So, what would you do? You have just bought your family’s first house — excitement abound. It’s mid-week and you pick up the keys to head on over and relish your investment. After walking through the house and feeling like a King (or Queen), you walk past the garage and notice a piece of cloth hanging from the attic door. Curious, you head on up to the attic to find… bags of money! Do you keep it? Do you tell anyone? What would you do?
Well, for a couple from Utah, the answer to this question is give it back. As with the human experience, this story is not as cut and dry as I’m making it out to be. The previous owner of the house had died recently, after having lived there since 1966! That’s a long time to live in one house, especially in this day and age. One of the children of the the previous owner talked about how she knew her father had been hiding money away because she once found a bundle of cash taped beneath a drawer. Saving money was typical for people of this time. In fact, it’s logical if you think about it. People who grew up in the Great Depression, would have been socialized into believing that there “wasn’t enough,” and that survival was predicated on one saving.
Anyway, this story about the couple giving back the money, I think, is a true testament to the ‘good‘ in people. I think that most of us would expect the couple who found the money to keep the money, and that’s probably a logical inference. Most importantly, I think that what we’ve seen with this couple is context-dependent. Maybe if they didn’t know that it was an old man who had lived in the house previously, maybe then they would have kept the money. Of course, I doubt this is the case for this particular couple (from what I’ve read about them), but I think for some people, knowing that there is a person on the other end of where the money used to belong to would change things for them.
In Part 1 of my series on American Public Policy, I refer to the book Superfreakonomics and in particular, a study they cite in talking about altruism. In short, they found that when people are given the opportunity to, (on a continuum) give a complete stranger $10 right down to take $10, on average, people take about $1.30 from a complete stranger. (To better understand this, I recommend checking out Part 1.) In essence, the researchers have demonstrated that, when given the opportunity, people are likely to take from complete strangers. Maybe had the Utah couple not known who they bought the house from, they would have been more likely to keep the money.
As I stated above, I have a feeling that this is not the case. Utah is known for being a rather religious state. In fact, a 2009 Gallup poll places Utah as one of the top 15 states in the US (based on the question: Is religion an important part of your daily life?) Interesting to note: religiosity has been linked to morality since the time of Ancient Greece. Of course, there are others who think that morality without religion is possible, but could it be that Utah’s higher incidence of religiosity made it more likely that this Utah couple who found the money (is more likely to be religious), and by extension, moral?
I’m not saying that you have to be religious to be moral, but there are some interesting factors at play. The first of which is the whole knowing the previous owner (as I elaborated on with the altruism study). The second would be religion/morality and the third, closely tied to this happening in Utah. This particular state is known for its residents being part of the Latter Day Saint Movement (Mormonism). One of the beliefs of this particular movement is that the people who subscribe to it, are referred to as “Saints.” This particular couple may not be of this religion/movement, but the question is still an interesting one to pose. If you thought of yourself as a “saint,” do you think that you’d keep a pile of money that you’ve found?