Are older people more generous?

Global population ageing combined with the challenges of COVID-19 mean actions that help others are more important than ever. In a huge global study, we tested whether willingness to help differs over the lifespan and if older adults are more biased toward helping national over international causes.

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Since the start of the pandemic, we have all been doing many unexpected things. Wearing a face mask, staying at home, and social distancing to ‘flatten the curve’ and protect not only ourselves, but also other people. These examples demonstrate the importance of actions that help others – what psychologists call prosocial behaviours. Prosocial behaviours are vital for our health and well-being and even linked to the economic success of societies1. One of the most common examples is charitable donations. In our research we are interested in when and why people are prosocial and whether being prosocial is something that differs around the world and across different ages.

Whether our willingness to be prosocial changes as we get older is a particularly pressing question. Between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world's population over 60 years old will nearly double, from 12% to 22%. It is therefore essential to examine how prosocial behaviours might differ with age. Research in our Social Decision Neuroscience Lab led by Dr Patricia Lockwood showed that older adults (age 55-84) were relatively more willing to put in physical effort to help others than younger adults (age 18-36)2. We also recently found that when learning which of our actions benefit ourselves or other people, young people learn faster when benefitting themselves but older participants learn just as fast to help themselves and others3.

When people asked what I was working on during that time, I’d describe these results that suggest we might become more prosocial as we age. For some of the friends or colleagues asking me about my research, this really resonated with their experiences of older family members being more generous and selfless. In contrast, for other people these results seemed strange. They would mention the political parties and leaders more popular with older generations. This contradiction is also supported by academic work that has shown older people are more likely to endorse racial stereotypes4 and show higher levels of some negative social behaviours5.

Chatting about our research and this puzzling contradiction in findings could only happen in person for a few months. By March 2020 the UK was in lockdown and all interactions with friends and colleagues were online. Despite these challenges, the move to everything being online and the sudden increase in global collaborations around the world gave us the chance to contribute to a much larger study with many people from other countries. The findings of our study6, in collaboration with Jonas Nitschke and Claus Lamm at the University of Vienna and McGill University, are published today in Nature Aging.

In April 2020, we joined an international collaboration on the social and moral psychology of COVID-19 following a call on Twitter from Jay Van Bavel, Professor of Psychology at New York University to researchers across the world who would be interested to examine the psychological factors underlying the attitudes and behavioural intentions related to COVID-197. This project generated a huge global dataset with over 46,500 people from 67 countries completing a survey measuring their traits, prosocial behaviours, and information about them such as age and gender. Participants completed the survey during the early phase of the Coronavirus pandemic (April-May 2020). We were able to use this dataset to test our hypothesis from work in the lab that older adults might be more prosocial than younger adults, but also more biased in who they were willing to help.

Map showing the sample size in each country
Fig. 1 | The number of participants (n) in each of the 67 countries. Research teams aimed to reach a sample size of at least 500 people in each country with the sample representing the country in terms of age and gender.

One of the measures collected in the dataset was willingness to donate to charity. Participants were given a hypothetical amount of money, equivalent to the average daily income in their country. They were asked how much they wanted to keep and how much they would be willing to donate to two charities helping victims of the coronavirus pandemic, one charity in their own country and one helping people abroad. The second prosocial measure tested participants’ inclination to comply with public health social distancing requirements by asking a number of questions about how much they were limiting contact with others. Since both measures related to situations newly relevant to people around the world, they had the advantage of not being subject to established habits. We were initially given access to 10% of the total data and we pre-registered our analysis plan and hypothesis that older adults would be more prosocial but also more biased to helping those people in their own country.

With access to the full dataset, we found that older adults across the world were indeed more prosocial. They were willing to donate more money overall and reported higher levels of social distancing than younger participants. Strikingly, these results were shown in the majority of countries and remained the same when we accounted for other factors that change with age, such as people’s wealth and physical health. We also took into account how wealthy each country was, the severity of the pandemic at the time data was collected, and participants’ perceived risk of catching the virus.

Map showing a positive relationship between age and national donations in most countries
Fig. 2 | Effects of age (β) on national donations across the globe. Red indicates older adults donated more and blue indicates older adults donated less. Older adults made significantly larger hypothetical donations to a national charity in most countries. Interestingly, in 3 countries (India, Turkey and Iraq) the relationship between age and national donations was significantly negative.

However, as we predicted, although older people were more generous overall, they were also more biased. When we looked at donation amounts to the national and the international charities separately, younger people gave more equal amounts to the two charities, whereas older people gave less internationally.

We also tested how personality traits differed across the lifespan, and how that might link to the differences we saw in prosocial behaviour. We found that older adults had stronger self-reported preferences for their ‘in-group’ – people in the same country. They were more likely to report identifying with their country and agreed more strongly with statements such as “My country deserves special treatment”. Finally, we looked at whether in-group preferences on these scales were linked with the prosocial behaviours we measured. As we might predict, participants who reported stronger in-group preferences gave more to the national charity but less to the international charity. Therefore, the fact that older people had higher scores on this in-group preference trait helped to explain their patterns of charitable donations to some extent.

 

Graph showing a positive association between age and national donations but negative association between age and international donations
Fig. 3 | Age predicts increased preference for national over international charities. Older adults gave more to national charities but less to international charities. On average, each increase of 16 years in age corresponded to approximately 2.5% larger national donations but 1.5% smaller international donations. 

Overall, our results show increased prosocial behaviour – generosity and distancing – by older adults compared to younger adults around the world. The study therefore replicates the results we saw in our lab-based research with a much larger sample across the whole adult lifespan. Taking the hypothesis that older people are more prosocial from these lab experiments and expanding it to test age-related differences in prosocial behaviour around the world also supports the consistency of the results across countries and diverse cultures.

Our findings could have implications for increasing compliance with public health measures, as well as predicting the social and economic impacts of ageing populations. However, our results also fit with the idea that older people have stronger preferences to help people in their own country, compared to people abroad. As the challenges of the 21st century become increasingly global in nature and rely on people helping others, it is vital we understand how different age groups might respond. With countries implementing cuts to foreign aid budgets, there will be an increasing reliance on global charities. Understanding the giving preferences and inclinations of different age groups could therefore be extremely important in planning campaigns and appeals.

Map showing a negative relationship between age and international donations in many countries
Fig. 4 | Effects of age (β) on international donations across the globe. Red indicates older adults donated more and blue indicates older adults donated less. Age was negatively associated with donations to a hypothetical international charity in many countries. Again, 3 countries (China, Spain and the Netherlands) showed the reverse—age significantly positively predicted international donations.

References: 

  1. Kosse, F. & Tincani, M. M. Prosociality predicts labor market success around the world. Nat Commun 11, 5298 (2020).
  2. Lockwood, P. L. et al. Aging Increases Prosocial Motivation for Effort. Psychol Sci 32, 668–681 (2021).
  3. Cutler, J. et al. Ageing is associated with disrupted reinforcement learning whilst learning to help others is preserved. Nat Commun 12, 4440 (2021).
  4. Czarnek, G., Kossowska, M. & Sedek, G. The Influence Of Aging On Outgroup Stereotypes: The Mediating Role Of Cognitive And Motivational Facets Of Deficient Flexibility. Experimental Aging Research 41, 303–324 (2015).
  5. Riva, F., Triscoli, C., Lamm, C., Carnaghi, A. & Silani, G. Emotional Egocentricity Bias Across the Life-Span. Front. Aging Neurosci. 8, (2016).
  6. Cutler, J., Nitschke, J. P., Lamm, C. & Lockwood, P. L. Older adults across the globe exhibit increased prosocial behavior but also greater in-group preferences. Nat Aging 1, 880-888 (2021).
  7. Van Bavel, J. J. et al. National identity predicts public health support during a global pandemic: Results from 67 nationsPsyArXiv (2020).

Jo Cutler

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Birmingham