How Perceived Economic Mobility Might Affect Charitable Giving

By H. Christian Kim

Research has paid extensive attention to issues surrounding charitable giving, which amounted to $410.02 billion in the United States or 2.1% of the gross domestic product in 2017. Specifically, marketing researchers have put a great emphasis on understanding various factors influencing charitable giving decisions such as donor’s moral identity, donation appeals, victims’ emotional expression, identity congruency, and cultural norms. However, it is not clear whether charitable giving decisions might be affected by how people perceive the society they belong to. This is surprising given that perceptions of society are thought to shape its members’ motivation to contribute to the common good such as altruistic behavior.

This research note, based on joint research by me and Professor Sunyee Yoon at University of Buffalo, outlines how perceived economic mobility (PEM), individual belief about the degree to which members of society can move across socio-economic classes, systematically influences charitable giving via two different paths. First, PEM determines how salient socio-economic groups are and, thus, can affect empathy toward recipients. When economic mobility is high and the boundaries of socio-economic groups are considered permeable, socio-economic group salience is relatively low. In contrast, when PEM is low, so that each individual is thought to stay in the same class year after year, socio-economic groups are viewed as immutable categories, which increases group salience. For example, in the middle ages in Europe, the divide between peasants and nobility was deeply rooted, and the social class was a very salient criterion to define one’s identity. Thus, when potential donors perceive low (vs. high) economic mobility, the different group memberships of donors and recipients are likely to become salient. Research shows that group salience can impact resource allocation by fostering empathy toward ingroup members or suppressing empathy toward outgroup members. Indeed, empathy, an affective state that stems from the apprehension of another’s emotional state or condition has been shown to be a predictor of charitable motivations toward ingroup (vs. outgroup) members. Therefore, high PEM can increase charitable giving by fostering empathy due to reduced group salience, whereas low PEM can decrease charitable giving by suppressing empathy due to heightened group salience. This is especially true if potential donors evaluate recipients based on group membership.

There is a second path through which PEM can affect charitable giving. PEM can have an opposite effect on charitable giving by impacting perceived justice of donation via recipients’ responsibility. When perceiving high economic mobility, potential donors might view charity recipients as responsible for their financial plight since the cause of their suffering likely stems from their own actions (e.g., not working hard), not from uncontrollable social factors (e.g., rigid social system). Conversely, when potential donors believe that it is hard to change the economic status given at birth due to low economic mobility, they are likely to attribute charity recipients’ financial suffering to social factors such as poor social support. These perceptions of recipient responsibility shape one’s perceived justice of donating his or her own resources (hereinafter referred to as “justice”) and, in turn, charitable giving decisions. Thus, low PEM can increase charitable giving due to heightened justice, whereas high PEM can decrease charitable giving due to suppressed justice. This is especially true if potential donors evaluate the recipient as an individuated entity because justice tends to prevail when empathy is not aroused.

Which of the two paths is likely to prevail depends on self-construal. Self-construal reflects the way in which a person understands oneself as interdependent or independent in relation to others. Interdependents perceive themselves as part of the social context and derive social bonds from common identification with social groups, while independents perceive themselves as a unique set of internal attributes and see themselves as separate from others regardless of social groups. For example, when asked to evaluate social targets, interdependents tend to be more sensitive to cues relevant to their relationship with the targets or social groups that the targets belong to, while independents tend to be more sensitive to information pertaining to social targets’ individual characteristics such as responsibility.

Therefore, PEM should influence interdependets’ charitable giving predominantly via empathy, rather than justice, based on group salience. This is likely because information about economic mobility markedly influences social group salience among those for whom social groups serve as an important cue (i.e., interdependents). Group salience becomes high for interdependents perceiving low economic mobility (i.e., recipients clearly viewed as outgroup members). This suppresses empathy and, in turn, decreases charitable giving. Group salience becomes low for interdependents perceiving high economic mobility (i.e., recipients less clearly viewed as outgroup members). This relatively heightens empathy and, in turn, increases charitable giving. This argument is consistent with an extant finding that interdependents tend to offer less support to social targets viewed as outgroup (vs. ingroup) members.

For independents, PEM should have an impact on charitable giving primarily via justice, rather than empathy, based on recipient responsibility. This is likely because independents pay less attention to social groups and view social targets as individuated entities. Recipient responsibility becomes low for independents perceiving low economic mobility (i.e., society is more responsible for recipients’ plight). This heightens justice and, in turn, increases their charitable giving. Recipient responsibility becomes high for independents perceiving high economic mobility (i.e., recipients did not work hard enough). This suppresses justice and, in turn, decreases their charitable giving.

This research note highlights one of the impacts of PEM in our society by illustrating that PEM and self-construal jointly affect charitable giving decisions. Since economic mobility is one of the most important factors affecting human behavior and decision-making, research will continue to uncover diverse influences of PEM.

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