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Social and behavioural

We’re less likely to help each other out when near a luxury store

One study finds 77.5 per cent of people were helpful on an ordinary street compared with 35 per cent of those who had just exited a luxury shop.

22 April 2016

By Christian Jarrett

Tripping up in the street or dropping your things in a puddle. These are never happy events, but the outcome could be worse in some places than others. According to a new study in Social Influence, strangers are less likely to come to your assistance if they’ve just exited a luxury store, or even if you just happen to be in an exclusive part of town with lots of pricey shops.

Past research has already shown that reminders of money and materialism encourage us to be more selfish and less helpful, presumably because of the connotations of competition and self-sufficiency. But nearly all this evidence comes from lab studies and the findings haven’t always held up to repeated testing.

The new research is a series of field studies. Students working for the researchers pretended that they needed help in a range of shopping locations across Paris including the avenue des Champs-Elysées, avenue Montaigne, the place Vendome, as well as nearby residential streets such as the rue de Marignan.

For example, in one study, the students walked with a crutch and leg brace, waited for an unsuspecting passer-by and then dropped their things. The test was whether the passerby would help. In another, the students worked in pairs, with one in a wheel-chair. In this case they asked unsuspecting passersby to keep the student in the wheelchair company while the other student went to look for a lost phone.

The consistent finding across the studies was that people were far less likely to help if they’d just been shopping in a luxury store or even if they just happened to be walking along a street with an abundance of luxury stores. For example, in the first study, 77.5 per cent of passersby were helpful on an ordinary street compared with 35 per cent of those who had just exited a luxury store. The second study showed the mere presence of nearby luxury shops reduced helping behaviour to 23.2 per cent (in this case, the passersby were just near the luxury shops, they hadn’t necessarily been in them). And a final study confirmed that ordinary shops did not have this bad-Samaritan effect, only luxury ones did.

“Materialistic reminders may have increased self-enhancement and competitive values,” the researchers said, “which in turn would decrease trusting and benevolent behaviour, and a sense of being concerned about and connected to other people.”

Further reading

“Wrong place to get help”: A field experiment on luxury stores and helping behavior