Couple Spends $120K Bank Error and Faces Felony Charges, Moral Crisis

pa couple goes on shopping spree after teller types wrong account number

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A Pennsylvania couple received and spent a $120,000 bank error in their favor, CNN reported. The couple found themselves far richer after a teller in Georgia typed in the wrong account number for a customer’s deposit. They face felony charges, and the situation raises questions of morality.

Female banker calculating with laptop at desk
The value systems that people hold directly determine their behavior choices when it comes to questions of morality and money. Photo by Pattarawat / Shutterstock

Most of us have heard some version of a popular hypothetical question that aims to make us think about our own morals and values: If you found a bag of money in the street, what would you do with it? Something close to it happened late this spring when Robert and Tiffany Williams of Montoursville, PA, received a $120,000 deposit due to a bank error. According to CNN, the Pennsylvania couple received the sum on May 31 and spent it on “an SUV, a camper, two four-wheelers, and a car trailer.” Now, the couple faces felony theft charges as well as overdraft fees of about $107,000. The courts will determine the Williams’ fates, but the case leads us to consider if and how we’d justify such actions—and for which reasons.

Schwartz’s 10 Universal Values

Each person’s system of morals comes from several values they consider to be more or less important than others. Several groups and models of value systems have been developed and used in psychological studies over the years. However, according to Dr. Mark Leary, the Garonzik Family Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, current psychology leans towards a set of 10 universal values that were developed by social psychologist Shalom Schwartz of Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Those 10 values include: security, self-direction, hedonism, tradition, achievement, power, conformity, stimulation (or excitement), benevolence, and universalism. Most of these terms are familiar, but some may sound new.

Dr. Leary defines self-direction as the ability to make your own decisions. He also said that the difference between benevolence and universalism is that the former involves taking care of people you know, while the latter means looking out for the welfare of all people, including strangers, as well as animals and nature.

“These basic values encompass most other moral values that we might think of such as honesty, kindness, loyalty, and generosity,” Dr. Leary said. “For purposes of understanding human behavior, the important thing is that every person’s values are arranged in a hierarchy of importance.”

Five Moral Dimensions

Our hierarchy of values informs whether we deem an action as morally right or wrong. We apply our personal values to five “moral dimensions” or moral foundations, which are a sort of checklist of consequences brought on by the action in question.

“The first one involves whether an action helped or harmed another person,” Dr. Leary said. “Just about everybody, everywhere, thinks that unjustifiably harming other people is wrong, and that being kind and caring is moral. The second universal moral foundation involves fairness—virtually everybody would say that fairness and justice are moral, and unfairness and injustice are immoral.”

While most people answer the first two questions when making a moral decision, the other three are more selective. “The third moral foundation involves loyalty to the groups to which one belongs—one’s family, team, nation, whatever,” Dr. Leary said. “Everybody thinks that loyalty is generally a good thing, but is loyalty to your group a moral issue or just a social one? Should you loyally defend a family member or friend, even if he or she does something terrible?”

The fourth moral dimension deals with following tradition and obeying legitimate authority. Dr. Leary mentioned that some parents are deeply affected when their grown children choose not to follow a family tradition, seeing this eschewing of tradition as morally wrong, where other parents simply dislike the break in tradition.

“The fifth and final foundation involves sanctity or spiritual purity,” Dr. Leary said. “Some people regard certain actions as morally wrong even if they don’t hurt anybody, because their actions seem inherently dirty, impure, or immoral.” Examples here could include gambling, engaging in casual sex, or looking at pornography.

Making moral decisions may happen quickly in our minds, but they come from a dynamic set of values we’ve developed in the course of our individual existence. Schwartz’s universal values and the five moral dimensions are major components in our decision-making, whether we realize it or not. If nothing else, being aware of them could influence what you do if you find that bag of money in the street.

Dr. Mark Leary contributed to this article. Dr. Leary is Garonzik Family Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Psychology from West Virginia Wesleyan College and his master’s and doctoral degrees in Social Psychology from the University of Florida.