July 29, 2010; Source: The Economist | How’s this for timing? Just as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are getting a lot of attention for their appeal to billionaires to give away half their wealth, a series of recent experiments has led researchers to suggest that it’s the poor, not the rich, who are more inclined to give to charity. The Economist reports that findings from a University of California, Berkeley research project challenges commonly held views that “people in the lower social classes will be more self-interested and less inclined to consider the welfare of others than upper-class individuals, who can afford a certain noblesse oblige.”

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In one experiment, without knowing the real purpose of the study, participants were each given 10 credits, and then asked how many they’d give to a partner and how many to keep for themselves. They were led to believe the credits would have real value as money at the end of the study. As part of the exercise, participants first had to answer a series of questions that helped rank them in terms of education, income and occupational status in relation to others in their communities. When it came time to give the credits away, those who rated themselves on the lowest social and economic rung of their communities parted with 44 percent more of their credits than those who ranked themselves at the top.

In another test, participants had to imagine they came from either a higher or lower economic background. They were then asked to indicate how much of their income should be donated for charity. Individuals who, in real life, had less money, suggested a higher portion of income should be given to charity than those who actually have money. But when those with money were asked to imagine what percentage they’d give if they had less, the percentage of income they felt should be donated increased.

According to The Economist, a possible explanation offered by researchers for the different attitudes toward giving is that higher levels of compassion exhibited by those with less money than their better off counterparts “increases generosity and helpfulness, and promotes a level of trust and co-operation that can prove essential for survival during hard times.” Just one more reinforcement for building a strong community base.—Bruce Trachtenberg