Photo credits: Rob via Creative Commons 2.0 (left); National Geographic (right)
Kimberly Gross, George Washington University
Julie Wronski, University of Mississippi
While overall homelessness has decreased in recent years, it remains a widespread problem that threatens many low-income Americans. Media depictions of homelessness often convey individual weaknesses, stigmatizing stereotypes, and disgust. To counter this, homeless charities use humanizing appeals that tell the story of specific individuals depicted as deserving of assistance. For instance, the campaign “Rethink Homelessness” asked homeless people on the streets of Orlando, Florida to write down something about themselves that people wouldn’t know just by walking past them, then created a viral video based upon their stories. But does this type of messaging strategy increase sympathy, move attitudes on government assistance, and ultimately motivate personal behavior to help homeless individuals in need? Importantly, is the success of such campaigns contingent upon whether the depicted beneficiaries are from one’s racial in-group (i.e. White) or out-group (i.e. African-American)?
Our Political Behavior article explores how message campaigns that employ humanizing stories work to help the homeless. First, we examine how two features of the message – particularly, the race of the individuals shown, and the degree to which they are portrayed as deserving – matter. Specifically, we examine how these messages influence monetary charitable giving, as well as attitudes toward government assistance and sympathy. We also explore how individuals’ racial resentment and empathetic ability (measured using the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test) moderate these message effects.
We conducted two online survey experiments with Whites-only samples: one administered through Time-Sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences (TESS) and the other by Qualtrics Panels. In each, participants were randomly assigned to watch one of four videos depicting homeless individuals in Washington, DC. Each video, modeled after the “Rethink Homelessness” campaign, showed two male and two female individuals (either White or African-American) holding a sign, while each person says “I am homeless.” The homeless individuals in the videos were matched on age and gender by race, and the paired individuals wore the same clothes. The four signs constituted our deservingness manipulation and provided either no information beyond the person being homeless or four distinct reasons why the individual was homeless.
Willingness to donate money to a homeless charity – our behavioral measure – was assessed using a dictator game. Following the video treatments, participants were offered additional funding for the study ($10 in TESS and $4 in Qualtrics), and were given the opportunity to donate none, some, or all of that compensation in one-dollar increments to Miriam’s Kitchen, a private charity that provides food and services to the homeless in Washington, DC. Across both studies more than 70% of participants donated something, totaling nearly $7500 in donations to Miriam’s Kitchen!
We found that the race of the homeless individuals depicted in our videos had no direct effect on government policy attitudes or charitable donations in either study. Videos that featured deservingness information lead to increased expressions of sympathy in both studies, to greater support for government efforts to help the homeless in the Qualtrics study, and to increased donations and propensity to donate in the Qualtrics study.
As the figures below illustrate, there was some variation in donation behavior based upon individual’s racial attitudes, empathetic ability, and which video they viewed. We generally observed a negative relationship between racial resentment and donations (top panel), and a positive relationship between empathetic ability and donations (bottom panel), with a few important caveats. Those at the low end of the racial resentment scale donated about $0.67 more in the Black information condition relative to the White information condition, while those high in racial resentment donated about $0.72 less in the Black conditions than in the White information condition. Racial resentment had no effect on donations when shown Whites providing reasons for their homelessness. For those with the greatest empathetic abilities, donations were approximately $1.85 more in the two White conditions, and $1.73 more in the Black information condition relative to the Black no information condition. Empathetic ability had no effect on donations when viewing African-Americans with no information regarding the circumstances of their homelessness.
On one hand, it is reassuring that our race manipulations did not reveal a systematic advantage for homeless beneficiaries who are members of one’s racial in-group (i.e. Whites). Yet, individuals’ racial biases nonetheless influenced their donation choices. Deservingness appeals worked when the recipients came from a racial group an individual was biased towards, but such appeals were not enough to overcome bias against the group. Further, individuals own capacity to empathize with those in need was associated with increased donations only when there was some relatable factor like a shared racial group or deservingness information. Overall, organizations utilizing humanizing appeals to generate financial support for their cause will do well to feature stories where the individual, regardless of their race, is not seen as responsible for their adverse circumstances.