Why good people sometimes do bad things: 52 reflections on ethics at work
33. A personal face:
social bond theory and lost property
Research shows that many employees would not recognize the chief of their organization if
they passed him in the street. What does it say if the boss, or even the organization, has no
face? Experiments by Richard Wiseman give us an indication of the answer.
Wiseman and his team left wallets in the streets of the Scottish city of Edinburgh to see
whether these would be returned by the inders. There was no money inside, but the wallets
did contain other valuables such as discount vouchers, lottery tickets and cards.WhatWiseman
wanted to know is whether wallets which were easy to link to a person were returned more
often. He investigated this by placing a photo in some of the wallets.
The results were surprising: only 15 percent of the wallets without photos were returned.
Wallets containing evidence of a donation to a good cause were returned slightly more
frequently (20 percent), and wallets with a photo of an elderly person somewhat more
frequently, at 28 percent. The wallets with a family photo did considerably better: 48 percent
of these were returned. But the real cracker was yet to come: a wallet with a photo of a young
child produced returns at 88 percent.
What do these results tell us? The bad news is that wallets without photos are almost never
returned. The good news is that a wallet with a photo of a baby is almost always returned. The
explanation offered is that the photo inspires caring feelings, appealing to the inder’s sense
The research therefore shows people are more inclined to help someone with whom they can
identify. The converse is also true: the more anonymous and distant a relationship, the less
the sense of responsibility. As MotherTeresa said, ‘If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look
at the one, I will.’
In larger organizations this can really be a problem. Employees and customers feel more like
a number than an individual. As a result of upscaling, mergers and expansions, departments
33. A personal face: social bond theory and lost property