"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Lost letter experiment suggests rich London neighborhoods more altruistic

Aug. 16, 2012
Courtesy of University College London
and World Science staff

Wealth­i­er neigh­bor­hoods seem to be more al­tru­is­tic than poorer ones as meas­ured by a “lost let­ter” ex­pe­ri­ment, ac­cord­ing to new re­search.

An­thro­po­l­o­gists from Uni­vers­ity Col­lege Lon­don meas­ured help­ful­ness in 20 Lon­don neigh­bor­hoods by drop­ping 300 let­ters on the ground and check­ing wheth­er they reached their des­tina­t­ion. The stamped let­ters were ad­dressed by hand to a study au­thor’s home ad­dress with a gender-neutral name, and were dropped face-up and dur­ing rain-free week­days.

The find­ings are pub­lished Aug. 15 in the re­search jour­nal PLoS One.

An av­er­age of 87 per­cent of let­ters dropped in the wealth­i­er neigh­bor­hoods were re­turned, but only 37 per­cent in poorer neigh­bor­hoods.

“This is the first large-scale study in­ves­ti­gat­ing coop­era­t­ion in an ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment us­ing the lost let­ter tech­nique,” said Jo Hol­land, a co-author of the re­port. “This tech­nique, first used in the 1960s by the Amer­i­can so­cial psy­chol­o­gist Stan­ley Mil­gram, re­mains one of the best ways of meas­ur­ing truly al­tru­is­tic be­hav­ior, as re­turn­ing the let­ter does­n’t ben­e­fit that per­son and ac­tu­ally in­curs the small has­sle of tak­ing the let­ter to a post box.”

The re­search­ers al­so looked at how oth­er neigh­bor­hood char­ac­ter­is­tics may help ex­plain the varia­t­ion in al­tru­is­tic be­hav­iour – in­clud­ing eth­nic com­po­si­tion and popula­t­ion dens­ity – but did not find them to be good pre­dic­tors of let­ter re­turn.

“The fact that eth­nic com­po­si­tion does not play a role on the like­li­hood of a let­ter be­ing re­turned is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing, as oth­er stud­ies have sug­gested that eth­nic mix­ing neg­a­tively af­fects so­cial co­he­sion, but in our sam­pled Lon­don neigh­bor­hoods this does not ap­pear to be true,” said co-author An­to­nio Sil­va.

“The lev­el of al­tru­ism ob­served in a popula­t­ion is likely to vary ac­cord­ing to its con­text. Our hy­poth­e­sis that ar­ea lev­el socio-economic char­ac­ter­is­tics could de­ter­mine the lev­els of al­tru­ism found in in­di­vid­u­als liv­ing in an ar­ea is con­firmed by our re­sults. Our over­all find­ings rep­li­cate and ex­pand on pre­vi­ous stud­ies which use si­m­i­lar method­ol­o­gy.”

He cau­tioned that “the ef­fect of in­come de­priva­t­ion may be con­found­ed by crime, as the poorer neigh­bor­hoods tend to have high­er rates crime which may lead to peo­ple in those neigh­bor­hoods be­ing gen­er­ally more sus­pi­cious and there­fore less likely to pick up a lost let­ter.

“Fur­ther re­search should fo­cus on at­tempt­ing to dis­en­tan­gle these two fac­tors, pos­sibly by com­par­ing equally de­prived neigh­bor­hoods with dif­fer­ent lev­els of crime. Al­though this study uses only one meas­ure of al­tru­ism and there­fore we should be care­ful in in­ter­pret­ing these find­ings, it does give us an in­ter­est­ing per­spec­tive on al­tru­ism in an ur­ban con­text and pro­vides a sound ex­pe­ri­men­tal mod­el on which to base fu­ture stud­ies.”

* * *

Send us a comment on this story, or send it to a friend


Sign up for

On Home Page         


  • St­ar found to have lit­tle plan­ets over twice as old as our own

  • “Kind­ness curricu­lum” may bo­ost suc­cess in pre­schoolers


  • Smart­er mice with a “hum­anized” gene?

  • Was black­mail essen­tial for marr­iage to evolve?

  • Plu­to has even cold­er “twin” of sim­ilar size, studies find

  • Could simple an­ger have taught people to coop­erate?


  • F­rog said to de­scribe its home through song

  • Even r­ats will lend a help­ing paw: study

  • D­rug may undo aging-assoc­iated brain changes in ani­mals

Wealthier neighborhoods seem to be more altruistic than poorer ones as measured by a “lost letter” experiment, according to new research. Anthropologists from University College London measured helpfulness in 20 London neighbourhoods by dropping 300 letters on the ground and checking whether they reached their destination. The stamped letters were addressed by hand to a study author’s home address with a gender-neutral name, and were dropped face-up and during rain-free weekdays. The findings are published Aug. 15 in the research journal PLoS One. An average of 87% of letters dropped in the wealthier neighbourhoods were returned, but only 37% in poorer neighbourhoods. “This is the first large-scale study investigating cooperation in an urban environment using the lost letter technique,” said Jo Holland, a co-author of the report. “This technique, first used in the 1960s by the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram, remains one of the best ways of measuring truly altruistic behaviour, as returning the letter doesn’t benefit that person and actually incurs the small hassle of taking the letter to a post box.” The researchers also looked at how other neighbourhood characteristics may help explain the variation in altruistic behaviour – including ethnic composition and population density – but did not find them to be good predictors of letter return. “The fact that ethnic composition does not play a role on the likelihood of a letter being returned is particularly interesting, as other studies have suggested that ethnic mixing negatively affects social cohesion, but in our sampled London neighbourhoods this does not appear to be true,” said co-author Antonio Silva. “The level of altruism observed in a population is likely to vary according to its context. Our hypothesis that area level socio-economic characteristics could determine the levels of altruism found in individuals living in an area is confirmed by our results. Our overall findings replicate and expand on previous studies which use similar methodology.” He cautioned that “the effect of income deprivation may be confounded by crime, as the poorer neighbourhoods tend to have higher rates crime which may lead to people in those neighbourhoods being generally more suspicious and therefore less likely to pick up a lost letter. “Further research should focus on attempting to disentangle these two factors, possibly by comparing equally deprived neighbourhoods with different levels of crime. Although this study uses only one measure of altruism and therefore we should be careful in interpreting these findings, it does give us an interesting perspective on altruism in an urban context and provides a sound experimental model on which to base future studies.”