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