People globally return 'lost' wallets more as money increases

Moral concerns override desire to profit from finding a lost wallet
Wallet (front), Money condition. Credit: Christian Zünd

The setup of a research study was a bit like the popular ABC television program "What Would You Do?"—minus the television cameras and big reveal in the end.

An international team of behavioral scientists turned 17,303 "lost" wallets containing varying amounts of money into public and private institutions in 355 cities across 40 countries. Their goal was to see just how honest the people who handled them would be when it came to returning the "missing" property to their owners. The results were not quite what they expected.

"Honesty is important for economic development and more generally for how society functions in almost all relationships," said Alain Cohn, assistant professor at the U-M School of Information. "Yet, it often is in conflict with individual self-interest."

The wallets either contained no money, a small amount ($13.45) or a larger sum ($94.15). Each wallet had a transparent face revealing a grocery list along with three business cards with a fictitious person's name, title and an email address printed on them.

Research assistants posed as the wallet finders, hurriedly dropping them off in such places as banks, theaters, museums or other cultural establishments, post offices, hotels, , courts of law or other public offices so as to avoid having to leave their own contact information. Most of the activity occurred in 5-8 of the largest cities in each country, totaling approximately 400 observations per country.

The experiment on honesty most likely represents the truest picture of how people respond when no one is looking, and the results were surprising in more ways than one, researchers report in the current issue of Science.

Initially, the researchers went into the experiment expecting to find a dollar value at which participants would be inclined to keep the money, believing the prevailing thought that the more cash in the wallet, the more tempting it would be for the recipients to take it and run.

Moral concerns override desire to profit from finding a lost wallet
Wallet (content), BigMoney condition. Credit: Christian Zünd

Instead, the team from U-M, the University of Zurich and the University of Utah found that in nearly all of the countries, the wallets with greater amounts of money were more likely to be returned.

In 38 of 40 countries, citizens overwhelmingly were more likely to report lost wallets with money than without. Overall across the globe, 51% of those who were handed a wallet with the smaller amount of money reported it, compared with 40% of those that received no money. When the wallet contained a large sum of money, the rate of return increased to 72%.

"The psychological forces—an aversion to not viewing oneself as a thief—can be stronger than the financial ones," said co-corresponding author Michel André Maréchal of the University of Zurich.

Not all wallets in the field experiment were returned, however. Among the other surprises were some of the places where people were not so honest. Wallets dropped off at the Vatican and at two anti-corruption bureaus were among those that never made their way back to the "rightful owners."

Cohn said unlike other research of its kind, in which people knew they were being observed—usually in laboratory settings in wealthier Western, industrialized nations—the data in this was gathered from people across the world, in natural settings, who had no idea anyone was watching.

"It involves relatively high stakes in some countries. Previous studies focused on cheating in modest stakes," Cohn said.

After getting the field results, the team surveyed more than 2,500 people in the United Kingdom, the United States and Poland to better understand why honesty matters to us more than the money. The respondents were presented with a scenario that matched the and asked questions about how they would respond if presented with a lost wallet. Similar to the field study, those in this survey said failing to return a wallet felt like stealing when more money was involved.

The team also conducted a survey with 279 economists and experts in the field who predicted participants likely would keep the money. Another survey of nearly 300 people in the U.S. also showed that when predicting the behavior of others, respondents believed civic honesty would waiver when the amount of money was higher. While the experts had a bit more faith in the honesty of individuals, both groups believed the more in the , the more tempting it would be to keep it.


Explore further

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More information: "Civic Honesty Around the Globe," Science (2019). science.sciencemag.org/lookup/ … 1126/science.aau8712

"Financial temptation increases civic honesty," Science (2019). science.sciencemag.org/lookup/ … 1126/science.aax5034

Journal information: Science

Citation: People globally return 'lost' wallets more as money increases (2019, June 20) retrieved 18 July 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2019-06-moral-override-desire-profit-lost.html
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Jun 20, 2019
While encouraging, this is not the test I was expecting. It seemingly tested people who were working lost and found, not random finders.

Mark Rober on Youtube recently did a video "200 dropped wallets- the 20 MOST and LEAST HONEST cities" which surprised me. If I remember correctly, he found race, religion, gender, income and other factors some of us think might influence the outcome, didn't matter much. People are mostly honest, almost everywhere, but location (city) is the best predictor he found of returned wallets. Tongue planted in cheek, the evidence confirms my bias about humans, that maybe 5%-10% of people cause 99% of the world's ills... my gut isn't sure location matters though.

Jun 20, 2019
Yep, I've often felt that if we could 'disappear' the right 10% of a population (the troublemakers), the rest of us would do swimmingly. (Since Trump came along, I've had to consider a somewhat higher percentage...) It's funny that there were major fails at the Vatican and two anti-corruption bureaus.

Haven't looked at Mark's channel in a while, but I loved his "porch pirate glitter bomb" and the "can't miss dart board" (bullseye every time!)

Jun 20, 2019
Lost wallet studies can have complicated ethical questions for those implementing the study. By definition there is no informed consent of the participants. Is the value of the information gained really worth 17,303 intrusions into their lives to test their honesty?

Jun 20, 2019
No mention of return rate based on income or race.

Jun 20, 2019
Assuming that 'magnitude' is the only variable in the amount of money fails to consider the way we model our public and private obligations. When the money rises beyond a certain threshold we model it using the public model, so we feel civically responsible. The same occurs between the wallet owned by a private individual and, say, a public official of some kind.

The properties of the two models can be seen by the consequences of our actions. For private we see only a connection to the individual who lost the wallet. For the public we see consequences of the law, our public image and standing, shared morality and so on.

We can array the communities we associate with by scale: personal (you on your own, in your own space); family; local communities (work, friends, school etc) and general societies (the city, country, global community, humanity).

Jun 21, 2019
Lost wallet studies can have complicated ethical questions for those implementing the study. By definition there is no informed consent of the participants. Is the value of the information gained really worth 17,303 intrusions into their lives to test their honesty?
It only matters if their names were recorded. How would anyone know if they weren't? And this study didn't.

Jun 21, 2019
While encouraging, this is not the test I was expecting.

I don't really find these numbers encouraging - if anything I find the percentage of returned wallets shockingly low.

Yep, I've often felt that if we could 'disappear' the right 10% of a population (the troublemakers), the rest of us would do swimmingly.

Everyone thinks this. Problem is: no one agrees on who these 10% are.

Moreover, if you could actually do it - how long would you think it takes until the problems in the world were put at the feet of yet another "10% of troublemakers"? Hours? Minutes?

Basically you're running into a "No true Scotsman" fallacy really fast. (...or into any number of historical examples of ongoing purges. From various levels of 'jewishness' to stalinist purges, to islamic state purges to McCarthyism. Take your pick )

Yep, I've often felt that if we could 'disappear' the right 10% of a population (the troublemakers), the rest of us would do swimmingly.

Everyone thinks this. Problem is: no one agrees on who these 10% are....

You kind of used the slippery slope fallacy, and maybe a straw-man, to make your point. Trump and the like bring out my darkest black humor, so I assume the Carbon_Unit is only joking.

I think most people could agree that psychopaths and those with a long history of violence shouldn't be allowed in positions where they can harm many innocent people. We don't intentionally hire child molesters to be school teachers. Someday, say when MRIs can accurately diagnose psychopathy, such a screening could be required for politicians, police, CEOs and etc. Society should help these people find good employment where the risk of harm to others is minimal; and should probably put more effort into finding a safe cure to offer, and humane prevention. No killing.

Jun 23, 2019
As Carbon Unit said, it seems like this is biased toward testing the honesty of people who are 1) trained in a "lost and found" procedure, 2) have a job and steady income, 3) are likely being watched by a supervisor. I would be curious to know the results of just leaving wallets on the street in these various countries.

Also, the paper has a chart that shows China to be the "least honest". What is wrong with the people in China?

Jun 23, 2019
I think most people could agree that psychopaths and those with a long history of violence shouldn't be allowed in positions where they can harm many innocent people.


Depends. There's value in being cold and calculating in many occupations in society - being violent and killing innocents is the cost or side effect.

What is wrong with the people in China?


In societies like China, personal responsibility is outsourced to the "system". Since the state is incompetent and acting hypocritically, the people tend to follow suit and petty crimes and corruption becomes the social standard. It's kinda like in Russia, where people think you're stupid/naive if you don't try to cheat somehow - because that was the way to survive during the Soviet era and it still is.

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