The World Has A Lot More Goodness Than You Think
September 05, 2016

The World Has A Lot More Goodness Than You Think

With weary legs, we pedaled our tandem up a steep hill near Sempach, Switzerland. Cycling in Switzerland isn’t easy. Sure, there are hills. But we’re lousy navigators. That hurts us all the time.

If we were cruising in a car, it wouldn’t be an issue. We could drive 5 miles down the wrong steep valley–then simply turn around. It isn’t that easy on a 200-pound, fully loaded tandem bike. Every mistake we make (and we make them all the time) is thigh-burning punishment.

A Swiss gentleman on that hill above Sempach wanted to help. We pointed to our map. He didn’t speak English. We don’t speak Swiss German. But he pedaled his bike ahead, guiding us through a maze of different village-leading intersections. He stopped at the top of every climb. He waited for us to catch up. Then he carried on. He may have pedaled 5 or 10 miles out of his way.

People help us everyday. Most people, in most countries are good, honest and helpful. Unfortunately, many don’t view the world that way. In 2015, The Guardian reported a study by the Common Cause Foundation. The study surveyed 1000 people. Seventy-four percent of them identified with having positive, unselfish values themselves. Seventy-eight percent, however, had a more negative view of others.

A Pew Research Center study showed mixed (somewhat odd) results. Sixty-nine percent of Americans thought the average American was honest. But when asked if the average American was selfish, 68 percent said yes.

I blame the media for this schizophrenia. Networks love negative news. McGill University’s Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka proved we’re drawn to bad news stories. Here are two headlines.

1. Woman Saves A Family From Burning Fire

2. Woman Sets Fire And Burns Family Alive

According to Trussler and Soroka’s research, most people would read the second story. News networks know it. That’s why they push negative news. This, in turn, could mess with our perceptions. The world is better than people think.

Yesterday, we arrived at a small farm, near Lucerne, Switzerland. It was sweltering outside. In an air- conditioned room, they sold fresh eggs, milk, cheese, ice cream, apple cider, jams, fruits and vegetables. But nobody was there. Every item was priced. The produce was listed by the kilogram, depending on the item. There was an electronic scale in the corner, beside a change machine. There was also a pencil and some paper. We worked out what we owed. Then we put the money in the cash box.

Many small farms, across the United States, do the same thing. If people weren’t mostly good, this system wouldn’t work.

Honesty and goodness could be hard-wired. Researchers Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello conducted a study on infants. They found that 14-month old children often helped one another if they were having difficulty reaching for an object. At times, they were also selfish. But an inclination to help didn’t need to be taught.

Sometimes, adults need a subconscious cue. Psychology researchers at the University of Newcastle experimented with honor system payments in a workplace lunchroom. For years, the company offered tea and coffee–with an honor system payment box. They sent regular email reminders to always pay up.

Many times, people didn’t. The researchers wanted to see if cues could change behavior. They placed a picture of a flower above the payment box for one week. The following week, they placed a picture of a set of eyes. They then alternated, weekly, between flowers and eyes. None of the respondents reported noticing the change.

But during weeks when the eyes were displayed, honesty increased. Workers were nearly three times more likely to pay. The researchers guessed that the eyes gave the people a subconscious, social kick.

Perhaps a name could provide such a cue. Honest-Tea (a division of the Coca-Cola company) conducted a nation-wide experiment. They set up unmanned booths in all 50 states. In each case, they placed an honor system payment box: $1 for tea. They reported that 92 percent of the 11,000 participants paid.

Reader’s Digest tempted people further with a “lost wallet” test. They dropped 192 wallets in 16 different global cities.

In each case, they placed the equivalent of $50 in each country’s currency. They also inserted photos and a cell phone number. On average, nearly half the wallets were returned. There were also some surprises. In Mumbai, India (where the average citizen is very poor) people returned 9 of the 12 lost wallets.

That’s the sort of kindness that Leon Logothetis counted on. He traveled around the world on an old yellow motorbike. He didn’t bring money or a credit card. Instead, he wanted to see if he could be fueled and fed by people’s generosity. Logothetis told his story in a book, The Kindness Diaries.

In about a week, my wife and I will pedal out of Switzerland. We plan to ride our tandem to Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. We’re not crazy enough to travel without money. But, as always happens when we travel, many people help us. Most people are good. It’s important to remember that.

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