Baby pictures in lost wallets increase the chance they will be returned

Edinburgh psych researcher Richard Wiseman and team left a load of wallets lying around with various contents, trying to see if there was a correlation between, say, baby pictures or cards indicating charitable giving and the rate at which wallets are returned. It turns out that people in Edinburgh (and maybe everyone) have a high likelihood of returning wallets with baby pictures, but are much less likely to return the wallets of charitable givers:
The baby photograph wallets had the highest return rate, with 88 per cent of the 40 being sent back. Next came the puppy, the family and the elderly couple, with 53 per cent, 48 and 28 respectively. At 20 per cent and 15, the charity card and control wallets had the lowest return rates.

Overall, 42 per cent of the wallets were posted back -- more than the team had anticipated. "We were amazed by the high percentage of wallets that came back," said Dr Wiseman.

Scientists have also found evidence for a baby instinct in brain scanning experiments. A recent study at the University of Oxford examined how people responded when they were shown photographs of baby or adult faces.

Want to keep your wallet? Carry a baby picture (via Derren Brown)

(Image: 6. Wallet, a Creative Commons Attribution licensed photo from Saad.Akhtar's Flickr stream)



  1. There’s got to be a base level of returns regardless of content as well. I’ve found 3 wallets, and I never look through the contents except enough to find some ID, which is usually not buried very deep. I find the ID, if they’re nearby, I drop it off, if not, I drop it at a police station (post office would also do, they’re required to attempt to return personal items to the owners).

  2. I think I’ll opt for a baby, elderly couple, puppy combo.

    Now, I’m not good at calculating compound odds but a rough estimation says that combo adds up to a 189% return.
    So, the finder will be obliged to send me their own wallet contents in addition to returning mine.


  3. Thanks for two stories in a row on goodness of humanity. (Insurance story and this.) Very tempted to stop reading now.

  4. I leave polaroids of posed,spectacularly bloody murder scenes in old thrift store wallets and then follow home whoever picks them up. After I get their phone number I call anonymously and ask if they found a wallet. It’s way more fun than bee-keeping.

  5. @JRidley – The base return rate for the ‘control wallet’ was 12%. Obviously, there aren’t many people like you finding wallets in Edinburgh!

    This reminds me of the experiment that showed a photo of eyes above the jar would make people more likely to pay at a self-serve restaurant.

  6. Snig, I can see how more people returning wallets than they expected can be seen as “goodness of humanity”, but I find this story more disturbing than heartwarming. The message seems to be that people dehumanize people who don’t breed. I’m sure people without children would like their wallets back just as much.

  7. Look on the bright side. They finally found a good use for baby pictures!

    The sad part is that the pictures have to be of your own baby, or else you’ll be instantly promoted to suspected paedophile.

  8. correlation =! causation. I’m suspicious of the simplification taking place in the test and I have a feeling that the return rate could be explained in a much better way by actually finding out who the returnees are. This experiment seems like it was shaped by a pre-formed conclusion too.

  9. Years ago my friend found a wallet on the bus, and was planning on returning it, along with the $150 or so in cash. It actually did have a bunch of pictures of young kids in it.

    And then his roommate rifled through it more thoroughly and found the registered sex offender card in there, and those pictures started to seem really creepy.

  10. Razordaze@9
    Dammit! Knew I should have stopped reading.

    Good point. My wallet contains business card for the optometrist who fits me with my rose-colored glasses.

  11. Depends on the kind of pictures of babies. The party van might bring your wallet back to you.

    Hey, this site dosen’t log IP’s does it?

  12. An average 42% return rate doesn’t seem high to me. An unscientific study in the largest New Zealand cities had a 80%-100% return rate depending on the city. I live in the city with the 100% return rate.

  13. Based on the experimental design, the obvious interpretation is that the finders weren’t returning lost wallets, they were returning lost photos.

    Stuff the wallets with cash and plastic and then see what happens.

    I did enjoy this hilarious quote (misquote??) from Dr Wiseman though: ‘If you find a baby alone, there is a good chance it belongs to you’. I wonder if Dr Wiseman has ever considered a second career as a trial lawyer?

  14. Toronto Star did this experiment last year, and got 85% return with no pictures. Just saying.

  15. I wonder if they refunded the postage for the samaritans. Meanwhile, I’m off to rent a baby.

  16. Mister Fricative @ #16:

    I did enjoy this hilarious quote (misquote??) from Dr Wiseman though: ‘If you find a baby alone, there is a good chance it belongs to you’.

    Evolutionarily speaking. Our brains weren’t wired 3 years ago. Yeah, now we’re surrounded by millions of total strangers, but for virtually all of the last 50,000 years, the statement is accurate.

  17. The thing I find most surprising is that they found an overall 42% rate of return surprisingly high.

    Did anyone here not find it surprisingly low? Is Edinburgh a city of nihilists (with a soft spot for babies and puppies)?

  18. @Chgoliz, I don’t have a problem with the evolutionary point he’s trying to make but I do have a problem with the quoted statement.

    You say that ‘for virtually all of the last 50,000 years, the statement is accurate’, but back when our ancestors were evolving on the African savannah, how many solitary babies would they have kept running into? And if that ever did happen, what’s the likelihood that the baby would turn out to belong to the finder?

    There’s no evolutionary pressure in this scenario, just bad parenting.

  19. Here in the US, if you find a wallet, you can just drop it in a mailbox.
    If I found one with money in it, I would pull the money out and put in a note with my phone number, so they could call me and get their money back. Just to keep the post office honest.
    [BTW- I did find one once with nearly $400 in it. I found the owner, and the joy in his face was worth the money.]

  20. @14 Fab idea – yes.

    Is there any evidence for disparities in return rates according to the attractiveness of the baby? Would ugly (pity) or pretty (love) babies have higher rates?

    Just askin’. After all – evolution didn’t breed us to foster relations with unattractive specimens.

  21. I found a wallet belonging a couple of years ago with 2 IDs in it for 2 different people, neither of which resolved to a real address. Turned out that when I googled the last name on the ID with the *under-21 birthdate*, I found the college kid’s parents, who had moved across town since he left home. :)

  22. @16 & @24
    You are the only ones here to detect the obvious flaw of this ‘scientific’ study. The whole point of wallets is the money that s inside. So if you want to find out what a picture of a baby does to the return rate you have to make a series of placements that consider the amount and – I agree – the various kinds of depictions of babies (or perhaps other persons, too).

    So, let s say you have a beautiful baby and 1.000 Euros in the wallet compared to a wallet with 0 Euros. Then you have an ugly baby (or just a bad photograph of the same child) with and without money and so on. After all these permutations you may perhaps be able to find correlations or even conclusions about the nature of human ethics, but the above is sensationalist effect-ism.

  23. Interesting. I’d never thought lost valets w baby pictures compel baby snatchers to return the babies.


  24. A homeless man tracked me down from his support center to return my laptop. Part of it was that he couldn’t just take it when he saw the picture of my fiance (at the time) and I the moment we got engaged.

  25. Its true for lost cell phones too…..mine got lost twice……returned after seeing my baby’s pictures…..

    I think the study is great…

  26. I don’t think the wallets with the baby pictures being returned have anything to do with the attractiveness of the child or the emotion that seeing a baby’s photo can bring. I believe the reasons more of the baby photo wallets were returned than the others have more to do with the responsibilities of the owner of the wallet. A baby means this person is a parent with mouths to feed, and probably needs the money. Return the wallet. Cards indicating they give to charity? They have money, so keep the wallet. Or take the dough out and drop the wallet in the post office. Just my two cents.

  27. As if the 200$ in my stolen wallet wasn’t enough, the person decided to swipe my credit card at a gas station. I’m a mother and wife. I guess some people really don’t care though what you have in their wallet, they just suck as human beings.

  28. Come to think of it, the only time I ever lost my wallet, I was out surfing with a buddy when his car was broken into and our wallets were stolen. Mine had no money in it, and it came home in the mail. My buddy’s did have cash and never came back. I suspect that mine was mailed because I wasn’t robbed, but my buddy was robbed so the evidence was destroyed.

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