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Social Welfare as Small-Scale Help: Evolutionary Psychology and the Deservingness Heuristic


  • I thank Lene Aarøe, Leda Cosmides, Pete Hatemi, Rob Kurzban, Andreas Roepstorff, Rune Slothuus, Svend-Erik Skaaning, Rune Stubager, Kim Mannemar Sønderskov, Jesper Sørensen, four anonymous reviewers, and Editor Rick K. Wilson for thorough advice and comments in the preparation of this article.

  • This research was funded by a grant from the Danish Research Foundation to the author (grant #275–07-0068). Replication data are stored at the Danish Data Archive (

Michael Bang Petersen is Associate Professor of Political Science and Government, Aarhus University, Bartholins Allé 7, DK-8000 Aarhus C, Denmark (


Public opinion concerning social welfare is largely driven by perceptions of recipient deservingness. Extant research has argued that this heuristic is learned from a variety of cultural, institutional, and ideological sources. The present article provides evidence supporting a different view: that the deservingness heuristic is rooted in psychological categories that evolved over the course of human evolution to regulate small-scale exchanges of help. To test predictions made on the basis of this view, a method designed to measure social categorization is embedded in nationally representative surveys conducted in different countries. Across the national- and individual-level differences that extant research has used to explain the heuristic, people categorize welfare recipients on the basis of whether they are lazy or unlucky. This mode of categorization furthermore induces people to think about large-scale welfare politics as its presumed ancestral equivalent: small-scale help giving. The general implications for research on heuristics are discussed.