We dropped 30 phones in 32 cities. How many would we get back?

Courtesy Calling

Derrick Wolf was standing near a water fountain in New York's Central Park when he noticed a ringing cell phone on the ground. It didn't appear to belong to anyone. Should he answer it? Let it ring? Pick it up and put it in his pocket? What would you do?
After kicking at the ringing phone warily, Wolf did what he thought was the right thing. He bent over, picked it up and spoke to the person on the other end of the line. "I was hoping it wasn't a bomb," he told the caller.

Obviously, it wasn't. The caller was a Reader's Digest researcher, and Wolf, a 26-year-old technology worker, had just become an unwitting participant in an offbeat worldwide social experiment conducted by the magazine: How would busy people in bustling cities react when confronted with seemingly abandoned cell phones? Would their instinct be to help, to ignore -- or to play finders, keepers.

To get the answer, reporters in 32 countries where Reader's Digest is published "lost" 30 phones apiece in those countries' most populous cities. From Auckland, New Zealand, to Zurich, Switzerland, they "dropped" phones in heavily used public areas, then called them while observing from a distance. When someone answered a phone, reporters asked whether he or she would be willing to return it. If the person picked up the phone without answering it, the reporters waited for a call on one of the phone's preprogrammed numbers, or watched as the finder simply pocketed the phone and walked away.

Empathy and Human Behavior

Doesn't sound like a rigorous scientific study, you say? We don't disagree. But it is a reasonable, real-world test of human behavior around the globe.

So what were the results of this exercise? The average rate at which phones were returned per city: 68 percent. In other words, two-thirds of those who picked up a phone had an instinct to help. Age and income had no bearing on the subjects' response. Women were slightly more likely than men to return a phone.

The highest-ranking city happened to be the smallest: Ljubljana, Slovenia. Twenty-nine of 30 phones were returned in this picture-postcard city in the foothills of the Alps, home to just 267,000 people . The Slovene helpful streak extended beyond the parameters of the magazine's mission: In one case, a young waiter at a coffee shop returned a phone and a leather jacket accidentally left behind by our reporter.

Not that a city's size mattered much. In Toronto (population: 5.4 million), we got back 28 of 30 phones. "If you can help someone out, why not?" said Ryan Demchuk, a 29-year-old insurance broker, one of those to return a handset.

Regardless of the country, the most common reason people gave for returning a phone was that they had lost items -- or had them stolen.

"I've had cars stolen three times, and even the laundry from the cellar was taken," said Kristiina Laakso, 51, who returned a phone in Helsinki, Finland.

(I know how she feels. I myself once picked up a cell phone I found lying in the gutter in my New York neighborhood. I called one of the contact numbers programmed into the phone and, within minutes, was handing it over to the father of the teenager who had dropped it on the street earlier that day. He was happy to get it back, and I felt good about returning it. I also hoped that my good deed would be repaid the next time my teenage son misplaced his own cell phone.)

Doing the Right Thing

On the low end of the spectrum, Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, and Hong Kong tied for the worst performance.

In each city, just 13 of the 30 phones were returned.

In one particularly egregious Hong Kong incident, a security guard along the city's Causeway Bay picked up a ringing phone, asked a group of smokers if it was theirs, then wrapped it in a piece of paper. Confronted by the reporter, the guard stammered, "What phone? I didn't see any phone. If you've mislaid something, report it to Lost and Found." The phone was plainly visible in his hand.

Happily, an incident in New York's Harlem section was more representative. (New York, which topped the magazine's 2006 global courtesy test, tied for fifth place with Mumbai, India, and Manila, Philippines, this time around. The return rate for all three was 80 percent.)

Scooping a ringing phone off the pavement, 16-year-old Johnnie Sparrow arranged to meet a reporter that evening. Arriving at the scheduled time, flanked by a group of younger neighborhood boys who clearly looked up to him, Johnnie was surprised to learn that the lost phone wasn't lost at all. But he was proud, too, of how he reacted when he found it.

"I did the right thing," he said with a smile.