Boy’s Life magazine? Mutt and Jeff comic strip? Mulla Nasreddin? Esar’s Joke Dictionary?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a brilliant comical allegory that depicts the biases inherent in many types of scientific research:
A police officer sees a drunken man intently searching the ground near a lamppost and asks him the goal of his quest. The inebriate replies that he is looking for his car keys, and the officer helps for a few minutes without success then he asks whether the man is certain that he dropped the keys near the lamppost.
“No,” is the reply, “I lost the keys somewhere across the street.” “Why look here?” asks the surprised and irritated officer. “The light is much better here,” the intoxicated man responds with aplomb.
Some scientific research is shaped by the need to perform replicable measurements. But these measurements do not always accurately reflect the phenomenon that is being investigated. The term “streetlight effect” is sometimes used to name this form of observational bias. Can you determine who crafted this clever story?
Quote Investigator: Trying to find the earliest instance of a tale is very difficult. But QI will make an effort and share the provisional results. On May 24, 1924 a Massachusetts newspaper printed an instance with a Boston setting. A police officer saw a man on his hands and knees “groping about” around midnight and asked him about his unusual behavior: 1
“I lost a $2 bill down on Atlantic avenue,” said the man.
“What’s that?” asked the puzzled officer. “You lost a $2 bill on Atlantic avenue? Then why are you hunting around here in Copley square?”
“Because,” said the man as he turned away and continued his hunt on his hands and knees, “the light’s better up here.”
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
On October 2, 1924 an instance of the tale was printed in a newspaper in Pennsylvania with a setting of Hollywood Boulevard in California. A policeman approached a man in the early morning: 2
The Englishman had evidently had a few synthetic ones and was holding onto a lamp post looking intently on the ground. So he went up to him with, “What’s the matter, brother”? “I say, old top”, said the Englishman, “it’s a most ‘strornary thing, but I’ve lost a dollar bill and I can’t find the bally thing”. The officer helped him look for it, but there was no sign of it, and asked, “Are you sure you lost it here”?
“No”, answered the Englishman, “I lost it on Shunset boulvar”. “Then why the devil are you looking for it here”? asked the cop.
“Well, you see, ole man, the light s’much better here”.
On February 21, 1925 a New York newspaper printed an instance with a Manhattan setting: 3
“A few night ago a drunken man—there are lots of them everywhere nowadays—was crawling on his hands and knees under the bright light at Broadway and Thirty-fifth street. He told an inquiring policeman he had lost his watch at Twenty third street and was looking for it. The policeman asked why he didn’t go to Twenty-third street to look. The man replied, ‘The light is better here.’
On September 28, 1927 a compressed version of the story was published in a Connecticut newspaper: 4
He said he was like the drunken man who was found at 42nd street and Broadway, searching for a dime in the gutter. When asked by a policeman where he lost the dime the man replied that he lost it on 33rd street. The drunk replied that the light was better at 42nd street.
In 1932 “Boys’ Life” magazine published by the Boy Scouts of America printed an instance that fit the template of this humorous anecdote. The two characters were “Mr. Sniff” and “Mr. Snoop” and neither, apparently, was impaired by alcohol: 5
MR. SNIFF: What are you looking for?
MR. SNOOP: A five-dollar bill.
MR. SNIFF: Are you sure you lost it on this street?
MR SNOOP: Oh no! I lost it in the next block, but I’m lookin’ up here because the light is better.
In 1942 a version of the joke appeared in the popular syndicated comic strip “Mutt and Jeff”. Jeff is on his hands and knees, and he explains to a policeman that he is looking for a quarter that he dropped. In response to inquiries from the policeman Jeff explains that he dropped the quarter two blocks down the street, but he is looking for it under the lamppost because the “light is better here”: 6
In 1942 the film “L’Assassin Habite… Au 21” directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot was released in France, and it included a scene with a version of the joke. 7 A policeman approached a character named Jean Baptiste who was sitting adjacent to a streetlight fixture on a strut that projected from the wall and supported the lamp above the street. The policeman asked Jean Baptiste what he was doing up there.
He initially replied that he was waiting for a bus and then stated he was looking for something. The policeman enquired “What?” “My matchbox. The light is better up here” was the reply. In French the search object was: “ma boîte d’allumettes”.
In 1945 Evan Esar, the industrious collector of quotations and anecdotes, included a version of the tale in “Esar’s Joke Dictionary”. The modified spelling used in the following excerpt was intended to depict slurred speech. 8
A policeman saw a drunk crawling about in the gutter under a lamppost and asked him what he was doing. “Lookin’ for a quarter I losh,” replied the drunk. “Where’d you lose it?” inquired the cop. “‘Bout a block down th’ shtreet,” was the answer. “Then why look here?” insisted the officer. “‘Cause there’s lotsh more light here,” explained the drunk, continuing his search.
In 1954 the famous psychologist Abraham H. Maslow referenced the jest in his text “Motivation and Personality”. The story was compressed to a short expression within a single sentence, but the allusion was clear: 9
Ultimately this must remind us of the famous drunk who looked for his wallet, not where he had lost it, but under the street lamp, “because the light is better there,” or of the doctor who gave all his patients fits because that was the only sickness he knew how to cure.
In 1956 a Canadian newspaper columnist wrote about prospecting for uranium in Canada and quoted the words of a geologist named Frederick H. Pough: 10
The moral is: if you must prospect for uranium, at least look where it is likely to be and worth finding if it is there. Don’t be like the drunk who drops his key in the middle of the block and looks for it under the corner lamp post because the light is better there.
In 1967 the President of the American Radium Society addressed its members and mentioned a version of the anecdote: 11
I am reminded of an ancient story. It tells of a man on hands and knees scratching around in the dirt. A friend asked, “What are you doing?” I am looking for my key.” “Where did you lose it?” the friend asked. “Up there near the house.” “Then why are you looking for it down here?” “The light is better here!”
In 1989 a book titled “Classic Tales of Mulla Nasreddin” was published, and it included an interesting variant of the anecdote translated from Persian: 12
Mulla had lost his ring in the living room. He searched for it for a while, but since he could not find it, he went out into the yard and began to look there. His wife, who saw what he was doing, asked: “Mulla, you lost your ring in the room, why are you looking for it in the yard?”
Mulla stroked his beard and said: “The room is too dark and I can’t see very well. I came out to the courtyard to look for my ring because there is much more light out here.”
The folklore character Nasreddin exists in multiple cultures according to the introduction by Diane L. Wilcox: 13
Mulla Nasreddin’s humor has traversed national and ethnic boundaries throughout the Middle East and beyond. In Turkey, for instance, he is known as Nasrettin Hoca, and in other parts of the Middle East, as Khaji Nasriddin. His fame has even spread as far as China, where, reportedly, a Chinese version of his anecdotes has been published.
More than one origin for Nasreddin has been advanced. Some contend he was born in the Province of Sivrihisar in the year 1208. The set of stories associated with the figure has evolved over time, and it is not clear when this particular tale was placed in the collection:
Not only are the traditional stories told and retold, but every generation, in fact, invents new stories and adds to the compendium of Mulla Nasreddin’s folk wisdom.
In conclusion, this post represents a snapshot of the evidence located by QI and correspondents. Antedating is quite likely. Currently, the earliest known documented instances of the tale are in 1924. But an earlier origin is possible because the story can be expressed in many ways and the vocabulary used is variable. Also, earlier instances of the anecdote featuring Mulla Nasreddin may be located by future researchers.
(Great thanks to Andrew Steinberg who located examples in the 1920s when the earliest known had been in 1932, e.g., he found, instances on February 21, 1925 and September 28, 1927. Thanks to Laurence Horn whose remark on this topic catalyzed this exploration. Special thanks to Paul Johnson for pointing out the presence of the jest in the 1942 film. Much thanks to Dave Lull who pointed to the anecdote associated with Nasrudin.)
Update History: On April 29, 2013 citations were added for May 24, 1924; October 2, 1924; February 21, 1925; and September 28, 1927. On May 20, 2013 the citation for Mulla Nasreddin in 1989 was added.
- 1924 May 24, Boston Herald, Whiting’s Column: Tammany Has Learned That This Is No Time for Political Bosses, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1924 October 2, National Labor Tribune, Better Light, Quote Page 5, Column, 6, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1925 February 21, Kingston Daily Freeman, Washington’s Birthday (article continued from page 1), Quote Page 7, Column 1, Kingston, New York. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1927 September 28, Bridgeport Telegram, Promises Made By Democrats Futile Republicans Aver, Quote Page 2 (NArch Page 10), Column 5, Bridgeport, Connecticut. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1932 October, Boys’ Life, Volume 22, Number 10, Think and Grin, Edited by F. J. Rigney, Bright Idea, Quote Page 36, Published by the Boy Scouts of America, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1942 June 3, Florence Morning News, Mutt and Jeff Comic Strip, Page 7, Florence, South Carolina. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1942, Film in French: “L’Assassin Habite… Au 21”, Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Adapted by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Stanislas-André Steeman from a novel by Steeman, (Scene occurs at 13 minute mark of 1 hour 20 minute version), Films Sonores Tobis. (English version of film released in 1947 as “The Murderer Lives at Number 21”) (Data form IMDB) ↩
- 1945, Esar’s Joke Dictionary by Evan Esar, Quote Page 140, Harvest House, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1954, Motivation and Personality, by Abraham H. Maslow, Quote Page 16, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1956 March 3, Lethbridge Herald, The Packsack by Gregory Clark, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Lethbridge, Alberta. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1968, January, American Journal of Roentgenology: Radium Therapy and Nuclear Medicine, Volume 102, “The Light Is Better Here: the President’s Address, 1967” by Milton Friedman, M.D., (Presented at the Forty-ninth Annual Meeting of the American Radium Society, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, May 29-31, 1967), Start Page 3, Quote Page 3, American Roentgen Ray Society, ARRS. link ↩
- 1989, Classic Tales of Mulla Nasreddin, Retold by Houman Farzad, Translated from Persian by Diane L. Wilcox, Looking for the Missing Ring, Quote Page 26, Mazda Publishers, Costa Mesa, California. (Verified with scans; thanks to Stephen Goranson and Duke University library system) ↩
- 1989, Classic Tales of Mulla Nasreddin, Retold by Houman Farzad, Translated from Persian by Diane L. Wilcox, Looking for the Missing Ring, Quote Page v, Mazda Publishers, Costa Mesa, California. (Verified with scans; thanks to Stephen Goranson and Duke University library system) ↩