A new social experiment on the busy streets of New York and Chicago has revealed an unfortunate paradox for those experiencing homelessness.
In the real-world study, pedestrians were more likely to donate money to the homeless when the person holding a donation cup wore a business suit.
If the person asking for money wore just a t-shirt and jeans, bystanders donated less money – half in total.
Even when they give informally to charity – which the researchers describe as “seemingly altruistic behaviour” – they argue that pedestrians may unknowingly be perpetuating economic inequality by donating to those who have more rather than less.
“As economic inequality increases in many parts of the world and countries like the United States withdraw social safety net programs, the responsibility for addressing the harmful effects of inequality rests increasingly with the economically disadvantaged themselves, or private citizens who show compassion.” 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.
An important limitation of the experiment was that the person standing on the street asking for money (the first author of the study) did not claim to be personally experiencing homelessness in order not to mislead any charitable passers-by.
Instead, he held 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. Every donation will help. Thank you.” A different sign applied to New York.
If someone stopped and asked him what he was doing, he would tell them that 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 soliciting money in Chicago or New York, and whether he was dressed in a business suit, with slicked-back hair, or jeans and a T-shirt, with unruly hair.
The findings 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 cause lower levels of warmth and empathy toward others, further contributing to alienation and dehumanization.
Some experiments in the 1970s found that people of higher status often receive 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 allows people to identify social hierarchies—and their own place within them—but also enables patterns of social perception that indirectly justify these hierarchies, portraying those at the bottom as incompetent or unworthy.”
The current experiments in New York and Chicago can’t tell us what pedestrians were thinking if they dropped money into the cup, but they do suggest that quick judgments of social status are somehow a game.
When the study’s first author dressed in a business suit, he collected more donations in both number and quantity over several hours.
Together, his upper class attire was twice as effective as jeans and a t-shirt.
In 3.5 hours, the charity collector received just over US$54 in a business suit. Over four hours, he raised just over US$21 on a T-shirt.
An online survey followed up these results by asking 486 participants to view images of the previous experiment and report their perception of the charity collector.
Both the suit and the shirt were judged to be lower in status, but the latter outfit more so. When the charity collector was dressed in a T-shirt, the research participants rated him comparatively lower on warmth, competence, humanity and relatability.
Perhaps, the authors explain, that’s why pedestrians gave less money to the charity collector when he was dressed in a T-shirt. Perhaps in this garment, the man was seen as less “worthy”, trustworthy or approachable.
But these are just possibilities. pedestrians who gave money were not investigated.
The authors also acknowledge that street patrons may have thought the charity collector was actually collecting for charity. This may explain why they gave more to the professionally dressed person.
That said, the team believes this notion is implausible. The cardboard sign is not indicative of a professional establishment, meaning most people would probably assume the collector was taking the money for himself.
Very few people actually interacted with the man, even those who threw money into his cup, regardless of how he was dressed.
The study was published in Frontiers in Psychology.