Monday, November 1, 2010

Could generosity worsen wealth inequalities?

For the last two months I have been living in a rural area but today I visited Dublin and was struck by the great number of people begging around the city centre. The small towns I am used to are too small to support beggars so obvious signs of poverty are hidden; in Dublin poverty and disturbing inequality are very visible.

Since most calls for charity in the countryside are by organisations using mass media, they are pretty easy to ignore. However it is much harder to ignore face-to-face pleas from beggars in Dublin. Aside from true altruistic intention, there is a social pressure to be seen to aid other individuals, so ignoring a televised advertising appeal for charity in private is easier than ignoring an individual making eye contact and begging for help.

This got me wondering: if the tendency towards altruistic behaviour is stronger when individuals are communicating directly with others, do generous, influential people tend to do more favours for people they meet in person than for people they never meet?

If that is the case, their generosity and honest desire to help people out may tend to advance their own immediate circle of acquaintances, reinforcing the advantage of those social insiders. Well-meaning people with influence or wealth may do greater good by refusing to help out the people they meet instead of reinforcing a nepotistic elite.


  1. That's an interesting concept, Shane.

    I agree there is something about having a direct contact with people...kind of like giving a face to a number. I don't think it is necessarily nepotistic, but yes, we are more effected by the sufferings of people we know, and hence more likely to help, than of those we hear and read about through the media.

  2. I often hear that it is very important to network in business, to meet and get to know influential or useful people. As an outsider it can be very frustrating to see people advance their careers even when their work is mediocre, and the suspicion is that employers are simply promoting their own social circle, people they drink with, know, like, and trust.

    In other words, it is who you know, not what you know.

    I sometimes wonder how I'd behave if I ever became rich or powerful! Would I help out my own immediate circle, promote and employ those people I already know, neglecting those who happen not to know me? Or would I try to be more democratic about it, announcing job vacancies in public advertisements and offering total strangers the same opportunities as my colleagues and friends?

    I don't know, but I did promise myself when I was in college that if I ever became a person who media wanted to interview, I'd give my first interviews to humble students instead of established journalists - to help out the little people!


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