If you saw someone drop a $10 bill on the ground, you’d give it back to them – wouldn’t you?
How about if you weren’t being watched – would you still act honestly, or would you take the money?
Many of us claim to be acting on a sound moral compass. But what if we were always (however subconsciously) assessing the risk of getting caught and weighing up our options?
CTV News performed their own honesty test on the streets of Vancouver to find out for themselves.
Ross McLaughlin performed the experiment, walking all over the city and dropping $10 notes on the ground.
In the downtown area, seven out of seven times the good people of Vancity returned the dropped bill to its rightful owner, chasing after him when it floated out of his pocket.
Faith in humanity restored, right? Well, not quite.
In the video McLaughlin paraphrases the John Wooden quote, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching” – but it seems that a lot of people’s moral fortitude fell way short when they were on their own with no one else around.
McLaughlin moved to an uncrowded Vancouver side street, and suddenly all the good Samaritans were replaced by greedy civilians.
Despite seeing him drop the cash, all but one of the passersby pocketed the $10 for themselves.
Social psychologist from Simon Fraser University Ehor Boyanowsky viewed the footage and said of the unknowing guinea pigs in the experiment, “They’re going to do, or get away with, as much as they can.”
Interestingly, when they were prompted by McLaughlin, suddenly the subjects’ conscience kicked into gear and they were quick to return the $10.
“You just confirmed that you dropped it so that kicks in his social obligation to return the money. There are varying levels of honesty,” said Boyanowsky.
“The power of surveillance, and surveillance by your community not by cameras, it’s the most powerful thing there is to control behaviour.”
And if it had been a $100 bill? Well, then a case of ‘reward and punishment’ comes into play – what do we serve to gain, and what’s the risk we’re putting ourselves at?
For now, let’s just hope you don’t know the female cyclist in the blue body warmer – or perhaps if you do you’ll consider keeping your valuables safely tucked away at your next Vancouver dinner party.