In a field experiment, pedestrians gave more than twice as much money to a panhandler when he wore clothes that signaled a higher social class versus a lower social class. Findings from a follow-up study suggest that this was due to inferences about the man’s competence, trustworthiness, humanity, and similarity to the self. The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
People make assumptions about others based on their social class. For example, people tend to perceive low-status individuals, like those experiencing homelessness or poverty, as lower in warmth and competence. These assumptions appear to influence behavior, leading people to ostracize members of low-status groups.
Study author Bennett Callaghan and his colleagues wanted to explore how visible status symbols influence compassionate responding toward others. Are people more giving toward those who emanate high social status versus low social status? Some theoretical accounts suggest that compassionate responding involves judging whether or not a person “deserves” the help. Since low-status individuals are viewed as less trustworthy and competent, they may also be viewed as less deserving of help.
“My coauthors and I first got interested in this topic based on research showing how social class and inequality can influence even brief social interactions or conversations,” explained Callaghan (@bennettcallag), an associated researcher at the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center.
“Specifically, we were studying social class signaling: processes through which individuals can identify, with some accuracy, the social class (or socioeconomic status) of others through exposure to very brief and superficial cues (e.g., an accent, 60 seconds of video, or social media profile pictures). Research shows that, consciously or not, when those in power perceive and act on these cues, it leads to all sorts of negative outcomes and denied opportunities for individuals lower in social class, such as discrimination in hiring.”
“We began this project to test the limits of just how powerful these cues and perceptions were: whether, instead of looking at something like hiring, we instead looked at behavior that many might think of as being purely selfless and prosocial — helping others — and did so in ‘real-world’ contexts with people sharing their own resources.”
In an initial field study, Callaghan and his team tested whether people would be more likely to help a panhandler wearing clothes that signal high social class or low social class. The experiment was conducted in six busy, downtown areas in New York City and Chicago. Across various trials, the confederate stood in the street holding a paper cup and a cardboard sign with a message about homelessness.
In the high-status trials, the confederate was dressed in high-status symbols — a suit, dress shirt, a tie, and slick hair. In the low-status trials, he was dressed in low-status symbols — jeans and a t-shirt. Throughout the experiment, research assistants counted the number of passersby, the number of people who donated their money, and the number of people who engaged with the confederate.
The results revealed that when the confederate was wearing a suit and tie, he received 2.55 times the amount of money he received when he wore jeans. He was also approached by a larger number of donors when wearing high-status clothing, although this effect was marginally significant.
“While we expected that the displaying high-status symbols would lead to an increase in giving, I was still surprised by the size of this difference — a more than two-fold increase in donations,” Callaghan explained. “I was also somewhat surprised by some of the different ways in which people interacted with me, as the confederate, in the two conditions. For instance, when I was dressed in high-status clothing, several individuals gave donations of $5 or $10 and one dropped a business card in my cup rather than give a one-time donation.”
Notably, this means that the confederate earned more money when signaling higher socioeconomic status (SES). Interestingly, passersby were equally likely to interact with the confederate — whether they gave him money or not — in both conditions, suggesting that the status symbols influenced the quality of interactions with the panhandler, but not the number of them.
The findings provide an indication “of just how powerful an influence social class exerts in our lives and how inequality permeates every aspect of our lived experience: even superficial symbols of social class can have large impacts on our willingness to help others in the moment — and whether we even see these others as deserving of help in the first place,” Callaghan told PsyPost.
Next, a follow-up study shed light on why high-status symbols might elicit more compassionate responding. A final sample of 492 people completed an online survey where they viewed photographs of the confederate from Study 1. Depending on the condition, the confederate was pictured panhandling in either high-status or low-status clothing. Participants were asked to rate the target according to various social attributes.
The results showed that participants perceived the target in high-status clothing to have higher SES compared to the target in low-status clothing. They also rated the high-status target as higher in competence, warmth, similarity to the self, and humanity.
These findings suggest a potential mechanism to explain participants’ behavior in the field experiment. One interpretation is that passersby gave more money to the high-status panhandler because they perceived him to be more deserving of the money. Perceptions that he was more competent and more trustworthy may have led passersby to believe he was more likely to use the money for the intended purpose, such as personal advancement or care, as opposed to using the donations to gain wealth or purchase drugs or alcohol.
Alternatively, participants may have judged the high-status confederate to be in a temporary state of need, and thus more likely to reciprocate the altruism at a later time. This would be consistent with an evolutionary concept called reciprocal altruism, which contends that people are motivated to help others who are likely to return the favor in the future.
The authors of the study say their findings are evidence that symbols of social status can influence the way people judge others on basic human traits. Moreover, they can affect the tendency to respond to others’ suffering with compassion.
“This research provides a further demonstration of the myriad ways in which inequality reproduces itself, and though compassion and generosity are potentially powerful tools to increase others’ wellbeing and promote equality, in this instance, it ironically increased inequality by directing these tendencies toward those who already had access to higher-status symbols (and, thus, might be presumed to be better off in the first place),”
“Relatedly, I hope this research leads us to think critically about the way we approach solving social issues such as homelessness. Relying exclusively on the kindness of individuals, such as charitable donations, is more likely to be subject to the types of biases we show here, and while charity obviously has its place in addressing issues of poverty and inequality, we believe this research also shows the need for robust policy solutions and structural changes that ensure that everybody receives the help they need.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“One major caveat in this research is that we do not know, exactly, how to interpret each individual’s behavior in the field experiment: for ethical reasons, we did not intentionally mislead people into thinking that I, as the confederate, was unhoused or that donations would go directly towards helping me,” Callaghan explained. “It is possible that some portion of passersby thought I was collecting on behalf of a charity, for example, and the likelihood of making this inference might depend somewhat on whether or not I was wearing a suit. Future research, then, might help to address this ambiguity by explicitly varying whether donations are going directly to the individual displaying status symbols or whether that individual is collecting on behalf of a third-party.”
“The other major caveat concerns the confederate in the field study itself: we know from previous research that important social identity characteristics, such as race and gender, can influence these types of processes in complex ways. Since I collected donations, these results cannot necessarily be generalized beyond targets from advantaged social identity groups, such as those who are generally perceived to be White and male.
“It is also possible that, even though I followed a standardized procedure, my own behavior could have contributed to the difference in donations in subtle ways that I was unaware of; future research should definitely investigate whether these same results hold for people from other various and intersecting social identity groups, ideally in a way that does not involve anybody familiar with the study and its hypotheses collecting donations.”
The study, “The influence of signs of social class on compassionate responses to people in need“, was authored by Bennett Callaghan, Quinton M. Delgadillo, and Michael W. Kraus.