I’ll Be Watching You

This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine/Guardian online

How generous are you? And does it matter whether or not your giving is anonymous? The answer may depend on your social class.

Suppose that, as a thank-you for taking part in a survey, you have been given ten raffle tickets, for a chance to win £100. You now have the option of donating some or all of your tickets to a fellow survey participant. How many (if any) would you choose to give? And does it make a difference whether this donation is entirely anonymous, or whether the recipient is told your name and the town where you live?

When this hypothetical scenario was played out for real, the researchers found something pretty surprising: Participants who were categorized as “lower class” (based on their income, education and self-reported ranking) donated more tickets when the donation was anonymous (a mean of 2.5 tickets per person) than public (a mean of 1.5 tickets per person). For participants characterized as “upper class”, whether the donation was public or private made no difference, with a mean of around 1.7 tickets donated either way. The precise reasons for this difference remain unclear, but, when quizzed by the researchers, lower class participants were less concerned than upper class participants with feeling pride after their donation. One possibility, then, is that the less well-off find the showy giving of some rich celebrities so distasteful that they actually give less when the donation is public.

A fully referenced version of this article is available at benambridge.com. Order Psy-Q by Ben Ambridge (Profile Books, £8.99) for £6.99 at bookshop.theguardian.com

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