Politics and generosity: Left-leaning people more likely to be altruistic

LUCCA, Italy — Does your willingness to help others depend on your political leanings? New research out of Italy finds those on the right end of the political spectrum are more conservative when it comes to generosity and altruism. Researchers report left-leaning people all over the world are more inclined to be altruistic, both in general and towards the international community.

However, study authors add that conservatives can be generous at times too, but only towards those in their own country. These findings are the result of a collaborative effort spanning the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, and University of Milan Bicocca. This project spanned 68 countries, but researchers say this tendency remained consistent worldwide.

To research this nuanced topic, Veronica Pizziol and colleagues analyzed a dataset featuring over 46,000 participants in 68 countries, collected between April and May 2020. The original survey comes from the International Collaboration on the Social and Moral Psychology of COVID-19 (ICSMP COVID-19), which is an effort to better understand the psychological factors underlying the attitudes and behavioral intentions related to COVID.

With these survey responses, researchers aimed to investigate if and how political ideology — which presumably captures one’s beliefs and values about society — has a connection to generosity. First, to gauge political ideology, participants had to identify their political orientation on a scale from zero (very left-leaning) to 10 (very right-leaning). Next, to measure generosity, researchers judged participants’ donation decisions during a task that featured the possibility of donating to a national charity and an international one. This task included answering what percentage of a sum of money people kept for themselves, and how much they gave to a national or international charity working to protect people from COVID-19.

Consequently, study authors were able to account for and analyze three different types of generosity: national generosity, international generosity, and generosity in general.

“Analyzing the answers, we found that more left-leaning individuals are more likely to donate in general and also more likely to be generous internationally. More right-leaning people are more likely instead to donate nationally. These findings are very consistent and have been checked to exclude other factors that might have influenced the answers,” explains first author Veronica Pizziol, a PhD student in Economics at the IMT School, in a media release. “For example, since the survey was realized during the COVID-19 pandemic, right-leaning people could have shown to be less generous towards COVID-19 charities just because they were less likely to believe COVID-19 to be a big threat. But this was not the case.”

Man volunteering to feed homeless man
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The global nature of the dataset afforded researchers the unique opportunity to draw general conclusions about the relationship between political ideology and generosity, as well as use country-level factors to investigate its underlying mechanisms.

“We found that a relevant source of cross-country variation is the quality of governance as measured by the Worldwide Governance Indicator provided by the World Bank. We show that the quality of governance moderates the three correlations between political ideology and the various measures of generosity” says Roberto Di Paolo, an assistant professor at the IMT School.

In other words, the tendency to be generous with national and international communities, both among right and left-wing people, appears to be somehow related to the efficiency of governance by national institutions. More specifically, in nations with a good quality of institutions, individuals usually increase self-interest (with the change being “faster” for right-leaning individuals) and decrease national generosity (with the change being “slower” for right-leaning individuals). Conversely, right and left-leaning people adopt opposite behaviors toward an international charity when the quality of governance increases; conservatives donate less while liberals tend to donate more.

“These apparently counterintuitive results suggest that, in countries with high quality of governance, left-leaning people may shift towards different values: they can tend to embrace either universalistic or individualist values that are typically brought forward by countries with high quality of governance. Both these values put little emphasis on local boundaries. On the other hand, in countries with high quality of governance, right-leaning people may react negatively to universalist values through a cultural backlash, and therefore embrace only the individualist values.  And this is reflected on the fact that they increase only in their individualism,” comments senior author Valerio Capraro, an associate professor at University of Milan Bicocca.

In summation, study authors conclude that in our increasingly globalized world, it is vital to understand how generosity can best transcend local boundaries. This study indicates politics play a relevant role.

The findings appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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