KNOWLEDGE: ‘Interdependent’ self-construal leads to biased giving to help ‘in-groups’

People who see themselves as more socially connected show more bias in their charitable giving.

Summary of paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research, June 2014.


  • Rod Duclos, assistant professor of marketing, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
  • Alixandra Barasch, doctoral student, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

A) Main findings and conclusions

People who ‘self-construe’ as interdependent – meaning they feel more connected socially with other people – are more likely to show bias in their charitable donations, giving more money to beneficiaries who are similar to them.

But people who see themselves as independent, autonomous individuals show no favouritism or discrimination in their charitable behavior.

The findings are presented in paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research that explores prosocial acts in the context of self-construal.


The idea of self-construal refers to the way people view themselves as connected with (interdependent), or separate from (independent) other people.

People with an independent orientation think of themselves as separate and autonomous agents advancing their own goals.

People with an interdependent orientation stress social roles, obligations and benevolent relationships.

Interdependents, despite construing themselves as being enmeshed in relationships and obligations to other people, are not more prone to donate to charity than independents, this new research finds. They are however more likely to give to people who are similar to themselves – a finding the paper’s authors describe as “ironic” – whereas independents give equally to in-group and out-group.

Biased giving to in-group

Over four related studies, the paper’s authors found that people with interdependent self-construal were more likely to donate for the benefit of in-group rather than out-group recipients. However, there was no bias towards in-group or out-group in the giving behavior of independents.

Two of the results were:

Caucasian American interdependents were more likely to give to a charity supporting tornado victims if white people appeared in the appeal compared to appeal materials that featured black people; whereas Caucasian American independents gave equally to appeals showing black and white victims.

Chinese interdependents were more likely to give to victims of an earthquake in Sichuan rather than Haiti; whereas there was no bias in the giving patterns of Chinese independents.

Moreover, control groups in the studies show that it is not so much favouritism for the in-group that biases the benevolence of interdependents, but discrimination against the out-group.

The authors explain the findings in terms of the happiness that giving to charity brings people – tested and confirmed by one of the studies. Interdependents gain greater happiness from helping people like themselves. However, because independents already see themselves as separate from others, in-group and out-groups have lower relevance for them so giving to an out-group brings as much happiness as helping the in-group.

The authors note the “irony” of interdependents’ generosity being “driven by somewhat selfish or self-serving motives”.

However the authors found that they were able to influence interdependents to behave like independents by having them read a research report that claimed to have found that all acts of kindness were “unconditionally good” and bolstered happiness in the donor irrespective of the recipients’ group membership. (They were also able to change independents into interdependents by feeding them a research report that claimed that helping people who were psychologically close produced the most happiness.)


B) How can this be applied to fundraising practice?

1) Match donors with beneficiaries

The authors say their research provides “actionable insights” into the psychology of donors. They say aid organisations ought to match donors beneficiaries to donors’ profiles to “highlight the fact they are from the same in-group and thereby elicit more donations”, whether the in-group is identified by race, demographic, psychographic or geographic factors of behavioural variables.

2) Avoid reminders of out-group status

They add that reminders of out-groups status should avoided, “particularly when addressing donors with known interdependent dispositions” – research shows that Asian cultures are on average more interdependent than Western culture. In fact, in the current study, American interdependents were more self-focused than Chinese independents.

3) Giving helps to ‘solidify social bonds’

Finally, they say that appeals could be constructed to suggest that giving money helps to solidify societal bonds and benefit donors’ sense of happiness and satisfaction. This might drive donations from interdependents by influencing them to think more like independents, while having no counterproductive effect on independents’ propensity to give.

Perhaps this last suggestion has most potential for fundraising in the UK, where charities might be reluctant to produce different fundraising materials designed to appeal to segments based on race or class. Social media might be an appropriate medium through which to mediate self-construal by emphasising the inclusivity of the ‘joy of giving’. It is already established that telling prospective donors that giving money will put them in a good mood increases giving, especially when the victims are presented as “innocent” [Bekkers and Wiepking 2011, p939].

If you have any suggestions or ideas on how to apply these ideas to fundraising practice, please leave a comment or email us.


Duclos, Rod and Barasch, Alixandra (2014) – Prosocial Behavior in Intergroup Relations: How Donor Self-Construal and Recipient Group Membership Shape Generosity, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 41, No. 1 (June 2014), pp. 93-108

More information:



Bekkers, René and Wiepking, Pamela (2011) – ‘A Literature Review of Empirical Studies of Philanthropy: Eight Mechanisms That Drive Charitable Giving’, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 40(5) pp924-973


This summary is presented for information only and its publication on the Rogare website implies neither endorsement nor criticism by the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy or Plymouth University of this research, which has been previously published in a peer-reviewed journal or released by an academic institution.

For a full understanding of the research and its implications, interested parties are advised to consult the original research.

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