Skip to comments.Lost letter experiment suggests wealthy London neighborhoods are 'more altruistic'
Posted on 08/15/2012 6:45:53 PM PDT by ConservativeMind
Neighbourhood income deprivation has a strong negative effect on altruistic behaviour when measured by a 'lost letter' experiment, according to new UCL research published today in PLOS ONE.
Researchers from UCL Anthropology used the lost letter technique to measure altruism across 20 London neighbourhoods by dropping 300 letters on the pavement and recording whether they arrived at their destination. The stamped letters were addressed by hand to a study author's home address with a gender neutral name, and were dropped face-up and during rain free weekdays.
The results show a strong negative effect of neighbourhood income deprivation on altruistic behaviour, with an average of 87% of letters dropped in the wealthier neighbourhoods being returned compared to only an average 37% return rate in poorer neighbourhoods.
Co-author Jo Holland said: "This is the first large scale study investigating cooperation in an urban environment using the lost letter technique. This technique, first used in the 1960s by the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram, remains one of the best ways of measuring truly altruistic behaviour, as returning the letter doesn't benefit that person and actually incurs the small hassle of taking the letter to a post box.
Co-author Professor Ruth Mace added: "Our study attempts to understand how the socio-economic characteristics of a neighbourhood affect the likelihood of people in a neighbourhood acting altruistically towards a stranger. The results show a clear trend, with letters dropped in the poorest neighbourhoods having 91% lower odds of being returned than letters dropped in the wealthiest neighbourhoods. This suggests that those living in poor neighbourhoods are less inclined to behave altruistically toward their neighbours."
As well as measuring the number of letters returned, the researchers also looked at how other neighbourhood characteristics may help to explain the variation in altruistic behaviour including ethnic composition and population density but did not find them to be good predictors of lost letter return.
Corresponding author Antonio Silva said: "The fact that ethnic composition does not play a role on the likelihood of a letter being returned is particularly interesting, as other studies have suggested that ethnic mixing negatively affects social cohesion, but in our sampled London neighbourhoods this does not appear to be true.
"The level of altruism observed in a population is likely to vary according to its context. Our hypothesis that area level socio-economic characteristics could determine the levels of altruism found in individuals living in an area is confirmed by our results. Our overall findings replicate and expand on previous studies which use similar methodology.
"We show in this study that individuals living in poor neighbourhoods are less altruistic than individuals in wealthier neighbourhoods. However, the effect of income deprivation may be confounded by crime, as the poorer neighbourhoods tend to have higher rates crime which may lead to people in those neighbourhoods being generally more suspicious and therefore less likely to pick up a lost letter.
"Further research should focus on attempting to disentangle these two factors, possibly by comparing equally deprived neighbourhoods with different levels of crime. Although this study uses only one measure of altruism and therefore we should be careful in interpreting these findings, it does give us an interesting perspective on altruism in an urban context and provides a sound experimental model on which to base future studies." More information: Lost Letter Measure of Variation in Altruistic Behaviour in 20 Neighbourhoods, PLOS ONE, dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0043294
Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-08-lost-letter-wealthy-london-neighborhoods.html#jCp
The researchers need to be very careful about jumping to the conclusion that wealth creates altruism. It’s equally likely the kind of people who tend to be altruistic generally become wealthy. In fact, I think the latter is the more likely explanation since the morality that teaches people to make good decisions in life is also more likely to motivate a person to send a lost letter safely on its way.
People in low income neighborhoods know better than to pick stuff up no matter how innocent it looks. It could belong to the mob or be police entrapment bait.
PS Clearly a generalization, but more often the case than not.
Drop letters in pastel colors, that look like birthday or holiday cards and see how many reach their destination
Notwithstanding that the rich get richer because they can weather losing streaks better (too big to fail argument does not work for government, though, because it is inherently corrupt), there is something inherently treacherous in communist thinking.
1. The solution to the rich is taxing and government. REally? So we have a defacto idiot Final Solution, and, to boot, a population dealing with envy, treachery and supporting the worst of thugs in that objective: the government.
2. Why is OWS protesting workplaces, like WallStreet? Why don’t they go protest where rich and corrupt lazy people go, like golf courses and club houses where all the parasite of the riches enjoy lavishment without doing a thing in their lives?
Hmmmm... me think they are the same people that pushed the OWS.
It may not be a measure of altruism. Maybe one would just be worried about picking up an unidentified envelope on the street — what if it contains anthrax?
The lawn care service that used to work at our house would mail their bills fom a postal box in a neighborhood that has gone predominately Hispanic during the pas ten years.
One bill we received was enclosed in plastic and labeled “Biohazard”. Someone had urinated in the postal box!
Newsday did a test like this of towns on Long Island, Sayville 11782 won. There are some noticable differences between towns of the same economic level, at least here on LI.
If I am reading the reported results correctly, the authors find a “threshold” for when the altruistic behavior begins (top 30% of income range). They also found no significant variation in the rate of return once the threshold is crossed.
That income range not only includes the very wealthy but a pretty significant chunk of the middle class. For example, according to 2010 US Income Tax data, the lower limit for the top 25% income in the US was about $67,000/year AGI. Since the upper 50% cutoff in 2010 was about $32,000/year AGI, a rough interpolation for 30% is about $60,000/year AGI.
(tax data link here: http://taxfoundation.org/article/summary-latest-federal-individual-income-tax-data-0)
Assuming a two income household and 2000 hour/year/job, that works out to $15.00/hour/person. Given the economy, it is probably about the same in 2012.
If the same behavior pattern holds for the US as for the UK (no reason to believe it wouldn't), the political dilemma is this: you have a leadership class that pretty solidly resides on one side of the altruism threshold trying to understand and formulate programs to assist the needy class who happen to reside on the other side of the same threshold. The opportunities for misunderstanding motivations on both sides could be significant.
Of course, too fine a line for imputing altruistic behavior should not be drawn from what is, in the final analysis, a pretty minor act. After all, 17% of the letters dropped in the upper income neighborhoods were not returned and 37% of the letters dropped in the lower income neighborhoods were. That's also something to factor into our considerations.
What comes first? Altruistic behaviour or wealth? Which is the cause and which is the effect? The old chicken or egg question.
My concerns are similar, that the "leadership" class resides on one side of human behavioral motivational divide.
Ordinary people of lesser means are targeted by criminal and governmental agencies (sometimes one and the same), as prey for revenue generating schemes, or perception generating schemes (Fast and Furious). This is most common in poorer neighborhoods and is least common in highly affluent neighborhoods.
Ordinary people quickly learn that the easiest way to stay out of trouble is to mind your own business, and the "leadership" class learn there are no consequences for bullying and wrongdoing.
I would point out that concern for self preservation is not the same as "... feelings of distrust...leading to less altruistic behavior towards neighbors", it's just trained recognition of a possible trap and avoidance.
I agree with your description of the logic of cautious avoidance that creates the “ground truth” in many poorer neighborhoods.
And yet, even in the poorest circumstances, there are people, usually plenty of them, ready and willing with helping hands and raw courage when there is a clear and present danger.
I'll agree with that.
I believe altruism rests individually in individuals and those who have enough, can and do make use of it when prudent. I also believe that rather than wealth bringing altruism, altruism supports the creative thinking that often brings wealth that results from acting on that thought.
piytar, if I understand him correctly, believes that altruistic thinking fosters relationships with others who can be wealth creators, also.
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