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, police stations, 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 field 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
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
“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
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 field study 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 field
experiment 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
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 money in the wallet, the more tempting it would be to keep it.
1. US Security from Michael_Novakhov (88 sites)