Monday, May 10, 2010

Keep a Baby Picture in Your Wallet If You Want It Returned.

Back in the 1990's I coached a kids soccer team; St. Theresa's in Memorial Park, Houston, TX.  I was very proud that I took the last place team and moved them up to the finals.  Despite all of that there is one thing that always stood out during that time. When I started to work with the team I lived by the school. During the season we moved across town.  One day I was drawing new lines out for the field in the hot Houston sun. I left and low and behold my wallet had fallen out of my back pocket.  I went back but could not find it anywhere. I had pictures, money and credit cards in it and panicked pretty bad. Keep in mind that during the 90's I had little money at the time and was pretty much private school poor with four kids in private school at the same time. Then something really amazing happened.  My wallet, like magic, appeared in my mailbox at my new home.  It was not in an envelope. Someone had actually taken the time to look up my address (prior to GPS's being the rage), and driven across town to deliver my wallet. Seeing I was not home, they simply dropped it in the mail slot.  No note, nothing.  I expected that there would not be any cash left. But I was wrong, everything was still where it should be, the cash, the credit cards, everything. It was quite a testament to the fact there are still good people out there and left quite an impression with me to go above and beyond to do the right thing. I know how it made me feel.

Now if you lose your wallet I can't guarantee that same will happen to you, but I can tell you how to increase your odds that your wallet will be returned.

I have an incredible friend in England.  His name is Professor Richard Wiseman. If you have not heard of him he is brilliant. Visit his website at:  

You may know him from his brilliant color changing trick seen in this video.

Anyway, Richard always has some very interesting project he is working on to find out how people think or react.  The one that concerns us here is the idea that "can what one finds in a lost wallet we come across actually influence us in some way as to what we do with that wallet?'

Richard had  240 wallets mixed and dropped around Edinburgh over a couple of weeks and then had his team monitor which ones were returned to their proper owners. None of the wallets had any money inside like mine did, but they did contain other valuables like discount tickets, raffle tickets and membership cards. They were secretly dropped on the streets in high foot traffic areas, but well away from "postboxes, litter bins, vomit, and dog faeces."

Prof Wiseman notes in an article in the May 10, 2010  New York Times Online  that this was not as easy a task as one would think:

"We dropped 200 or so wallets, and tried to see if certain types of content would make people more likely to return them. That was funny, in part because it turns out dropping wallets is an absolute nightmare. It’s a social psychology nightmare, because you have to drop them quite a distance from one another. You don’t want someone walking down the street, finding five wallets. So you have to walk about half a mile between each drop, and timing that by 200, it turns into quite a drawn-out study. And then you discover how difficult it is to drop a wallet these days. You drop a wallet, and you walk off, and then there’s someone behind you going “excuse me, you dropped this wallet.” And you’re, kind of, “Back off, it’s science. Put it back exactly where I dropped it.” And the drop zones are very carefully calculated, so that they’re not too close to bins and letterboxes, so you’ve got to walk around the block and drop it again, and if the same person sees you, they think you’re insane. So those things were quite good fun. I dropped one wallet, and sort of stood nearby to see if anyone picked it up. A policeman came along, picked it up, looked at it, walked over to a litter bin and dropped it inside."

Some of the wallets were stuffed with receipts showing the person just donated to a charity and other ones had one of four photographs inserted in them behind a clear plastic window: a smiling baby picture, a picture of a cute puppy, a happy family picture or an very content elderly couple. 

When all was said and done only 42% of the wallets were returned in total. Surprisingly, 88% of those returned were the wallets that had the picture of the baby in them, compared to 53% for the dog, 48% for the family, and only 28% for the elderly couple.

When faced with the photograph of the baby, people were far more likely to send the wallet back. In fact, only one in ten were either unethical enough, hard hearted enough or just did not care enough to do so. When there was no picture in the wallet to tug at the emotions, just one in seven were mailed back.

Now you would suspect that the wallets  that contained the charity donation card would trigger a positive response for return, but this was not so, at 20 per cent and 15, the charity card and control wallets had the lowest return rates.  I can only speculate that the charity card actually triggered a response of, "oh they give to charity so they have money to give away, they won't miss their wallet." Again, this is only speculation from me and I am not a professor. Prof. Wiseman would be the one to ask.

So why does this work, Prof. Wiseman told The Daily Telegraph: “The baby kicked off a caring feeling in people, which is not surprising from an evolutionary perspective. We were amazed by the high percentage of wallets that came back."  The result reflects a compassion instinct towards the vulnerable infants that humans have evolved to ensure the survival of future generations.

So the lesson here is; Place a baby picture in your wallet, it can't hurt.  

I suspect that if you have a picture with you holding the baby and make sure it is in a prominent place in the wallet, it will help increase those odds even further. Again, no guarantee as it is just a guess. More research would have to be done to bear this out. Placing a baby picture in your wallet is no guarantee that you will get the wallet returned as I did at the beginning of this blog, but every little bit helps.

Scientists at the University of Oxford  have also found evidence for a baby instinct in brain scanning experiments. A recent study at the University of Oxford examined how people responded when they were shown photographs of baby or adult faces. The photographs were all matched for attractiveness yet activity in the section of the brain associated with empathy (ventromedial prefrontal cortex)  was much more responsive to the baby faces than to adult faces. According to the study the response happened too rapidly to be consciously controlled in any way.

And one more interesting fact on babies that I will cover due to an upcoming tweet:  Fathers are less likely than mothers to hold their infant in a face-to-face position. Mothers are more likely to follow through the child’s choice of topic in play, whilst fathers are more likely to impose their own topic.

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1 comment:

  1. So all I need to do now is, find a woman, produce a baby and have it's picture taken :D
    Or simply not loose it at all.

    I only misplaced my wallet once and that jolt of desperation is horrible especially in my case that both my passport and drivers license are in there.

    I frantically looked for it one morning before going to work. Couldn't find it... I decided to go to work. There my manager and very good friend said: "Did you check in the fridge? That's where I found my car keys once." I laughed at him and said: "I am not a manager I am an engineer we are smarter than to put our wallets in the fridge."

    When I came home I couldn't resist the urge to look in the fridge and quietly hoping it was in the fridge (I had no money no bank cards so nothing to eat, except for the 50 euros I borrowed from my manager)... My heart sank it wasn't.... However I decided on opening the freezer compartment --which was a mad idea because the last time I went in there was two days prior when I did the shopping on saturday-- but sure enough that's where it was. Frozen stiff but it was there!

    It resulted in me buying lunch for my manager/friend the next day but I didn't mind! Rather have lunch with him then go through the procedures of getting a new passport and drivers license.

    Frankly I haven't got a glue how I put it in there I know it has to do with breaking the "pattern". I usually put my wallet in my jacket. But because it was hot I didn't have a jacket and my wallet is too big to fit in my pants pocket. So I must've chucked it in the grocery back and during unpacking just picked it up like the frozen spinach and sate.

    Funny how our brain works and just skips a beat.


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