Helping the Homeless: The Role of Empathy, Race and Deservingness in Motivating Policy Support and Charitable Giving


What will motivate citizens to support efforts to help those in need? Charitable organizations seeking support for their cause will often use the story of a specific individual to illustrate the problem and generate support. We explore the effectiveness of this strategy using the issue of homelessness. Specifically, we examine the role that the race of beneficiaries featured in a message, and the inclusion of deservingness cues highlighting external attributions for an individual’s homelessness have on willingness to donate to the homeless and support government efforts to address homelessness. Utilizing two experiments with a nationally representative probability sample and an online opt-in quota sample, we find significant effects of deservingness information on expressions of sympathy, and on support for government efforts to address homelessness when viewing individuals from one’s own racial group. Direct effects on charitable giving are inconsistent across studies, with modest evidence that deservingness cues are associated with donation behavior in one. We also uncover interesting heterogeneity in how individuals react to a message about the homeless based on their predispositions. We discuss the implications for those utilizing this messaging strategy.

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  1. 1.

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    In other words, what are the effects of variation within episodic frames? Iyengar (1994) finds distinctions that hint at differences based on the nature of the individual story used. For example, people were twice as likely to attribute blame to the individual when viewing a story featuring a black criminal compared with one featuring a white criminal (see also Gross 2008). Brader et al. (2008) find lower levels of support when news about the costs of immigration features Latino rather than European immigrants. Work showing that support for policies varies based on who is seen as benefitting (discussed below) also confirms the intuition that who is represented and the nature of their story matters.

  3. 3.

  4. 4.

    Work by Clifford and Piston (2017) is also interested in the role of emotion in explaining support for homeless policy, however they focus on the role of disgust. Their results suggest that disgust responses are common with respect to homelessness. Disgust does not generate negative views regarding the homeless nor does it lead to lessened support for aid. Rather, those who are sensitive to disgust tend to support exclusionary policies that seek to exclude the homeless from public life, even as they support other programs to aid the homeless.

  5. 5.

    The video treatments can be viewed at: We do not provide a condition that suggests individuals are responsible for their situation (i.e. an undeserving cue) which seemingly would lead to even less support than the no information condition. This is a valuable extension for future research.

  6. 6.

    Our treatment conditions were balanced on empathetic ability, party identification, ideology, and basic demographics.

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    Conditions were balanced on party identification, ideology, economic issues, racial resentment, and demographics.

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    Qualtrics study analyses control for gender. There are no significant interactions between gender and our treatments.

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    See Online Appendix I for additional measurement information including question wording, coding, scaling, and descriptive statistics for our key dependent variables and individual difference measures.

  10. 10.

    Our analyses focus on the means by condition as represented in Figs. 1, 2, and 3 and Online Appendix II Table A2. In Online Appendix II, Tables A3 through A8, we present OLS regressions with robust standard errors estimating the effects of the individual treatment conditions (columns 1 and 2), as well as OLS regressions with robust standard errors estimating the effect of deservingness cues (collapsed across race), race cues (collapsed across deservingness information), and their interaction (columns 3 through 6 in Tables A3 through A6, and columns 3 and 4 in Tables A7 and A8). We run our models with and without controls to ensure our results are robust to modeling choice. We use OLS for ease of interpretation, however when we re-estimate the models using ordered logistic regression (Appendix III, Tables A11 through A14) the patterns remain the same. Tables A7 and A8 also present logistic regression models examining the probability of any donation (columns 5 through 8 in Tables A7 and A8) allowing us to look at effects on donation behavior in two ways. Data and replication information are available at

  11. 11.

    See Online Appendix II, Tables A3 and A4. OLS coefficients from column 5 used to produce estimates of the effect of deservingness information within black conditions and within white conditions. The main effect of deservingness information (e.g., collapsing across race conditions) is shown in columns 3 and 4 (B = 0.063, p < .01 in TESS; B = 0.071, p < .01 in Qualtrics). This main effect does not differ significantly by race (n.s. interaction in column 5). A similar pattern emerges in the Qualtrics study when we look at the combined positive emotions of sympathy, caring, and empathizing (results in replication files). Empathetic appeals significantly increase these positive emotions by about 5% of the scale, regardless of the race condition, while significantly fewer positive emotions are expressed in the black no information condition compared to the white no information condition (B = 0.03, p < .1). Race has no impact among those receiving the deservingness information. Further, respondents report significantly more emotional reactions, relative to the control group, in all conditions except for black no information.

  12. 12.

    As seen in Online Appendix II Table A2, the means for white no information and white information conditions have non-overlapping confidence intervals in each study but this is not the case for the black conditions. OLS coefficients from Tables A5 and A6 column 5 are used to produce the estimates for deservingness information within white and within black conditions; column 5 demonstrates the significant marginal effect of the information condition when viewing white homeless individuals. A similar pattern emerges in the Qualtrics study for the single government effort to end homelessness item that replicates the TESS study (results in replication file), where the effect of the deservingness appeal on support for government efforts is marginally significant only among the white conditions (B = 0.057, p = 0.054), and there is no main effect of the race treatment on policy support. Further, Qualtrics study respondents report significantly more support for government efforts in each of the deservingness conditions relative to the control condition (Tables A2 and column 1 of A6).

  13. 13.

    We find a marginally significant main effect of deservingness information. Looking at the effects separately for those who saw white and black homeless individuals suggests deservingness cues have a somewhat larger influence when the homeless individuals in the video are white, though these effects are not significantly different by race. Here deservingness information increases mean donations by about 25 cents, an effect that approaches significance (p = .109). The increase in donations in the face of deservingness information when homeless individuals in the video are black, approximately 12 cents, is not statistically significant, nor is it significantly different from the effect of information in the white conditions (see Table A8, column 4). The pattern of results also suggests that there may be some small effect of simply showing individuals regardless of providing deservingness cues, as all conditions except the white no information condition had significantly higher donation levels than the control condition. See Online Appendix II, Tables A2 and A8 for more information.

  14. 14.

    Given the skew in the donation variable, we also modeled three alternative versions of the donation variable beyond the two approaches (mean donation and propensity to donate at all) featured here. These are available in Online Appendix III, Tables A15 through A20, and substantively mirror the results here.

  15. 15.

    Our findings also point to some interesting differences in the antecedents of policy support and charitable giving with respect to homelessness (see Online Appendix II, Tables A5–A8). While ideology and partisanship are significant predictors of support for government efforts (with Conservatives and Republicans significantly less likely to support increased government efforts on behalf of the homeless), ideology and partisanship do not distinguish individuals in terms of their propensity for charitable giving with respect to the homeless.

  16. 16.

    The significant negative relationship between resentment and donation behavior in all but the white information condition can be seen in Fig. 5 where the predicted mean donation and probability of donating at the highest level of resentment differ significantly from mean donation and probability of donating at lowest level of resentment, and by the non-significant effect of racial resentment in Table A9a. Marginal effects of the treatments relative to the white information condition were generated based upon the models in Online Appendix II, Table A9a. We find a similar pattern of effects when we substitute an alternative measure of racial affect (white feeling thermometer minus black feeling thermometer scores) for racial resentment.

  17. 17.

    These patterns are consistent with H3b, though tests offer only weak support for whether the effects are significantly different when messages include a relatable feature. The differences in donation amounts looking only among those high in empathetic ability are marginally significant; the interactive effects testing whether empathetic ability effects vary across conditions miss conventional levels of significance (see Supplemental Appendix II, Table A10a).

  18. 18.

    These marginal effects of the treatments relative to the black no information condition were generated based upon the model in Online Appendix II, Table A10a, column 1.

  19. 19.

    What might explain this inconsistency with respect to donations? The studies took place in two distinctly different time periods, used different sample recruitment strategies resulting in demographic distinctions between the two samples, and varied the donation amount across studies ($10 vs. $4) resulting in qualitatively distinct behavioral decisions. The pattern for donations across the two studies varies in particular with respect to the behavior of those in the white no information condition. In subsequent analyses, not shown, we weighted the two samples to make them equivalent across pretreatment covariates and re-examined the models. The overall pattern of treatment effects replicate those found with the un-weighted data.


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This research was supported by a grant from Time Sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences as part of the real stakes experiment special competition, NSF Grant 0818839, Jeremy Freese and James Druckman, Principal Investigators. A George Washington University Columbian College Facilitating Grant and the University of Mississippi College of Liberal Arts Summer Research Grant Program also provided the financial support. We thank participants in the 2016 NYU-CESS Experimental Political Science Conference, the January 2018 NCAPSA workshop, as well as the editor and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Kimberly Gross.

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Our studies were approved by the George Washington University Office of Human Research (TESS IRB#021510, Qualtrics IRB#021721) and all procedures were in accordance with the ethical standards of the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Gross, K., Wronski, J. Helping the Homeless: The Role of Empathy, Race and Deservingness in Motivating Policy Support and Charitable Giving. Polit Behav (2019).

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  • Emotion
  • Race
  • Deservingness