Generosity may depend on the humility of the benefactor, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

A pair of researchers from Michigan State University and New York University conducted a series of experiments aimed at untangling the relationship between status — respect, popularity, admiration, etc — and generosity. Across five surveys and one field study that collectively involved over 1,200 participants, the research team noticed a consistent pattern. People who believed they were high-status individuals were less charitable to others, but only when they felt completely deserving of their status. Those who were humble about their powerful place in a group were more generous than expected, possibly as a means of balancing out their perceived unease at having risen to the top unjustly.

"The effects of social status on generosity are contingent on deservingness, meaning that high-ranking people don't always behave selfishly, as a significant amount of research suggests, but do indeed care about whether or not they deserve their position," said the study's lead author Nicholas Hays, assistant professor of management at Michigan State University, in a statement.

Hayes and his colleague conducted their study to address a research gap on the topic of generosity. Previous research has looked at the effects of power on our willingness to pay it forward, finding that people with a wealth of material resources are generally more stingy than others. Elsewhere, research has shown that generosity itself can lead to higher gains in social status, not to mention provide a boost to our mental well-being and happiness.

There has been fewer research that has revealed on finding out what happens to the charitable outlook of those who become top dog afterwards, however. Hayes’ findings suggest that remaining modest about one’s social success may be the only way to stay gracious. "We demonstrate that generosity may not persist once people achieve that high status," Hays said. "It depends on whether they feel that status is deserved."

Source: Hayes N, Blader S. To Give or Not to Give? Interactive Effects of Status and Legitimacy on Generosity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2016.