Are Rich People More Likely to Return a Misdelivered Birthday Card Containing a $20 Bill?

I’m not sure we’re asking the right question.

Photo credit: amy gizienski, CC BY 2.0.

What would you do if you received a birthday card (not addressed to you) with a $20 in the envelope? A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that the more money you have, the more likely you’ll be to send the $20 back.

But… I’m not sure about that.

Are the Rich More Honest Than the Poor? This Study Found an Answer

Each recipient was sent a false greeting card (from a grandfather to his grandson) that contained either a €5 bill, a €20 bill, a bank transfer card for €5, or a bank-transfer card for €20.

Researchers found that the wealthier households were more than twice as likely to return the letters — 81% versus 38%. Below is the breakdown for each type of letter sent, and the percentages of returns. Both types of households were more likely to return the bank cards compared with the cash, but only a quarter of all poor households returned the €20 note, compared with nearly 80% of rich households.

First of all, who are these people who open cards that aren’t addressed to them? I live in an apartment, which means that on any given day I could receive mail belonging to one of the three previous tenants. I always check the name first; opening and/or keeping someone else’s mail is a felony, y’all.

So I’d slap a Post-It note labeled “no longer at this address” on the envelope and stick the envelope in the building’s front hallway, on top of the row of mailboxes. After that, I assume, I’ve done my job.

But let’s say I accidentally opened it. Ideally, I wouldn’t have torn the envelope and could reseal it with a glue stick; otherwise it’s glue and scotch tape and the hope that no one is going to come after me for mail theft because I put the Post-It note on it and I gave it back.

The real question is “what would I do if I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with misdirected mail,” and that’s what I think is missing from this experiment. Like, ten years ago when I had my first apartment and was still figuring out how gas stoves and toilet cleanser worked? (Not together.) Maybe if I got some envelope that wasn’t addressed to me, especially if it looked like junk mail, I would have tossed it in the recycle bin.

I am not going to say that “rich people” know what to do with misdirected mail and “poor people” don’t, because that would be classist AF. I will say that rich people often have more resources to help them deal with these kinds of problems, including a postal worker that might come directly to their front door instead of sliding mail into a row of apartment mailboxes. Maybe some of those rich people didn’t even see the birthday cards because an assistant/nanny/housekeeper took care of it for them. Maybe some of the poor people were like, “I should do something about this birthday card, but I have to go to my third job, and this is not a priority.”

The point is that I don’t know what factors were considered in this study—and I’ll never know, because it’s behind a paywall and I don’t want to pay $5 to read it.

But I think “how badly do you want this $20” isn’t the only question here.

It’s also “how likely are you to have the knowledge/time/capacity to start this birthday card on the path to its rightful owner?”

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