Researchers Dropped 17,000 Wallets To Test Honesty In Countries Around The World Scientists used "lost" wallets to test whether people are more likely to be dishonest when they might profit. The results were puzzling — so they put more money in the wallets.

What Dropping 17,000 Wallets Around The Globe Can Teach Us About Honesty

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Picture this. You're a receptionist at, say, a hotel. Someone walks in and says they found a lost wallet, but they're in a hurry. They hand it to you. What would you do? Well, researchers have looked at that question using thousands of supposedly dropped wallets from all around the world. NPR's Merrit Kennedy has more on what they found.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: The experiment started small. A research assistant in Finland pretending to be a tourist turned in a few wallets containing different amounts of money. He'd walk up to the counter of a big public place, like a bank or a post office.

ALAIN COHN: Acting as a tourist, he mentioned that he found the wallet outside around the corner. And then he asked the employees to take care of it.

KENNEDY: Alain Cohn from the University of Michigan says surveys show most people think more money in the wallet would make people less likely to return it. He even thought so. But actually, what they were seeing was the exact opposite.

COHN: People were more likely to return a wallet when it contained a higher amount of money. At first, we almost couldn't believe it and told him to triple the amount of money in the wallet. But yet again, we found the same puzzling finding.

KENNEDY: The researchers decided to do the experiment on a much larger scale. They dropped off more than 17,000 lost wallets in 40 countries. All of the wallets looked about the same - a small clear case with a few business cards, a grocery list and a key. Some had no money, and some had the local equivalent of about $13.

And around the world, they kept finding the same thing. In 38 out of 40 countries, people were more likely to return the wallets with money. And in three countries, they dropped wallets containing nearly a hundred bucks. Cohn says the results were even more dramatic.

COHN: The highest reporting rate was found in the condition where the wallet included $100.

KENNEDY: So what's behind all this honesty? The researchers think there are two main explanations. First, just basic altruism.

COHN: Basically, if you don't return the wallet, you feel bad because you harmed another person.

KENNEDY: There's some evidence for that. They ran a test where just some wallets contained a key, only valuable to the person who lost it. Those wallets were about 10% more likely to be returned. Cohn says he also thinks the results have a lot to do with how people see themselves, and most people don't want to see themselves as a thief.

COHN: The more money the wallet contains, the more people say that it would feel like stealing if they do not return the wallet.

KENNEDY: The rates that wallets were returned varied a lot by country, even though money in the wallet almost always increased the chances. The researchers think the country's wealth is one factor, but a lot more research is needed to explain the differences.

Duke University economist Dan Ariely studies dishonesty. He says this shows material benefits are not necessarily people's only motivation.

DAN ARIELY: We see that a lot of dishonesty is not about the cost-benefit analysis, not about what I stand to gain and what I stand to lose. But instead, it's about what we can rationalize. To what extent can we rationalize this particular behavior?

KENNEDY: Cohn says their study, which appears in the journal Science, suggests people are too pessimistic about the moral character of others.

COHN: I think it's a good reminder that other people might be more similar to you and not always assume the worst.

KENNEDY: And sometimes, honesty does pay. After people reported a lost wallet, they got to keep the cash.

Merrit Kennedy, NPR News.


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