Men have an empathy gap, and it can assert itself in their approach to charitable giving, according to research published by Stanford University.
Women tend to respond positively to empathy-based appeals, while men typically are less willing to donate money or volunteer time to a poverty relief organization, Stanford said in a statement announcing the study.
Researchers also found that the right kind of messaging can significantly affect how men view acts of giving.
Men will contribute to a fundraising campaign if they are convinced that their self-interest is aligned with the particular cause.
The study was based on an online survey of 1,715 participants to learn more about what prompted men and women to donate time or money to charity.
Researchers tested how effective a variety of different ways of framing poverty relief were for promoting giving.
They measured “empathy” on a seven-point scale by answers to questions such as “I am often quite touched by things that I see happen,” and respondents were asked several questions regarding their views of poverty in general.
Participants were then presented with a brief appeal for charity by a hypothetical nonprofit organization, the Coalition to Reduce Poverty. Each person was randomly assigned to read one of five scenarios or pitches for donations emphasizing the following themes:
- Efficacy (“More than 98% of donations go on to directly benefit the poor.”)
- Conformity (“The poor are now being helped by record numbers of charitable givers across the country.”)
- Injustice (People “born into poverty never had the other opportunities that other Americans had.”)
- Aligned self-interest (“Poverty weighs down our interconnected economy, exacerbating many social problems like crime.”)
- The final one-fifth of participants were not presented with a pitch, but simply asked to donate.
The responses showed that overall, men were less willing to give or donate time, and that they was so in part because they had lower levels of empathy.
Overcoming the Gap
However, one message effectively closed that gender gap in giving — the “aligned self-interest” appeal, which focused on overall societal concerns like crime.
“Men reported significantly greater willingness to give, contributing at levels comparable to women,” Robb Willer, a Stanford sociologist who led the research, said in the study.
“No other message frames were effective in increasing men’s reported willingness to give or volunteer.”
Researchers noted that this “aligned self-interest” framing worked by increasing men’s concern for poverty, not by changing their understanding of the causes of poverty.
In fact, the appeals highlighting social conformity, the efficacy of giving or the injustice of poverty did not reduce the gender gap or heighten men’s likelihood of giving.
Exposure to the same “self-interest” appeal, however, led women to report somewhat lower willingness to volunteer time for poverty relief, they said.
“It had the opposite effect for women, who might have felt less motivated to express concern about poverty when doing so seemed inconsistent with feeling empathy for the poor,” Willer said.
In another finding from the study, African-Americans consistently reported greater willingness than other demographic groups to both give money and volunteer time.
“We explored the relationship in follow-up analyses and found that this association was not mediated by either political ideology or past levels of charitable giving,” Willer said.
The Stanford research was important at a macro level because American society tends to rely on nongovernmental organizations for providing relief to the poor, according to Willer.
He said that although past research on Americans’ attitudes toward poverty had focused on support for governmental policies on poverty, it was important as well to understand support for nongovernmental poverty relief.