What A Wallet Photo Proves About Humanity (Something GOOD!)

Hi Readers — In response to the story somewhere below, about “Annie’s Mailbox” spreading the belief that a family decal on a car could delight, incite and invite predators, another reader sent in this wonderful study about wallets.

Yes, wallets. Researchers in England “dropped” 240 wallets outside, to see which ones would be returned. Forty of the wallets contained a baby picture, 40 had a family photo, 40 had a picture of an elderly couple and another 40 had a puppy pic. Then there were 40 with a receipt from a recent charity contribution (but no photo). And the final 40 had nothing special in them at all. All of the wallets contained the same business cards and identification, none held any money.

Result? The ones with the baby picture had the highest rate of return! They were sent back almost 9 out of 10 times. The return rate was next highest for the puppy, then the family, then the elderly couple. The charity receipt and wallets with nothing special in them at all had the lowest rate of return.

What the researcher, Dr. Richard Wiseman (perfect name!), concluded from this is that, “The baby kicked off a caring feeling in people.” He added that, in evolutionary  terms, this just makes sense: We are genetically coded to care for our young and seeing pretty much any baby jump starts that feeling. (It’s not like we’re coded only to care for a handful of particular baby faces, which happen to be our own offsprings’. Any young faces make us feel protective.)

Let’s remember this hardwired connection to all kids when we think about the world. More and more, especially with the advent of GPS for backpacks, and laws keeping adults without kids off of playgrounds, and restrictions on the photography of random children, and advertisements that suggest predators are all around, we are being brainwashed into believing the world is awash in perverts and it’s the rare adult who does not harbor creepy feelings for children.

This is the exact opposite of the truth. It is a lie that is making us suspicious, disconnected, miserable, pliant and frightened. We must fight to help each other  — and especially people who don’t visit this site — remember that the vast majority of  humans would rather HELP children, than hurt them. — Lenore

We are hardwired to love and protect young 'uns.

27 Responses

  1. This is exactly the point I’ve been making in my small circle of influence–the world is NOT as crazy as “they” want you to believe it is. Try not to drop your wallet, but by all means–drop the fear. Live, and quit letting fear keep you on the sidelines of life. Remember–people get killed sitting on the sidelines, too (like the recent off-road tragedy illustrates), so you might as well just get out there & rumble.

  2. You are obviously misenterpreting this data. As we all know, most children are kidnapped/abused by people they know. Since 90% of all people are sexual preditors (I read that somewhere, can’t remember where) it’s pretty clear that 9/10 people are returning wallets with sweet baby photos to foster a relationship with families so they can have their pick of victims from YOUR helpless babies.

    I’ve been trying to get this point across for years. DO NOT put photos of your children in your wallet, it is simply too DANGEROUS. If you lose it, the photo might be found by Al Quida and the next thing you know terrorists have taken over the school and it’s all YOUR fault. Personally I don’t allow my children to attend school with kids whose parents keep photos of them. Any photos. And obviously a terrorist plot is only the best case scenario.

    Please I beg you, if you love your children, and you aren’t a terrible person who worships Satan (75% of all people worship Satan) do not keep photos of babies laying around in your wallet.

    And don’t even get me started on pictures of puppies. The stories I could tell you.

  3. The whole idea of risk and comparative risk is missing from our education system. Yes ‘probability’ is in math curriculum, but taking that to real-life scenarios say, to vaccinate or not. Don’t get me started on that one. (Biology teacher specializing in epidemiology among other things, ’nuff said.)

    I just read a great rage on the subject – “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre: http://www.amazon.com/Bad-Science-Ben-Goldacre/dp/000728487X/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1281974433&sr=1-2. He’s an MD and fed up with pharmaceutical marketing, the dietary supplement industry and alternative medicine promises. It’s statistics made sexy, or at least relevant and understandable. Plus a great read!

  4. Meagan, thanks for the laugh! I wasn’t sure it was sarcasm until the Al Quida part!

  5. So, according to the expert, we are programmed to care more about babies and puppies than about the elderly..

  6. Hi Lenore-
    This link is not a response to this post specifically. Comments is the only place I found to send you the link.
    It’s from a sort of blue collar hero…a tell it like it is kinda guy…I’m not a fan per se but family members are and one of them sent me this link. …thought it was right up the Free Range alley 🙂


  7. I wouldn’t read the results in the same way (assuming the experiment is essentially just as explained – I read the news article but not the research paper). If I found an essentially empty wallet I probably wouldn’t post it back to the owner unless it looked expensive. Not because I don’t think they are worth it but because I wouldn’t expect the owner to be that bothered and posting a wallet is a pain (requiring a trip to the post office when they’re open for me). If there was something in the wallet I thought the owner would miss (like a photo) I’d be more likely to post it back. But that’s not me caring for the person in the picture, it’s me making an assumption about how much the wallet owner would care for the photo.

    I see this more as showing that people are basically good, and that they expect others to be bothered by the loss of a baby-/puppy-/family-/parent- photo or an empty wallet to lessening degrees.

    Hannah – I’m curious why it would surprise you that from an evolutionary brain-wiring perspective, scientists might find that human brains naturally “care” more about babies than the elderly? That seems like fairly straightforward cause and effect to me.

  8. My point wasn’t about the baby getting priority. It was that the elderly were so low on the list, below puppies.

  9. I still have a few questions about the experiment.
    Where were the wallets dropped. If some wallets were dropped in a particular revealing location (near a school, charity shop, in the view of a CCTV camera, I think the location has more effect than the contents.

  10. Hm, technically though we could reason like this.

    1. Assume almost everyone in the world is a cannibal baby-eater who wants nothing more than to eat babies. If they can not find a baby to eat, they will eat a puppy.

    2. If #1 is true, then in an experiment in which some wallets are dropped with baby pictures, some with puppy pictures, and some with charity receipts, the baby wallets will be returned most of all (to find out where the babies are), the puppies next, and the charity last.

    3. Perform experiment.

    4. We achieve the predicted results of the hypothesis in #2.

    5. We have proven #1 – almost everyone in the world is a cannibal baby-eater.

    Absurd? Yes, but this is how a lot of “scientific” studies work. A crazy hypothesis is set up to prove something and then that something is proved, even though it’s not the only possible explanation. My conclusion? Buyer beware when reading “scientific” claims in journals.

  11. Oh dang, Meagan already beat me to this same argument previously.

  12. Yes but if any of them had any moneh in them none of them woulda been returned regardless of what the pics were.

  13. Meagan… genius! 😀

  14. “Yes but if any of them had any moneh in them none of them woulda been returned regardless of what the pics were.”

    Not necessarily true. A couple of years ago, I left my wallet in Target. Someone turned it into the service desk, all money and credit cards intact. (I had canceled my credit cards anyway, just in case I never found the wallet.)

    When I was in college, I went home from a house party with someone else’s coat. In addition to a driver’s license, student ID, and a couple of credit cards, there was at least $100 stuffed into the bottom. (The girl had cut out the lining so everything was at the bottom.) Thank God she had ID in there; I was able to find her name in the student directory. I returned everything, including the money.

    Not everyone will steal.

  15. I just want to thank you for the delightful photo of the capybara! sooooo cute!

  16. Hannah – I see your point about the puppy. Though to be fair no scientist in the article made the claim about the puppy, only the baby. It would seem to extend from Wiseman’s claim, but he may see another mechanism at work in that instance, we can’t tell from the article. I don’t think Wiseman’s experiment is sufficient to claim it’s an evolutionary mechanism for the baby. Personally I suspect it’s more about social expectation – it might be interesting to see the experiment repeated in a culture that has a generally higher regard for old people.

  17. I imagine if you repeated the same experiment a week later you would get different results. There are so many factors for which there is no control, the major one being the type of person who stumbles across the wallet.

  18. Saw the universal tendency kick in on the weekend. In me, this time.

    My family and I were coming back from a family vacation and were at the luggage carousel waiting for our bags (which didn’t arrive, but that’s another story). There was woman with a very lively toddler who’d also been on the same flight. He was fascinated with the moving conveyor belt and kept getting too close.

    His mother was distracted by a cell phone call and he started honing in on the conveyor belt again. Found myself automatically on high alert, keeping an eye on him, until mom noticed and grabbed him again.

  19. Thank you, Meagan. You win one (1) internet, which you can claim here. Just give me a link to your account, and I’ll transfer that internet right over to you.

  20. It’s been about 10+ years so I can’t cite sources a/k/a the texbook, but…in my college biology class it was taught that the different body proportions in baby animals (humans, puppies, birds, etc.), such as bigger head to smaller body, identifies that as a baby version of the creature and triggers a caring/protective response in many other animals. Obviously, it doesn’t stop some animals from seeing them as prey – and I’m not referring to pedophiles here.

    So, IMHO, it would seem to make sense that people would be attracted to babies, then puppies, etc.

  21. Meagan – too funny!

    Sue – I’ve been saying the exact same thing regarding comparative risk, as well as including severity of potential consequences in the basic risk calculation. My 5 year old gets it, but most of the adults around me don’t. Then again, I’m a mathematician by training so I have some fairly strong feelings on the subject.

  22. Of course we are programmed to care for the young (ie, the FUTURE) more than the elderly (ie, the PAST). The elderly no longer have a potential to reproduce so therefore have no purpose to fill (that is, perpetuation of the race).

    Of course, we should all be enlightened now and have moved on from mere survialism 😉

  23. Richard Wiseman has a cool blog at http://richardwiseman.wordpress.com/

    He features a lot of illusions, Friday puzzles, and social experiments.

  24. Great study. But how is it the photos of the puppy were sent back at the second highest rate? How is it we’re hardwired to care for animals? Seems to me the family should have been second, no?

  25. This is from Richard Wiseman’s book “59 seconds”:
    He also says that it was really hard to drop the wallets in the first place because people kept handing them back to him 🙂

  26. That reminds me of another study. I can’t remember when it was published (if I could I would probably be able to find it again!), but it ‘dropped’ wallets in all fifty states. They used population to figure out how many to drop in each state, left nothing in the wallets but money and a phone number. I mainly remember the study because every teacher in my school was bragging that every New Hampshire wallet was returned.

    People are better than we give them credit for. We just have to remember that.

  27. Dear free range I would like to ask you for tips in how to teach my daughter to ride the public transportation and be safe…

    I really would like to show my daughter some skills.

    Any comments will be appreciated I would like to show her safety too!!!!

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