Past research has shown that people who move around a lot contribute less to their current communities, but now new research shows they give more to charities outside their region.
“The idea has been that moving is not good, that it disrupts society,” says Yajin Wang, of the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business who co-authored the research with fellow Smith marketing professor Amna Kirmani, forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research. “It’s associated with high crime rates in transient neighborhoods. People who move around a lot have been pinned as uninvolved in their communities and more selfish.”
And it’s simply not true. Wang says previous research didn’t expand the scope to look at ways people who move contribute beyond their local communities: “People with moving experiences – immigrants, people who have lived around the world – they are the ones who are more connected with the world and they actually are the ones who donate more to distant beneficiaries.”
Wang’s own experiences sparked the research. She grew up in China, moving first within her country to Beijing, then to the United States where she moved from Minnesota to Maryland. “It seems like a lot of people around me have that path of moving around a lot,” she says, including Kirmani. They also collaborated with Xiaolin Li of the London School of Economics on the research.
The researchers combed through data from charitable giving after a devastating 2008 earthquake in Wuhan, China, finding moving actually increased how much money people gave to distant beneficiaries in Sichuan province.
For people who lived in Sichuan province, whether or not they had moved had no bearing on their charitable giving in the aftermath, but for people living elsewhere in China, their past moving experience significantly increased their donations.
The researchers also tested their hypothesis with controlled experiments in Smith’s Behavioral Lab. They asked study participants to decide to donate to the local chapter of a charity feeding hungry children, or to a chapter outside the state of Maryland, finding those who moved a lot were more likely to give to the outside beneficiary. In another study, they asked participants to imagine moving around a lot versus staying in one community, which produced similar results.
“This means this moving mindset is malleable,” Wang says. “Even when people imagine they move around, they also feel more connected to the rest of the world. That will really help them to see the need for people who are farther away from them and make them more likely to help them and donate more.”
And surprisingly, says Wang, “I don’t think people are consciously aware of how their past experiences influence their behaviors.”
In looking at the China earthquake giving data, the effect held true even for people who moved as children before the age of 12.
“It’s really these experiences, that even in the early years of our development as humans, that expose us to different relationships and new cultures, make us more open-minded and cause us to feel more connected with the world,” says Wang. “That really influences people later as adults and their helping behavior towards different types of people. They see themselves more as a world citizen rather than a local citizen.”
Being a world traveler could help – “you’re more likely to be open-minded and interested in things happening in the world,” says Wang – but the researchers looked at people who stayed in a place for more than three months to form new relationships. “It’s more important that you form meaningful social relationships with different people. That leads later to these cognitive and behavioral differences.”
The researchers say charities should tap into the wealth of data now available on individuals to target their messaging to elicit more donations.
“Identify consumer segments who never moved versus those who moved a lot and frame your messages differently,” Wang says. “If you know that these people are more interested in or more motivated by a message that connects them with the world, rather than locally, maybe that’s how you should target them. But for people who have never moved, it’s hard for them to imagine what it’s like or why people far away need their help, that’s maybe when framing the message locally is more effective.”
The research breaks new ground, introducing residential mobility as a factor to be explored in business and marketing research for how it influences consumer behavior.
“Before this, residential mobility was mostly examined in sociology and psychology,” says Wang. “There was rarely any implication to apply that to businesses or consumers. We are the first to introduce that construct to the marketing area.”
Read the full research, “Not Too Far to Help: Residential Mobility, Global Identity, and Donations to Distant Beneficiaries,” in the Journal of Consumer Research.
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