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  • Writer's pictureRiya Wadhwani

Are Aid Recipients "Allowed" to be Prosocial?

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

Are you planning to spend some time on a prosocial cause? Wait, do you receive government aid? A revelatory conversation with Prof. Jenny G. Olson about the stigma around aid recipients intending to volunteer.

From left to Right: Andrea Morales, Darren Dahl, Brent McFerran, and Jenny Olson

A recent, best paper award-winning IJRM article (Volume 38, Issue 1, March 2021) by Jenny G. Olson (Assistant Professor of Marketing, Indiana University, USA), Brent McFerran (W.J. VanDusen Professor of Marketing, Simon Fraser University, Canada), Andrea Morales (Lonnie L. Ostrom Chair in Business and Professor of Marketing, Arizona State University, USA), and Darren Dahl (Professor of Marketing, BC Innovation Council Professor, and Dean of UBC Sauder School of Business, Canada) revealed interesting asymmetries in moral judgments toward aid recipients versus income earners for engaging in identical prosocial behaviors, such as volunteering.

Stigma Around Aid-Recipients

A widespread prejudice against government aid recipients is that they are (on average) lazy, immoral, smoking, drinking, wasting government dollars, and unwilling to improve their circumstances. However, assume that aid recipients wish to engage in prosocial behavior. Will this change the way they are perceived by other people? This paper studies moral judgments toward government aid recipients (vs. income earners) who intend to volunteer for prosocial reasons. The authors use these findings to inform policymakers to consider such judgments when developing welfare programs and policies. A guiding principle of this work is the importance of understanding these perceptions, as this is the first step in promoting greater marketplace inclusivity across the income spectrum.

Emergence and Development of the Paper’s Idea

The seed of this whole body of work around moralization of financial and non-financial decision-making was sowed during Jenny’s Ph.D. from the University of Michigan when she shared her interests with Prof. Brent McFerran, who joined there as a faculty member. The initial version of the idea was around moralization of purchasing organic food, which expanded quickly to other resource expenditures like time. Jenny’s childhood experiences growing up in a low-income family, watching her parents make difficult financial decisions at the kitchen table, and witnessing (and experiencing first-hand) others’ income-based judgments inspired her research from an observer-based perspective.

Evidence for Staunch Beliefs Against Aid Recipients

The most crucial aspect of their findings was the strength of perception asymmetries between aid recipients and non-recipients for their identical choices of prosocial time expenditure (e.g., volunteering). Aid recipients are perceived as less moral than non-recipients and income earners for identical actions. This is because people expect aid recipients to spend their time seeking paid employment, and not doing so (i.e., engaging in volunteering instead) elicits anger among observers.

What if...

However, communicating these results “the right way” was a primary concern. Jenny emphasized that these are perceptions, and that the conclusion is not “researchers show that aid recipients should not volunteer.” In response, Jenny and her co-author team dedicated significant effort to finding ways to attenuate the perceptual biases. Their findings indicate that this is the case when volunteering is perceived to enhance paid employment opportunities (study 4A), when prosocial time expenditure is coupled with educational attainment (4B), and when aid recipients are unable to work (vs. actively choosing not to work; 4C). Downstream consequences of such findings on federal tax policy were finally considered and revealed in study 5.

In this manner, the research makes a pivotal contribution to the literature by documenting income-based asymmetries in response to non-financial resource expenditures. Considering the importance of these results from a public policy perspective, the findings provide guidance for policymakers and draw their attention toward moral judgment dynamics. Receiving recognition as the best paper (2021) is a strong indicator of the practical and theoretical importance of these findings. Their celebration over cupcakes (Jenny’s favorite) was postponed till ACR Denver 2022.

Intrigued to dive deep into observer-based judgments? Click here for the full paper


Meet Jenny G. Olson

Assistant Professor of Marketing at Kelly School of Business

Indiana University

A ritual/practice/exercise you can't miss or start your day without?

Sipping a delicious latte from a local coffee shop.

Are you a morning or night person?

Definitely a night person. My three-year-old is in bed and I can spend time with my husband over conversation or the latest shows on Netflix.

If you would not be a marketing researcher, what would you be?

A UX researcher for a company like Instagram. I would also love to have a lifestyle blog where I can share adventures and creative writing (I really love poetry!).

Who is the researcher from any field you would like to sit to lunch with, what would you say to him/her?

Honestly, I’ve missed by coauthors during COVID and would love to host a gathering with everyone. Many of them already know each other, but it would be great to spark new connections over cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.

What is the number one question do you hope to answer during your career (something that drives you)?

Helping people make better and more informed financial choices for themselves, while promoting their well-being.


This article was written by

Riya Wadhwani

Ph.D. candidate at the Indian Institute of Management, Udaipur (Rajasthan, India)



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