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New research suggests homeless people’s humorous solicitations are resoundingly ineffective.

By Tom Jacobs

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(Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

You see them every day, in every American city: homeless people holding signs asking for money. Most of these messages are straightforward and to the point (“Lost job. Please help”), but a good number use humor (“Why lie? Need beer”).

The next time you stroll by someone in the latter category, you might want to give them some genuinely valuable advice: Nix the allegedly clever material. Newresearch suggests they’ll get many more donations if they do.

A research team led by Franklin Boster of Michigan State University reports signs imploring strangers for cash “make potential donors feel uncomfortable,” and ones that use humor appear to be particularly off-putting. Their study is published in the journal American Behavioral Scientist.

Boster and his colleagues describe three studies, the first of which featured 1,341 Michigan residents recruited online. Each looked at six signs created by homeless people: three that attempted to be humorous (“Family kidnapped by ninjas, need $4 for karate lessons”), and three that did not (“Please help me: I’m hungry, unemployed and homeless”).

They were then instructed to imagine they had $60 they could donate to some or all of the people who created the signs. Who, if anyone, would get the money?

The homeless may be in a Catch-22 situation when they solicit funds on the street.

“The non-humorous signs garnered, on average, substantially more in contributions than did the humorous signs,” the researchers report. “Substantially” is putting it mildly: Creators of the straightforward signs received an average of $49.32, while people associated with the humorous ones got just $4.82.

In the second study, participants (513 Michigan State students) saw photographs of a male actor posing as a homeless person. In three of the images, he held an allegedly humorous sign; in a fourth, he did not.

“When the stimulus person held humorous signs, he was perceived less favorably,” the researchers report, “and people indicated feeling less comfortable in the presence of the homeless.”

The third experiment was identical to the second, except the purportedly homeless man was seen holding serious signs (for example: “Homeless, alone, cold, hungry”). “Perception and comfort ratings were slightly more positive,” the researchers write, although the comfort level was again higher when the man didn’t hold any sign at all.

Overall, the results suggest the homeless — on top of their other troubles — may be in a Catch-22 situation when they solicit funds on the street.

Logically speaking, “Some device is needed to gain the attention of potential targets,” Boster and his colleagues note. But their research suggests signs “fail to promote increased feelings of warmth” that could spur donations, and “funny” signs seem to fail spectacularly.

The scrawled promise “Will cuss out your mother-in-law for a dollar” might bring a grin to your face, but it’s unlikely to inspire you to dip into your wallet.

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