A new social experiment on the busy streets of New York and Chicago has revealed an unfortunate paradox for the homeless.
In the real-world study, pedestrians were more likely to donate money to homeless people when the person holding a donation cup was wearing a business suit.
If the person asking for money was just wearing a t-shirt and jeans, passers-by gave less money less often – half as much in total.
Even when informally donating to charity – what the researchers describe as “ostensibly selfless behavior” – they argue that pedestrians could unknowingly perpetuate economic inequality, giving to those who have more rather than to less.
“As economic inequality rises in many parts of the world and countries like the United States roll back social safety net programs, responsibility for dealing with the deleterious effects of inequality increasingly falls on economically precarious individuals themselves or compassionate private citizens,” writes the team, led by first author and social psychologist Bennett Callaghan of the City University of New York.
Given this extreme shift in responsibility, researchers are trying to find ways to improve charitable giving.
A major limitation of the experiment was that the person standing in the street asking for money (the study’s first author) did not claim to be personally homeless so as not to mislead charitable passers-by.
Instead, he was holding a sign that read, “At least 1,700 Chicagoans slept on the streets in January 2011. It’s not cold yet, but winter is coming. Any donation will help. Thanks. A different sign applied to New York.
If someone stopped and asked him what he was doing, he would tell them he was raising money for charity (the funds were eventually donated at the end of the study).
The only variables were whether the charity collector was asking for money in Chicago or New York, and whether he was dressed in a business suit, with his hair slicked back, or jeans and in a t-shirt, with unruly hair.
The results suggest that pedestrians on busy city streets judge the social class of those asking for money based on appearance alone and give accordingly.
Previous studies have shown that our perceptions of social class can influence how we view strangers. Signs of poverty can actually elicit lower levels of warmth and empathy towards others, further contributing to alienation and dehumanization.
Some experiments in the 1970s found that people of higher status often received more help, financial or otherwise, than those of lower status.
“Thus,” write the authors of the present study, “the ability to perceive social class in others not only enables humans to identify social hierarchies – and their own place within them – but it also enables patterns of social perception that implicitly justify these hierarchies, portraying those below as incompetent or unworthy.”
Ongoing experiments in New York and Chicago cannot tell us what pedestrians thought if they dropped money in the cup, but they do suggest that rapid assessments of social status are in play in some way. or another.
When the study’s first author was dressed in a business suit, he attracted more donations in number and quantity over several hours.
Together, his upper-class attire was twice as effective as a pair of jeans and a t-shirt.
In 3.5 hours, the charity collector received just over US$54 in a business suit. In four hours, he collected just over US$21 in a t-shirt.
An online survey followed these results by asking 486 participants to view images from the previous experiment and report their perception of the charity collector.
The costume outfit and the t-shirt outfit were deemed lower status, but the latter outfit is more so. When the charity collector wore a t-shirt, survey participants rated it comparatively lower on warmth, competence, humanity and relatability.
This may be, the authors explain, why pedestrians gave the charity collector less money when he was dressed in a t-shirt. Perhaps in this outfit the man was considered less “deserving”, trustworthy or accessible.
But these are only possibilities; pedestrians who gave money were not interviewed.
The authors also acknowledge that street enthusiasts may have thought that the charity collector was actually collecting for charity. That might explain why they gave the professionally dressed person more.
That said, the team thinks that perception is unlikely. The cardboard sign is not indicative of a professional institution, which means most people would probably assume the collector was taking the silver for themselves.
Very few people actually interacted with the man, even those who dropped money in his cup, regardless of how he was dressed.
The study was published in Frontiers in Psychology.