Why Rewards?

An interesting thing happened to me last week. I found a white iPhone on my way home from work. I looked around to quickly see if anyone was looking around for one, but I didn’t see anyone who seemed to be looking around. The phone was locked, so I pocketed it and made my way home. Once home I checked the phone. There was a missed call and a couple emails. I started to look up how to return a locked phone to someone, as I was doing so a call came through. I picked up.


“Hi, um, you have my phone?”

I replied that yes I did (I was talking on it) and that I’d like to return it. Could I meet him somewhere? He said a spot right around where I had found the phone. I biked over and returned the phone to a very thankful mother and son. As I was getting ready to leave, the mother offered me a small folded $20. I refused to take the money multiple times but she ultimately shoved it in my hand saying “I know it’s not much, but thank you.”

Returning an item without knowledge of a reward is a strange concept when you think about it. I did not see a posted sign offering a reward for this lost iPhone, so it had no bearing on my decision to either keep or return the phone. In fact, if I had been a purely rational, self-interested actor I would have kept the phone and sold it. The fact that I returned the phone means that I wasn’t looking to get anything out of the transaction except for some good karma.

I did a little digging in the concept of the reward and quickly found that etiquette, one of my pet interests, had something to say about the matter. (Recently a friend of mine let me borrow the literal book on the subject, Etiquette, which I highly recommend.) I did a little digging as to what it says on the subject and, well it depends.

But I don’t think it should. The reward is not something that should be expected in our society. Making a good faith effort to return a misplaced item should be the norm. It makes sense from looking at it from an Utilitarian perspective: for most people the gratification from returning an item far outweigh the search costs to find the rightful owner, whose utility will be greatly increased by the transaction.

So, next time you find a missing item and return it to the owner out of good faith try your hardest (barring any physical violence) to refuse any reward. Tell them that as a way to pay it forward they can do the same when they find a missing item. That will be how we’ll build a society where doing the right thing is the norm and not something that has to be rewarded with anything beyond a profuse thank you.

Comments or questions? Send them to me @jeremysjacob