Poor people usually look poor, too. Even when begging, this is a disadvantage, as a New York and Chicago field experiment reveals.
Who would you give more money to help the homeless: a plain or a neatly dressed man? Actually, one should expect that a needy-looking person would be more willing to help. But the opposite is the case, report psychologist Bennett Callaghan of New York University and his colleagues from Columbia and Yale University in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Study author Callaghan researches the causes of and possible solutions to social inequality at the Stone Center for Socio-Economic Inequality. To that end, he appeared as a supplicant himself during the field experiment on the streets of New York and Chicago. On weekdays, he stood on the street and asked for a donation for the homeless with a paper cup and a sign. The bearded psychologist wore either plain dark jeans and a blue T-shirt or a dark suit with a white shirt and blue tie, and his hair was neatly coiffed with gel. In total, about 4500 people walked past him, and under both conditions, not even every 50th person gave a small donation.
But in suit and tie, he received an average of two and a half times as much money as in the modest wardrobe. Donations of five dollars or more were even received by Callaghan exclusively in a suit, the researchers report in a news release. According to the researchers, they donated the money collected during the experiment to charities for the homeless.
The surprising sight - a man in a suit collecting for the homeless - was probably not the reason, they write further. Because then it would have been expected that the passers-by would have reacted differently, for example, said something to him. But that did not happen. Rather, a follow-up survey showed that the petitioner was judged differently depending on his clothing: In a suit, he appeared more competent, warm, and even human, and respondents felt more similar to this person.
Perceived similarity prompts more empathy, the researchers explain. Status symbols such as clothing served as identification marks: Those who are comparatively wealthy are more likely to recognize themselves in a person whose appearance suggests a similar status, and this promotes the willingness to help. Conversely, the presumed affiliation with a less privileged social class can set limits to the willingness to help.
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