People Are Surprisingly Honest About Returning Lost Wallets

A large new study has found that unwitting subjects were more likely to report a lost wallet as the amount of money inside increased

People are maybe good? AndreyPopov / iStock

If you were to lose your wallet in public, you might expect to never see it again, particularly if it contained a wad of cash. But this may be an ungenerous assumption about human nature, according to an expansive new study that found people are more likely to try and return lost wallets with money than those without. In fact, the more money a wallet held, the more likely the subjects were to seek out its owner, according to a new study published in the journal Science.

A team of researchers from the United States and Switzerland set out to discover how monetary incentives affect people’s inclination towards “acts of civic honesty, where people voluntarily refrain from opportunistic behavior.” The team’s fascinating experiment was conducted in 355 cities in 40 countries, and involved 17,303 wallets. Research assistants would take a wallet into one of several “societal institutions”—like a bank, theater, museum, post office, hotel, police station or court of law—and present it to an employee.

“Hi, I found this [wallet] on the street around the corner,” the assistant would say. “Somebody must have lost it. I’m in a hurry and have to go. Can you please take care of it?”

The wallets were in fact transparent business card cases, specifically selected so the unwitting subjects would be able to see the contents inside: three identical business cards, a grocery list and a key. Some of the wallets contained no money, and some held the equivalent of $13.45 USD. (Amounts were adjusted based on countries’ currencies and purchasing power.) The business cards and grocery list were written in the country’s local language. The cards displayed the name and email address of a fictitious male.

The researchers then waited to see if the subjects would reach out within 100 days of receiving the wallet. And they found that in an overwhelming majority of countries, the subjects were more likely to try and return the wallet if it had money in it. There was variation in reporting rates from place to place. In Switzerland, for instance, 74 percent of moneyless wallets were returned compared to 79 percent of wallets with money, according to the Associated Press. In China, those rates were seven percent versus 22 percent, and in the United States the figures were 39 percent versus 57 percent. But “[o]n average,”the study authors write, “adding money to the wallet increased the likelihood of reporting a wallet from 40 percent ... to 51 percent.”

Only two countries—Peru and Mexico—showed a decline in reporting rates when money was added to the wallets, but the results were not statistically significant, the researchers say.

Granted, $13.45 is not a particularly large amount of money. What would happen, the researchers wondered, if they increased the sum, thereby boosting the incentive for subjects to steal? In three countries—the United States, the United Kingdom and Poland—the team ran a secondary experiment, where they stuffed the equivalent of $94.15 USD into some of the wallets. And they found that reporting rates increased as the amount of money got larger. Across the three countries, 46 percent of people tried to return wallets with no money, 61 percent reached out about wallets with $13.45 and 72 percent tried to contact the owners of wallets containing $94.15.

Typically, the researchers replied to emails about the lost wallets with the following note: “I really appreciate your help. Unfortunately, I have already left town. The content of the business card holder and the key are not important to me. You can keep all of it or donate it to charity.” But in a subset of cases, the team actually collected the wallets; 98 percent of the original sums were returned.

The study authors looked at several factors that might influence the subjects’ decision to report and return a lost wallet—like the presence of security cameras, or state-level differences in lost property laws—but found that “none of these factors explain meaningful variation in reporting rates.” Alain Cohn, first study author and assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan, says that people instead seem to be driven by “the psychological cost of the dishonest act,” according to Pam Belluck of the New York Times.

“The evidence suggests that people tend to … have an aversion to seeing themselves as a thief,” Cohn explains.

In addition to such concerns about self-image, altruism seems to be a motivating factor driving the decision to return a wallet. In yet another subset of the experiment—conducted in the U.S., U.K. and Poland—the researchers turned in some wallets that did not have a key. The subjects were, on average, 9.2 percentage points more likely to reach out about a wallet with a key than without one. And because a key is an object valuable to the owner of the wallet, but not to the recipient, the study authors conclude that “recipients reported a lost wallet partly because recipients are concerned about the harm they impose on the owner.”

The new study raises a number of intriguing questions, like whether similar results would be reported among people who were not acting in an official capacity as employees, or among people who simply found a wallet on the street. But the research does suggest that we may hold an overly pessimistic view of human nature. In fact, in the final phases of the study, the researchers asked both economists and non-experts to predict reporting rates for wallets containing $0, $13.45, and $94.15. Neither group expected the rates to increase as the amount of money grew.

“[The research] shows that when we make a decision whether to be dishonest or not, it’s not only ‘What can I get out of it versus what’s the punishment, what’s the effort?’” Nina Mazar, a behavioral scientist at Boston University who was not involved in the study, tells Belluck of the Times. “It actually matters that people have morals and they like to think of themselves as good human beings.”

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