High Economic Inequality Leads Higher Income Individuals to be Less Generous
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)
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Research on social class and generosity suggests that higherincome individuals are less generous than poorer individuals. We propose that this pattern emerges only under conditions of high economic inequality, contexts that can foster a sense of entitlement among higher-income individuals that, in turn, reduces their generosity. Analyzing results of a unique nationally representative survey that included a real-stakes giving opportunity (n = 1,498), we found that in the most unequal US states, higher-income respondents were less generous than lower-income respondents. In the least unequal states, however, higher-income individuals were more generous. To better establish causality, we next conducted an experiment (n = 704) in which apparent levels of economic inequality in participants’ home states were portrayed as either relatively high or low. Participants were then presented with a giving opportunity. Higher-income participants were less generous than lower-income participants when inequality was portrayed as relatively high, but there was no association between income and generosity when inequality was portrayed as relatively low. This research finds that the tendency for higher-income individuals to be less generous pertains only when inequality is high, challenging the view that higher-income individuals are necessarily more selfish, and suggesting a previously undocumented way in which inequitable resource distributions undermine collective welfare.