Charitable Giving Patterns Illuminate the Psychology of Empathy

An interesting new study finds that people are more willing to empathize and donate money to the poor if the recipient seems ashamed, rather than angry, about their plight. When a privileged person, in the position to donate, sees anger from the poor, the person feels they are being blamed for an inequality. But if the privileged person sees shame, they feel the poor are blaming themselves, and are therefore “able to feel pride” about their own higher standing, and are willing to donate. This may run contrary to how we perceive “empathy” but it’s an interesting insight. As is often uncovered in therapy or counseling, how we treat others can have more to do with how we see ourselves than how we see someone else.

© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Corbin


    December 16th, 2010 at 2:45 PM

    Let me get this straight. So the rich enjoy giving not because it helps their fellow man, but because it makes them feel it’s okay to be financially superior and it’s the poor guy’s fault he’s poor? That leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

  • Kimberley


    December 16th, 2010 at 4:03 PM

    Call that empathy? I call that snobbery. Does it make the wealthy feel bountiful then, ease their conscience of the differences between the haves and the have-nots when they deign to give a few dollars? Pathetic.

  • Amy


    December 16th, 2010 at 6:02 PM

    “Observers’ responses to stigmatized women were influenced by whether the woman’s behavior fulfilled a feeling … linked to her class status.” Ah, I get it. You’re only allowed a wide range of feelings if you’re a member of the upper class. The poor can’t possibly be just as human as they are, can they? Say it ain’t so.

  • paul jameson

    paul jameson

    December 17th, 2010 at 2:38 AM

    either this study is inaccurate or humane levels have fallen to a rock bottom level and all of the ‘rich’ people need to be ashamed of themselves because they are the ones who are actually poor-in morals!

  • Carol


    December 17th, 2010 at 5:37 AM

    This may leave a bad taste in your mouth but i know that this is true. There are people on the street and you see them and they are mad at the world about the straits that they are in and it does make you kind of shy away from helping them. But you see someone who really acts like they want your help and that they would never take it unless they were in the worst situation possible and it feels better giving to them because you feel like they appreciate it more. I know that this sounds horrible but I have to say that from my own experiences it is absolutely true.

  • Jasmine


    December 17th, 2010 at 11:31 AM

    And yet people are adamant that the class divide is becoming smaller. Not when those attitudes exist, it isn’t. The rich may have money but they are ignorant. That sounds like they almost enjoy the poor’s predicament.

  • Everett


    December 17th, 2010 at 1:04 PM

    I agree they do appear to get some kind of twisted pleasure from that, Jasmine. They’ll be wanting us to bow and scrape next. What is this, the Middle Ages? I’m nobody’s serf.

  • Seth


    December 17th, 2010 at 2:58 PM

    And yet people are adamant that the class divide is becoming smaller. What a joke. Not when those attitudes exist, it isn’t. The rich studied there may have money but they are ignorant and lacking in any real, genuine compassion.

  • Wanderer


    December 17th, 2010 at 3:29 PM

    Without a rich heart, wealth is an ugly beggar. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • Jeannie


    December 19th, 2010 at 5:38 PM

    Giving is giving, and when you are helping another human being it should be enough to know that someone is benefitting. This is not something that deserves a pat on the back but instead should be something that we all do because it is the right thing to do.

  • Faith


    December 20th, 2010 at 5:45 AM

    I have a hard time with the whole concept of giving to strangers and I know that there have to be others out there reading who feel the same way. I like to give to groups that I have confidence will distribute my money or donations to those who need it and will make sure that it gets to those who need it the most. But what about the guy who comes from nowhere asking for money to get something to eat or pay rent or get gas for the car, etc? How do you know when someone is telling you the truth or if they are just going to use it to buy drinks or drugs? It is such a hard decision to have to make and I do not know what to do in many situations. I have given and I have turned away and I never feel totally good about either case. How do you get past all of that questioning and just give because you feel deep down that this is the right thing to do?

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