What do lost letters tell us?

How can you secretly measure a society?


What do lost letters tell us?

One of my favourite things about this job is reading up on psychological research. More specifically, I love finding out exactly how psychologists measure compassion, or neuroticism or anger or fulfilment.

When you explain the best studies, they sound like film treatments – researchers create fake prisons or they pretend to electrocute innocent victims. They interview nuns and send undercover agents into mental hospitals to try and get themselves admitted.

They also like to leave letters lying around on the streets. Leave stamped addressed envelopes in the street, in different places, as if they have been dropped by accident. Wait and see how many come back to you.

The theory is that you can measure a society's attitudes towards helping others by how many letters get picked up and posted.

The second layer of the experiment is even better –  researchers experimented with addressing the letters to different organisations or charities, to see if the end destination had an effect on the letter's fate, if our willingness to help is affected by our personal values. As it turns out, it is – letters addressed to 'Medical Research Association' were far more likely to reach their destination than letters addressed to 'Friends of the Communist Party'.

Since the original experiment in 1965, researchers have been chucking their post about at regular intervals to investigate our attitudes to certain causes.

Most recently, psychologist Tracey Witte has suggested that our attitudes towards suicide may be becoming more lenient (link here). She found letters addressed to heart disease, diabetes and suicide 'research foundations' were all equally likely to reach their theoretical addressee. So, I wonder what the post rate would be for the following: Stronger Borders Foundation Justin Bieber Fan Club Airline compensation fund (volcanic ash enquiries) National Lottery – Claimant Division Campaign for women in government Celebrity Addicts Anonymous (and how many of this kind would remain unopened?)

(If you want to know more about lost letters, read the wonderful Mind Hacks blog here)