Are rich folk more selfish than poor?

If a rich person becomes poor and vice versa, it’s likely they also switch behavior.

What would you do if you were mistakenly sent an envelope containing €20? Would you return it, or spend it on yourself?

Well, at least rich Scrooge McDucks would keep it. Right? If that’s what you think, think again. In a unique experiment that took him five years, economist Jan Stoop (Erasmus School of Economics) and his colleagues disguised themselves as mailmen and ‘misdelivered’ cards containing amounts from €5 to €20 to both rich and poor families in a Dutch city. It turned out the rich returned the money twice as often as the poor.

Behaviour vs. Values

A surprising conclusion. ‘People often assume that the rich are selfish. How else did they get that rich?’ Besides, literature shows that, for example, the rich more often evade taxes than the poor. ‘But that’s behaviour. When you’re rich, it’s more rewarding to evade taxes. We wanted to make a distinction between behaviour and the way people are – standards and values.’


So while Stoop found that the behavior of the rich was more social in this case, that wasn’t enough to conclude that they ARE in fact more social. ‘There were two factors that made it much more difficult for the poor people to send the money back. First of all, €20 is a lot of money for them. Secondly, financial stress makes it difficult for people to make daily decisions.’ So when Stoop and his colleagues corrected for those factors, it turned out that the altruism – the standards and values – are equal with rich and poor people.

‘If a rich person becomes poor and vice versa, it’s likely they also switch behaviour. But that doesn’t say anything about their standards and values. We were the first to make that distinction.’ So basically, the rich aren’t any more selfish than the poor. They’re just richer.

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