Effects of homelessness, gender, and family status onprosocial behavior

The following abstract summarizes a class research projectfor PSY 341 in the Fall semester of 2005. The work will be presentedat the 2006 SWPA convention in Austin, TX.

Authors: Lauren Scharff, PhD.,Jessica Burns, Cynthia Gamble, Shana Hatnot, and VikkiNetterville


Problem: People may become homeless for many reasons, someof which are beyond the individual's control, e.g. acts of nature,loss of job due to economic downturns or due to illness. Others insociety are often called on to help the homeless by volunteering orthrough donations. The likelihood to participate in such prosocialbehaviors might depend on the reason for homelessness, even if allcases were beyond the person's immediate control. Othercharacteristics of the homeless individuals or the volunteersthemselves may also affect prosocial tendencies. For example, basedon the research of Wilson & Musick (1997) and Chrenka, Gutter,and Jasper (2003), we predicted that females would report strongerlikelihood to engage in prosocial behavior. Attributions assigned thehomeless might also be influenced by these factors.

Method: College students (56 male and 56 female;between-participants variable) read four scenarios that describedhomeless conditions in which family status (single or family with onechild; within-participants variable) and why homeless (jobless due tosickness or economy, or hurricane evacuee; between-participantsvariable) were manipulated. For each scenario, the survey includedthree 4-point Likert scale questions each to examine prosocialbehavior (likelihood to volunteer time, money, and food) andattributions (rating the likelihood within three months of theindividual(s) to become financially independent, live independently,and hold a steady job). Participant age and the number of hours spentvolunteering were also recorded.

Results: Following a Cronbach's alpha test to assure thethree questions for each dependent variable (DV) were all targetingthe same construct, a prosocial score and an attribution score werecreated for each participant by averaging the ratings on the threerelated questions. Neither age nor volunteer hours correlated witheither DV, so they were not included in any further analyses. Foreach DV, a 2 (participant gender) x 2 (reason for homelessness) x 2(family status) ANOVA was performed. There were no significantfindings for attribution, although there was a trend for singleindividuals to be viewed as more likely than the family to get backon their feet within three months. For the prosocial behaviormeasure, there were three significant main effects, but nointeractions. Female participants reported significantly higherlikelihood to engage in prosocial behavior than males, and allparticipants reported being more likely to help evacuees rather thanthe jobless, and families rather than single individuals.

Figure 1. Prosocial Scores for Female participants (lefttwo pairs of bars) and Male participants (right two pairs of bars) asa function of whether the person(s) in the scenario were single or apart of a family, and whether they lost their job due to a hurricaneor other reason (e.g. econimic downturn) beyond their control.

Discussion: As hypothesized, the scenarios containingevacuees received higher prosocial responses than did thosedescribing job loss as the reason for homelessness. The notion thatpeople who lose their jobs are ultimately responsible (Furnham, 1996)may account for results in the current study. Further, people mayfeel more comfortable being empathetic with evacuees than with peoplewho a lost job due to economic reasons. Natural disasters are morelocalized in time and location, so they may be less personallythreatening, while economic problems are more prevalent andwidespread. As with earlier studies, the current female participants showed stronger tendencies to engage in prosocial behavior.

The fact that the homeless families were more likely to receiveprosocial behavior than single adult males suggests that the presenceof a child may be an important mediating factor. The influence ofchildren with respect to prosocial behavior is taken advantage of bymany fundraising entities to increase the amount of donations.Alternatively, the families might have been more likely to receiveprosocial behavior because participants believed that they were lesslikely to be financially independent within three months (trendtoward a main attribution effect).

Concurrent events during testing could have influencedparticipants' responses. In the hurricane scenario we askedparticipants to consider hurricane Katrina victims, however, onlydays before we began collecting data, hurricane Rita hit the gulfcoast of Texas, impacting the families and friends of many of theparticipants. This historical event may have increased empathy andlikelihood to report prosocial behavior. Future research shouldinvestigate how different levels of personal experience mediateprosocial behavior for natural disasters.


We would also like to acknowledge the data collectioncontributions of our other classmates: Willie Barnes, MelanieBattise, Jessica Baumgartner, Cheryl Dudik, Clint Maddox, SarahShimek, Lindsey Schmidt and Karley Simmons

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