In Search of an Honest Town
The philosopher Diogenes wandered the streets of Athens living on a diet of onions and carrying a torch in full daylight. When people stopped him to ask what he was doing, Diogenes would reply, “I’m searching for an honest man.”
Reportedly, he never found one.
Maybe it was the onions.
We decided to pick four Granite State population centers, each with a different character and geographic zone, and drop five wallets in plain sight somewhere in the main commercial district. The active ingredient in the test was a ten dollar bill, tucked into each wallet.
The wallets were dressed up with incidental items, receipts, cards and photos, and a simple ID card with a phone number and mailing address. There was no driver’s license and no credit cards. In short, the wallets appeared as though they were really not that big a loss to the owner, nor was the temptation to keep the cash all that powerful. It was just enough to require a simple decision, to return the money or keep it.
So, what would you do? Or, just as importantly, what do you think most people would do?
The consensus at the New Hampshire Magazine office, where the experiment was prepared, was pessimistic, if not cynical. “Kiss that money goodbye,” said one co-worker.
Undeterred, we distributed the wallets on a couple of early mornings in early January. As our guinea pigs we selected the following:
Manchester, the state’s urban hub which comprises about half the poverty in the state and a substantial percentage of the crime.
Concord, the sedate center of state government populated by enough doctors and lawyers to bring health and litigation to a small third world country.
Peterborough, the artsy enclave of countless New York and Boston expatriates who mingle comfortably with the rural stragglers from an agrarian past.
Littleton, The North Country oasis of commerce where the rural blues are tempered by a corny 1950s quality of life and a 19th century gentility and optimism.
So, how did they do?
Here are the town results, ranked by honesty after two weeks of waiting:
Peterborough: All five wallets returned, one without money.
Littleton: Four wallets returned, all with money still inside.
Manchester: All five wallets returned, two without money.
Concord: Four wallets returned, one without money.
Six wallets were returned by men and five by women, one by a 10-year-old boy and one by an 11-year-old girl. One came anonymously by mail.
So what can we learn from this? That you have a better-than-3/5th chance of getting a wallet back if you lose it in plain sight somewhere on a main street?
That Peterborough is the best place to live if you are prone to leave valuables lying around?
Actually, you probably can’t learn much of anything from this far-from-scientific study of Granite State honesty. But at least it’s something to show to the cynics among us.
When you come right down to it, three out of five ain’t bad.
Are most people honest?
“Sometimes maybe not. Sometimes they can be stealish.”
— Stephanie Mills, 10, Concord
What’s the most money you’ve ever found?
“Once my husband and I were driving in Conway and there was literally money flying in the air. We stopped the car and collected hundreds of dollars. The police drove up and asked what was happening. We showed them the money and they said, ‘We’ll take care of it.’ That was the last we ever heard about it.”
— Catherine C., Littleton
Not everyone found our honesty test to be enlightening or amusing. Several wallets were turned in to police departments. Since the identity in the wallets was a pseudonym (Chris Bruce), no one had ID with which to claim them.
Lt. Belletete of the Peterborough Police Dept. remarked that such “abandoned property” has to be retained for 180 days before it can be destroyed after receiving a judge’s permission.
Sorry for the inconvenience, officers.