Does wealth make us more altruistic?

UCL (UK) — A “lost letter” experiment suggests that people who live in wealthier neighborhoods are more inclined to altruism.

Researchers used the lost letter technique to measure altruism across 20 London neighborhoods by dropping 300 letters on the pavement and recording whether they arrived at their destination. The stamped letters were addressed by hand to a study author’s home address with a gender-neutral name, and were dropped face-up and during rain-free weekdays.

Published in the journal PLoS One, the results show a strong negative effect of neighborhood income deprivation on altruistic behavior, with an average of 87 percent of letters dropped in the wealthier neighborhoods being returned compared to only an average 37 percent return rate in poorer neighborhoods.

“This is the first large scale study investigating cooperation in an urban environment using the lost letter technique,” says co-author Jo Holland from University College London Anthropology.

“This technique, first used in the 1960s by the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram, remains one of the best ways of measuring truly altruistic behavior, as returning the letter doesn’t benefit that person and actually incurs the small hassle of taking the letter to a post box.”

Co-author Professor Ruth Mace adds: “Our study attempts to understand how the socio-economic characteristics of a neighborhood affect the likelihood of people in a neighborhood acting altruistically towards a stranger.

“The results show a clear trend, with letters dropped in the poorest neighborhoods having 91 percent lower odds of being returned than letters dropped in the wealthiest neighborhoods. This suggests that those living in poor neighborhoods are less inclined to behave altruistically toward their neighbors.”

As well as measuring the number of letters returned, the researchers also looked at how other neighborhood characteristics may help to explain the variation in altruistic behavior—including ethnic composition and population density—but did not find them to be good predictors of lost letter return.

“The fact that ethnic composition does not play a role in the likelihood of a letter being returned is particularly interesting, as other studies have suggested that ethnic mixing negatively affects social cohesion, but in our sampled London neighborhoods this does not appear to be true,” says corresponding author Antonio Silva.

“The level of altruism observed in a population is likely to vary according to its context. Our hypothesis that area level socio-economic characteristics could determine the levels of altruism found in individuals living in an area is confirmed by our results. Our overall findings replicate and expand on previous studies which use similar methodology.

“We show in this study that individuals living in poor neighborhoods are less altruistic than individuals in wealthier neighborhoods. However, the effect of income deprivation may be confounded by crime, as the poorer neighborhoods tend to have higher rates crime which may lead to people in those neighborhoods being generally more suspicious and therefore less likely to pick up a lost letter.

“Further research should focus on attempting to disentangle these two factors, possibly by comparing equally deprived neighborhoods with different levels of crime.

“Although this study uses only one measure of altruism and therefore we should be careful in interpreting these findings, it does give us an interesting perspective on altruism in an urban context and provides a sound experimental model on which to base future studies.”

Source: University College London

chat8 Comments


  1. Les McNamara

    I feel a little uncomfortable with these conclusions – in particular that “individuals living in poor neighbourhoods are less altruistic than individuals in wealthier neighbourhoods”. Based on the experimental design, *individuals* can only be ‘altruistic’ or ‘not altruistic’ and everyone that returned a letter is equally altruistic. At best, the study can only conclude that there are *less* altruistic people in poor neighbourhoods. Anyway…

    I’m not sure that the experiment is measuring altruism at all? Other studies seem to show that poorer individuals are more charitable and less selfish than rich people.

    Perhaps these results are related to the amount of litter in the neighbourhood; the number of people in the street (bystander and observer effects); the number of children; the number of apartment blocks (where discarded mail is often misdirected mail) or even accessibility of a post box (you found that people that travelled furthest to work were more ‘altruistic’). As you say in your paper, your findings stem from ‘contextual neighbourhood effects’ rather than ‘individual level differences’?

    Also, I suspect that the triggers of empathy are different in rich and poor. Perhaps fewer poor people associate a lost or discarded letter with suffering in others? Maslow might have had something to say about the results. Could it be that poor people experience greater empathy and tendency towards altruistic acts in relation to the provision of basic needs – food, shelter and protection – and care less about the reliability of the mail service?

  2. Wendy Humboldt

    I’m also skeptical of the conclusions drawn from this experiment. In many of the poorer neighborhoods I have seen, residents work 2 or even 3 jobs–often with grueling commutes on public buses. They are also often caregivers with children or elderly dependents who rely on them. These people may simply not have the time when walking on the street to stop, pick up a letter, figure out where it goes, and take it there. They need to catch the bus. They need to get to work.

    In wealthier neighborhoods, people often have access to more reliable transportation, have lighter schedules, can delegate childcare to relatives or employees and have more forgiving employers. In short, I don’t believe this experiment reliably predicts who is more altruistic. It simply predicts who has more time to tidy up the sidewalk.

  3. affluent

    The researchers did not, as far as I can tell, compare the relative costs of time and resources of the poor person versus the affluent person, or why people are walking around in the first place. For example, a poor person working two low-paying jobs is in a bigger time crunch, probably, than an affluent person who has one job and a bit more control over his or her life. The more affluent person is more likely to be walking around the neighborhood for excercise, and drives to work, and has free hands to do nice things like pick up litter or return envelopes. The poorer person is more likely not have a vehicle and have his or her hands occupied carrying things for work or groceries. (The article did mention that in a high-crime area dropping your guard to pick up a stray letter might not be something wise people are inclined to do, and doing so might turn out to be quite costly.) The researchers didn’t compare the cost of the time and resources of a person such as a harried single mom versus a person with more time and money. If the poor person bothered to pick up the letter, his/her sacrifice could be a lot bigger that the sacrifice of the more affluent person.

  4. Tanja

    I grew up and spent most my life in a poor neighborhood. I got an education, married and now I live in an affluent area. I think all the study shows is that those living in poor neighbor hoods have to work harder to return something than those in affluent areas. When I lived in the poor area, I had to walk over a block just to mail a letter. Now, in this area, we have a mailbox right by where I have to pick up my mail. So, I walk a few steps and if I see something that accidentaly got in my mailbox, I just drop it back in the mail, it was that easy. When I lived in a poor area, I wouldn’t bother walking all that way. We lived in a town home then and the mail was delivered right to our door, if there was a wrong mail in ours or we found mail, we would wait until the next time we had to grocery shop…if we remembered and sometimes we didn’t so it would just get lost again. Now I am in a big single home thanks to my prince charming, I married. So, it is easier to be altruistic, if that is the case, when I don’t have to go anywhere to mail something.

  5. Sarah Ruth

    Major leaping to conclusions here. Consider that those wealthier/monied neighbors might have more time as they are not out standing in line at the soup kitchen/food pantry or the unemployment line. Perhaps there are more post poxes in the wealthier area. Too many unknowns.
    Poorly done, folks. Poorly done.

  6. Andar

    The first thing that occurred to me is in relation to the neighborhood I reside in. There is regularly trash on the sidewalks and in the streets, whether due to apathy or lack of a street cleaning service in the area. Sure, maybe it’s a letter, but it’s also on the ground and if an individual can’t be bothered to pick up their drink cups or cig packages, they’re also unlikely to pick up trash that ‘belongs’ to someone else.

    (As an aside, it is interesting how less affluent areas tend to collect such garbage. It is clearly not due to street cleaning. Perhaps apathy toward one’s living space because ‘no one else cares’? It can be very frustrating to find gum, cigarette packages, fast food wrappers and candy paper all over the place outside my apartment on a daily basis.)

  7. Buckeye Nut Schell

    When I clean my car, I notice right away when there is a speck of dirt or trash and I am inclined to clean it up right away. It has to do with pride. When I walk down the street in a nice neighborhood, I notice a piece of trash right away because it looks so out of place. If a letter was laying on the sidewalk, I would notice it right away because it would be out of place and would immediately investigate. Upon discovering it was a letter to someone, knowing it was probably one of my neighbors who dropped it and I place a high value on letters, I would definetely mail the letter.

    When I do not clean my car and I notice a piece of trash, I am less inclined to pick it up. If the car is already dirty, eventually, I stop noticing individual pieces of trash and feel embarrassed collectively about thewhole shape of the car. When I am in the city and there is trash on the road, it doesn’t take long to stop noticing indiviual pieces of trash and start looking at the collective area as trashy. An envelope would not stand out nearly as much. Also, when I was younger, mail was an inconvenience because it only included bills and junk mail. I placed very little value on the mail. If I noticed it was a letter and if I wasn’t in a hurry to be somewhere and if I wasn’t already holding an arms worth of stuff, I may have mailed it back.

    The study is interesting but the comments nail it. It is based on a flawed premise that all conditions are equal and that the level of altruism is the only difference. This would actually be helpful to do the study again with a homeless person asking strangers in different neighborhoods to mail a letter for him.

  8. Mikey

    Your filthy elitist idea that you are “altruistic” allows you and your greedy family to sleep at night. Don’t worry, someday soon I hope, you will learn how altruistic us lower class vermin think you really are.

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