Helsinki Good, Lisbon Bad? Europe's "Honesty Arc"

Are some cities more honest than others? And does that honesty correlate with geography?

Helsinki Good, Lisbon Bad? Europe's "Honesty Arc"

If you have to lose your wallet, do it in Helsinki. Eleven out of 12 billfolds purposely dropped on the streets of the Finnish capital were returned. Worst place to lose your wallet, according to a Reader's Digest survey: Lisbon. Only 1 wallet out of 12 found its way back to the rightful owner. Results for a further 14 cities worldwide provide a fascinating insight into the geography of honesty. 

Sixteen world cities, times twelve wallets. Each wallet containing the equivalent of $50 in local currency, some business cards and family photos, and a mobile phone number. How many wallets are returned? 

We doubt 192 wallets count as a large enough sample to be statistically relevant, and the method used might not stand up to scientific rigor either. But the urge to draw conclusions about the degree of honesty endemic in each city is of course irresistible. Are Helsinkians really that trustworthy, and most Lisboetas as perfidious as the research suggests?

One additional element, missing from the original Readers' Digest results, provides even more grounds for speculation: this map, produced for the International Business Times to illustrate the findings of the Wallet Experiment. By applying the easily graspable symbolism of traffic lights, the map nicely illustrates the gradient landscape of civic responsibility across the world: green is good (9 to 12 wallets returned), yellow is average (5 to 8 wallets) and red is bad (4 wallets or fewer returned). 

First, the good news: none of the cities surveyed brought shame on itself by returning none of the wallets. The bad news: globally, your chances or getting your wallet back are less than half. Of the grand total of 192 wallets sprinkled across malls, parks and sidewalks in those 16 cities, only 90 were returned – not more than 47%.

Image © IBTimes/Lisa Mahapatra, reproduced by kind permission (original context here).


So if you're most likely to get your wallet back in Helsinki, and least likely to do so in Lisbon, is there an honesty arc running across Europe, declining as you travel from the continent's northeast to its southwest? Judging from the other cities surveyed in Europe shown on this map, the answer would seem to be: yes.

Cities closer to Helsinki generally score better than those closer to Lisbon. Fairly good (i.e. yellow) wallet-returning results were recorded in Budapest (8/12), Moscow and Amsterdam (both 7/12), Ljubljana and Berlin (both 6/12), and Warsaw and London (both 5/12). Pretty meagre (i.e. red) scores were noted in Bucharest and Zurich (both 4/12) and Prague (3/12). The worst but one result was recorded in Madrid (2/12) – coincidentally or not, the one city in the survey closest to Lisbon. 

Only three cities on other continents were subjected to the Wallet Experiment, with results varying from abominable (red) for Rio de Janeiro (4/12) via fair (yellow) for New York (8/12) to great (green) for Mumbai (9/12). It would have been interesting to compare their scores to those of cities in their respective hinterlands. Are there similar honesty arcs running across other continents?

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