In a new take on a wallet drop study Paul Dolan, Kate Laffan and Laura Kudrna investigate whether being associated with a political party has an impact on the likelihood of getting a lost wallet back. Compared to a control group, they find no differences for the political parties – and, in fact, a higher likelihood of return for Green party affiliation. That there is no difference between control and most of the parties is surprising and suggests people are not put off returning a wallet for a party they do not support. The higher return rates for “Green wallets” is perhaps less surprising since the study was conducted in Brighton, the constituency with the only sitting Green MP.
In Brighton on the first May bank holiday Sunday we dropped 300 wallets, all of which appeared to belong to a very forgetful, gender-neutral person named Charlie Smith. The response was remarkable: 56 per cent of those who found wallets overcame the temptation to keep the five pounds it contained and instead went out of their way to return it.
We received calls from people looking to return over half our sample of wallets, all of which contained some fake papers, a baby photo, a £5 note and contact number. Though this percentage is lower than the 69 per cent of people who said that they would hand a wallet with money in it to the police when they were presented with a hypothetical scenario in the 2015 Britain uncovered survey, a representative poll on British social attitudes carried out for The Observer, it is a great deal higher than previous UK based results from a study carried out by CPP, a life assistance company, that found that one in five actually wallets came back when dropped in major UK cities.
Our real research interests, however, related to the variation between the wallets, which were all identical except for the outside cover. Here in the treatment groups we placed stickers representing the five main national political parties; the Conservative party, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Green party and UKIP. In the control group we left the outside cover plain. All the wallets were dropped within the constituency of Brighton Pavilion, a constituency which elected the only Green MP in the UK in the 2010 elections and was categorised as a Green-Labour marginal seat for the 2015 general election.
We went to Brighton with the idea of discovering whether being associated with a political party (as signalled by having a party sticker on the front of your wallet) made a difference to the likelihood that it would be returned to you. Our initial hypothesis was that the wallets with stickers of parties which traditionally receive very low (high) levels of support in the area would be less (more) likely to be returned. In the vast majority of cases we were proved wrong; we found that most political party affiliations had no impact on the likelihood of someone calling to return the wallet when compared to the control group. Even returns of UKIP wallets, which received only 1.8 per cent of the votes in the constituency in 2010 (and 5 per cent in the 2015 general election), was statistically insignificant. It would appear that, at least in this case, people win out over political difference; there wasn’t any out-group punishment of Charlie when he/she is represented as someone who has political ideals that are different than those of the majority of voters in the area.
Interestingly, the only significant difference we found was a positive one: Charlie was more likely to receive calls from people looking to return his/her wallet when the wallet had a green party sticker on the outside than when there was no such sticker present. Given that the wallets were dropped in Brighton perhaps this is not so surprising. Overall, the results imply that if a person is represented as being politically distant, even extremely so, from the general population of the area, people are still no less likely to carry out a good deed towards them – respect for democracy wins out. If, however, the good deed relates to a person who represents the political norm, there is evidence to support the idea of a positive effect of in-group affiliation.
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Paul Dolan is Professor of Behavioural Science at the LSE. He is author of the book, Happiness By Design.