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Go on, take the money and run

by anna at 08:42 AM on February 03, 2004

Every year Ian has to do a science project. Its a big deal as hes enrolled in this advanced math and science program. If he gets a C in either subject, hes booted from the program. The project counts for a large part of his grade. (Let me add that to attend one of these science fairs is to know that practically every parent in America ignores the rules that say the kid has to conceive and execute the project. This is their chance to avenge all those science fair humiliations of their youths---not to mention disastrous football, debate club or cheerleader tryouts. It's their chance to shine anew.)

To this end my son and I have measured bean plants growth, frozen and heated fruit flies and subjected miniature cars to extreme temperatures to see what colors absorb the most heat. This year we decided to go with behavioral science. I went to the bank and confounded the teller with a highly specific request for a wide array of coinage. She was especially perplexed by my professed need for dollar coins. I figured the coins would be less likely to blow away when we placed them on the sidewalk outside 7-11.

So we placed pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, fifty cent pieces and dollars on a bank envelope inscribed with the words Not Yours. We then counted passersby with camera in hand. Each trial must have a minimum of 100 subjects whod either pass up the found money or pick it up. I took pictures of the latter while Ian recorded the results.

Before I get to the actual findings I'd like to share some decidedly unscientific observations we made over a three hour stretch spent crouched in my wife's car. First of all, the vast majority of folks didn't even notice the money there in plain sight. They were too caught up with talking on cell phones or looking at lottery papers. Secondly, kids were far more likely to notice than adults. And the most joyous recipient was this guy who snagged a penny. Go figure. Lastly, those who did pick up the cash invariably rifled threw the envelope and then threw it on the ground in disgust when they found only paperclips inside.

Here's what we found: Of 17 people who noticed the money, 1 picked up the penny. Two picked up the nickel but nobody went for the dime. Four snagged the quarters but just two the fifty cent piece. Nobody went for the dollar coin. Yet, when we switched it to a dollar bill, traffic picked up. Six out of seventeen people grabbed it, all with shit-eating grins on their faces.

So we did show a correlation between denomination and the likelihood that someone would bend down and pick it up---albeit a tenuous one. One could easily postulate that the dime was too small to register in anyone's mind and that they were too unfamiliar with the 50 cent piece or dollar coin. Quick, whose likeness is on either one?

It's no leap to conclude that for all our faults and folly, people are basically honest. They saw the sign and took it at face value: this doesn't belong to me. Like Sally in A Charlie Brown Christmas, they just want their fair share. They just want what's coming to them. Now for those who believe in the inherent goodness of mankind, this is most encouraging. For a cynic like me, it's downright dumbfounding.

We couldn't afford to extend the experiment into higher denomination like $5, $10 or $20. But it would have been interesting to determine at which point greed overcomes that innate honesty. What do you think?

comments (28)

Yesterday I royally pissed myself off when, at Domino's, I pointed out that they had given me two ranch dressings IN the pizza box as well as 2 at the counter... and I GAVE 2 BACK. What a fucking sucker. Like the giant chain of Domino's will fall (cheesy pun discovered but not intended... oh no! pun about cheese not intended!) if I kept the extra ranch. (I dip my pizza in it if you are wondering.)

Anyway Anna, I think most people's honesty does have a breaking point. The only thing stopping me from picking up that money would be that if it was on a sign like that I would assume I was being watched.

by Linz at February 3, 2004 9:28 AM

Normally, if someone returns too much change at a store, I'll correct their error. Unless, of course, they made the error because they weren't paying attention. A couple months ago I went into a store to buy something that was 4-5 dollars. I handed the cashier a twenty, which he placed on the counter. He handed back change for the twenty, then he saw the twenty on the counter and handed that back too. Now, normally I would have said something, but normally someone wouldn't have made such a stupid mistake. But this guy had been on the phone, his cell phone, on an obviously personal call the entire time. Not only is this rude, but it is unprofessional. And for that, he deserved to learn a lession. Was that greedy of me?

by mg at February 3, 2004 9:56 AM

I found a wallet once, when I was a kid on my paper route. It had about $150 in cash in it as well as credit cards and I.D.s. I almost kept the cash, but decided to do the right thing and have my parents contact the owner. She came and got it, said thanks and gave me 10 bucks.

I was so disappointed. 10 bucks? Thats it? She didnt even talk to me or ask where I found it. Doing the right thing didnt make me feel good. In fact, afterwards Id wished Id kept the money and threw the wallet back where I found it.

Now, if I ever find a wallet, any cash inside is a finders fee and Ill use it to mail the rest of the wallet to the owner.

by MrBlank at February 3, 2004 10:37 AM

Agreed Mr. Blank. Anyone stupid enough to lose their wallet deserves to lose that money, and they should be grateful that they didn't lose their credit cards.

Not that I've never lost my wallet.

by Linz at February 3, 2004 10:51 AM

I bet that if you put more amounts of $ out, there would have been a lot more people taking it.

My recent bout of honesty-around Halloween time I was at the grocery store in the check yourself out lane. The previous customer (no where to be seen) left one of their bags of groceries with an enormous amount of Halloween candy in it. The good stuff too-full size butterfingers, twix, kit kats, etc-at least $20 worth. Instead of carrying it out with my groceries I gave it to the cashier. It was so tempting though!

by Shannon at February 3, 2004 12:09 PM

Once, when I was in Wisconsin, I went to an ATM machine to pull out some money for lunch. When I stepped up to it I noticed that there was money already dispensed. I took it out and counted $120. I looked around and no-one was looking so I took it. I was poor then though and figured if someone could afford to pull out $120, I was going to get $20, then they could afford to lose it. I was nervous though. It was just a bit too good to be true and I thought it might be a publicity stunt or something. It wasn't though and I got away. I did buy lunch for my friend who was with me. Yin and Yang ya know.

by Ezy at February 3, 2004 1:07 PM

Speaking of lost wallets, that was exactly the idea that sparked me to start this site. I saw this sign on... wait, maybe I should save this story for a full post some time?

by mg at February 3, 2004 1:11 PM

There seems to be a correlation with the money involved being directly linkable to a person. Maybe a good experiment would be a wallet with picture ID being left out, adn how many people take the money from that wallet versus one without picture id.... Or picture id of a old lady versus a 40ish guy...

As EZy noted, how honest people are also correlates to how likely they are to being caught.

I've prosecuted quite a few embezzler types who looked honest from the outside, but had their hand in the cookie jor, thinking they would never get caught...

by chuckwoolery at February 3, 2004 1:25 PM

I was shocked to learn that my mom, of all people, doesn't give incorrect change back. Myself I don't even count it.

MG, I'd like to see that post. I've always wondered about the origins of the site's name.

Shannon, once somebody took my groceries from the cart. But they left theirs. I waited around to see if anybody loaded them into a car. They didn't so I snagged them. The stuff wasn't bad. In fact, I think I came out ahead on that deal for once.

And I've got a good feeling about this project. We're going to regionals. And we're going to state. And we're going to nationals. Aaaay!!

by anna at February 3, 2004 6:01 PM

i like the idea of incedental grocery trading. it might shake you out of your food doldrums. but then again, it might just leave you shaking with a nest of food allergies.

one time an ex girlfriend was in ikea. she found a really nice comforter that she really needed for her cold apartment. it was the last one left. when a man came by to ask her where she found it, she told him. i guess he checked and found there to be none left. so he snaked his way back through the whole store and switched hers with a crappier one when she wasn't looking. they looked really similar on the outside. however, only one was soft, sweet down.

now if you've ever been to an ikea you can understand the immensity of such a task as winding your way through the whole store again, only to pull this kind of switcharoo. bah indeed.

by lajo at February 4, 2004 1:28 PM

Are you sure you guys didn't just pick up the bad one by mistake? I was in Ikea once to pick up a mattress pad, and ended up by mistake picking up a comforter. It's the Swedish, it's not in enligsh. Did I want the Fj or mtk? Otherwise, that guy was some real evil genius.

by mg at February 4, 2004 2:09 PM

How did you get all those weird accents and stuff to appear in the text? For that matter, how do you type the symbol for a cent? One time I accidentally produced that symbol but for the life of me I can't figure out how.

by anna at February 4, 2004 6:47 PM

Speaking of science fairs, let me just say that I won my 4th grade science fair for the entire school district. Not only that, I was in accelerated math and science classes ever since second grade and never once did I run the risk of getting a C. Or a B for that matter. Yes, I am THAT good.

Regarding the your/Ian's experiment... you totally missed the boat on the idea. Everyone knows that the correct experiment would have been to see who picks up the penny: Jews vs. non-Jews. See? I am smart like that.

by Eviltom at February 4, 2004 7:42 PM

oh tom...

everyone knows it'd be some chinese dude who picked it up.

by lajo at February 4, 2004 7:45 PM

I have a bookmarklet that lets me look up those weird ASCII characters. As for how to type a , I just don't know.

Having been in the same district as ET growing up, I must say it shouldn't have been very difficult to win the science fair, though I don't actually remember there being science fairs.

by mg at February 4, 2004 11:55 PM

Hm. Doing good makes me feel GOOD. I wonder if I'm sick...

by MoodRing at February 5, 2004 1:06 AM

Dammit MG, you do too. I see it typed there. And you and Tom probably grew up in some tiny po-dunk region where anybody could win the fair just by entering. Tom, good to hear from you. I thought you'd gone missing like that 6th grade girl down in FLA. "Moodring" sounds vaguely lewd when you put the words together like that.

by anna at February 5, 2004 7:57 AM

To get thoes characters in Windows: There is a prgram in Windows called "character map". Look through it until you find the character you want and then copy and paste it.

If you don't get it, look up "character map" on Google. Google will explain.

by MrBlank at February 5, 2004 5:06 PM

"Some tiny po-dunk region"? Try New York City, buddy. It's pretty tiny and po-dunk. There were consistently 700 - 800 students in each grade in our school. The New York City school system comprises 2 million students -- that's much larger than the entire population of most cities in the U.S.

I know that on this website, I come off as pretty smart -- but let me assure you, in reality I'm actually God damn brilliant.

by Eviltom at February 5, 2004 7:20 PM

New York City? Get a rope.

by anna at February 6, 2004 7:47 AM

I am one IQ point short of genius status. But at least I'm not a dork.


by Linz at February 6, 2004 10:49 AM

You are too!

by Eviltom at February 6, 2004 2:19 PM

Ah, crap. It's true! I read sci fi AND fantasy! I like books with titles like "Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove!" I like puns! I find parasitic diseases fascinating! My favorite author is Tom Robbins!


by Linz at February 6, 2004 3:49 PM

True story: When I was a kid they tested my IQ and it came out at like 165 or something. Anyone who's read my crap knows that was bogus. But I would like to take it again, after assaulting my brain neurons relentlessly for 30+ years since. I'm thinking 100, tops.

by anna at February 6, 2004 6:20 PM

No way Anna, you are above that for sure. High IQ sure doesn't mean what most people think it does, but I think it does exist. In California there's a program called Gifted and Talented Education (GATE), and you have to test over 120, I think, to get in. I got in in the second grade and so grew up knowing a lot of other "gifted" kids. There's a definite difference. However, NONE of us are CEO's or anything today. It doesn't seem to work out like that.

I went to a GATE committee meeting last year, and it was weird as it was just parents and administrators, but the moment I admitted that I was standing in for my mom as a former student, everyone looked at me like I was a test subject. Total curiosity.

by jean at February 8, 2004 11:41 PM

They had a group like that in my HS. They took totally different classes and were straight out of Revenge of the Nerds. The school asked me if I wanted to participate.

by anna at February 9, 2004 7:50 AM

The school I went to had a program for "gifted" students as well ("challenge" if I remember correctly)

Mostly it meant that I had access to a computer and lots of time on it (Apple IIe) which meant I had an opportunity to learn to program in the 4th grade. Knowing Apple Basic programing is immensely useful in my current profession, don't you know.

Mostly Challenge just kept me from getting too bored. The other classes I had I usually ignored the teacher and did my next day/ next week homework during class. As long as you looked busy they usually left you alone...

It was totally revenge of the nerds... lots of brains and a complete lack of social skills...

by chuckwoolery at February 9, 2004 11:35 AM

i am doing a science project on lost wallets and what age and gender will pick them up and which of them will return them so basically what age and gender is more trusting.if you have any tips, contact me

by at November 29, 2004 7:08 PM

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