People likelier to return wallets with more cash

Switzerland and Norway top the honesty list, and Peru, Morocco and China are the bottom three.   | Photo Credit: AP

Does the amount of cash in a lost wallet impact how likely a person is to return it?

Classical economic theories suggest that the greater the temptation, the less likely we are to be honest — but a new study turns the idea on its head, finding that altruism and a powerful aversion to viewing oneself as a “thief” outweigh the financial incentives.

A team of researchers studied these questions in a huge experiment spanning 355 cities in 40 countries — one of the most rigorous investigations so far into the intersection of economics and psychology.

The results, published in Science, also reveal extreme differences between countries, with Switzerland and Norway topping the honesty list, and Peru, Morocco and China rounding out the bottom three.

But although rates of civic honesty varied greatly from country to country, one thing remained remarkably constant: wallets with money, as opposed to no money, boosted reporting rates.

The global average for reporting a lost wallet was 40%, which grew to 51% when it had money.

“The evidence suggests that people tend to care about the welfare of others and they have an aversion to seeing themselves as a thief,” co-author Alain Cohn from the University of Michigan said. Researchers from the University of Zurich and the University of Utah also participated.

They polled a group of 279 top-performing professional economists to see if they would have accurately predicted the outcome, which only 29% did.

“Our results suggest that even experts tend to have cynical intuitions about other people’s motivations, often exaggerating the role of financial incentives and underestimating the role of psychological forces,” added Mr. Cohn.

Costly experiment

The experiment cost $600,000. More than 17,000 identical wallets were dropped off at banks, cultural establishments like theatres and museums, post offices, hotels, and police stations or courts of law.

The wallet would be placed on the counter by the research assistant, who would deliver it to an employee telling them they had found it on the street.

Each wallet contained a grocery list, a key, and three business cards with a name and an email address.

Some wallets had no money, while others contained the equivalent of $13.45, adjusted for purchasing power in the target country.

In three countries (the U.S., the U.K. and Poland), they repeated the experiment with even more money: $94.15, which boosted reporting rates by an average of 11 percentage points compared to the smaller amount.

The proportion of employees who got in touch with the owner surpassed 70% in Switzerland and Norway. At the other end of the table was China, with fewer than 10% of employees returning the wallet when it was empty, though the figure more than doubled when it contained money.

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Printable version | Sep 21, 2021 12:59:40 PM |

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