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Conservatives are nicer than liberals

Boris pointed me to this book by Arthur Brooks, who looked at statistics on charitable giving from several surveys between 1996 and 2004. Some findings:

On average, religious people are far more generous than secularists with their time and money. This is not just because of giving to churches—religious people are more generous than secularists towards explicitly non-religious charities as well. They are also more generous in informal ways, such as giving money to family members, and behaving honestly.

The nonworking poor—those on public assistance instead of earning low wages—give at lower levels than any other group. Meanwhile, the working poor in America give a larger percentage of their incomes to charity than any other income group, including the middle class and rich.

A religious person is 57% more likely than a secularist to help a homeless person.

Conservative households in America donate 30% more money to charity each year than liberal households.

If liberals gave blood like conservatives do, the blood supply in the U.S. would jump by about 45%.

I have a few quick thoughts:

1. These findings are interesting partly because they don’t fit into any simple story: conservatives are more generous, and upper-income people are more conservative [typo fixed; thanks, Dan], but upper-income people give less than lower-income people. Such a pattern is certainly possible–in statistical terms, corr(X,Y)>0, corr(Y,Z)>0, but corr(X,Z)<0)--but it's interesting. 2. Since conservatives are (on average) richer than liberals, I'd like to see the comparison of conservative and liberal donations made as a proportion of income rather than in total dollars. 3. I wonder how the blood donation thing was calculated. Liberals are only 25% of the population, so it's hard to imagine that increasing their blood donations could increase the total blood supply by 45%. 4. The religious angle is interesting too. I'd like to look at how that interacts with religion and ideology. 5. It would also be interesting to see giving as a function of total assets. Income can fluctuate, and you might expect (or hope) that people with more assets would give more. We're looking forward to getting into these data and making some plots. (Boris suggested the secret weapon.)

P.S. Bruce McCullough points out Jim Lindgren’s comments here on the study, questioning Brooks’s reliance on some of his survey data.

P.P.S. Also see here for more of my thoughts.


  1. Janet says:

    A few semi-connected ideas:

    What does conservative mean? I've been told that economists give to charity less than non-economists — that is, they act in accordance with their models predicting free-riding on others' charity. If so, people who are economically conservative but not religious may give less to charity.

    Sincere religious belief may remove the possibility of free-riding since the diety/dieties would know whether one gave.

    I'm sure there is a political science term for this, but it seems to me that charity is one form of involvement in social/civic organizations. Does participation in other social/civic organizations (labor unions, professional organizations, etc.) vary with religiosity? Religious people are already involved in at least one organization, and so may be more inclined to become involved with others (more requests to join or give, heteronomous (vs. autonomous) perspective.)

  2. Thom says:

    The pattern is intriguing. There may be some subtle confounds – for example liberals (I'd speculate) are more likely to work in public service (e.g., teaching, social work) or be involved in active campaigning for 'social good' (environment, poverty). They might therefore give less because they contribute in other ways to society.

    There are presumably also issues to do with the role of the state and taxation. Liberals may be more likely to pay tax and/or less likely to avoid it.

    I think the confounding of religion and conservatism is problematic … as religious people are supposedly more likely to pay tax and less likely to avoid it.

    You'd probably getter a different pattern in the UK where liberal/conservative is not quite as strongly correlated with secular/religious (or possibly correlated the other way).


  3. Tom C says:

    Boy, don't you guys hate the results of this.

    Explain it away, explain it away. Had the result been the opposite it would have been on the front page of the New York Times once a month.

  4. Andrew says:


    Your comment about "explain it away" is interesting and points to a general phenomenon in social science. As researchers, we are often attempting to understand phenomena in terms of underlying explanations (for example, differences in default or expected behaviors for different groups). But if we "explain" a result in this way, it doesn't eliminate (or "explain away") the original finding.

    Stories such as given by Janet and Thom above are attempts to better understand Brooks's findings–rather than saying they "hate the results," I think it's the opposite: they're showing respect by trying to explore it further. (It's not like they're claiming that Brooks's findings are statistical artifacts.)

  5. Mark Mitchell says:

    You need to get your facts straight on who earns more money. According to the very research you site liberal earn more and give less.

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