Imagine your four-year-old nephew asks you if Santa Claus is real. You can tell by the way he is asking that he still wants to believe in Santa. Do you say yes? So often, we are told that honesty is always the best policy, but are there times when you can make a bigger mistake by telling the truth than by lying?
These are some of the questions that were posed to the leadership class at Elmira District Secondary School, along with some exercises surrounding honesty. Last week, as part of their exploration of honesty and truth, they put the integrity of Elmira residents to the test.
The class took four wallets and filled each with a bit of money (around $12 each), photo ID, photos of family, grocery lists, receipts, a contact number and other items to make them seem legitimate and personal to each student.
Then they ‘lost’ the wallets in high-traffic areas around Elmira where people work, travel and play. Two wallets were dropped near the gazebo in Gore Park in Elmira, one was left in the alley beside the Central Tavern on Arthur Street and the last was tossed in the parking lot of a nearby church. Then they waited. Over the one-week period, the class conducted this admittedly unscientific experiment to challenge the town’s honesty, and the exercise yielded some interesting results.
All four of the wallets were returned to the students, exactly the way they were left, with no money taken from any of them.
When the class was asked what they thought about the results, the majority said they were not surprised with the outcome. The class first identified that this exercise did more than simply test the integrity of local residents, it also tested their willingness to go above and beyond what was required of them. In order for the wallet to be returned, the finder not only needed to be honest about finding the lost item, but also go out of their way to return it and empathize with someone they have never met.
“Elmira is a pretty nice place,” said student Scott Young. “Everyone seems to know everyone. I think nobody would take a wallet from someone they know.”
Following the experiment, their teacher, Dave Conlon, posed the question, “If you were to find a $20 bill on the sidewalk, would you keep it?” to which almost everyone in the class said yes. When asked if they would take a $20 bill fastened with an engraved money clip, only a quarter of the students raised their hand.
A similar study was conducted by the Toronto Star in April of 2009 and their results were quite similar. Out of the 20 wallets they left around the city, 17 were returned intact.
“People are more honest than we assume they are,” said Young.