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‘Lost’ wallet study finds majority of people are honest

The United States’ return rate — 57 percent — was closer to the high end than the low end of the countries on the list, but Americans were still less honest than the residents of most European countries, as well as people living in Canada and Australia.

On average, the likelihood of a wallet being returned rose from 40 percent when it contained no money to 51 percent when it did.
Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

A real-life experiment of civic honesty involving thousands of people in 40 countries has turned up a surprising — and humanity-affirming — finding: Not only are a significant proportion of people around the world likely to return a lost wallet to its owner, they are particularly likely to do so if the wallet contains money.

And the more money in the wallet, the greater the chances that the finder will try to track down its owner.

“The evidence suggests that people tend to care about the welfare of others, and they have an aversion to seeing themselves as a thief,” said Alain Cohn, the study’s lead author and a behavioral economist at the University of Michigan, in an interview with CBS News.

As Cohn and his co-authors point out in their paper, which was published last week in the journal Science, their study’s findings go against classic economic models that suggest “all else equal, honest behavior will become less common as the material incentives for dishonesty increase.”

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The findings also counter what the public believes most individuals will do in such situations.

People around the world appear to be more honest than we (or our economists) think.

How the study was done

Previous research on how financial incentives influence rates of honest behavior has been done mostly in laboratory settings where the participants know their behavior is being watched — a factor that may result in them acting differently than they would in “real-world” settings. That research has also mostly involved people living in Western, educated, industrialized and democratic countries.

To overcome those limitations, Cohn and his co-researchers decided to conduct their study in naturalistic settings across the globe. They sent research assistants to 355 cities in 40 countries, where they turned in 17,303 “lost” wallets (about 400 per country) to employees at various social institutions, including banks, museums, post offices, hotels and police stations.

“After walking into the building, one of our research assistants (from a pool of eleven male and two female assistants) approached an employee at the counter and said, ‘Hi, I found this [pointing to the wallet] on the street around the corner,’ Cohn and his colleagues explain in their paper. “The wallet was then placed on the counter and pushed over to the employee. ‘Somebody must have lost it. I’m in a hurry and have to go. Can you please take care of it?’ The research assistant then left the building without leaving contact details or asking for a receipt.”

The wallets had either no money or a small amount  — the equivalent of $13.45 in U.S. money, adjusted according to each country’s purchasing power. Each wallet also contained three identical business cards with an email and local phone number for the “owner.” The wallets were transparent, which meant the recipient didn’t have to open the wallet to see the cards or the money. Also in the wallet were a grocery list and a key.

Key findings

Cohn and his colleagues waited 100 days after each “drop-off” to see if the person who had been given the wallet attempted to contact its owner. The results, as they say in their paper, were “remarkably consistent.”

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“[C]itizens were overwhelmingly more likely to report lost wallets with money than without,” they write. That was true for 38 out of the 40 countries in the study. The exceptions were Peru and Mexico, but those results were not statistically significant, the researchers point out.

On average, the likelihood of a wallet being returned rose from 40 percent when it contained no money to 51 percent when it did.

The return rates did vary among countries, however. People living in Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand were the most honest about returning wallets with money, seeking out the owners between 75 and 82 percent of the time. Those living in China, Peru, Kazakhstan and Kenya were the least honest, returning only around 20 percent of the wallets with money.

The United States’ return rate — 57 percent — was closer to the high end than the low end of the countries on the list, but Americans were still less honest than the residents of most European countries, as well as people living in Canada and Australia.

Russians also returned more wallets than we did.

The researchers thought that perhaps so many wallets were being returned because the amount of money in them was not large enough to be financially meaningful. So they increased the money in three countries — the United States, the United Kingdom, and Poland — to the equivalent of $94.15.

The reporting rates rose even higher — to an average of 72 percent. (When the amount was $13.45, those three countries had an average return rate of 61 percent.)

Possible reasons why

What is driving all this honesty?

“When people stand to heavily profit from engaging in dishonest behavior, the desire to cheat increases but so do the psychological costs of viewing oneself as a thief — and sometimes the latter will dominate the former,” the researchers write.

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They were able to rule out several other possible explanations — that the recipients of the wallets were worried about legal penalties for not returning the item, for example, or that the recipients expected a “finder’s fee” that would be greater than the amount in the wallet.

But the researchers did find that altruism — a selfless concern for the well-being of others — played a secondary role. To test that possibility, they conducted yet another experiment in the U.S., U.K. and Poland in which some of the wallets with money contained a key and others didn’t.

“Unlike money, the key is valuable to the owner but not to the recipient, and so any difference between the Money and Money-NoKey conditions can be ascribed to altruistic concerns,” they write.

This experiment revealed that the recipients were 9 percent more likely to report a wallet with a key than without one — a finding that “suggests that recipients reported a lost wallet partly because [they] are concerned about the harm they impose on the owner,” the researchers conclude.

All of these findings — which the researchers acknowledge surprised them — appear to reject the idea that self-interest always drives economic-related human behavior.

As On Amir, a marketing professor at the University of California, San Diego, who has researched dishonest behavior and was not involved in the current study, told Newsweek reporter Kashmira Gander, most people would expect that the wallets would not be returned because they “entertain the view of humans as self-interested via immediate economic outcomes, and fail to take into account that people also manage their own view of themselves.”

“This is important because it means that in order to improve society, instead of relying on threat and punishment, we can educate and promote moral standards and that would carry significant positive effect for all,” Amir said. “That even an empty wallet was returned more than half of the times strengthened the optimist in me.”

FMI: You can read the study in full on Science’s website.