Petr Kratochvil via DepositPhotos
Source: Petr Kratochvil via DepositPhotos

People naturally form groups to work together to solve problems.  Indeed, the success of our species is due to our ability to cooperate and not to our fearsome physical prowess. 

A key element of the success of groups is that group members do things for each other.  This generosity allows people who may be less skilled or disadvantaged in others ways to succeed in a group setting, though they might not succeed alone. 

Research has been directed at factors that lead people to be generous to other group members.  For example, the more strongly someone identifies with a group, the more likely they are to be generous to group members.  Interestingly, when group members get more powerful, they often become less generous to other group members. 

An interesting question is whether status has the same influence on generosity as power.  Once groups form, they typically form status hierarchies.  Some people end up being held in high esteem by other group members, while other people are not seen as positively.  Research suggests that being generous often increases a person’s status within a group.  But, does high status make people generous?

This question was explored in a paper in the January, 2017 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Nicholas Hays and Steven Blader. 

To explore the influence of status on generosity, the authors distinguished between legitimate and illegitimate status hierarchies.  That is, I some cases people perceive that status is given out to group members because of characteristics that make them deserving of status.  In other cases, status appears to be given out based on factors that do not seem to make people deserving of their status.  The authors suggested that the influence of status on generosity may depend on whether the hierarchy is seen as legitimate.

To test this proposal, the researchers first tracked a group of MBA students who worked together in teams over the course of a semester.  Participants ranked themselves and other team members based on their status within their teams.  To measure whether the status in a group was legitimate, they also had people rate the knowledge and competence of their team members.  A status hierarchy was seen as legitimate when status and ratings of knowledge and competence were the same and illegitimate when they were not.  Finally, each participant rated how frequently they were helpful to other members of the group.  That served as a measure of generosity. 

When the status hierarchy was not legitimate (that is, status was not correlated with knowledge and competence), status did not have a significant role on generosity.  However, when the hierarchy was seen as legitimate, the high status people gave less of their time than the low status people. 

Laboratory studies observed the same finding.  In this case, status was given out by roles in a simulated brainstorming task.  One participant was named to be the idea generator (and was told this was a high status role) and the other participant was named to be the worker (and was told this was a low status role).  Before getting the role assigned, participants took a test they were told measured business ability.  In the legitimate status condition, roles were assigned based on scores on the business test.  In the illegitimate status condition, roles were assigned based on gender and the high-status role went to a person with a low business ability score.  Finally, at the end of the study, participants did a version of the dictator game in which they were given 1,000 points and were told to allocate the points to themselves and to their partner in any way they saw fit.  The more points they gave to their partner, the more generous they were being.

In this study, when the hierarchy was legitimate, low status people gave more points to their partner than high status people.  When the hierarchy was seen as illegitimate, high status people gave more points to their partner than low status people. 

Why does this happen?

The authors suggest that when the hierarchy is not legitimate, high status people are self-conscious about the inequity in the system, and so they are generous in order to create a sense that their status in the hierarchy is deserved.  When the hierarchy is legitimate, high status people do not feel like they need to take actions to justify their position in the status hierarchy, and so they are less generous.

The authors supported this idea with an elaborate experimental procedure that I will not describe in detail.  Essentially, though, they manipulated status and legitimacy in a manner similar to what I just described.  However, when the hierarchy was not legitimate, they gave participants an opportunity to contribute to the group effort in a way that would reinforce their assigned status.  In this way, even participants in an illegitimate hierarchy could feel like their status was justified.  When people could justify their position in the hierarchy, then high status people were less generous than low status people, even when the basis of the hierarchy was not legitimate.

There is a lot of material here, so let me summarize.

Status affects generosity, but its influence depends on the legitimacy of the hierarchy.  When people feel that their status is not deserved, then high status people are more generous than low status people.  When people feel that their status is deserved, then high status people are actually less generous than low status people.

This work suggests that if we want high status people to continue to be generous to the members of their group (particularly when people believe their status is justified), we need to remind them of the other benefits for helping group members rather than relying on them to be generous just because of their high status.


Hays, N.A., & Blader S.L. (2017). To give or not to give? Interactive effects of status and legitimacy on generosity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(1), 17-38.

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