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How Honest are People Around the World about Returning a Lost Wallet? Here's the Rank

How Honest are People Around the World about Returning a Lost Wallet? Here's the Rank

If you were to lose your wallet, where would you prefer to do so? Invariably, when engaged in storytelling among friends, those who have been to Japan will always say that it is the ideal place to lose your valuables because they always find their way back to their owners. 

But if we set aside our own personal stories about honesty in public situations, how honest are people around the world about returning a lost wallet?

So 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?

And would that answer be different if it was empty or full of cash? 

A study about civic honesty just came out, and the results surprised the researchers, the subjects, and the economists. It also surprised me, and I am guessing, it will also surprise you.

The experiment started small, with a research assistant in Finland turning in a few wallets with different amounts of money. He would walk up to the counter of a big public place, like a bank or a post office.

"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," says Alain Cohn from the University of Michigan, the study's lead author.

The researchers assumed that putting money in the wallet would make people less likely to return it, because the payoff would be bigger. A poll of 279 "top-performing academic economists" agreed.

But researchers saw the opposite.

"People were more likely to return a wallet when it contained a higher amount of money," Cohn says. "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."

The researchers decided to do the experiment on a much larger scale. They put together a team that dropped off more than 17,000 "lost" wallets in 40 countries over the course of more than two years.

All the wallets were about the same — a small clear case holding a few business cards, a grocery list in the local language, and a key. Some contained no money and some held the equivalent of about $13. Research assistants turned them in at the kinds of places people would typically bring a wallet they found on the ground — police stations, hotels, post offices and theaters.

As results rolled in from around the world, the researchers kept finding the same result. In 38 out of 40 countries, people were more likely to report receiving wallets with money than those without. And in the other two, the decrease in reporting rates for the wallets with money were not statistically significant.

What if the wallets contained far more money? The researchers did a "big money" test in the U.S., the U.K. and Poland. In that phase of the experiment, the staff dropped wallets containing nearly $100, instead of $13.

Cohn says the results there were even more dramatic. "The highest reporting rate was found in the condition where the wallet included $100," he says. Forty-six percent of wallets with no money were reported, compared with 61% of those with about $13 and 72% of those with nearly $100.

The researchers pretended to bring a lost wallet to the reception area of banks, theaters, museums, post offices, hotels, police stations, courts of law, or other public offices, without noting who received it. Within 100 days, if the wallet was returned to the owner whose contact details are inside the wallet, then the wallet was considered returned.

Keterangan Gambar (© Pemilik Gambar)

The rates at which people tried to return the wallets varied a lot by country, even though the presence of money in the wallet almost always increased the chances. In Denmark, for example, researchers saw more than 80% of wallets with money reported. Peru saw a little over 10%.

The first surprise was none of the 40 countries turned out a zero return rate. Among the 40 countries, the overall wallet return rate ranged from a little over 20% (China, Morocco, Peru, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Malaysia) to almost 80% (Switzerland, Norway, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden). But while it was reassuring to note that we modern humans were consistent in churning out positive rates of civic honesty across the globe, the more detailed findings could further shock you.

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