Human altruistic tendencies vary with both the costliness of selfless acts and socioeconomic status

PeerJ. 2016 Oct 27;4:e2610. doi: 10.7717/peerj.2610. eCollection 2016.


Altruism toward strangers is considered a defining feature of humans. However, manifestation of this behaviour is contingent on the costliness of the selfless act. The extent of altruistic tendencies also varies cross-culturally, being more common in societies with higher levels of market integration. However, the existence of local variation in selfless behaviour within populations has received relatively little empirical attention. Using a 'lost letter' design, we dropped 300 letters (half of them stamped, half of them unstamped) in 15 residential suburbs of the greater Perth area that differ markedly in socioeconomic status. The number of returned letters was used as evidence of altruistic behaviour. Costliness was assessed by comparing return rates for stamped vs. unstamped letters. We predicted that there is a positive association between suburb socioeconomic status and number of letters returned and that altruistic acts decrease in frequency when costs increase, even minimally. Both predictions were solidly supported and demonstrate that socioeconomic deprivation and elevated performance costs independently impinge on the universality of altruistic behaviour in humans.

Keywords: Altruism; Socioeconomic status; ‘Lost letter’.

Grant support

The authors received no funding for this work.