A homeless person approaches you during the lunch hour, appealing for a few dollars to buy lunch. You are moved to help, but you have a choice—you could either give the person a portion of your own sandwich to eat, or give them cash. Which would you prefer?

Now, consider a second scenario. Your friend approaches you at lunch, also appealing for a few dollars. Would you give to your friend part of your sandwich or the money?

In both scenarios, the request is the same and the options for how to help are the same. But you may help differently because you believe that these two people will use the aid in different ways. You may doubt the homeless person’s likelihood to spend the cash wisely or even spend it on food at all, whereas you have no doubt that your friend will spend your money appropriately. If this describes your reaction, you’re not alone. Most people prefer to donate their sandwich to the homeless person but their cash to a friend.

With my colleagues Adam Waytz and Nicholas Epley, I have just published research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General that explores how people think about giving—and receiving—aid. Our research reveals something fundamental about how humans help. Helpers’ beliefs about how recipients will use aid derive from their perceptions of the recipients’ mind—how rational and reasonable the recipients are, and how much self-control the recipients have. When a recipient seems less rational, like stereotypically a homeless person might, the helper is more concerned that the recipient will misuse the aid.

When people donate a sandwich instead of cash, they limit the recipient’s choice. This kind of choice-limiting help tends to be perceived as “paternalistic.” The recipient can only eat the sandwich to satisfy their hunger, and cannot do much else with it. Conversely, donating cash is less paternalistic and more “agentic” because it allows recipients to choose how to help themselves. For instance, the recipient could satisfy their hunger by buying their own sandwich, but alternatively could buy a bag of candy or a pack of cigarettes.

Why do recipients prefer agentic aid but donors prefer paternalistic aid? Read the full article on behavioralscientist.org.


This article originally appeared on the Behavioral Scientist, a non-profit online magazine that offers readers original, thought-provoking reports from the front lines of behavioral science.