Recently I’ve been reading about prosocial behaviour, or the action of helping, sharing or giving for the greater good. I came across a blog by Frank Flynn, a Stanford Professor, discussing some research from 2011 which shows that the most generous, trusting and helpful people are not those with more money, but rather those with less. It found that individuals in lower socio-economic groups tend to act in a more prosocial fashion because of their greater commitment to egalitarian values and heightened feelings of compassion for others. The research argues that people in these groups are greater social cooperators because they know how it feels.

Does this resonate with your own experience? It does mine. Working in the arts as I do, and in a particular area focused on social art, I spend a lot of time thinking about sharing, community, collaboration, doing and making with little or for free, and funding of course. On reading the research findings I couldn’t help but reflect on where did it go wrong? How did we end up with the lower social economic groups playing the lottery and some of that money going to fund arts and culture for the more privileged few?

First let me share a bit more about the research. In four related studies, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and University of Toronto, explored the effects of social class on generosity, charitable donations, trust, and helping behaviour. In the first study, college students from lower socio-economic groups proved more generous than their more affluent counterparts by demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice their own interests in favour of those of their partner. This supports other research showing that lower-income individuals donate proportionately more of their income to charity than do upper-income individuals.

In a second study, some of the participants were momentarily induced to perceive themselves as relatively lower than others in socio-economic standing. This was done by having them imagine and briefly write down what it would be like for them to get to know people from a higher social rank. In subsequently answering the question “How do you think people should spend their annual salary?” participants allocated more generous donations to charity. A perceived relative lower income status seemed to induce a recognition of the importance of giving.

A third study involved participants in an economic “trust” game where being trusting meant one had to be willing to allocate points despite the risk of the partner defecting, thus benefitting others at a potential cost to the self. Participants from lower socio-economic groups allocated more points to their partner relative to higher socio-economic group participants. This tendency was explained by their social values being oriented toward egalitarianism and the well-being of others.

Finally, in a fourth study, less affluent individuals were more likely than affluent individuals to help “partners” who arrived to the experiment “late” and appeared to be distressed. They showed such altruism by being more willing to take on onerous portions of the experimental tasks.

Interestingly, the researchers found that feelings of compassion, rooted in concern for others’ welfare, underlay class-based differences in prosocial behavior. Yet interestingly, when the participants were induced to feel compassion by watching a clip about child poverty, the more affluent behaved just as prosocially toward their partners as the less affluent.

So, if it seems that individuals do not differ in their capacity for prosocial behaviour, what is it that makes those in the lower socio-economic groups be more likely to be generous? Frank Flynn proposes that “those in lower socio economic classes may be higher in baseline levels of compassion than their upper-class counterparts — probably because they have seen more suffering. And it may be this differential that — unless moderated — drives class-based differences in prosociality.”

What does this mean for the arts? We state we are seeking new ways to make arts and culture more accessible and open for everyone, yet it is not lost on us that much of our work is funded now by the National Lottery. A significant proportion of those that play the lottery are from the less affluent groups in society and a proportion of the money raised goes to fund arts and culture enjoyed by the middle classes. Go to the opera, a Prom, a Picasso exhibition at Tate, and you see a high proportion of a particular strata of society.  How do we bring these groups in society closer to those who have less? How do we create the conditions for more prosocial behaviour? We have been very good at creating a club of sorts, where even when free, there is a series of intangible threshold barriers.

I know things are changing and I know it takes time but I believe it is important that we continue to ask questions. The arguments are complex but we need greater balance and equality in our society. Whether we are programmers or consumers of arts and culture, all of us can play a part in asking these questions and demanding that more is directed to where the most will benefit.


“Having Less, Giving More: The Influence of Social Class on Prosocial Behavior,” was authored by Paul Piff, Michael Krauss, and Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, and Stéphane Côté and Bonnie Hayden Cheng of the University of Toronto. It appears in the July 2010 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/frank-flynn-those-less-give-more Frank Flynn, Professor of Organizational Behavior and The Hank McKinnell-Pfizer Inc. Director of the Center for Leadership Development and Research at the Stanford Graduate School of Business

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