Through an agreement with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles and profiles related to the "business" of improving society.

Citizen-donors of the world

Citizen-donors of the world

Research shows that people are more likely to help those they perceive as close to them geographically or psychologically, possibly because they feel more empathy toward them, identify with them, or believe they can have more impact in helping them.

A new paper looks at this tendency and considers whether some people may become more inclined to donate to geographically distant beneficiaries by having different identities or experiences. Specifically, the researchers analyze whether "residential mobility," the tendency or experience of moving from one city to another or of identifying as a mobile person, correlates with higher levels of donations to people and causes outside their local community.

The paper's authors — Yajin Wang, an assistant professor of marketing with the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland; Amna Kirmani, the Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Marketing with the same institution; and Xiaolin Li, an assistant professor of marketing at the London School of Economics and Political Science — conducted four studies using different methods to consider this question.

In their first study, the researchers analyzed 2010 data from the China Family Panel Studies, an annual longitudinal survey conducted by Peking University’s Institute of Social Science Survey. Specifically, they looked at thirty thousand Chinese donors who gave money after a massive 2008 earthquake killed seventy thousand people in Sichuan. Even if they had never lived in the province, donors tended to give more if they had moved previously — if they had "residential mobility" — than if they had always lived in one place.

In the second study, they recruited three hundred and fifty U.S. residents from Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing platform; presented them with two different donation campaigns targeting child hunger, one for children in their local area and another for children outside the United States; and asked whether and how they would donate an imaginary $10 payment. Again, those participants who had high residential mobility — who had moved more in the past — were more likely to donate to children outside the United States and donated more money to them.

In the third study, the researchers asked more than two hundred University of Maryland students a number of questions to manipulate their mindset regarding their mobility to see whether it would affect their willingness to donate to distant others. They were then offered $2 and the opportunity to donate to either a local or international charity for children. Regardless of their past moving history, participants who were manipulated to see themselves as more mobile were more willing to donate to distant beneficiaries.

The fourth study tested the effect of residential mobility on local identity: Would people who saw themselves as mobile identify less with the local community? The researchers recruited six hundred and twenty-eight people from Prolific, an online platform for securing survey participants, and manipulated their mindsets in a way similar to the third study. They then queried participants on donating a hypothetical amount of money to local and global causes. Although participants who were made to feel more mobile were more willing to donate to global causes, they did not lose their willingness to donate to local causes.

The researchers became interested in the question of residential mobility after noting existing work suggesting that people who have moved engage in fewer pro-community behaviors, Wang says.

"All of our co-authors, including myself, we moved a lot in the past," notes Wang, who grew up in China, moved to Beijing and then Minnesota and Maryland. "It's not the case that we're less likely to be helpful."

The authors set out to redefine what helpful could mean. They hit upon residential mobility as a metric because it made sense that people who had lived in different places would feel more connected to others in the wider world. The data bore out the hypothesis, Wang says: "Compared to people who never moved, they donated more to beneficiaries that are far from them, in other communities — whether or not they have a connection to that community far away."

The paper has a novel, contrarian take on the idea that people mainly choose to donate to causes close to home because of group affinity, says Carlos Torelli, a professor of marketing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Instead, those who have moved previously think of themselves also as members of a different group: global citizens.

"It's this idea that as you move, you become less attached to any particular place and think of yourself as somebody who is more cosmopolitan, more open to the world as a whole instead of a locality," he says.

Chana R. Schoenberger (@cschoenberger) is a journalist based in New York City. She writes about business, finance, and academic research.



Yajin Wang, Amna Kirmani, and Xiaolin Li, “Not Too Far to Help: Residential Mobility, Global Identity, and Donations to Distant Beneficiaries,” Journal of Consumer Research, forthcoming.