Sunday, August 26, 2012

Generosity (of spirit & money) and personal exposure

Lisa Wade has a nice blog post about "Variation in the Generosity of the Rich", following up on an NPR story which in turn covered a story in the online "Chronicle of Philanthropy" about linking measures of charitable giving to the economic diversity of one's zip code.

That story uses IRS data from 2008 to calculate tax-declared charitable giving as a percentage of post-tax income; for reasons of data availability, only incomes above $50,000 are included. The study website has a good description of how the data were obtained and used. (This is crucial; indeed, if you ever find a study claiming results without telling you where they got their data, you should just ignore it — chances are great it is just crap.)

Anyway, one key finding is that people with lower incomes give a greater fraction of their post-tax income to charity. Another is that people who live in more economically diverse zip codes tend to give more.

Social psychologist Paul Piff, whom NPR interviewed for its story, argued this greater generosity may well be due to the fact that people who live in economically diverse neighborhoods are more aware of how important charity can be to poorer people, and hence give more.

Wade notes that there are at least 2 other explanations: "generous rich people move to diverse neighborhoods and stingy rich people isolate themselves" and "some other variable (e.g., political affiliation, religiosity) is correlated with both neighborhood preference and generosity."

In fact, I think the Chronicle's discussion of their data sources points to a likely alternative explanation that falls into Wade's third explanation: retired people, who have little active income but may give to charity from their savings, will get registered as giving a high percentage of their income to charity. Retired people who have lived somewhere all their lives may well be richer, on average, than younger people in their neighbourhood. This alone might account for a good portion of the findings.

However, Wade's musings about Piff's argument (and Piff's argument itself) also made me think of another "generosity" issue, where awareness due to personal exposure makes a big difference: support for gay marriage among deeply religious people (including pastors). I have lost count of the number of stories about pastors or other religiously active people who were strongly opposed to gay marriage until someone in their immediate surroundings (often a son or daughter) came out. Only then did they change their stance.

Given that pastors, in particular, should be expected to be quite empathetic, as well as aware of what goes on in their community, the fact that even for them having direct personal experience with an issue makes such a big difference suggests just how important direct personal contact can be in changing people's behaviour and opinion.

It appears clear, then, that there is a big difference between rationally knowing how important something is and viscerally feeling it. We might like it to be otherwise, but all evidence shows that it is the case. This has all kinds of important policy implications. (Singer's The life you can save covers a few of them, but by no means all).

Back to the original story: it would be interesting to see 1) whether controlling for age (i.e. retired people) has an impact on the pattern of the findings, and 2) whether the pattern is stronger in really densely occupied zip codes (where people rub shoulders much more directly than in sparser ones) and/or in zip codes where most people live for a long time (as opposed to those where people are more transient).

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