Why lower status people take risks for altruism

Wealthy less likely to share research shows

Why lower status people take risks for altruism
Steve Randall

Wealthy people want to enjoy the results of their hard work rather than share it with others, while those with less may be more prepared to take risks for altruism.

The study by Queen Mary University of London found that those with low incomes are more likely to share it with others, while those with higher incomes are less inclined to do so, especially if they gained wealth through their own endeavours.

"If you gain high status through effort, rather than chance, you are even more likely to want to keep what you own. When you have limited status one obvious strategic way to increase it, is through cooperation. The point here being that even if one is acting cooperatively, there is no reason to think that this is purely for altruistic reasons," explains lead author Dr Magda Osman.

How the research was done
Dr Osman and her team asked participants to play a series of economic games in which they must decide how much of their wealth to keep and how much to contribute to a central pool of funds. This central pool was shared among the group.

Each participant was given a certain amount of money depending on their assigned status. These assignments also included whether wealth had been gained through chance or by effort.

"There is an element of risk in this game, because if you contribute anything to the shared pot there is no way of knowing, and no guarantee that anyone else from the group will do the same,” adds Osman. “So what is surprising is that low status individuals are willing to take a bigger risk, with fewer resources than the high status individuals. In other words, you take a risk by being pro-social because you have no idea if it will be reciprocated."

Empathy doesn’t change the result
The study, published in the journal Basic and Applied Psychology, also found that empathy did not change the willingness of the participants assigned higher status to add to the central pool.

“This matters because there are a lot of claims that empathy is the glue that binds people to act socially. What we show is that when money matters, empathy plays virtually no role in improving pro-social behaviours," concludes Dr Osman.