Hundreds of wallets were planted on the streets of Edinburgh by psychologists last year. Perhaps surprisingly, nearly half of the 240 wallets were posted back. But there was a twist.
Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, and his team inserted one of four photographs behind a clear plastic window inside, showing either a smiling baby, a cute puppy, a happy family or a contented elderly couple. Some wallets had no image and some had charity papers inside.
The results surprised me. First, 42% of the wallets were returned — surprising enough to someone from the New York City area. But then an amazing 88% of the wallets containing the baby picture came back, and only 15% of the ones with no picture at all did. That’s a hell of a difference! (It’s also important to note that none of them contained money or credit cards.)
The researchers’ hypothesis for the reason for the difference is evolutionary — an innate predisposition to protect children. They don’t explain the difference in return rates for the wallets with the other sorts of photos, though. In any case, they offer some advice:
Whatever the scientific explanation, the practical message is clear, said Dr Wiseman. “If you want to increase the chances of your wallet being returned if lost, obtain a photograph of the cutest baby you can find, and ensure that it is prominently displayed,” he said.
That’s amusing enough, I guess. But the whole study just cries out for a bunch of follow-up questions. Of course, there’s the obvious one of varying the ethnic identity of the people in the photos. Make the baby white, black, south-Asian, east-Asian, and so on, and see what changes. Make the family photo show different races, different types of dress. Include interracial and same-sex couples. Within that last, does a pair of men inspire a different rate of return from a pair of women?
Would the presence of money change things? Would the money outweigh all the photos equally? Would there be a difference between Edinburgh and, say, New York City? (I should think so, but....) Assuming that there is, would the relative return rates still be the same, nonetheless? Maybe not; maybe New Yorkers prefer puppies or grandparents to babies.
I’d then want to try it with different sorts of work IDs. Strew some wallets about that indicate that the owner is a teacher, a lawyer, a plumber, a car salesman, a firefighter, a waiter, or a banker. What do you think? I wonder where a computer geek falls.
Or try different medical specialties. One might think an obstetrician’s wallet would be more likely to be returned than that of a proctologist. How would cardiology compare with oncology? Would a neurosurgeon do better or worse than a dermatologist in the wallet-borne sympathy vote?
I think this is a fascinating way to study our unconscious preferences and prejudices, and I hope this is just the start of a batch of these studies worldwide.
Well, yesterday we wanted to find out just how honest the people in our audience were. Are they as honest as they like to say? We chose a lady from the audience and gave her ten $10 bills, each one in a separate envelope, each one marked with her name and address. We asked her to drop them around the studio to see how many would be returned. Well, we found out how honest people are: the lady cut out with the hundred dollars.
— George Carlin, “Daytime Television”
from “Take-Offs and Put-Ons” (1967)