New Research Investigates Whether Socioeconomic Status Predicts Prosocial Behavior

NYUAD’s Center for Behavioral Institutional Design (C-BID) published a paper in Nature Communications on behavior intended to help other people

Press Release

Researchers at the Center for Behavioral Institutional Design (C-BID) at NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) have published a paper in Nature Communications titled Higher socioeconomic status does not predict decreased prosocial behavior in a field experiment. The study uses a field experiment to investigate whether individuals of high socioeconomic status were less likely to engage in prosocial behavior, meaning behavior intended to help other people.


“There is a popular belief that people of high socioeconomic status, wealthy people, are more selfish than others. This stereotypical view of the rich is found in many countries around the world. However, there are reasons to doubt the validity of this view. Neither the circumstances nor the incentives for behaving ‘prosocially’ are typically the same for rich and poor. A wealthy person finds it easier to pay a fine for violating the traffic law or tax evasion. Evidence of antisocial or prosocial behavior cannot be readily compared across socioeconomic groups. In other words, most of the time, we cannot rule out that if a poor person were to suddenly become rich overnight that they would not behave in the same way as the rich.” 

Co-Director of C-BID and Professor of Economics Nikos Nikiforakis

To explore whether individuals of high socioeconomic status behave more selfishly than others, the researchers intentionally misdelivered envelopes to some of the richest and the poorest households in a city in the Netherlands. The aim was to see which households returned the most envelopes returned. The act of returning a misdelivered envelope is prosocial as it requires effort but offers no personal benefit. The cost of the prosocial act was also the same for everyone. Moreover, this approach allowed the researchers to measure the recipients’ prosociality without bias as individuals were not aware their actions were being monitored. 

In sharp contrast to the popular view, the experiment found that individuals of high socioeconomic status were substantially more likely to return misdelivered envelopes to their intended recipients. The data also revealed an interesting pattern: immediately after their pay day, the poor were similarly likely to return misdelivered envelopes as the rich. This suggests the financial pressures on those on the lowest socioeconomic rungs crowd out their willingness or ability to behave prosocially.

“More than debunking a stereotypical view of the wealthy, our experiment showed that poverty has a negative impact on prosocial behavior. This suggests that, by reducing poverty, we may be making society in a sense less selfish,”  Nikiforakis added.

The research was conducted with his co-authors James Andreoni of the University of California, San Diego, and Jan Stoop of the Erasmus School of Economics at Erasmus University. 

This experiment is part of Nikiforakis’s work with C-BID, which is a first-of-its-kind institution in the United Arab Emirates that conducts cutting-edge research in behavioral social science and uses the scientific insights obtained to inform policy making.

About NYU Abu Dhabi

NYU Abu Dhabi is the first comprehensive liberal arts and research campus in the Middle East to be operated abroad by a major American research university. NYU Abu Dhabi has integrated a highly selective undergraduate curriculum across the disciplines with a world center for advanced research and scholarship. The university enables its students in the sciences, engineering, social sciences, humanities, and arts to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world and advance cooperation and progress on humanity’s shared challenges. NYU Abu Dhabi’s high-achieving students have come from over 115 countries and speak over 115 languages. Together, NYU's campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai form the backbone of a unique global university, giving faculty and students opportunities to experience varied learning environments and immersion in other cultures at one or more of the numerous study-abroad sites NYU maintains on six continents.