• A new study suggests that people may contribute more to society when they have less wealth themselves.
  • People who "earned" more wealth, rather than being assigned it at random, were the least likely to give money.
  • Although this may not be anything to do with the level of empathy, the researchers said.
  • Rather, it could be because less wealthy people have more to gain from everyone else contributing.

People who earn more money may be less likely to share their wealth than those who earn less. That's according to a new study from Queen Mary University of London, published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

Researchers conducted a social experiment where people were recruited to play games for real money. People were assigned as "lower status" or "higher status", which determined how much money they were given at the beginning — signifying wealth.

The games involved the participants deciding how much money they wanted to keep and how much they wanted to donate to a group kitty, which would be shared out between everyone.

Sometimes people's wealth was determined by chance, other times it was based on their effort.

Overall, lower status participants would contribute more to the group pot than higher status ones. And those who earned their "high status" labels would contribute even less than when they received the wealth through chance.

"For the high status individuals, the way in which wealth was achieved, whether through chance or effort, appeared to be the key factor determining the level of cooperation observed," said Ma gda Osman, a professor at Queen Mary's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences and lead author of the study.

"This wasn't the case for the low status individuals. How they got to their low status made no difference to their behaviour in the game."

If you gain a high status through effort rather than chance, she said, you are more likely to want to keep what you earned. When your wealth is limited, you have more of an incentive to cooperate.

"The point here being that even if one is acting cooperatively, there is no reason to think that this is purely for altruistic reasons," she said. Rather, you hope that by contributing more, others will do so too, and ultimately you will profit from it.

Even so, there is no guarantee everyone else in the game would do the same as you. In other words, you take a bigger risk in contributing more as a lower status person, because you have no idea if others will reciprocate.

"The other surprising finding is that empathy has next to no impact on promoting pro-social behaviour, in other words contributing money to the group pot," said Osman. "This matters because there are a lot of claims that empathy is the glue that binds people to act socially.

"What we show is that when money matters, empathy plays virtually no role in improving pro-social behaviours."

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