Social Class Shapes Donation Allocation Preferences
Forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research
58 Pages Posted: 28 May 2021
Date Written: May 17, 2021
When considering a charitable act, consumers must often decide on how to allocate their resources across a multitude of possible causes. This article assesses how the relative “urgency” of the causes under consideration (i.e., how critical to human survival the causes are) shapes preferences for specific causes among higher and lower social class consumers. Across a series of studies in a highly unequal socioeconomic environment (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), we demonstrate that lower-class consumers prefer to donate to urgent causes (e.g., alleviating hunger) compared to non-urgent causes (e.g., encouraging cultural activities), whereas the effect reverses among higher-class consumers. Contrasting experiences with scarcity across social classes vary the consumers’ intrinsic sympathy toward people’s unmet basic needs, which in turn shapes donation allocation preferences. Consistent with this theoretical rationale, class differences in charitable allocations decrease when (a) vivid contextual cues induce sympathy among both higher- and lower-class consumers or (b) the experience with scarcity is similar across social classes. Thus, although class differences in preferences for specific causes can be shifted with relative ease, our findings suggest that those who have the most to give do not spontaneously prioritize what is most urgently needed in society.
Keywords: social class, socioeconomic status, prosocial behavior, charitable giving, sympathy
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