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New research: Conservatives and liberals are equally likely to fund local causes, but liberals are more apt to also donate to national and global groups

August 25, 2022 Gianluca Grimalda and Nancy R. Buchan, The Conversation
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EDITORS’ NOTE: The Democratic primary for the congressional district NY-10 was rife with competition. Candidates swarmed the district after maps were redrawn to merge lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. While liberal and progressive voters are more likely to fund (or, in a sense, favor) the supranational or nationwide causes, politics at the local level directly translates challenging the status quo at the federal: State representative Yuh Line-Niou’s endorsement from the Working Families Party for NY-10 gave her more bloc support, and the victorious NYS state Rep. Kirsten Gonzalez’s victory in Senate District 59 shows how organization at a local level can mobilize voters. Niou had come within 1,300 votes, and Dan Goldman’s victory in NY-10 – as well as Elizabeth Crowley’s defeat in Senate District 59 – shows how political money and establishment candidates, who accept money from large donors, are pinned against progressive campaigns, which can rely on party and associational structures like union and party endorsements along with grassroots efforts.

The big idea

Conservatives were less generous overall than liberals during an experiment in which people could give some money to COVID-19 relief charities. Conservative participants also overwhelmingly preferred to use this opportunity to give to local charities rather than national ones, even if they expressed more nationalistic sentiments than liberals.

These are the main findings of a study we recently published in Political Psychology, an academic journal. Our research group also included Marilynn Brewer, Orgul Ozturk, Adriana Pinate and Giulia Urso.

We conducted an online experiment with 932 U.S. and 723 Italian residents in 2020. We gave US $5 to the Americans and 4 euros to the Italians – amounts that were roughly equivalent in value at the time of the study. They could keep that money or allocate all or part of this small sum to one of three charities. One was active at the local level – a U.S. state or an Italian region. The other two were national and global causes. The charities’ names were not specified. Participants wishing to give the money away had to first choose one charity and then decide how much to give.

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After deciding how much they wanted to donate and which kind of group their gifts would fund, participants completed a survey regarding their ideological orientation and the degree to which they identified with the local, national and global community.

Overall, conservatives donated 31 percent of their $5 or 4 euros. Liberals gave away 48 percent.

Conservatives and liberals alike preferred to support local charities, and the amounts they donated were roughly the same: 22 percent of the money they could keep or give away for conservatives and 21 percent for liberals. The other donations differed. Liberals gave 14 percent to national and 13 percent to global charities. Conservatives gave 6 percent to national and 2 percent to global charities.

This pattern surprised us because 45 percent of conservatives, as opposed to 18 percent of liberals, stated they most closely identify as Americans or Italians rather than identifying more with their state or region across the three groups. We were also intrigued to see 39 percent of liberals saying they identified the most as members of the global community. Only 8 percent of conservatives said they felt that way.

About 1 in 5 of the participants identified as moderates. Fittingly, the way they chose to donate or keep the money they received during the experiment fell between how liberals and conservatives responded.

Why it matters

Other researchers have studied generosity by letting people choose between donating to national or foreign causes. But those are not the only options available or the only kinds of geographic allegiances people have.

Understanding how liberals and conservatives tend to give to charity is important because of the growth of political polarization, which has the potential to hinder collective action.

Our finding that both conservatives and liberals may prefer helping others at the local level could be relevant in terms of how to best respond to collective crises like pandemics and climate change.

Attorney Dan Goldman, standing with members of his family, speaks on the evening of the Democratic primary election Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, in New York. Photo: Craig Ruttle/AP

What other research is being done

A large-scale study conducted in 42 countries prior to our own also found that conservatives tend to be less generous than liberals.

However, the researchers who conducted that earlier study didn’t assess preferences for giving to local groups.

Previously we examined data collected at the same time to see whether exposure to the COVID-19 pandemic was tied to greater generosity. We found that it was.

What still isn’t known

People may behave differently in experiments like this and in real life.

Some researchers have found that study participants tend to display more generosity than they otherwise would. Yet substantial evidence points to significant correlation.

And while our U.S. and Italian results were remarkably similar, we cannot be sure that they would necessarily be the same everywhere else.

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