Monday, July 01, 2019

Do you believe others will do the right thing?

Several years ago, I wrote about how people respond when finding a lost wallet can say a lot about their character.

Some readers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, California, and locations in between shared stories about how they went out of their way to return found wallets to their owners. Another reader from New England told about the time he and a group of friends scolded one of their crowd after he boasted of finding a wallet on the beach, removing the cash, and tossing the wallet and the rest of its contents -- including identification of the wallet's owner -- into the trash.

I've also written about finding lost wallets or change purses and working to get them back to their owners, even when it takes a bit of an effort to track down the owners.

Trying to get lost stuff to their rightful owners, I've written, is indeed the right thing to do.

But apparently, not many of us believe that people will make the effort to return found goods. The results of a study conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan, University of Zurich, and University of Utah, and published in June in the journal "Science" suggests that most of us don't have faith in people to do the right thing.

The researchers conducted a study in which 17,303 wallets were returned to banks, theaters, museums, post offices, hotels, police stations and other sites in 355 cities in 40 countries. The wallets randomly held no money or the equivalent of $13.45, as well as an identical business card, a key, and a grocery list. The research assistants returning the wallets used the same script in returning each of the wallets. The researchers found that 40% of the wallets with no money were returned, while 51% of those containing money were returned.

Concerned that the return of wallets with money might be because it was not a substantial amount of money, the researchers conducted a subsequent test where wallets with no money, wallets with $13.45, and wallets with $94.15 were randomly turned in. As it turns out, the more money in the wallet, the more likely they are to be returned. Forty-six percent of the wallets with no money were returned, compared to 61% with $13.45, and 72% with $94.15.

The researchers then asked 299 people to predict the rates of return. Seventy-three percent thought the wallets containing no money were most likely to be returned, 65% thought those containing $13.45 would be returned, and 55% thought those containing $94.15 would be returned. In other words, the assumption was made that people would be far less likely to do the right thing if more money was involved. When the researchers asked 279 top economists to predict, they too assumed the more money that was involved, the less likely people were to return the wallets.

Granted, there are still a substantial number of people who didn't return the wallets. But when money was involved, most did the right thing.

We may justify that it's OK to cut ethical corners because we believe everyone else is doing it, but as this one research study suggests that simply doesn't seem to hold true. A bit of reassurance that most of us are not alone in trying to do the right thing. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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