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Having less, giving more?


Do people from the upper social classes engage in less prosocial behavior than their lower social class counterparts? For example, do upper class people donate a smaller portion of their income to charity, and are they generally less helpful?

Previous psychological studies have actually found that because lower social class individuals are in difficult circumstances themselves, they are more concerned with the welfare of other persons than higher class individuals are. Martin Korndörfer, Stefan Schmukle, and Boris Egloff recently conducted a study using large representative data sets with up to 37,000 participants.

Their study, recently published in PLOS ONE (, did not support these results but instead found the opposite effect in the majority of their analyses. The researchers from the University of Leipzig and the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz examined international data from large surveys such as the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP).

The people who responded to these surveys reported their income, education, and job prestige and provided information about several prosocial behaviors such as donating, volunteering, and helping in everyday situations (e.g., allowing a stranger to go ahead of them in line).

The research team’s analyses brought to light an unexpected result: Compared with lower social class individuals, higher social class individuals were more charitable, helpful, generous, and trusting. For example, in a digital real-pay economic game that was designed to measure participants’ trust behavior, individuals from the higher social realms gave more to an assigned stranger than individuals from the lower social realms.

Interestingly, this main result was predominantly independent of country (Germany, the United States, or one of 28 other countries) and the measure of social class (income, education, job prestige, or subjective social standing).

"These findings are especially important in the context of growing social disparities. They show that individuals from the middle and upper social classes seem to take on the social responsibilities that are ascribed to them to a higher degree than one would expect on the basis of previous psychological studies,” says Martin Korndörfer. The authors attribute this difference in findings to the previously common use of small samples that primarily consisted of American students who simply did not vary in social class.

"Ultimately, higher social class individuals might not always be more (or less) prosocial than people from lower social classes—there are differences that depend on the observed prosocial behavior and important circumstances that have yet to be determined. What we do know for sure is that the statement alleged by many psychologists—that the upper class is generally less helpful—is presumably not true," summarizes Martin Korndörfer.

Martin Korndörfer, Boris Egloff, Stefan C. Schmukle

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0133193

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Dr. Martin Korndörfer

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Susann Huster | Universität Leipzig
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