The Company You Keep (And Where You Keep It)

letterImagine that you are walking down the street and suddenly you see a letter on the ground. It is addressed and stamped, but clearly (obviously) has not been mailed. It appears that the person who was planning on sending the letter dropped it.

Would you mail the letter?

In one survey of American college students, 95% of those asked said yes, they would mail the letter.

Now consider what actually happened when some researchers did an experiment to test this. They took 100 letters, addressed and stamped, and put them on the ground around some college dorms (small apartments for university students, usually owned by the college). Some of the dorms had very few students in them, while others were very crowded (had lots of students living there).

The letters around the near-empty dorms were almost all picked up and mailed by the students living there. But only 60% of the letters around the crowded dorms were posted (mailed) by the students.

What’s going on here?

As Adam Alter explains, it appears that people in crowded dorms felt “less connected” or linked to their fellow (sharing the same condition or situation) students. Students in the less crowded dorms felt more connected to the students around them, probably due to the smaller number of students living there.

Alter says that where we are shapes (influences; affects) who we are. Changing your environment can change your behavior, even for things we may think are inherent in (deeply or permanently part of) us and our personalities, such as whether we are kind or generous or thoughtful (think about helping others).

Just as the physical surroundings (environment) changes us, so does the “personal” environment we are in. Our behavior and actions change based on (due to; because of) the people we are with.

Smart parents know, for example, that the kinds of friends their child has will influence their child’s behavior. They try to make sure their children’s friends are not the “wrong crowd,” the kind of children who would negatively influence their own child.

Writer and researcher Frank Smith once said that “we learn from the company we keep.” The word company, you probably know, can mean a business organization, but here it means the people who are with us – our friends, co-workers, and neighbors. The “company we keep” are the people who are around you, the people you spend your time with.

We’d all like to think that as we get older, we become less influenced by where we are and those around us, that we develop our own set of principles (ideas that guide us). But is this really true? Perhaps we need to do the “lost letter” experiment around some retirement homes (places for people who no longer work due to their age) and see what happens.


Photo credit: Letter from The Noun Project, PD



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15 Responses to The Company You Keep (And Where You Keep It)

  1. Dan says:

    Thanks Jeff Hi guys.

    I feel like saying that’s probably true.

    First thing comes to mind is when we drive our car. At times I have noticed that when I am driving I am more aggressive, judgmental, rude more in a hurry.

    Onother exaple could be the act of looting. Do you rememver what happened a few years ago in London? The riots and looting and burning down from this youg guys.

    Probably most of those persons taken alone are like submissive sheep. But in gangs they -WE- became wolves.

    For now it’s all. This is what I think.

    Thank you all classmates.

    Dan Italy

  2. emiliano says:

    Jeff, I have a question about the experiment.

    Did the letters not posted remain on the surroundings, just on the floor till the moment
    they were throw to the rubish or the students pick up the letters, throw the letters to the rubish
    (sure not) or have the letters to their own just to open them and know what was written on them?.
    Where the letters of unknown people or not?. I suppose the letters could be from the other
    students on the college.

    Some times it could be curiosity, gossip, not luck of solidarity or good behaviour to the other
    people who are living with us.
    Less students, less gossips, each one to their own business and so on.

    May be I am not so good thinker and I know that curiosity or gossips could be really strong between
    people who know each other. A secret could be a good card to exchange or to tell about with other.

    If the experiment would be between retired homes, as you suggested, be sure that not a single
    letter should be posted. Retired homes are full of bored old persons that have nothing to talk
    about, so nothing better than to gossip and talk about the other….this is some how consubstantial with
    people, the more older and boring the more curious and more gossiping among them.

    The gossip woman or man in a condominium or chalet urbanizations use to be older, despite sometimes
    it could be also a young one but it is odd. Gossip people use to be bored persons, or people that want
    to have something against the other, like in a crouded college.

    My best dear Jeff, and think about it.


  3. Peter says:

    Interesting !!!
    Depending what the letter contains the respond would be different in crowded and quite dorms alike.

    Just imagine if the letter laying around on the ground is a couple of C-notes. What happens then?
    How would the result turn out then.
    They should push the experiment a bit harder. They should test the limit.
    Just imaging students or a fellow passerby stumbles upon an envelop. And , once he feels the envelop he realized that there must be some greens inside. :)))
    I believe, then , the percentage of people who take the humanitarian action would drop significantly.
    The experiment is totally subjective since the result is heavily subject to the content of the envelo, the mood of the finder , and tons of other factors that affect the Decision making process at the moment. Perhaps the letter is not a letter but it is a post-dated black check :)) or it enclosed some valuables along with the letter like gem stones or sth .
    As the nature of human dictates , I can conclude that of all finder of the letter almost all of them try to hold up the Lester against the rays of sun to see what it contains. Even if it is cloudy , trust me , we find a way.

    One way it another to see to it ;)))
    I don’t want to discuss the merit of some hypothetical scenario hero.
    Plus, I m not trying to zero in on the weakness of the argument. All I m saying is there are so many variables to the experiment that make fact -extracting rather fact-findings close to impossible.
    Don’t you think The mode in which the individuals find the envelope is decisive factor as to wether she/he throws the letter away , tear it apart , leave it untouched , or tend to it.
    Take me for example ,if I find a letter at this very moment chances are that I make it disappear because I m in a foul mood right now , as I received a phone call from student loan people that I defaulted on my last moth payment.
    But , yesterday I made certain that the letter reaches the hands of people it was meant to ,in other words, reaches its destinations simply because I had a fun day .

    I think I made my point here

    Ta Ta

  4. Lassana says:

    Hi Everybody,

    Thanks Jeff ! This topic is very interesting.

    There is an expression in french which is ” tell me who are your friends and I’ll tell you who you are ”

    I think in most cases this expression in right because sometimes in a group of friends there are a few people who are not influenced by bad guys and later they prefer leave this bad group.

    The environment has also an influence on us. Currently I’m in holidays with my family in south of France in a small village named ” Grau du Roi ” which is located near to ” Montpellier “. There are many beaches and the weather is very well with much sun.

    This environment makes us feel good and happy !

    Goodbye from sunny beaches !

    See you soon.

  5. Parviz says:

    Hi Jeff
    Haven’t you been told that you are a mind reader? Well get used to it.
    “where we are shapes who we are” is a thoughtful quote. The influence of “where we are” on our behavior may not be 100% as to control us completely, but it somehow controls some important attributes. Our conditioning controls our thinking which in turn shapes our logic, productivity, perception and so forth.
    I can refer to these conditioning as conditions, circumstances and environment or CCE. When CCE changes so does the behavior as a consequence of thinking shift. When we live in a place for a long time we develop habits adapted to that CCE, and will get the same results if we continue behaving the same.
    Needless to say, most of the people in the same situation develop virtually similar behaviors. That’s why we witness cultural differences in different countries, cities or even neighborhoods.
    Once upon a time, I started a business in a small city where people have difficulty making ends meet. My business, though well-designed and computerized, failed to bankruptcy, mainly because I had grown up in a place where many citizens were affluent, and opened a business in a place where people were mostly turning the wheel just to stay on this planet. Of course, I needed people to contact with, but the products I was offering were so expensive, way more than their life style.
    Then I moved in to a place where other people and I have the same attitudes. And because of that I was able to survive and then thrive.
    Thank you,

  6. emiliano says:

    That´s good Lassana, we have the same saying here in Spain but of course when there is sayinng in a way there is always another in the different way.
    Probable you may have also the saying that tells “every sheep with his/her similar sheep” so possible people, young, or others look for people they are
    feeling good with.
    It is not necessary for a girl, or a boy, to go with prostitutes to be a prostitute or go with abusers to be an abuser or go with rapists to be a rapist. No,
    this is not necessary, as usually girls do not go with prostitutes as an option, or usually people that are round us are not rapist or abusers.
    Each person has something inside him/her that makes he or her being what they are, berore or later the rule is that.
    A bad boy is more easy being with friends like him, the same as a bad girl she feels better surrounded by girls or women like her.
    May be that´s the meaning of the saying you mentioned so good…….If I see your friends, the people you are easy /confortable, I could imagine how
    you are.
    Of course people influenced in the right or bad way to other but we always have the option of choose with which one we are easy or feel better accordingly
    to the fact of “how we really are”. God gives people the option of free will, we are not obliged to stay with these or them, no there is always a will to be
    with our similar group, the group we feel better because there are like me or like you.
    I don´t think people living in a small condominium are better tan people living a big one. The same as people living a small village are better than people
    living a big town. Faults, sins, thieves, abusers, criminals exist both sites with few or great multitudes, but as much number of people living together
    it is natural there are more bad persons that is a mathematics true. it is a question of statistics only.

    Even the the average is not usually so, less persons more sins, why?. That is another question, could be more posibilities of knowing each other better
    and there are more posibilities of testing our real feelings.
    There is also a saying that tells: “small site big hell” and some times great violence it is inside home, little villages, or among relatives.

    Well that´s my point of view, of course, if inside I am not a prostitute, an abuser or a thief it is difficult you´ll see me with them since the begining.
    No, first I am by personal circunstances and after you´ll see me with them because I feel better with my similar people. Just people that feels or
    act the same like me. Usually we don´t eat the food we dislike, we don´t do bad habits, despite I am a weak person without any will.
    Character, will, personality defines a person, what he or her is going to be. It is so easy to say……..he, her, me, have been with bad companies or
    bad friends that ihave nfluenced me.
    Of course that is the most easy way of justify ourselves, our behaviour, sorry but I don´t agree with that.
    May be, why not, I am wrong but being a child, a boy, or an adult, I have always the chance of choosing the people I like to stay or I like to have
    like friends. Always friends have told me good virtudes to follow, but first I have choosen them.

    My best, emiliano

  7. emiliano says:

    By the way, I have not a bad opinión about prostitutes, that is a way of living and it has nothing to be with being a good or a bad person, an abuser or
    or a thief, or similar.
    No, don´t take me wrong, it has been a bad, really bad example, prostitutes could be right good persons why not. Poor girl that the only way they have
    found to live had been this profession.
    No, I mean other kind of “prostitution”….the bad girl or woman that do her will because they like to enjoy this kind of living, cheating on their husbands
    or boyfriends, just the same as men who do that with their wives or girlfriends.
    There are many kinds of prostitution, some times to get a better job, a better position inside the office or the work and so forth.

    Sorry about my first words, I DO NOT think prostitutes are bad persons, I don´t mean that of course, but may be they feel themselves some how like
    being unconfortable with their style of life and they prefer to be with similar poor girls or woman that do the same to make their living.
    Make a living doing that, the same for men that for women, have to be very very hard. That´s my opinión about the subject.

    Please, don´t be offended by my first words, it has been not a good argument.


  8. Richard says:

    Fabulous,thanks Jeff.What a way of describing the influence of company.

  9. Dan says:

    Hi guys,

    Me again, sorry but i could not resist the urge of writing something down.

    I must confess that at times I let myself getting influenced by my female cat.

    I get transformed like a submissive slave. She orders and I fulfil her desires.

    I think I already wrote something similar in the past.

    Hey Lassana have a good holiday. I am staying home as I am doing for a bunch of years already.

    I am extremely frugal in my habit.

    Bye guys.

  10. emiliano says:

    Dan when you have a dog or a cat living at home it is natural that this animal have some good influence on us. Sometimes the animal gives us joy.
    Every morning gatufo goes close to me every room of the house with his tail up happily walking at the same time like me.
    Yes, living with a cat or even better living with my Cuca has an incredible good influence on me.
    There is something about us that other living being haven´t it is freedom to choose our friends, our couple and so forth. We have not freedom to choose
    our parents, brothers / sisters, or relatives. They are with us when we were born, but every momento we could choose the people we like to be, and it
    means good or bad influence on us.
    Bad? Good? these terms are relatives. My soul isn´t yours, my conscience isn´t yours, my values aren´t yours. So every one is a world and what is
    good for you could be bad for me or vice versa.
    If I am lucky enough to choose good because my will is good not perverse, it will revert on me giving good influence. In fact I am a better person from the
    momento I choose Cuca as my friend and lover espouse, I hope to have done the same effect on her.

    That is the point, we are responsable of the people we choose as friends, partners or couple for life.

    We, the people who are in this blog, reading, writing, or listening to the ESL lessons have choosen this site because we think it is the best, but also
    because our professors are nice, good persons, funny and we do like them as persons with their own personality.

    My best dear Jeff, teacher and friend and the same to every one of you good persons that reflect your good feeling and souls when you open your
    hearts here.
    Every one of you, so many along the seven or eight years I have been in the Blog reading and writing, have transmited me good sensations, good
    feelings or advises.
    Thanks to every one of you, all of you than I couldn´t remember all the names. Good people, good feelings, good souls, good influence after all.
    No body tell us be here, in ESL blog, we remain inside it because our spirit is so…..also good. That´s the truth.


  11. Willy says:

    I think you’re right Jeff. We always are affected by the crowd we join. No matter what our age is. However I think when we grow we become a bit more indipendent but total indipendence is impossible.
    Space, time and people where we live always affect our behaviour.

  12. Tania says:

    Hi! Dear Jeff, very, very interesting topics.
    Unfortunately, I can’t access our blog for two weeks.

    I miss you, I miss you all.

    All the best for you,


  13. sutisha says:

    Hi guys,

    Thank you Jeff. It’s true that I’ve learned a lot from the company I love keep
    and endure to keep. LOL I also learn a lot from you … all guys …


    Amazing Emiliano, In the world of movies, you hold a lot more information than
    I do. the other day I watched El Cid directed by Anthony Mann with Charlton Heston
    and Sophia Loren and West Side Story for today. Natalie Wood is one of my favorite actresses.

    Best regards,

  14. Wang says:

    Well…I think it is absolutely a complex topic! why?

    come to think of it, when you are living in a crowded community, I guess you will set your guard more higher than usual

    why? you just don’t wanna get involved into any troubles! that is understandable! so, what is gonna happen when you see sth on the ground

    pick it up, then the policemen show up? who knows? it can be an evidence of a criminal that they r looking for and you just unintentionally fool yourself,

    getting into unwanted situation…who are gonna be there help you then? no, no one! so you can say that they are all selfish, somehow, it is true

    but on a second thought, another positive aspect, they are just keeping themselves shying away from burdensome!

    You know nowadays, it is hard to make a statement about someone, who knows, they may look good on the surface, but deep inside them, they are slime-bags?! criminals are every corners

    And another reason to excuse those selfish people is that there are many more things that we could bear to keep an eye on all at a time! so, just focus on our duties

    rushing straight to our destinations and heading straight back our departing places! maybe, another person would take care of it! time flies, so we just even don’t have enough time to keep tracks

    on our things, we all have to keep pace with the time!

    On the contrary, the persons who are living in small community, everything is just slow down a little bit I guess

    You have enough space, time to cultivate your own soul and therefore, it is abundant, redundant…

    and that kind of soul make you want to care for the people willingly…! you are content with what you have, you don’t need running with time 😀

    Anyway, this is really a complicated subject!

    BTW, Emiliano, I disagree with you on that matter! the prostitutes!

    I mean, there are many things they can do, they just need time to get used to labor work so they can earn their lives easily

    But they just do not want to adapt themselves…they just wanna to “have fun” and “have money” simultaneously

    Of course, they have to do some works in that process, you may think so but, for me, it is not the works that leads people into a much better world.

    That is kinds of work will ruin our society as being haunted by pornography, explicitly sexual materials….all day long

    But, I have to admit that sex is an art subject and each artist has to know how to play it well! I just don’t wanna you guys consider it as a legal, rightful job to bring breads to your table!

    Best regards!


  15. sutisha says:

    Thank you, Wang.

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