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The Lost Wallet Returns—and Experts Are Baffled

Social scientists struggle for explanations as to why people turned out to be more honest than theory led them to expect

A team of economists found recently that, in a massive global study of 17,000 “lost wallets” in forty countries, people were more likely to return a wallet if it contained a large amount of cash. This finding “defied the expectations of both professional economists and 2,500 respondents to a survey, who predicted that people would act in self-interest.” (The Guardian)

The general setup was this:

Cohn and his colleagues deployed 13 Swiss college students, wallets in hand, to 355 cities across the globe. Each wallet was clear, letting a finder see the contents without opening it. And each contained a grocery list in the local language, a key, three identical business cards with a local-sounding man’s name and an e-mail address. Some of the wallets had no money in them, while others held $13.45 or the equivalent buying power in local currency. The research assistants then turned the wallets over to employees of banks, museums, post offices, hotels and police stations along with a note, reading: “Hi, I found this on the street around the corner. Somebody must have lost it. I’m in a hurry and have to go. Can you please take care of it?”

Sujata Gupta, “Lost wallets are more likely to be returned if they hold cash” at Science News

The paper is open access.

Outcomes varied by region but researchers struggled to explain why so many more people were honest than they expected:

“The effect not only contradicts rational economic thinking, it is rather surprising,” said Shaul Shalvi, an economist at the University of Amsterdam. “The results show just how prevalent civic honesty is, and they raise many questions, such as how environments can be designed to foster civic honesty.”

Hannah Devlin, “Honesty is majority policy in lost wallet experiment” at The Guardian

A variety of sources struggle to account for the high level of honesty in a “selfish gene”/“hairless ape” paradigm:

The study authors looked at several factors that might influence the subjects’ decision to report and return a lost wallet—like the presence of security cameras, or state-level differences in lost property laws—but found that “none of these factors explain meaningful variation in reporting rates.” Alain Cohn, first study author and assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan, says that people instead seem to be driven by “the psychological cost of the dishonest act,” according to Pam Belluck of the New York Times.

Brigit Katz, “People Are Surprisingly Honest About Returning Lost Wallets” at Smithsonian Magazine

Various suggestions are offered, including

Still, it’s unclear how closely these results reflect the civic honesty of the general public in these countries. For one, it’s possible that the employees of banks, museums and police stations are, on average, slightly more honest than the general public. What’s more, people might behave differently when they’re at work, especially if it’s a business like a bank. Though, to be sure, the researchers did say the presence of security cameras didn’t seem to account for why employees were more likely to return cash-holding wallets.

In any case, the results build upon past research showing that people will go to great lengths to maintain their self-image. So, ultimately, seeing yourself as a thief might cost you far more than $94.15.Stephen Johnson, “Lost wallets are more likely to be returned if they hold cash, researchers say” at Big Think

The fact remains: Finding a higher level of honesty than predicted was a surprise and the “scientific” explanations offered seem ad hoc and inadequate. The experts do not seem to know as much about us as they think they do.

See also: Can AI make us better human beings? Helping us believe that is a promising new business area for some

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The Lost Wallet Returns—and Experts Are Baffled