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The reality check is in the post

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I am grateful to the RSA's Jonathan Rowson for alerting me to this research: A team at UCL have published findings from their repeat of a famous Stanley Milgram experiment to test neighbourhood altruism. The researchers dropped 300 stamped addressed envelopes in the street, fifteen each in twenty neighbourhoods, and counted how many were subsequently put in mail boxes so they would reach their intended recipient. The findings are stark. Nearly nine out of ten of the letters dropped in the most affluent 30% of neighbourhoods were posted on but less than four in ten in other areas.

Although the experiment is limited in scope and scale I don’t accept the view that dropped envelopes are too trivial to be meaningful. There is something significant being measured here. So what might be the implications?

One conclusion could be that poor people are simply constitutionally less altruistic then the well-off; indeed could the causality go the other way with generosity predicting success in life? However, not only is there no evidence of the latter, but other studies have found that when it comes to individual behaviour (such as the manners of car drivers) the well-off actually behave worse.

Finding no correlation between letter forwarding and two other variables – population density and ethnic diversity – the UCL researchers suggest that perhaps levels of crime would help to explain the difference. This might seem simply to replace one question (why lower altruism) with another (why higher crime), but as there is a strong statistical correlation between criminality and neighbourhood poverty a low altruism/high crime relationship would mean the former phenomenon could be accounted for using the many (contested) explanations for the latter.

While it could as be, as one of the researchers says, that fear of crime leads people to be more suspicious of finding a letter I wonder whether a factor is also fear of being accused of crime. While a middle class person might confidently assume their actions would be seen to have good motives, poorer citizens’ experience of authority might lead them to worry that if found in possession, even for a few minutes, of a letter between two strangers they would be accused of misdemeanour.

One thing we can surely take from research like this is the greater difficulty of making certain forms of trust based voluntarism work in poorer areas. If levels of self-confidence and revealed altruism are higher in the most affluent areas then these are also likely to be the areas where the ground is most fertile for Big Society type initiatives. The hope that communities will come together and step in when the state withdraws may be well-founded in these areas but it is a much bigger leap of faith to see this happening spontaneously in other neighbourhoods.

So this research joins many other findings in implying that if a re-launched Big Society, or a new initiative in a similar vein, is to be honest and credible it should combine a message of transferring power from the state to the community with one about transferring resources from well-off areas to others that are less blessed.

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