How Petrified Wood Gives You a Guilty Conscience

(Photo: Petrified Forest)

A reader and podcast listener named Paul Tucker writes to say:

While listening to the “Herd Mentality” podcast piece about the Petrified Forest National Park, I thought you missed a very pertinent display at the park. At the south entrance to the National Park the visitor center has the Rainbow Forest Museum. In the museum there is a room dedicated completely to the theft of petrified wood. It is called the Guilt Room. The room is filled with pieces of petrified wood and the packages they arrived in and their accompanying letters of remorse and contrition by people who are trying to assuage their guilt by returning the offensive fossils.

The site links to a Tucson Weekly article, which includes this bit:

One woman returned a piece of wood that her sister had stolen on her honeymoon trip in 1958. The marriage collapsed and ended in a bitter divorce, and for 20 years the sister was involved in a live-in relationship with an abusive man. “I don’t know if any of these unfortunate things happened as a result of the wood,” said the letter, “but I do know that it was a negative thing to bring into the family.”

This is all particularly interesting since the entire podcast episode was about the use of guilt and shame to produce pro-social behavior. I guess there’s a new category of incentive to consider: deferred guilt.

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  1. interesting ! I think this mechanism has been used effectively in many culture throughout human history. When I was a kid I remember going to this small island called l
    Koh hin ngam, covered by valuable beautiful polished black stone, in thailand.there was a sign giving whoever taking any black stone out of the island, tour guide telling anecdote of this wealthy man who tried to take a boat full of the stones. The boat sank

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  2. Ken says:

    What the story leaves out, (as reported by Stephen Jay Gould in his natural history book ‘Eight Little Piggies’) is that petrified wood, like most fossils, is readily found outside national parks in areas where anyone may freely collect it.

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