Would you be more likely to give money to a homeless man who says he will use it for drugs and alcohol, or a homeless father with a coughing child beside him?
New Yorker Coby Persin, known for his shirtless selfies and Pranksters videos, has released a popular new “social experiment” video in which he tested the social conscience of New Yorkers with this very question.
First, Mr. Persin posed as a homeless person with a sign which read, “HOMELESS need money for weed, drugs and alcohol.” He found that the humorous forthrightness of his sign met with an abundance of charity.
But when he switched to a sign stating that he was a homeless father seeking aid for his family, with a little girl as a prop, he became invisible to charitable eyes.
Just one person, out of thousands of passersby, to give to the alleged homeless father was a homeless woman who offered up all she herself had collected for the day.
Lt. Colonel Ron Busroe, community relations and development secretary for The Salvation Army's National Headquarters says in an interview that the psychology of giving at work in both scenarios was less about the homeless person and more about what the potential donor can relate to.
“The first thing I noticed was the people who gave to him when he was a single, homeless man wanting money for weed, drugs and alcohol and it was almost exclusively people his own age who might be looking forward to going home and perhaps having some weed, drugs and alcohol,” says Lt. Col. Busroe. “They just identified with him, his honesty and things like that. At the end of the day, it wasn’t about helping him. It was just about giving him some weed, drugs and alcohol, which is what he said he wanted.”
Busroe says that seeing people walk past a homeless father and child as if they were invisible “almost made me cry.”
But Busroe says he is not surprised that it was a homeless woman who stopped to help. “Out of her little, she gave, which is biblical, like the Widow’s Mite.”
In the King James Version of the Bible, the Widow’s Mite comes from a story about an observation Jesus made as he sat at a temple treasury where the wealthy gave large sums but a poor widow came and put in only two pennies.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything — all she had to live on.”
“We’ve seen this over and over in studies and with the Christmas [donation] kettles,” Busroe says. “If you put one in front of a high-end store where the wealthy shop you won’t get nearly as much as the kettle you put in front of Wal-Mart.”
The psychology of this type of giving pattern, according to Busroe, may be driven by the fact that those living paycheck-to-paycheck are more able to relate to the needs of the homeless.
“So many people are just one paycheck away from being homeless,” he says. “It explains why this happens in society. “
Why then, did people walk past the homeless father and child without giving?
“I think there’s where you see the people who are jaded and somewhat cynical. Questioning why, as a father, you’d do that. Those are the kind of questions that come into people’s minds when they see that.”
Busroe explains that people may also exhibit a bias against a homeless man like the one portrayed by the young and healthy Mr. Persin, on the streets with a child. “I think the issue there has to do with, are you exploiting your children?”
A section of the New York Coalition for the Homeless website titled “What should I do if” advises: “As hard as it is to witness the suffering of others, we encourage all New Yorkers to exercise empathy – to imagine what it’s like to have no home and no support network, to be cold or hungry or sick, to have hundreds of people walk by you each day and pretend you don’t exist.”
“In the case of a homeless person with a child I would ask, ‘Can I take you and your child for a meal,’ or put them in a cab to a shelter,” Busroe offers. “In the case of someone asking for money for alcohol, weed and drugs don’t give them anything. What’s that about? How’s that helping?”