Student research links charitable giving to empathy

UW-Green Bay student from Bonduel finds empathic people give more to organizations
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

If you’re an empathic person, chances are that you’d be more willing to give to charity, according to a Bonduel resident attending University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Colton Anderson, a psychology student at the university, teamed up with Ethan Wondrash to look at data from a recent survey and learned that the results that empathy can be a factor in more giving to various causes. Their research garnered enough attention to be part of the Research in the Rotunda event earlier this year in Madison.

“We ended up finding some different and interesting findings about the different aspects of empathy,” Anderson said. “Empathy is pretty complex, and it’s been debated what aspects there are to it. There’s a cognitive and emotional side to empathy, so we basically used a couple of different measures to assess both of those, and we found out that emotional ones were pretty much significant for everything. It’s a pretty long standing finding that emotional empathy predicts charitable giving behaviors.”

Anderson pointed out that the project started out as a simple analysis of data, but then things grew from there.

“We found out that we had a lot of data about empathy, and we had a lot of data about charity, and we tried to connect the dots,” Anderson said. “We wanted to see if there was something significant in those findings.”

Anderson and Wondrash got their data from the Monitoring the Future survey, which asked participants, “If you have at least an average income in the future, how likely is it that you will contribute money to the following organizations?” People who claimed to be empathic showed favor to donating to community charities, citizen lobbies, international relief organizations, charities fighting diseases, minority groups, organizations concerned with population problems and organizations affiliate with environmental groups.

Greater empathy tended to predict higher chances of donating, greater amounts donated and potentially the success of nationwide campaigns, Anderson and Wondrash showed in their research.

The research showed that empathic people were less likely to break out their wallets when it came to religious organizations or political parties, according to Anderson. He noted that this is not a result that was found in previous research.

“It basically said that, if you’re better at emotional recognition, you’re less likely to give to religious or political charities specifically,” Anderson said.

Wondrash said that a lot of time has been spent trying to determine why empathic people shy away from religious or political giving. It’s believed that those two types of giving are considered affiliative, while the other types are humanitarian in nature.

Anderson and Wondrash said they want to find out if their discovery is just a single finding in the survey of 289 UW-Green Bay students done last year or if there’s a trend that can be permanently assessed. They are conducting more research now, but it’s questionable if it will be completed by the time both students graduate this spring.

“This is something we’ll have to replicate again, because this is just our initial findings,” Wondrash said, noting that the UW-Green Bay campus is mostly female and that the survey focused on students ages 18-20. “We’re still trying to make sense of what we’ve found.”

Being able to participate in the Research in the Rotunda was an honor for both students. Anderson noted presenting his findings outside the school setting was a first for him.

“It was really interesting to interact with all the different politicians and researchers and things like that,” Anderson said. “We had a couple of different people who stopped over that were senators and a couple that were professors and even a couple of students who wanted to check us out.”

“A lot of people were really curious about this question,” Wondrash added. “This is something that has already been found, but the specifics of these questions, what types of charities and what kinds of people are more willing to give, when we get into that, people have more questions because it’s more interesting because it’s a more specific question.”