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A status-based motivation for behavioural altruism

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Purpose ‐ The purpose of this paper is to explore the question of how far costly transfers of economic benefits to others, often understood in economics as instances of (behavioural) altruism, can be motivated by individual group status concerns, i.e. without the common reference to other-regarding preferences. Design/methodology/approach ‐ Results from both economics and social psychology are reviewed and spliced together so as to obtain a more comprehensive picture of group status-based aspects of behavioural altruism. A more formal argument is provided in order to highlight specific effects. Applications (e.g. migration and workforce motivation) are discussed to support the argument and to illustrate its practical relevance. Findings ‐ The reviewed literature indeed supports the argument that individuals care about the status of the groups they belong to and are willing to trade this against economic benefits. Accordingly, certain altruistic acts can be motivated by the individual's (selfish) concern for group status. However, the effect apparently depends on the degree of the individual's identification with the respective group which opens ways to influence its strength. Practical implications ‐ The argument may help policy makers, chief executive officers, and people in similar positions who have to design decision environments, i.e. institutions, in a way that motivates the eventual decision makers to transfer economic benefits (e.g. donations, taxes, effort, …) to the respective institution. Originality/value ‐ The paper adds to the discussion about the driving forces behind altruistic behaviour. In particular, it points out the potential importance of group status concerns in connection with aspects of social identity for individual decisions to transfer economic benefits to others. The relevance of the effect in view of the design of institutions is discussed.
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Keywords: Altruism; Group behaviour; Incentives (psychology); Individual behaviour; Motivation (psychology); Social status

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 03 July 2009

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