Educational attainment is associated with unconditional helping behaviour

Grace Westlake, David Coall, Cyril Grueter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Web of Science)


Altruism is a universal human trait, but little is known about its within-population variation. Socio-economic status (SES) has been found to positively impact altruism, but the specific socio-economic variables behind this relationship have remained elusive. This study aimed to determine which facets of SES predict altruism using a lost letter paradigm and a novel lost letter method. Six hundred letters (half dropped on the pavement, half sent to residential addresses) were distributed in 20 suburbs of Perth (Australia) differing in socio-economic variables. Letters distributed in high-SES neighbourhoods were more likely to be returned than letters distributed in low-SES neighbourhoods. Educational attainment and occupation status were the specific socio-economic variables underlying this association, while economic resources and crime rate were not associated with the likelihood of a letter being returned. These results suggest that altruism blossoms in neighbourhoods that are populated with highly educated individuals working in high-status jobs. The relationship between education and prosocial inclinations may be mediated by cognitive ability, self-control and high levels of socialization. Having experienced sustained exposure to norm-abiding models, more educated people may also be better at internalizing cultural norms of helping behaviour, thus creating a more altruistic environment where they reside.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere15
Number of pages14
JournalEvolutionary Human Sciences
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2019


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