Wealthy People Are Selfish

Just before the beginning of summer, my family and I participated in the  “Ride for Heart” in Toronto, which is an annual charitable event for the Heart and Stroke Foundation.  They close down the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway (major highways into the city) in the morning for participants to walk, run or ride on.  The money raised is to help Canadian research funded by Heart and Stroke Foundation.  This was our second year participating in the ride portion of the event, and it was once again an enjoyable day (no rain this year!)

Interestingly, I have noticed a theme on the charity’s website and promotional material which focused on the participant’s “personal achievement”.   There was also a category for  “Very Important Philanthropist” (VIP), which I found a bit odd.  Over the past several years, I have also noticed this trend with other charitable organizations focusing on the participant’s achievement rather than the actual charitable cause.

I wonder if the reason for this trend is because of a slew of recent psychology studies, as described in a  2017 New York Times article “How to get the wealthy to donate”

The conclusion from the studies was “wealthy people are jerks, and so are their children”.

Obviously, the above statement was used to catch the interest of the reader, which it did in my case.   However, they did cite some interesting studies to back up their claim.

One example they cited was in a 2015 study, where preschoolers were told they had earned enough tokens for “a really great prize.”  They were given the choice to keep the tokens for themselves or share the tokens with children at a local hospital who were too sick to come to the lab.  They found that children from wealthier families kept more tokens for themselves.

Another study in 2010 found that college students’ willingness to give to charity was inversely correlated with their wealth.   The higher the students’ family wealth, the smaller the percentage of their annual income the students felt should be donated.

Why did this occur?

Researchers hypothesized that money allows people to achieve their own goals without depending on others.  Wealth cultivates a mindset of self-sufficiency that is in contrast with a charitable outlook.

They gave an example to illustrate this hypothesis:

If you don’t have much money, you have to ask your friends and family to help you move your belongings from one apartment to another — which means you will probably have to help them when they move.  But if you have money, you are likely to leave your friends and family out of it and hire professional movers.  Over time, such experiences enable wealthier people to more easily embrace notions of independence and personal control over life.  Less affluent people, meanwhile, must stay attuned to others’ needs and goals in order to satisfy their own.

As researchers have shown, wealthier parents tend to teach their children to stand out as individuals and pursue their own goals, while less affluent parents tend to teach their kids to prioritize the needs of the group. It’s no wonder the wealthy are less inclined toward charitable giving.

The researchers then thought about changing the way we talk about charity in a way that resonates with how wealthy people think of themselves.  If they focused the charitable message on the wealthy people themselves rather than the charity, would the wealthy people donate more?

Answer: yes.
2017 Ride for Heart
Researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of Chicago conducted a series of studies, which were published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

In one experiment, they teamed up with a poverty-relief organization called the Life You Can Save.  For three months, they manipulated the messages that appeared on its website to emphasize either common goals (“Let’s Save a Life Together”) or individual achievement (“You = Life-Saver”).

They then tracked the behavior of 185 website visitors whose annual income ranged from less than $10,000 to more than $2.5 million. When wealthier people (greater than $90k) were greeted by the message that stressed charitable giving as an individual achievement, they were significantly more likely to click “Donate Today” than when they encountered the message that stressed common goals.

In another experiment,  donors  from an elite business school gave approximately $150 more on average when they were asked to “come forward and take individual action” than when they were asked to join their community and “support a common goal.”

After reading this article, it made perfect sense to me why charities now focus on the “individual/personal achievement” rather than the common goal.  It works!  There is scientific evidence that this strategy attracts more donations.

I would like to think that people are being altruistic when they make a charitable donation.  However, I also think it’s human nature for people to subconsciously (or consciously) think about how they can personally benefit from donating. Whether it be for a tax advantage, increasing their social standing, gain publicity and advertising (common strategy with real estate agents), or simply to make them feel good about themselves.

How donations can be influenced by one’s personal gain was demonstrated by two economists, Jonathan Meer and Harvey Rosen, where they looked at donations from alumni of a large US university.   In their study, they found donations increased when alumni’s children reached their early teens, correlating to the time when those children were planning to apply for admission to their parents’ university.  However, donations fell dramatically after the admissions decision had been made.

After reading all of this, my first thought was these wealthy people are selfish, and they may be missing the point of charity.

However, as the behaviour scientist Christopher Bryan pointed out:

 “We’re often so focused on getting people to do the right thing for what we think is the right reason, we forget we just need to get them to do the right thing.”

Now, after giving some thought about this, I am not too bothered by the motivation of the giver, as long as the worthwhile cause receives the support it needs.

I will be the first to admit the primary reason why my family and I participated in the “Ride for Heart” was to ride our bikes on the Gardiner Expressway.   It’s a pretty cool experience and it felt great to finish the 25km ride.   However, my kids also got to learn about the  Heart and Stroke Foundation, and we did make a donation as a family to the foundation.

Maybe in the case of charitable donations, the end result justifies the means.  What do you think?

Hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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I really loved this post DN. My wife and I are very concious about our kids getting a distorted view about money, what is normal, and the importance of freely, joyful, and frequently giving. This research was really interesting. I still think we are selfish in giving because it makes us feel really good about ourselves and less guilty about being wealthy. We don’t however want a public achievement type of outcome. It actually makes us uncomfortable because we are trying to “blend in” and don’t want our kids to get special treatment. We like to occasionally give “shock jock”… Read more »

Dr. MB
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Hi DN!

You can guess by now that I would never be the type of person who gives money to get a plaque in their name. That is super pretentious. But hey if it rocks their boat- then have at ‘er I say.

I donate randomly and definitely anonymously. Even our accountants don’t know as we would do cash donations. It’s easier and more freeing that way.