Monday, 22 April 2013

Students motivated by wealth are just as likely as others to help in an emergency

Bankers, investors, stock market traders and their ilk have been vilified in recent years, in large part because the global financial crisis has been blamed on their allegedly unchecked selfishness and greed.

In fact, there's a widespread implicit belief that a love of money goes hand in hand with selfishness. A study published in 2008 backed this up - people with a greater love of money tended to report being more selfish at work.

A new study with business students at Loyola University challenges this narrative. In contrast to the 2008 paper, Michael Babula's study measured actual behaviour. The fifty students completed questionnaires about their religiosity and desire for wealth, then they headed, one at a time, across the building to give a short presentation, either about careers for economics students or about the relevance of the Good Samaritan parable to their future career.

Before they headed over to give their speech, half were told to hurry, time was short; the others were told there was no rush. Then, just before they reached the lecture room, a distressed, anxious stranger approached them. This person had just heard news that a relative had had an accident, but now their mobile phone had run out of battery and they had no change for a public pay-phone. The key test was whether and how much each student would offer to help the stranger in distress.

Seventy-eight per cent of the business students offered some kind of help to the stranger. Sixty-six per cent went so far as refusing to leave the stranger or giving him/her their mobile phone. The degree to which the students reported being wealth-driven was not associated with their levels of helping. Neither was their self-reported willingness to accept an illegal stock trading tip off. Being in a hurry also made no difference, neither did the content of the speech they were about to give. A factor that was linked with helping behaviour was "intrinsic religiosity" - that is, pursuing religion as an end in itself, not for the sake of status or other gain.

Babula cautioned that this was an exploratory study and he acknowledged the small size of his sample. However, he said it showed the importance of measuring actual behaviour, rather than relying on questionnaires as past research has tended to do. "Wealth-driven individuals often do engage in intrinsically motivated helping behaviour when directly facing an emergency situation," he said.

Though today's executives are widely reviled - an attitude reflected by Hollywood's release of a new version of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and Vatican official Tarcisio Bertone's statement: "Greed market has substituted free market" - Babula urged social scientists to "reserve judgment" and to "take a cautious approach to studying the helping behaviour of wealth-driven individuals.

"The world has certainly encountered modern-day Samaritans coming from the business community." he added. "Witness the life of Oskar Schindler."


Babula, M. (2013). The unlikely Samaritans. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43 (4), 899-908 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12055

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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