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Oct. 10, 2013 Volume 35, No. 8

Givers in groups are less generous, anthropology research shows

Study might have applications regarding charitable contributions

Last December, The New York Post published images of a man about to be run over by a train as several bystanders watched. 

The incident was evidence of what numerous studies have suggested: People are less likely to help when in groups, a phenomenon known as the “bystander effect.” The studies examined situations where only one person was needed to take action to help another. 

A University of Missouri anthropologist recently found that even when multiple individuals can contribute to a common cause, the presence of others reduces an individual’s likelihood of helping. “In the bystander effect, if an individual thinks they are the only one who can help, they are more likely to help,” said Karthik Panchanathan, assistant professor of anthropology. “Under some circumstances, this also means the victim is more likely to be helped.”

Panchanathan’s research has numerous applications, including guiding fundraising strategies of charitable organizations.

From finance to science

Panchanathan is one of the recent hires in the anthropology department who are helping it become a powerhouse in the field. Other junior faculty in the department include Robert S. Walker, who last year published a study on violence among uncontacted tribes in the Amazon, and Mary Shenk, who is examining birthrates in developed societies. 

Rounding out the department are lauded research professors Martin Daly, an evolutionary psychologist and fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and Napoleon A. Chagnon, a pioneer of evolutionary anthropology and member of the National Academy of Sciences. 

After earning undergraduate degrees in 1997 in biology and anthropology at the University of California–Los Angeles, Panchanathan took a job in Los Angeles as a financial consultant. 

He was in his 20s and getting rich, but the work was repetitive and unfulfilling. “My debate was this: Should I buy a house and an Audi Quattro turbo, or go to grad school?” he said. 

Earning his PhD in anthropology at UCLA in 2010, Panchanathan joined MU in August 2012.

Debating to help

His co-written bystander study was published this year in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. The study was divided into three separate experiments. In each one, participants were given money to give away or keep.

• Experiment one: Participants were offered give-or-keep choices individually or while part of small groups of two or three. No communication was allowed among group members. 

• Experiment two: Each member of a pair of givers could see what the other had donated, but couldn’t directly communicate with them.

• Experiment three: Pairs of givers could send text messages to each other and discuss how much money to donate. 

In experiment one, the individual givers donated the largest average amount of money compared to all other groups in every version of the experiment. The respondents in experiment three donated nothing more often than anyone else in the other experiments.

Regarding the stinginess of experiment three responders, Panchanathan said the communication between the pairs lowered giving. 

“We had hypothesized that the ability to reason with the other givers would have encouraged more equitable distribution of money,” he said. “But instead we found that it resulted in some groups giving very little and others giving significantly more.”

Participants in the experiments answered a set of questions that classified them as either “pro-self” or “pro-social.” Pro-self individuals tended to prefer keeping all of the money for themselves, whereas pro-socials were more likely to give enough money to result in an even distribution of wealth. However, in experiment three, when a pro-self person was paired with a pro-social individual, the arguments of the pro-self person tended to overwhelm those of the pro-social individual.

“In our study, individuals who didn’t want to share money tended to influence others to not share money,” Panchanathan said. 

Charities and other fundraising operations can learn from the research study by noting the influence that an individual’s attitude can have on others and on the effect that group size can have on generosity, Panchanathan said.

— Timothy Wall and Mark Barna