July 27, 2007 A new study out of Carnegie Mellon University reveals that people who regard themselves as humanitarians are even more likely than others to base donations to the poor on whether they believe poverty is a result of bad luck or bad choices.
The study by Christina Fong, a research scientist in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon, supports previous findings that people are more likely to give money to the poor when they believe that poverty is a result of misfortune rather than laziness. What's surprising is that this effect is largest among people who claim to have more humanitarian or egalitarian beliefs. In fact, humanitarians give no more than others when recipients are deemed to be poor because of laziness.
Fong's results, published in the July issue of the Economic Journal, are significant because altruistic behavior is not well explained by traditional economics, which assumes that self-interest is the prime motivator for human behavior.
"These findings, along with prior findings from social survey data and experiments, help economists develop more realistic models of human behavior so that they can better explain how societies deal with poverty and inequality. They imply that people may be more likely to support policies and charities that help insure people against bad luck rather than their own choices," Fong said.
"For instance, transfer payments to people with prior work histories tend to be relatively popular as do expenditures on health and education for poor children, who are too young to be held personally accountable for their poverty," she said.
Fong conducted an experiment in which subjects were given $10 and asked to decide how much, if any, to give to a real-life welfare recipient. A few days prior to the experiment, participants completed surveys about their values and beliefs, including beliefs about whether lack of effort or bad luck cause poverty. The survey also included questions designed to measure whether participants considered themselves to be humanitarians.
During the experiment, donors were randomly matched with three different welfare recipients with varying work histories and desires for full-time work. This information, combined with the participants' individual beliefs about the causes of poverty, had a major impact on giving. People who believed that their recipient was poor because of bad luck gave six and a half times as much as people who believed that their recipient was poor because of laziness.
Those who scored high on the humanitarian measure gave more money to recipients judged to be victims of bad luck than those who scored low - but the two groups made the same offers to welfare recipients judged to be lazy. Fong terms this desire to help people on the condition that they appear to deserve it "empathetic responsiveness."
"This concept blends two well-known concepts of empathy. The first is the idea that empathy is an emotion that can evoke altruistic behavior. The second is the idea that empathy is the ability to attend and respond to another being," Fong said. "Empathy in this sense may result not only in positive responses to another person, such as sympathy followed by helping behavior, but also in negative responses such as anger followed by revenge."
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