Suppose you’re driving along and you happen to be behind an armored car. Suddenly, the back door of that armored car flies open, a bag of money hits the street, splits open, and cash starts flying all over the place. Would you slam on your brakes, get out of your car in the midst of traffic, run over to the bag, stuff as much money in your pockets as possible, run back to your car, get out of there as fast as you can, and think there was nothing wrong with what you just did?
I didn’t think you’d do something like that. Neither would I, but that’s exactly what several people did recently when this actually happened in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio.
The first thing I thought about when I heard the story was how could the back door of an armored car fly open allowing a bag of money to fall to the street? I’ve been driving for a long time, and I’ve never had any money fly out of my car, and I don’t even drive a special vehicle whose sole purpose is to safely drive money around.
The other thing, of course, was the behavior of the people who grabbed the money — $100,000 is still missing. ($100,000? I guess that was a pretty big bag). Maybe they rationalized that they were taking the money from a big, unfeeling, faceless bank or corporation, not from “regular people.” But that money that was bouncing around in the armored car probably belonged to “regular people.” It could have been your money going to or from a bank.
Maybe another rationalization was that obviously, the money was insured, so “nobody got hurt.” Your house is probably insured. If you were robbed, would you think that “nobody got hurt?”
Call me a Pollyanna, but I generally feel that people are good, honest, and responsible. That’s why I was so disappointed to learn the way so many people acted. I worried that maybe I’d been wrong all these years about my positive views of my fellow men and women. It shook up my entire perception of the world. If people are willing to run out of their cars in the middle of traffic to grab money that’s not theirs, who knows what else they’re capable of doing? Maybe some people actually do things like cheat on their income taxes, take drugs so they can play sports better, or take their neighbor’s newspaper early in the morning to check last night’s sports scores.
So I decided to conduct an experiment. I would walk up to people with money in my hand, and ask them if it was theirs. I started with quarters and I would usually be near a store’s cash register to make my scenario believable. “I think you might have dropped this,” was my line. But every person I approached that way said to me, “No, that’s not mine.”
I even went to a video arcade where quarters are like gold. There were two kids in there who were either doing research for a paper on video games or were ditching school. The one whose jeans were around his knees actually dropped a quarter as I walked in. After he picked that up, I presented him with one of my quarters and said, “I think you dropped this one, too.” The kid declined the quarter, saying it wasn’t his. (He actually said, “Not mine, dude.”)
I decided to up the ante. I was walking in a crowded shopping mall with my hands in my pockets and purposely “dropped” a $20 bill to the floor and continued to walk. I was practically tackled by two people, coming from opposite directions, telling me that I dropped the $20. They also admonished me, saying I should be more careful with my money.
As I put the $20 bill back in my pocket, I smiled. People really are good. Then how do I explain the actions of those who stuffed their pockets and fled? There are plenty of plausible explanations. For example, maybe that’s the one street in America where people don’t act properly. Maybe they plan to give the money to charity. Maybe they thought it was play money. The important thing is that I proved that people really are trustworthy.
By the way, if you see me walking around, don’t bother following me, hoping that I’ll purposely be dropping money on the ground. My experiment’s over. It was a one-time thing. I have faith in people, but I’m not going to push my luck.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from “Sesame Street” to “Family Ties” to “Home Improvement” to “Frasier.” He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Check out his Web site at http://www.lloydgarver.com and his podcasts on iTunes.