An unexpected incident left us vulnerable to the actions of a stranger. Would we be robbed or rescued by our fellow man? And what is our role as leaders in a world where the threads that bind us together seem to be rapidly fraying? An interesting experiment and a little sociology shed some light on what we can do to restore faith in humanity.
Lost and Found
It’s the kind of moment where your heart skips a beat:
“My wallet’s gone!”
My wife had been out on a bike ride with a friend on a beautiful fall Saturday. Exploring trails, chatting, and taking pictures of the vibrant autumn leaves, they had covered more than 15 meandering miles. While riding she carried her phone, wallet and car keys in a fanny pack.
At the end of the ride, she reached for her car keys and discovered that the zipper to the pack was open and her wallet was missing. She must have forgotten to close it after a photo stop. Her wallet could have fallen out anywhere.
She called me right away and asked me to put a block on her credit cards while she and her friend retraced their steps to look for it.
Then, half an hour later, she sent me a text:
“Wallet found, Mom has it. I’ll explain later.”
Her mom lives miles away and was not part of the bike ride at all. The text raised more questions than it answered, but at least we could breathe easy again.
When she got back, the rest of the story came out.
“Susan” had been out for a walk along a trail near her house when she spotted a wallet. It was laying there, just off the asphalt, nestled in the grass. She imagined how she would feel if she had lost her own wallet, and knew she had to act. She reached down and picked it up.
Inside, she found a driver’s license; the address on it was not far away. Once at home, she got in her car, drove to an unfamiliar neighborhood, and knocked on a strange door. “No, they don’t live here anymore” she was told (we had moved just over a year ago).
Not to be dissuaded, Susan ran a search on Google and tracked down someone who appeared to be a family member of the license’s owner. A phone call confirmed the fact, and 30 minutes later, she met my mother-in-law in the parking lot of a local high school.
The wallet was fully intact. Mom was very thankful, and offered Susan some cash as a thank you, but Susan refused. She said she was just trying to do the right thing.
The story had a good ending, but the whole incident reminded me of something called the “Wallet Test.”
The Wallet Test
A couple of years ago, former NASA engineer Mark Rober lost his wallet, too, but his was never returned. To determine if his experience was typical, he decided to conduct an experiment.
Rober planted 200 wallets in 20 cities across the U.S. to see how many of them would be returned. Each wallet had currency, ID cards, and photos in them, as well as a phone number to call if found. His video is well worth the watch, but one of the big takeaways was that most people, more than you might think, did the right thing.
And that just reinforced something I observed years ago on a sweltering day on a bicycle near the Badlands of South Dakota. Most people are basically good.
But it is also true that most people are open to being influenced in some way. In Leaders Go First, I talked about how the first person to act in any given situation tends to hold outsized influence on all others who come after. Unless that action is clearly a poor choice, others are predisposed to see it in a favorable light and follow suit. It’s the proverbial “mark on the wall,” the reference point that others use as a guide for their own actions.
As Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the Wharton School and author of Invisible Influence noted, “Observing others do something can activate our mind in ways that make it easier for us to do the same thing.” People are hardwired for imitation, and like links in a chain, one action can lead to several more similar ones.
But that can be a dangerous thing.
What Reference Point?
Our media seems designed to emphasize the negative. Confrontation and crisis greet us every day over breakfast, whether it’s in the newspaper, or in our increasingly politicized social media feeds. The more lurid the headline, the more extreme the behavior, the more likely it is to end up in front of our eyeballs.
With the pandemic in full bloom, we are also isolated more than ever from simple human interaction. What we see in the media can start to become our point of reference. We are in danger of coming to believe that behaviors like selfishness, blame-casting, truth-bending, and obfuscation define our society. As imitative beings, we can be prone to follow suit.
But the good news is that’s not our only option.
As Rober’s little wallet experiment demonstrated, the real world is actually a better place than we sometimes give it credit. Whether or not it stays that way is up to us and the choices we make.
When she came across that wallet laying in the grass, Susan had three choices.
She could have ignored it, just as we can ignore the negativity around us. But in doing so we remove ourselves from the equation and forfeit the opportunity to be leaders. Instead, we become passive by-standers, letting others set the mark, for better or worse. That’s a choice we are free to make, but to me, among the costs of that choice is you lose the right to complain about what is happening.
Susan could have taken the money and credit cards and walked away. And in the same way, we can allow the negative actions of others to dictate our own choices. It’s everyone for themselves, but all that does is create what my dad would call a “self-licking ice cream cone,” accelerating the downward spiral.
Susan did neither of those things. She chose to lead by making her own mark on the wall. Her guide was empathy, the reference point that may best serve all of us.
What must it feel like to lose something so valuable as a wallet? If it were me, what would I hope for? What can I do that might make things better? Susan asked these questions, almost subconsciously, and then she picked up the wallet, found the license, and did her best to do the right thing.
Faith in Humanity – The Takeaway
If we find ourselves in a place to be thankful, it’s probably in part due to some kindness someone has shown us along the way. And if we were to ask that someone, they would be able to name others who had helped them before they helped us.
If we want to restore faith in humanity, our calling is clear: Don’t be the last link in the chain of empathy. If you don’t see a chain, start one; make your own mark on the wall.
The world is a better place than the media makes it seem, but if we would lead, it is up to us not only to keep it that way, but to make it better.
Start with empathy.
Oh, and if you happen to come across a wallet with my name in it, thanks in advance, and I’ll do the same for you!