What Do You Do When No One is Looking? | February 1, 2013

What Do You Do When No One is Looking?

It is sort of interesting to think about what you do when no one is looking.

I have been thinking about this because I have looked out my office window, the one that faces the patch of green grass between Beard Hall and the Dining Hall, and I have caught kids doing things when they think no one is looking.

I have caught a sixth grader picking up trash that was blowing across her path. I have caught a senior boy happily skipping to the student center, and I have caught Dr. Mascaro rehearsing an upcoming speech, to name just a few candid moments of alone time that I have witnessed from afar.

While we tend to assume that people are likely to do bad things when no one is looking, a lot of times people do good things. In fact, studies show that people are more apt to try to fix something that is amiss if they witness it alone than if they witness it with a lot of other people.

We all know about the famous Kitty Genovese murder in 1967 when 38 law‐abiding citizens witnessed her being stalked and stabbed three times over the course of a half an hour, and the 38 people who watched through their apartment windows did nothing to stop it.

I guess they all wanted to depend on someone else to take the risk of helping.

But the fact that people often pull through and do what is right when no one is looking is reaffirming, isn't it? We have a natural inclination to want to help each other, and maybe we are more apt to do that when no one else can help. That is, when it is up to us and only us as individuals to make things right. I have noticed this inclination especially when it comes to lost objects. It is amazing how often people try to return lost objects to the owners.

I bet a lot of us have stories of lost objects that were returned.

When my son was in kindergarten, he invited a friend to our house, and because the friend lived far away, my wife met the boy's mother at a halfway point in the parking lot of a huge mall. As she helped the boy get in the car, she put her wallet on the roof of the car and, of course, forgot about it. As we later learned, she was on a big cloverleaf interchange, getting on Route 95 South when the wallet rolled off the roof of the car into the middle of the grassy median. That same afternoon someone, we never found out who, saw the wallet, stopped his car in a very dangerous area, grabbed the wallet, read the license, and drove 20 miles south to return the wallet to the police station in our town. The police called our house to tell us about it. We never learned who that good Samaritan was.

I have another story. My sister‐in‐law once lost her wallet on a street in New York City. A few weeks later, the wallet showed up in her parents' mailbox in Boston. As she later learned, some kind person picked up the wallet off the street, and popped it into a US mailbox. The US postal service read the address on her driver's license, put it in wrapping, and sent it to her parents. Not a single item was missing.

But people also sometimes work in groups to help another person. Our third week of living in New Jersey about 30 strangers tried to help my wife when she lost our dog. I know that between the lost wallet and the lost dog it will sound like she is always losing things, but she isn't. She wants you to know that she has lost things only twice, but both stories made it into this talk!

For over six hours dog owners, hikers, and visitors to South Mountain Reservation tried to help her find our dog. One woman went home and got her husband to help. Another one went home and returned with printed "Lost Dog" signs. None of them knew her by name; none of them knew where she was from or anything about her; all they knew was that she had lost her dog named Kip, and they wanted to help her find him. Eventually, through this amazing inter‐town network of people, we were reunited with our dog who had gone to West Orange for the day. After that, we promptly sent our dog, Kip, to boarding school in NH. I have heard that that is what you do with children who are misbehaving.

My wife tells this story many times. It is her let‐me‐tell‐you‐how‐much‐ I‐love‐New Jersey story.

As I have said to you, I believe that most of us have a natural inclination to be good people, so I was interested to hear that last year Coca‐Cola launched a "Rivalry Wallet" campaign to see how honest people are. This is what they did:

Coca‐Cola placed a "lost" wallet inside the Benfica ticket office in Portugal days before a big soccer match to see how many people would return it to the ticket counter. Inside the wallet, which was left open so that people could see the contents easily, was a ticket for the match belonging to a supporter of the rival team. This rivalry ticket is an important detail because it establishes allegiances. For example, if you were a Jets fan, and you found the wallet of a Patriots fan, what would you do? In Portugal the soccer rivalries are even more intense than American football rivalries, so you may be skeptical about the outcome of this research.

But guess what? In this study by Coca‐Cola, 95% of the people who found the wallet, returned it. And of course they used this very effectively in their ad campaigns, but it's pretty interesting that some companies are beginning to link their products with moral values as a way to increase their sales.

So, back to the question:
What do you do when no one is looking?

Well, looking out my office window I have witnessed our community doing all kinds of things.

I have seen a group of four junior boys walking across the muddy lawn from the dining hall to the student center, all eating ice cream cones and talking at the same time while laughing hysterically.

I have seen a senior girl walking from the dining room eating an apple, doing last minute edits on her iPad and greeting friends across the quad, an impressive multi‐tasker.

I have seen a gaggle of sixth graders literally running and laughing all the way from Founders to the Learning Center.

I have watched a faculty member and student stroll along the walk, deeply engrossed in conversation.

I have witnessed the college office eating outside at one of the round tables during a particularly nice day.

And I have witnessed seniors eating outside at one of the round tables, but it doesn't have to be a nice day. They do that in any kind of weather.

So let's remember to be our best selves and do the right thing, whether people are watching or not.


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