Disconnect between how much Americans say they give to church and charity versus what they actually give

Research working with recent data on charitable and religious giving suggests there is an interesting disconnect: some people say they give more than they actually do.

A quarter of respondents in a new national study said they tithed 10 percent of their income to charity. But when their donations were checked against income figures, only 3 percent of the group gave more than 5 percent to charity…

But other figures from the Science of Generosity Survey and the 2010 General Social Survey indicate how little large numbers of people actually give to charity.

The generosity survey found just 57 percent of respondents gave more than $25 in the past year to charity; the General Social Survey found 77 percent donated more than $25, Price and Smith reported in their presentation on “Religion and Monetary Donations: We All Give Less Than We Think.”

In one indication of the gap between perception and reality, 10 percent of the respondents to the generosity survey reported tithing 10 percent of their income to charity although their records showed they gave $200 or less.

Two thoughts, more about methodological issues than the subject at hand:

1. What people say on surveys or in interviews doesn’t always match what they actually do. There are a variety of reasons for this, not all malicious or intentional. But, this leads me to thought #2…

2. I like the way some of these studies make use of multiple sources of data to find the disconnect between what people say and what they do. When looking at an important area of social life, like altruism, having multiple sources of data goes a long way. Measuring attitudes is often important in of itself but we also need data on practices and behaviors.


“First large scale [lost letter] study” results from London

The results of a lost letter study in London provide some interesting results:

Neighbourhood income deprivation has a strong negative effect on altruistic behaviour when measured by a ‘lost letter’ experiment, according to new UCL research published August 15 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…

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.

This is a good example of a natural experiment.

I wonder if there is any equivalent to this in the online realm. Perhaps an email that is mistakenly sent to the wrong address that would require a user to then take a small amount of time to forward the email to original recipient?

Applying evolutionary biology to the city

Biologist David Sloan Wilson has taken an interest in better understanding Binghamtom, New York. His lens: evolutionary biology.

Differences in prosociality, Wilson thought, should produce measurable outcomes — if not in reproductive success, perhaps in happiness, crime rates, neighbourhood tidiness or even the degree of community feeling expressed in the density of holiday decorations. “I really wanted to see a map of altruism,” he says. “I saw it in my mind.” And with a frisson of excitement, he realized that his models and experiments offered clues about how to intervene, how to structure real-world groups to favour prosociality. “Now is the implementation phase.” Evolutionary theory, Wilson decided, will improve life in Binghamton…

Binghamton is hard to love. Established in the early nineteenth century, it has long relied on big industry for its identity and prosperity — early on through the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company and then through IBM, which was founded in the area. But the manufacturers mostly decamped in the 1990s, and since then the city has taken on an aimless, shabby air. Dollar stores and coin-operated laundries fill the gaps between dilapidated Victorian houses and massive brick-and-stone churches. A Gallup poll in March 2011 listed Binghamton as one of the five US cities least liked by its residents. “It is a town that knows it is badly in need of a revival,” says Wilson. Even its motto, ‘Restoring the pride’, speaks of a city clinging to its past and ashamed of its present…

So Wilson decided to see whether he could raise up the prosocial valleys by creating conditions in which cooperation becomes a winning strategy — in effect, hacking the process of cultural evolution. He set about this largely by instituting friendly competitions between groups. His first idea was a park-design project, in which neighbourhoods were invited to compete for park-improvement funds by creating the best plan.

But Wilson soon found out that field experiments in real cities can take on lives of their own: different neighbourhoods couldn’t get their acts together on the same schedule, so the competition aspect largely disappeared. Instead, he is now working on turning multiple park ideas into reality. The dog park is one. Another is Sunflower Park, the most advanced project to date, but still a sad, mainly empty lot surrounded by a chain-link fence. Children don’t spend a lot of time playing here. Undaunted, Wilson is raising funds and laying plans for a relaxing community space flush with trees and amenities. “In a year,” he says, “we will serve you a hot dog from the pavilion.”

The rest of the article describes how Wilson acts more like a social scientist, taking surveys, making observations, interacting with residents, trying to understand local religious congregations. Some of this discussion is amusing as it rehashes debates about how close researchers should get to research subjects – social scientists would describe it as participant observation.

This reminds me of some of the work of early sociologists such as Herbert Spencer and the Chicago School who based at least some of their ideas on biological principles. Spencer viewed society as being like an organism and the Chicago School viewed competition for space as a primary driver of urban development and action. But evolutionary thinking has generally faded away in sociology (outside of sociobiology). Could sociologists, and urban sociologists, again view evolutionary principles as a boon for the field or simply a distraction from the better work that is going on in the field? Wilson is also interested in the topics of altruism and prosociality, topics that have attracted the attention of more sociologists in recent years. It would be interesting to hear what happens when Wilson comes to some conclusions about social and city life and then presents them to social scientists.