Is money everything? Research shows payday makes us act more selflessly

A team of researchers at NYU Abu Dhabi looked into whether wealth was linked to selfishness

Wealthy people, and people who have just been paid, are more likely to act selflessly, according to a new study. Christian Dubovan / Unsplash
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By reducing poverty, we may become increasingly selfless. This was one of the messages a team of New York University Abu Dhabi researchers was left with, after conducting a study on whether socioeconomic status predicts prosocial behaviour, that which is intended to help other people.

A new paper on the report by scientists at the Centre for Behavioural Institutional Design was published in Nature Communications, based on a field experiment conducted in the Netherlands.

Envelopes were misdelivered to some of the richest and poorest households across a city in the country. The aim was to see which households returned the most envelopes, an act considered prosocial as it requires effort for no benefit. Participants were unaware they were taking part in a study, removing any potential bias.

“There is a popular belief that people of high socioeconomic status, wealthy people, are more selfish than others,” Nikos Nikiforakis, co-director of C-BID and professor of economics, explained. “This stereotypical view of the rich is found in many countries around the world. However, there are reasons to doubt the validity of this view. Neither the circumstances nor the incentives for behaving ‘prosocially’ are typically the same for rich and poor.

"A wealthy person finds it easier to pay a fine for violating the traffic law or tax evasion. Evidence of antisocial or prosocial behaviour cannot be readily compared across socioeconomic groups. In other words, most of the time, we cannot rule out that if a poor person were to suddenly become rich overnight that they would not behave in the same way as the rich.”

More than debunking a stereotypical view of the wealthy, our experiment showed that poverty has a negative impact on prosocial behaviour
Nikos Nikiforakis, co-director of Centre for Behavioural Institutional Design

The results of the research proved wrong the view that wealthy people are more selfish, as it found individuals of high socioeconomic status were substantially more likely to return envelopes to their intended recipients. However, it also found individuals in poor households were similarly likely to do the same after they had been paid, showing financial pressures played a role in antisocial behaviour.

“More than debunking a stereotypical view of the wealthy, our experiment showed that poverty has a negative impact on prosocial behaviour. This suggests that, by reducing poverty, we may be making society in a sense less selfish,” Nikiforakis said.

The research was conducted with co-authors James Andreoni of the University of California, San Diego, and Jan Stoop of the Erasmus School of Economics at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Updated: August 11, 2021, 1:27 PM