Can you spare a dime?

During college, while I was getting my B.A. in Psychology, I took a few social psychology classes and ended up doing some interesting experiments.  One of them was an experiment where my partner, Marcy, and I wanted to determine under what conditions people were likely to give money to someone who asked.  We were testing three variables: asking for money with or without an explanation as to why the money was needed, dressing up versus dressing schlubby, and the responses of men and women.  Marcy volunteered to be the person who did the asking, while I was to be the one marking down responses.  Here is what happened.

We went to the mall.  First, Marcy dressed schlubby.  We put her in flip flops, a tank top, and jean shorts with frayed edges, and she put on a flannel shirt and left it unbuttoned.  Her hair was down and a little messy.  She carried no purse or bag.  I parked myself unobtrusively on a bench.  She stood in the middle of the crowded walkways and we decided she would ask 10 men and 10 women walking alone (yes, it was hard to find 10 men shopping alone, but we managed over time).

Okay in the first scenario she went up to her 20 people and simply said, “Excuse me, could you give me a quarter to make a phone call?” She gave no explanation as to why she needed it.  All 20 brushed past her or turned her down flat.  Yep.  All 20.  Some were even quite snarly with her.

Next she changed the question and asked another 10 men and 10 women the following, “Excuse me, could you give me a quarter to make a phone call?  I locked my purse and keys in my car and need to call the autoclub.”  All 10 men refused, and 8 women refused, but two women gave her a quarter.  Interesting.  We immediately debriefed these two kind souls and gave them their quarter back. 

We went back the next day to do the second part of the experiment.  This time Marcy dressed in a really nice business suit, wore pantyhose, black pumps, and put her hair up in a tight bun.  She wore a string of pearls around her neck.  We again selected 10 men and 10 women and she asked, “Excuse me, could you give me a quarter to make a phone call?”  This time 5 of the men gave her a quarter and 5 of the women gave her a quarter.  A big improvement.

Next we altered the question and included the reason she needed the money.  “Excuse me, could you give me a quarter to make a phone call?  I locked my purse and keys in my car and need to call the autoclub.”  This time, every single person she stopped gave her the quarter.  All 20.

Interesting, no?  Now, we pretty much expected that people would be more willing to help someone who gave a reasonable explanation.  And we expected that women would be more generous than men.  And although we figured people would be more likely to help someone who didn’t look like a beggar, we were surprised by the negative reactions she got from people when she was dressed schlubby.  Some were so rude, making comments like, “I ain’t your father,” or “Get away from me” or “Get out of here before I call security.”  I remember that Marcy was starting to feel really “small” as she put it as she got rejected over and over again, simply because of how she was dressed.

It wasn’t really a grand experiment, just a little something we did for a class project, but it still fascinated me greatly.  It appeared to me as if people were judging Marcy mainly by the way she was dressed.  They either saw someone they felt comfortable associating with or someone they didn’t want to have any contact with at all.  I’m not sure that people even heard her explanation or her need when she was dressed schlubby.

The next time you see a homeless person begging on a street corner and you decide not to give him or her any money, ask yourself if you’re responding to how they are dressed or their perceived need, or some other factor.

Steve and I thought it would be interesting to try some social experiments out on the Vegas strip or inside the Forum shops at Ceasar’s Palace one day.  What should we test?  Any ideas?  We’ll try some of your ideas and report back.  Should be interesting.

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