Lost Wallets, Trust, and Honesty

I lost my wallet.

Somewhere between a golf driving range and a supermarket, in a 30-minute period, it went missing. I turned things upside down, retraced my paths, left notes with wanting-to-be-helpful staff.

I monitored accounts for three days; no bank charges, no credit card hits, so I held off canceling the cards, calling the DMV etc. I shudder at the thought of replacing it all.

At dinner on day three, the sheriff’s department calls; I meet the officer at a gas station. All the cards are there, as well as the original $140 in cash intact. He says, “Good thing you left your number at the driving range, that made it easy to confirm it was you.”

I say, “I know you can’t take a reward, but how about the guy who turned it in?” The cop says, “That’s between you and him; here’s his name and phone number.”

I meet the good samaritan the next day – let’s call him Ishmael. Why did Ishmael do it? He gave the Kantian reason; “If it was me, I’d hope someone would turn it in.” I offer him $100 reward; he demurs; I insist; he graciously accepts.

But my big question: why did he wait three days? Had it laid unfound for so long? Was it a struggle with his own conscience?  Enquiring minds wanted to know.

His answer: “I didn’t feel right turning it in to the proprietor at the driving range; I guess I just didn’t know if I could trust him. I meant to call the police, but I worked late the next day, and wasn’t sure who to call at the police. But my girlfriend, she cleans houses; one of her clients is a cop. She asked him who to contact, and he said, ‘call this number.’ So she gave it to me, and I called, and now you have your wallet. I’m glad.”

Whom Can You Trust?

Clearly, Ishmael turned out to be highly trustworthy. But let’s note a few other trust decisions along the way.

Ishmael trusted a cop – note he didn’t trust ’the cops,’ but he did trust one cop. He trusted his girlfriend’s due diligence to find out which one. I wonder how Ishmael would answer an Edelman Trust Barometer survey asking if he trusted the police?

Ishmael didn’t trust the driving range proprietor. I initially didn’t either, though I met a second driving range employee on day two whom I trusted more.

The police didn’t have to trust anyone in this case. Their role was limited to being trustworthy – or not. In this case, they were. One cop gave a correct phone number; the other responded. He checked out the information, made the phone calls, and most obviously the wallet didn’t ‘disappear’ while in his custody. I would add he was pleasant, and also expressed the Kantian view when I apologized for keeping him waiting a bit – “Hey, no worries, I know how worried I’d be if it was my wallet.”

What about the bank? I trusted the bank’s systems in two ways. First, I trusted that any use of my debit or credit cards or withdrawal from my checking account would show up quickly, and I’d find out about it online.

But second, I ‘trusted’ that the bank wouldn’t trust me very far – at the first hint of a suspicious charge, or at my first suggestion of it, I knew the bank would drop the iron curtain on all my accounts. (US laws limit the liability of individuals in such cases, so banks will pull the trigger quickly on a false positive). So, I could afford to wait a bit.

And, I had some sort of trust in Ishmael – without even knowing who he was, or even that he existed. The clue was the lack of activity in my accounts. I figured either the wallet was still in my possession, or it had been stripped of cash by an addict and dumped (or, by a Kantian addict who had then put the cashless wallet in the mail – hey it used to happen that way in the 70s with cabdriver theft in NY).

Or, there was some Ishmael out there. But what was he waiting for? I confess I didn’t have an answer to that.

Past Lost Wallets

There is a pattern here.  Actually, two patterns. One is that clearly I have an issue with losing things. I’ve lost my wallet once before, in Copenhagen.  I’ve also managed to leave my MacBook Air computer on the plane – not just once, but twice.  The first was at O’Hare; the second, in Charlotte.

So yes, clearly I’ve got an issue with carelessness. But there are other things to note here as well, even though this is all anecdotal.

In the first wallet case, it was returned within the hour by a taxi driver. This was calmly and confidently predicted, both by my client and by the hotel; it’s the norm in Denmark, not even worth commenting on, they said. But you know, I’ve heard many stories about the same even in New York.

And in the airline cases, it all came down to individuals, taking personal responsibility far outside the system.

How Can We Trust Institutions?

The quick answer is, institutional trust is by its nature shallow. I can trust Chase bank’s systems (or not), but if I need something truly out of the ordinary, I’d better find a real person. Trust of the type that returns wallets is an individual thing – or, as the case of Denmark points out, a cultural thing.

It is a kind of misnomer to use the word ‘trust’ in the sense of ‘I trust an institution.’ But that doesn’t mean institutions have no role in trust. They have a huge role. The role is to establish an environment within which people can behave in trusting and trustworthy manners.

That is non-trivial. In fact, it’s vital. An organization that fosters bureaucracy, suspicion, and conformity is not going to attract, and certainly not sustain, trust-operating people.  By contrast, an organization that celebrates trusting and being trusted among its people will greatly influence the amount of trust that is created.

And our job, as we go about our daily lives, is to be open about when other people might surprise us – and, hopefully, to do the Kantian thing ourselves when the opportunity presents.


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