Are High-Status People Stingier?

Powerful people tend to be less generous, but the same is not always true for high-status people. vchal/Shutterstock

Just because people have high status — meaning others admire and respect them — doesn't mean they ignore those in need. Whether or not high-ranking people are generous often depends on if they believe their position is deserved. That's according to a series of six scientific studies led by a pair of researchers from Michigan State University and New York University. The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Hoping to find a link between generosity and social status, the researchers found a common pattern. People with high social status who didn't feel that they had earned their position were much more generous than their counterparts who believed they deserved admiration and respect from other people. Those prominent people who didn't believe their standing was truly earned become more generous with other people to alleviate any feelings of inequality, says the study's lead author Nicholas Hays, assistant professor of management at Michigan State University.

“The effects of social status on generosity are contingent on deservingness, meaning that high-ranking people don’t always behave selfishly, as a significant amount of research suggests, but do indeed care about whether or not they deserve their position,” said Hays in a statement.

The research involved more than 1,200 participants. In one of the studies, they surveyed more than 250 MBA students who were organized into 51 teams. Twice in six months, they were asked about their willingness to help their teammates, as well as their perceptions of their own and their teammates’ social status.

Hayes points out that this study is unique because in the past, research has focused only on the effects of power versus the impact of status. Power is defined as control over resources, while status is defined as being respected by others. That research found that people with power tend to become more selfish, regardless of whether they think they earned that power.

However, these new studies show that the same is not true across the board with high social status.

“We demonstrate that generosity may not persist once people achieve that high status,” Hays said. “It depends on whether they feel that status is deserved.”