Harvard trained beggar takeaways

Source: Twitter

The “Harvard trained beggar” snapshot has made the social media rounds, and I had so many reactions. My first thought was: brilliant execution of a social experiment. He earned his pocket change that day. Then my second order thinking kicked in with three more layers:

1. That totally worked! Why?

This clever beggar is heightening group and individual identity, forcing people to compare their behaviors to both each other and their own self images. The threat of cognitive dissonance drives passers-by to literally put their money where there mouth is, especially if a competing group is in the lead. In addition to spurring competition with in group / out group dynamics, our beggar is leveraging social proof. It’s like how power companies now might send you fliers about how much more energy you’re wasting vs. neighbors from peek hour usage. If one religious person gives, surely you (another religious person) should, too.

2. Not sure that’s scientifically accurate…

If we’re taking seriously the idea that the contributions really answer the question of which religion cares most about the homeless, then we need to weight donations by religious demographics of the area. Christianity is clearly the front-runner in gross terms in the snapshot, but there seems to be some selection bias in this sample. Christianity being in the lead and atheism as runner up tracks with national data on religious affiliations.

3. There are ways to improve the outcome

Our beggar could be gaming the outcome even more. If he knows the demographics of his corner, he could heighten competition against the out groups by adding money to the rival bowls. Fill a few competing bowls and hangout in front of a church, for example.

I wish him luck in his endeavors. I look forward to reading the sociology paper he publishes following this experiment.

P.S. What does the alternate sign say in the back left? “Help me find a Job”? Guess that one did not work out as well in his A/B testing.

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