Guest Essay by Gary Greenbaum, Teacher, Laguna Creek High School (Elk Grove, CA)
If you lost your wallet, what do think are the odds that you’ll get it back? This is the type of question I pose to my high school English class at the start of our ethics unit.
Every year I have my classes conduct a variety of ethics studies. We record people’s behavior – ethical or not so much. Our research comes from a wide range of tests, such as offering a platter of free cookies with a “Take One, Only” sign; counting people’s items in the “10 items or less” grocery line; checking carpool lanes for abuse; watching whether fast-food diners clean up after themselves; dropping a wallet to see if it’s returned; and “finding” a dollar and asking a bystander if the bill is theirs.
Year after year, when asked to speculate on the results, invariably students predict a very negative result. For 20 years running, students have consistently been shocked by the results. People perform far more ethically than predicted.
I also ask the students, “How many of you would return a wallet if you found one?” The majority say they would return it. Yet, when asked, “If you lost your wallet, would you expect to get it back?” the majority say no.
Sadly, we think less of our fellow human beings than of ourselves. Happily, society is more ethical than we think, at least according to our research.
More than 90 percent of the dropped wallets are returned, for the record, most with all the money intact.