Imagine you are walking down the street and see a man with a cardboard sign and a paper cup asking for money. You can probably conjure some image of what this man looks like and, specifically, what he is wearing. Now, imagine he has neatly slicked-back hair and is wearing a suit. Would this make you more or less likely to drop some money into his cup?

The answer perhaps seems obvious. Someone who can afford a suit is unlikely to need your money—and you would be less likely to part with your hard-earned cash. However, when my colleagues and I took to the streets of New York and Chicago and put unsuspecting people in this situation, we found that they donated more than twice as much to a panhandler dressed in a suit than one dressed in shabbier clothing. This field experiment, we argue, may teach us about whom we feel compassion for and whom we see as "deserving" of help.

To conduct the experiment, I spent about 8 hours, in total, standing on busy sidewalks with a cardboard sign and a cup for collecting donations. Half the time, I was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and for the rest of the time, a suit. All other aspects of the situation (e.g., location, time of day, day of the week) were kept as similar as possible. Two assistants, discreetly located across the street, counted how many people walked by, logged any interactions passersby had with me, and tallied up how much money I made at the end of each session.

I earned 2.55 times as much money—$54.11 versus $21.15—and received all donations of $5 or more when dressed in a suit rather than a T-shirt. Ironically, people gave more and were more likely to give big when they encountered a panhandler who appeared to be higher in social standing. Importantly, pedestrians were no more likely to interact with me in ways unrelated to donating (for example, striking up a conversation) when I was dressed up, suggesting that differences in donating cannot simply be chalked up to people being drawn to the novelty of a panhandler in a suit.

I also followed a standard set of instructions throughout, which included not initiating interactions with passersby and maintaining a neutral facial expression and tone of voice. I also occasionally said "collecting money to help the homeless" to draw attention from passersby. Ethically, we could not intentionally mislead individuals into thinking that I was unhoused and that the funds would go to me. However, this set of words still left open this possibility while being truthful (we did eventually donate the money to homeless shelters).

Given that I appeared, by all outward signs, to be a panhandler and the majority of interactions were brief (thus, it was unlikely that people were listening closely to what I was saying), we assumed that most pedestrians would approach the situation as they would a typical panhandler. The limited interactions I did have with passersby also support this assumption. For instance, one who donated remarked that they do not usually give to panhandlers, but that I seemed like a "nice guy." Another, who did not donate, remarked that they would like to help me but could not because they were "homeless too."

Importantly, we cannot conclude that wearing a suit made people more generous or compassionate towards me, specifically. Some number of them may have correctly assumed I was donating the money to charity. However, we can conclude that our experiment impacted compassionate behaviors—donating to help those suffering from homelessness, either directly or indirectly—and to inclinations to help me in some way or another, whether they thought they were donating to me directly or helping me in my efforts to raise money for others.

Regardless of what people assumed, they were clearly more likely to entrust their money to a complete stranger dressed in a suit rather than casual clothing—despite any guarantees that their money would go towards a good cause. Perhaps they asked themselves: Will this person use the money for essential needs, like food or shelter, or for purposes one might not approve of, such as drugs or alcohol?  

A follow-up study, which involved showing a separate group of people pictures of me panhandling in the same clothing, sheds light on this question. Those who saw me dressed in a T-shirt judged me as less trustworthy and honest, less intelligent and dependable, and even less human—associating me more with words like "wild" and "untamed" and less with words like "citizen" or "person." Those who saw me in a suit judged me to be more trustworthy, more similar to themselves, and, presumably, more likely to use the money in productive ways. Indeed, those in our field study were more likely to donate in amounts that could reasonably purchase something like a meal and one person even dropped a business card into my cup. 

Whether you realize it or not, this basic process occurs for everyone, whenever they go out into the world. A person's accent, the way they dress, and their interests and hobbies are all clues about economic circumstances and social status that others pick up on quickly and effortlessly: Did this person go to college? Do they make enough money to afford nice clothes? Can they tell a Bordeaux from a Beaujolais?

Our research suggests that seeming even just a bit higher in social standing can change how others answer these questions, and, in the process, buy at least some benefit of the doubt—if not outright kindness. In an increasingly unequal society, something as superficial as clothing can distort even the most generous impulses—and lead to more inequality. And whereas adopting these types of status symbols may make one seem worthier of others' compassion or effort to help, those who need help the most are precisely those who lack access to them in the first place. Thus, this study also suggests that individual generosity is a flawed instrument for addressing problems such as poverty and homelessness, which call for large-scale structural and policy interventions.   

For Further Reading

Callaghan, B., Delgadillo, Q., & Kraus, M. W. (2022). The influence of signs of social class on compassionate responses to people in need. Frontiers in Psychology, 13: 936170. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.936170

Kraus, M. W., Park, J. W., & Tan, J. J. X. (2017). Signs of social class: The experience of economic inequality in everyday life. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(3), 422–435.

Bennett Callaghan is an Associated Researcher at the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality at The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY). He studies the psychology of social class and inequality.