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  • Writer's pictureWorld Half Full

We're more honest than we think


Results are in from an international scientific experiment designed to discover how honest we are. A team of researchers travelled to 355 cities in 40 countries in order to hand in 17,000 “lost” wallets. Each contained a shopping list, business cards, a key and either US$13.45 or US$94.15 in cash. (Some were cashless.) Targeting institutions and businesses, including banks, post offices, hotels, police stations and museums, the researchers — pretending to be tourists — handed in the supposedly lost wallets to staff members. Each researcher stuck to the same script: “Hi, I found this (showing the wallet) on the street just around the corner. Somebody must have lost it. I’m in a hurry and have to go. Can you please take care of it?” The researchers then waited 100 days after each drop-off to see if the person who had been handed the wallet attempted to contact its owner.

The results, say the researchers, were “remarkably consistent”. “Citizens were overwhelmingly more likely to report lost wallets with money than without,” they write in the journal Science. The return rates, however, varied from country to country. People living in Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand showed themselves to be the most honest, attempting to return the wallets 75–82% of the time. Meanwhile, people in China, Peru, Kazakhstan and Kenya were the least honest, returning only around 20% of the cash-filled wallets.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the larger the amount of money, the more likely the wallet was returned to its “owner”. According to the data, 40% of people attempted to contact the owner of the cashless wallet, 51% tried to contact the owner of the wallet that contained the smaller amount of cash, while 72% tried to return the big cash wallet. “The evidence suggests that people tend to care about the welfare of others, and they have an aversion to seeing themselves as a thief,” Alain Cohn, the study’s lead author and a behavioural economist at the University of Michigan, told CBS News. The study’s findings counter the notion that “all else equal, honest behaviour will become less common as the material incentives for dishonesty increase”. It would appear, then, that we’re more honest than we think.

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