern societies. Behavioral measures like the dictator game, real-effort tasks, and (quasi-) experimental designs provide a fresh and exciting take on this classical subject of sociological interest,” said study author Andreas Tutic, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Bergen.
Norms of redistribution dictate that wealthy people have a responsibility to give money to less wealthy people. Many past studies have examined the link between SES and charitable behavior within contexts that likely activate these norms. For example, studies have investigated money transfer scenarios where participants are given the opportunity to share a small sum of money with a stranger.
This situation should activate norms of redistribution, leading wealthier people to increase their giving to people of low SES. But what about situations that do not activate these norms — are wealthier people still more giving? What if people are instead asked to share their time with others?
In their study, Tutic and his co-authors employed two types of dictator games to try to answer these questions. One was a money dictator game, where subjects were asked to divide a pool of $15 between themselves and another participant. The other was a time dictator game, where participants were given a menial task to do and asked to split the five minutes of task time between themselves and another participant.
Depending on the condition, the acting participant was either not told about the other participant’s status, or was told that the other participant was of low SES, middle SES, or high SES. The participants were 7,722 people from four different countries: Germany, Poland, Sweden, and the United States.
The researchers looked at participants’ allocation decisions, first analyzing how a person’s decision to give away their time or money was related to their own SES. It was found that as a participant’s SES increased, so did monetary donations to the recipient. In other words, people with higher SES tended to give more money to the recipient than people with lower SES. However, when it came to time donations, the opposite effect was found. The higher a participant’s SES, the less time they spent on the tedious task.
Next, the researchers considered how people’s giving decisions were related to the recipient’s SES. They found that the recipient’s SES mattered more in the money dictator game, where people gave substantially less money to recipients with higher versus lower SES. In the time dictator game, participants’ giving was less dependent on the recipient’s SES. Presumably, the time dictator game did not activate social norms of redistribution.
“Both in public discourse and media – think of the movie Wall Street with its egoistic antihero Gordon Gekko, for example – as well as in scholarly research there exists the idea that individuals with higher socioeconomic status necessarily behave less prosocially and more unethically than individuals with lower status,” Tutic told PsyPost.
“Our research shows that this cliché is empirically not warranted. Status groups differ in a great variety of ways such as their social outlook and the extent to which a social norm of redistribution applies to them; as a consequence, whether higher status groups show a greater or smaller tendency towards prosocial behavior depends on the type of prosocial behavior under consideration.”
The authors point out that it is unknown whether there are differences in the extent that people with low and high SES value time and money. It could be that people with high SES have a comparably low valuation of money and high valuation of time compared to people with low SES — hence why people with high SES were more willing to give up their money and less willing to give up time. Yet, this perspective would not explain why the recipient’s status mattered more for the money transfer than the time transfer situation.
Overall, the researchers said that their study suggests that social norms of redistribution play an important role in prosocial behavior. A future step will be to conduct a similar experiment in the field to see whether norms of redistribution have the same effect in situations that are free from experimenter demand and social desirability bias.
“Since our study is based on specific monetary and time endowments, it remains an open question whether stake sizes matter and to what extent socioeconomic status groups differ in their evaluation of time and money,” Tutic noted. “Future research should focus on providing more direct and in particular experimental evidence on the situationally contingent activation of a social norm of redistribution.”
The study, “Individuals of high socioeconomic status are altruistic in sharing money but egoistic in sharing time”, was authored by Ulf Liebe, Nicole Schwitter, and Andreas Tutić.