Tuesday, October 30, 2012

lost letter experiments

It seems that the lost letter has not lost its place in the world of research. Recently, anthropologists from UCL published an article in PlosOne where they used the lost letter technique to measure altruism. 300 hand addressed, stamped letters were dropped on London pavements, on rain-free days (hmm, not often then!). Their results showed that the wealthier the neighbourhood the more likely the letter would be returned. This is a finding which does of course have the potential to lead to negative stereotypes about kindness towards strangers, but can also be argued to point to some of the complex circumstances shaping everyday life in these neighbourhoods.

What does posting a lost letter show? The lost letter technique was first used in the 1960s by the social psychologist Stanley Milgram (of six-degrees-of-separation fame), as a perfect way to examine altruistic behaviour. His initial experiments involved leaving letters addressed to  favourable organisations and stigmatised organisations, finding that the former received more returned letters. The UCL experimenters were more controlled in the handwritten address, with the same gender neutral name on every letter, but it is interesting that the method itself is still used in research, despite the decline in posting letters.

Image from Diesel Punks.

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