Losing a wallet stuffed with cash might feel like the worst-case scenario, but researchers say you might have a better chance of getting it back than if it had no cash.
People in 38 countries, including Canada, were more likely to be honest and return a stranger’s wallet if it had money in it than if it didn't, a new study finds.
Whether there was money in them or not, people in Switzerland and Norway were the most likely to be honest and report a lost wallet; while people in Morocco and China were the least likely to report it.
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The new findings, published in the journal Science, showed that, contrary to what academic economists might think, wallets holding money were returned more often.
The authors said they actually saw people act more honest, despite incentivizing people to cheat by putting cash inside a wallet. The co-lead author of the study, University of Michigan assistant professor Alain Cohn, told CTVNews.ca, “we really didn’t expect this.”
“What was even more amazing was that this pattern seems to be a global phenomenon because it didn’t just happen in one or two countries but basically every country,” he said.
To conduct the study, experimenters took 17,000 “lost” wallets containing contact information for their fictional owners and handed them in to people working at public and private institutions in 355 cities in 40 countries.
In each country, researchers chose five to eight cities in various regions. “If they all happened to be in the east coast, then we would make sure to include some on the west coast,” Cohn said.
Researchers then gave transparent wallets with either no money or the relative equivalent of US$13.45 to places such as banks, post offices, hotels, police stations or museums. The team then tracked how often people used the contact information to reach out to the wallets’ supposed owners.
Authors wrote in their report that they were shocked that people in 38 out of 40 different countries “overwhelmingly were more likely to report lost wallets with money than without.”
They also found the wallet return rates were higher when they included a key, which would mean something to the owner but not the finder.
In a press release, co-lead author Michel André Maréchal explained that people may have returned the wallets with money because of their concern for self-image.
During the trials, Mexico and Peru were the only outliers in this regard. Participants there returned wallets more often if there was no money.
In Canada, researchers performed the tests in Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, Toronto and Vancouver.
Although Canadians only ranked in the second quartile for honesty, Cohn jokingly called us “friendly Canadians.” This was because in one case, “one hotel in Toronto gave our experimenter a free ticket for a museum, as a thank you when he turned in the wallet.”
Researchers suggested the documentation of civic honesty across the world indicates peoples’ concern for others outweighed their selfishness, though other factors may be at play.
"The psychological forces -- an aversion to not viewing oneself as a thief -- can be stronger than the financial ones," Maréchal said.
Researchers also conducted additional testing in cities within the United States, United Kingdom and Poland, in which they included wallets with a country’s equivalent of US $94.15. When more money was involved, they saw higher rates of honesty.
Worldwide, 51 per cent of those who were handed a wallet with the smaller amount of money reported it. But when the wallet had a larger sum of money, the rate of return increased to 72 per cent.
Researchers also surveyed a group of academic economists and asked them to predict the outcome of the study. “But they all got it wrong. So people seem to have a wrong model of honest behaviour," Cohn said.
He said this mattered because whenever policymakers or organizations are designing programs which require participants to be honest, they may have a “too pessimistic a view” of recipients and needlessly place too much emphasis on financial incentives rather than psychological ones.