Who are the Helpers in Times of Crisis?

Honest and humble people more willing to donate money

March 05, 2024

People who are particularly honest and humble show a greater willingness to donate money than people who score lower on these personality traits. This is suggested by a study conducted by Max Planck researchers Büşra Yelbuz and Isabel Thielmann. The psychologists examined donation behavior after the devastating earthquake in Syria and Turkey at the beginning of 2023.

On February 6, 2023, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale shook large areas of Turkey and Syria, killing more than 62,000. Over 100,000 were injured and countless people lost their homes.

Büşra Yelbuz and Isabel Thielmann from the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law aimed to understand, as psychologists, people’s willingness to donate money after a major natural disaster: They investigated whether people with certain personality traits are more willing to give money under these circumstances. Previous research has already indicated that donators tend to be more generous if they can identify with the victims and if the affected region is geographically closer to them.

Yelbuz and Thielmann are now focusing their attention on the connection between a person’s personality and their donation behavior. To this end, they analyzed the donation behavior of approx. 500 German citizens who could donate money to two charities – one in Turkey and one in Syria. The study was carried out about three weeks after the catastrophic earthquake, when help was still immediately and urgently needed.

Two results stand out in particular:

  1. People who are honest and humble show a higher willingness to donate money than people who do not exhibit this trait as strongly. To explain: According to the HEXACO model frequently used in psychology, human personality consists of six factors, one of which is honesty-humility. People with a high level of honesty-humility are considered honest, fair, and modest. They also abide by rules and have no interest in wasteful luxury. In the study by Yelbuz and Thielmann, participants with this specific character trait stood out in terms of their willingness to donate more readily.
  2. A quarter of the study participants perceived the earthquake victims in Syria as being in greater need than the victims in Turkey. The study did not investigate the reasons for this difference, but the disparity in perceived need resulted in some participants donating more money to victims from Syria than to victims from Turkey.

 “In the face of terrible natural disasters such as the severe earthquake in Turkey and Syria, people who donate money voluntarily help other people without benefiting themselves. In psychology, this is what we refer to as prosocial behavior,” explains Büşra Yelbuz. “People who are principally honest and humble play an important role in disaster relief, as they are the ones who are more likely to step up and help.” The well-being of others is especially important to them, and they in turn are an important pillar of humanitarian aid.

At the Max Planck Institute, Isabel Thielmann heads the Independent Research Group “Personality, Identity, and Crime" which focuses on inter-individual differences in (un)ethical and prosocial vs. antisocial behavior. Büşra Yelbuz has been a doctoral researcher in the research group since 2022.

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