August 18, 2007


Excuse Me, Is This Your Phone?: We dropped 30 phones in 32 cities. How many would we get back? (Ed Shanahan, Reader's Digest)

Derrick Wolf was standing near a water fountain in New York's Central Park when he noticed a ringing cell phone on the ground. It didn't appear to belong to anyone. Should he answer it? Let it ring? Pick it up and put it in his pocket? What would you do?

After kicking at the ringing phone warily, Wolf did what he thought was the right thing. He bent over, picked it up and spoke to the person on the other end of the line. "I was hoping it wasn't a bomb," he told the caller.

Obviously, it wasn't. The caller was a Reader's Digest researcher, and Wolf, a 26-year-old technology worker, had just become an unwitting participant in an offbeat worldwide social experiment conducted by the magazine: How would busy people in bustling cities react when confronted with seemingly abandoned cell phones? Would their instinct be to help, to ignore -- or to play finders, keepers.

To get the answer, reporters in 32 countries where Reader's Digest is published "lost" 30 phones apiece in those countries' most populous cities. From Auckland, New Zealand, to Zurich, Switzerland, they "dropped" phones in heavily used public areas, then called them while observing from a distance. When someone answered a phone, reporters asked whether he or she would be willing to return it. If the person picked up the phone without answering it, the reporters waited for a call on one of the phone's preprogrammed numbers, or watched as the finder simply pocketed the phone and walked away.

Doesn't sound like a rigorous scientific study, you say? We don't disagree. But it is a reasonable, real-world test of human behavior around the globe.

So what were the results of this exercise? The average rate at which phones were returned per city: 68 percent. In other words, two-thirds of those who picked up a phone had an instinct to help. Age and income had no bearing on the subjects' response. Women were slightly more likely than men to return a phone.

...folks just won't act natural.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 18, 2007 12:00 AM

Ever being the Curmudgeon...

So 32% of the population are scumbags.

That is a HEAVY viral load factor for a society to carry.

Posted by: Bruno at August 18, 2007 10:04 AM

Which is why we put 2 million people in prison.

Posted by: oj at August 18, 2007 12:05 PM

Do you ever stop whining? I hear less whining from three year-olds who have missed their nap.

Posted by: Eeyore at August 18, 2007 12:49 PM

Bruno, I must disagree that those who didn't pick up and answer the phone are scumbags. Given today's climate and I don't mean GW, I doubt I would have picked up the phone either. I probably would have dialed 911 from my own cell and waited there for the police to show up and warning away anybody who got too close.

Picking up an electronic gadget left on a sidewalk I think would be foolhardy.

Posted by: erp at August 18, 2007 1:20 PM


Good thinking on your part. I'd have picked it up without thinking. If I were still in one piece, I'd turn it in.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 18, 2007 7:30 PM