Lower status people share wealth more than the high status

When playing an economic game, those that were assigned as ‘lower status’ were more likely to share their wealth than their ‘higher status’ counterparts.

The experiment involved a series of economic games in which people played with other people for real money. The games involved participants deciding how much money they kept and how much they gave to a group pot. The money in the pot was always shared out to the players.

Participants were assigned a status, either ‘higher status’ (richer) or ‘lower status’ (poorer) than a group of other participants they played with. The study found that the poorer participants contributed more than the richer participants. Richer participants contributed even less when they had earned their wealth compared to those who had acquired their riches through luck.

In the chance (luck) status scenario what happened was that there was a black box with one blue ball and a red ball. If they picked the red ball they were assigned to the high-status condition, and if they picked the blue ball they were assigned to the low status condition. 

For the earned status scenario participants were required to perform a simple test in which they were supposed to cross out all numbers 3s in a number matrix. Those scoring equal to or more than 94 where allocated to the high status condition, and those scoring less were allocated to the low status condition.

The study, published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology (Osman, LV, Proulx, 2018), demonstrates under laboratory conditions that once we gain access to more resources, the way in which we gain access will determine how we behave with others.

For the high status individuals, the way in which wealth was achieved, whether through chance or effort, appeared to be the key factor determining the level of cooperation observed. This wasn’t the case for the low status individuals, how they got to their low status made no difference to their behaviour in the game.

If you gain high status through effort, rather than chance, you are even more likely to want to keep what you own, but when you have limited status one obvious strategic way to increase it, is through cooperation. The message being that even if one is acting cooperatively, there is no reason to think that this is purely for altruistic reasons.

There is an element of risk in this game, because if you contribute anything to the shared pot there is no way of knowing, and no guarantee that anyone else from the group will do the same. So what is surprising is that low status individuals are willing to take a bigger risk, with fewer resources than the high status individuals. In other words, you take a risk by being pro-social because you have no idea if it will be reciprocated.

The other surprising finding is that empathy has next to no impact on promoting pro-social behaviour, in other words contributing money to the group pot. This matters because there are a lot of claims that empathy is the glue that binds people to act socially. What we show is that when money matters, empathy plays virtually no role in improving pro-social behaviours.


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