We’ve been approached by someone homeless, and been asked for money. Sometimes we give, sometimes we don’t. Why do we sometimes give and sometimes we don’t? Is it our mood that day? Or is it how needy we perceive the person? What is the psychology of giving money?
Recently, I’ve been approached by several people recently who didn’t look homeless. They looked poor, but not a like someone living in a box under the highway. Yet, they asked for money. And like most times I’m approached for money, I refused. Unlike most instances, I refused to give money not because I had no change, I refused because it seemed like the person didn’t need the money. In the split second I had to make my decision, I thought that according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, she was able to satisfy her lowest of needs, like proper clothing. Therefore, I shouldn’t give her money.
But in retrospect, was that really the case? How many times have you given away your old clothes to Salvation Army? If any of these garments end up on the shoulders of a homeless person, like we hope they do, that person won’t look as homeless will they? Are we indirectly hurting homeless people when we try to help with our garment donations?
Once I saw a homeless man with no shoes. He had cardboard taped to his feet. I went to my trunk and offered him some old running shoes. He flatly refused. He shooed me a way. I left feeling like shit and confused. Why? Probably because not having shoes made him look worse and made people more willing to give him money. Which leads me to ask, “Why do we give some homeless people money and not others?”
I have no social scientific proof as to why or why not we give to homeless people. I only have my anecdotal opinions, but I would wager that my experiences mirror more people’s thought process than not.
There are three major factors that push us to give one homeless person money and not another. One is the amount of money/change we have in our pockets. The second is the level of need we feel the person has. The third being our current mood.
The first reason is pretty straight forward. If we don’t have any change or only have big bills, then we don’t give away money to the homeless. It’s not convenient to us. I get this. There is nothing wrong not giving away your hard earned money to someone homeless. Yes, $10 would do them more good than it might you, but if you were to give $10 to everyone who was homeless, your needs won’t be met.
The second reason is a lot more subjective. In my initial example, I said that I didn’t think the women who asked me for money needed it based on her clothing. Therefore, I wasn’t going to get the emotional benefit of giving her money. Yes, giving money to homeless isn’t an entirely altruistic act. People like to feel good about themselves. Giving to the needy makes people food good about themselves. If someone doesn’t seem like they truly need the money (as in they are forced to beg) than we don’t really want to give people money.
Lastly, our mood plays a factor as to whether or not we give money to the homeless. Again, this is clearly subjective. Some people might give money because they’re angry and they want to feel better. Others might give because they’re in a good mood and want to spread the love. Maybe you just won a scratch off lottery ticket and won $20, so giving away $2 to someone on the street isn’t a big deal? Whatever the reason may be, your mood when approached by a homeless person alters your generosity.
This is clearly not an academic paper. But I everyday I ride the subway to work (which is a rarity in LA). Since I started this practice, I’ve encountered more homeless people begging for money than I ever had. This coupled with the time I have on the train rides lead to me to start thinking about the psychology of giving. I would definitely love to hear the opinions of those smarter than me on this subject, but this is what I came up with.