“I’m Moral But I Won’t Help You” – The Distinct Roles of Empathy and Justice in Donations

Journal of Consumer Research, (forthcoming)

William T. Ross, Jr. Co-Authors: Saerom Lee, Karen Page Winterich

Americans tend to think of donating to charitable causes as a moral, prosocial behavior, but understanding what makes people donate is not well understood. Professor Bill Ross and his colleagues examine how moral identity, defined as “how important being a moral person is” affects prosocial behaviors. Usually having a strong moral identity increases how much prosocial behavior the person engages in. However, sometimes individuals with a strong moral identity make lower donations to charitable causes. Four studies demonstrate that someone high in moral identity gives less when those whom they would be helping, the recipients, are seen by the potential donor as personally responsible for their plight, for example if they have AIDS because they shared hypodermic needles while taking illegal drugs.

Further analyses reveal that empathy and justice underlie these effects. Specifically, people high in moral identity increase donations to recipients who they view as not responsible for their plight out of empathy and decrease donations to recipients who they see as responsible for their plight because of justice concerns. Additionally and interestingly, people who are high in moral identity will donate to recipients who are responsible for their plight if donors are made aware of their own immorality, as it causes them have greater fellow-feeling, or empathy, for these recipients. Study results indicate that moral identity, empathy, and justice in communication programs are likely to affect donations.

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