Wallets like these, with cash, a key, a grocery list and business cards, were used to determine honesty.
Wallets like these, with cash, a key, a grocery list and business cards, were used to determine honesty.

WASHINGTON - What would you do if you found a lost wallet? New research suggests that your answer may depend on what you find inside.

In 38 out of the 40 countries studied, people were more likely to return a lost wallet if it contained money. The finding, which goes against existing models of human behavior, could help policymakers find ways to encourage people to be more honest in social and business settings.

Economic models predict that people are more likely to be dishonest if there’s money on the line. Financial self-interest isn’t the only important factor, though. The new study suggests that it’s also important for people to see themselves as honest.

Self-interest versus self-image

In order to investigate how self-interest and self-image interact in the real world, a research team led by Alain Cohn of the University of Michigan used a classic moral dilemma: finding a lost wallet.

The researchers turned in 17,303 “lost wallets” to employees at public places like banks, theaters and post offices in 355 cities spread across 40 countries. The transparent plastic showcased the contents: business cards, a grocery list and a key. In addition to those personal items, some wallets contained money, $13.45 in local currency, adjusted for the country’s purchasing power, and others contained none.

The researchers tallied the number of wallets returned and investigated whether the people who received them were less likely to return them if they contained money, as expected.

“To our surprise, the answer is overwhelmingly no,” Cohn said in a teleconference.

Money made a difference

In nearly all of the countries studied, people were more likely to return a lost wallet that contained money than one that didn’t. Participants in Switzerland and Norway were most likely to reach out to the owner, and those in China and Morocco were least likely, but the trend persisted across the globe. On average, the return rate rose from 40 percent when the wallet didn’t contain money to 51 percent when it did.

Raising the financial stakes strengthens the effect.

In the U.S., U.K. and Poland, the researchers increased the amount of money from $13.45 to $94.15. With even more to gain from dishonesty, people were more likely to return the lost wallet. The average percentage of wallets returned jumped from 61 percent to 72 percent when the amount of money was increased.

“While the results were initially surprising to us, we were not the only ones who did not anticipate this pattern,” Cohn said.

The researchers asked economists and non-economists to predict the outcome of the study. Both groups incorrectly predicted that the more money the wallet contained, the less likely the participants would be to return it.

Although the respondents believed that people were more likely to keep lost wallets that contained money, another group surveyed felt that the more money they found in a lost wallet, the more it would feel like stealing if they kept it. 

“The evidence suggests that people tend to care about the welfare of others and they have an aversion to seeing themselves as a thief,” Cohn said.

Selfless tendencies

Do people think only of themselves when considering a dishonest act, or do they think of others as well? To test this, the researchers removed the keys from some of the wallets in the U.S., U.K. and Poland and found that the average return rate was 9.2 percent higher when the wallets contained a key.

Since the key is valuable to the wallet owner but not the wallet finder, an increase in the return rate for wallets with a key shows that people consider how others may be harmed by their dishonesty.

While other studies have shown that people weigh the monetary rewards against the damage done to their self-image when acting dishonestly, this is the first field study to show that this is a global phenomenon.

“It’s so much work to run a study across so many national cultures and with so many observations. This is not an easy thing to pull off and to do it in such a controlled, really well-organized way, this is really something,” said Nina Mazar, a professor of marketing at Boston University who was not involved in the study.

In the case of a lost wallet, the right thing to do is clear. 

Most scenarios aren’t so obvious, though, and researcher Cohn suggests that a next step could be to study cases “where perhaps it’s less clear whether doing the wrong thing is actually being seen as wrong.” 

The study underscores the importance of self-image concerns in decision making, and exploring the more nuanced situations can help researchers understand why people choose to act dishonestly, which can help policymakers encourage civic honesty around the world.