The altruistic attitude of helping strangers, like beggars, without some clear retribution, is something that can be intriguing from an evolutionary perspective - after all, we are sharing survival resources with someone who is not from our intimate group.
Yet we do it anyway, and studies show that generosity in general makes people happier and more respected. Sharing food and giving money are some of the most common examples.
Bennett Callaghan, a postdoctoral student at the City University of New York, decided to conduct a social experiment on the streets of New York and Chicago, with the aim of studying and understanding what signals interfere with other people's behavior in these moments of generosity.
He acted like a beggar, or beggar, asking passersby for money. The test was done two ways: in one, Callaghan wore only jeans and a T-shirt; in another, a fancy suit.
His behavior didn't change, even with the difference in robberies. As he stood in several busy areas with lots of foot traffic, holding a cup and a cardboard with a message about homeless people, his research assistants counted the number of people who passed Callaghan, interacted with him and, finally, those who gave some money.
The result of the experiment as a "beggar"
The simple and effective field experiment showed that people donated more than twice as much money when the scientist wore the high-status suit as when he wore plain, low-status clothing. Over three and a half hours, Callaghan raised $54.11 wearing the suit, compared to $21.15 over four hours wearing a T-shirt and jeans.
Callaghan told PsyPost that he was surprised by the difference; he expected to make more money from the suit, but not as much as he received. He cited that while wearing the suit, several people gave $5 or $10 donations, and one even left a business card in the cup instead of just a donation.
Since the only thing different in the experiment was their attire, the researchers believe that status plays an important role in influencing people's interactions with the beggar. But what is behind this effect? On the researcher's poster: "At least 1700 Chicagoans slept on the streets in January 2011.It's not cold yet,but winter is coming.Any donations help.Thank you."
The perception of high status signals competence and confidence
In a quest to uncover the mechanism behind whether attire and perceived status impact people's compassionate and altruistic behavior, researchers recruited 492 participants for an online survey.
Participants saw photos of Callaghan on the street, holding the cup and poster, wearing either the T-shirt and trousers or the suit, and were asked to analyze the "beggar" on various social attributes.
The results confirm that people perceive the researcher in suit as having higher status than when wearing plain clothes. They also attributed the researcher in suit as having higher competence, warmth, likeness to oneself and humanity.
This seems to suggest that people were more willing to approach and offer money to someone of higher status because they probably perceived that beggar as more deserving than someone of low status.
Because wearing a suit increased perceived competence, pedestrians seemed more confident that the person asking for money would actually use it for the purpose it pointed to, rather than directing it toward personal gain, such as buying drugs or alcohol.
Also, a person who seems successful but is still begging for money on the street may give the impression that he is experiencing an unfavorable but temporary situation. Thus, with a little help, this person could get back on track, whereas the condition of a beggar in low status clothing could be perceived as something without recovery.
It is important to note that this was not a controlled study: these were not the same people walking past Callaghan, and this may have influenced the results. Another factor is that the researcher was not exactly begging, and his poster could be interpreted as a request to collect for donation to charity groups.
As well as, Callaghan is a white male, regardless of what he was wearing, so the results cannot be generalized to the entire population, which is highly diverse in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic factors, and gender.
Still, the study shows that status plays a strong role in this type of situation. Further research may help to better understand what dynamics are at play when humans decide on altruistic attitudes in everyday life.
The research of the "beggar" in a suit was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.