Studies: Rich People are Meaner, Stingier, and Less Trusting

Last Updated Apr 28, 2011 4:30 PM EDT

Fundraisers have long known that poorer people give a larger percentage of their income to charity than richer ones. But the reasons for this have long been unclear. Now Frank Flynn, a professor at Stanford, has reviewed a number of related studies in which researchers try to tease apart the connections between wealth, charitable donations, and trust, and compassion. Overall, it appears that poor people are more trustworthy, more generous, and more compassionate than richer ones. Skeptical? Here's what the researchers found:

  • Poor people are more generous. In one study, participants were simply asked how many (worthless) "points" they wanted to give to a fictitious partner seated in another room. Participants who were lower-class gave up more points than those who were upper class (the review does uses the words "lower-class" and "upper-class" but doesn't define them).
  • Social pressures, not just economic ones, can also cause people to at least consider becoming more generous. In one study, half the participants were asked to briefly write about how they would feel like for them to get to know someone "of a higher social rank." They were then asked how people should spend their annual salaries. Those who had first written about meeting with a muckety-muck said significantly more of a person's income should go to philanthropy than did those who hadn't considered a meeting with a muckety-muck.
  • Poorer people appear to be more trusting than richer ones. In another study, participants were given 30 "points" and told they could give as many of them as they wanted to a partner. The partner's points would then be tripled, and the partner could return as many as he or she wanted to the study participant. You can guess what happened: The lower-class folks gave more points to the partner than the upper-class ones, showing them to be more trusting.
  • Poorer people appear to be nicer than rich ones. The last experiment was the most surprising, and seems to have had the least prior research that would have predicted it. In this experiment, each participant was assigned a 'partner' (who was actually in cahoots with the researchers) who showed up to the experiment late and appeared to be upset. The lower-class study participants were more likely to help out their upset partner by taking on some of the more demanding tasks of the study themselves.
  • It's pretty easy to get rich people to act more like poor ones. In the second part of the 'upset partner' experiment, the upper-class folks watched a video about child poverty before their 'late' partner arrived. That was enough to get them to be more proactive about helping out their upset teammate.

Do you think rich people are less trusting, less generous, and generally meaner than poor ones?


Image courtesy flickr user B Rosen

Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant. Follow her on twitter at

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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.