A big bonus makes you less likely to give to charity, study finds

Research suggests getting a larger bonus does not inspire people to 'give something back', says co-author Dr Mirco Tonin

Dr Mirco Tonin
Dr Mirco Tonin

People who receive big financial bonuses are less likely to give to charity than those who do not, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Southampton carried out an experiment in which they recruited 104 students to perform a data-entry task for a fixed wage of £5 an hour, plus a performance-dependent bonus.

Despite similar performance levels by all the participants, half were given a low bonus of £2 an hour, while the other half were given a bigger bonus of £6 an hour.

None of the participants was aware that the size of their performance bonus was being decided randomly.

Once the four-hour task was completed, all of those who took part were asked if they wanted to donate some of their earnings to charity.

Thirty-seven per cent of those receiving the low bonus decided to give a share to charity; only 21 per cent of those receiving the higher bonus did the same.

Those who decided to make donations gave an average of 9 per cent of their earnings to charity.

The researchers discovered that the people who received the higher bonus attributed their windfall to their own hard work or achievement, when it was actually just good fortune.

The study, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, set out to explore whether people who earn a higher income are more likely to give when placed in an environment in which earnings depend on luck.

The researchers said the paper based on the study, called Sharing One’s Fortune? An Experimental Study on Earned Income and Giving, showed that fundraisers should spread their efforts across people from all income bands rather than targeting high earners.

"Our findings suggest that receiving higher pay because of good luck is not generating a stronger need to ‘give back to society’," said Dr Mirco Tonin, who co-authored the study.

"This is probably because people instinctively attribute their high pay or bonuses to being a reward purely for their own skills and effort, even if there is actually an element of luck involved. As such, they feel entitled to the money."

Mark Astarita, chair of the Institute of Fundraising, said he was unsurprised by the results of the study and wondered if it would have played out differently in the real world.

"Just because someone is wealthy does not necessarily make them generous, although it would be nice if they were," he said.

"Would the experiment have played out differently if they had used millionaires instead of students?"

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