Lost wallets are more likely to be returned if they hold cash, researchers say

The cost of seeing yourself as a thief is pretty steep, the results suggest.

Lost wallets are more likely to be returned if they hold cash, researchers say
Photo credit: Andrea Natali on Unsplash
  • The study involved turning in more than 17,000 "lost" wallets to employees at various businesses in 40 countries.
  • Employees were considerably more likely to report wallets with cash than those without.
  • Interestingly, the results suggest altruism is not primarily driving this honest behavior.


Would you be more likely to return a wallet you found on the street if it contained cash? A new study suggests you would — not necessarily because you're altruistic, but because you don't want to feel like a thief.

The study, published on June 20 in Science, was designed to explore and compare civic honesty in 355 cities in 40 countries. In each city, a research assistant would turn in a "lost" wallet to banks, museums, post offices, hotels, and police stations. When turning in the wallets at these locations, typically at a front desk or reception area, the research assistant would say:

"Hi, I found this [pointing to the wallet] on the street around the corner. [The wallet was then placed on the counter and pushed over to the employee.] Somebody must have lost it. I'm in a hurry and have to go. Can you please take care of it?"

The research assistant would then leave without providing contact information. Each wallet contained a grocery list in the local language, three identical business cards with a local-sounding man's name, and an email address, and all of the wallets were transparent, meaning employees didn't have to open them to see the contents. Some wallets held no cash while others had about $13.45, or the equivalent in local currency.

Image source: Cohn et al.

The results indicated that, on average, 40 percent of wallets with no cash were reported by employees as found, compared to 51 percent of wallets with cash. People were more likely to report cash-holding wallets in all but two countries: Mexico and Peru. The results surprised the researchers, who wrote that both "non-experts and professional economists were unable to predict this result."

Image source: Cohn et al.

To test whether employees were reporting the cash-holding wallets because $13.45 wasn't enough money to risk stealing, the team conducted several more experiments in the U.S., Britain and Poland — this time with $94.15 instead of $13.45. Surprisingly, employees were considerably more honest when the wallets held more money — an average of 72 percent of employees reported these wallets as found.

So, what explains the behavior? To see the extent to which altruism might be playing a role, the team put a key in some of the wallets. Unlike cash, the key would be valuable only to the wallet's owner. The results showed that wallets with cash and a key were still more likely to be reported as found, but the difference wasn't great enough to say altruism alone is driving people to return the wallets.

To explore an alternative explanation, the team surveyed 2,525 randomly selected people in the U.S., Britain, and Poland. Those people were asked to rate how much it'd "feel like stealing" to keep a wallet with cash and without. As the hypothetical amount of money increased, so did the "feels like stealing" scores. But interestingly, the presence of a key in those scenarios didn't significantly change the scores.

The team reasoned that most people would prefer not feeling like a thief compared to pocketing some extra cash. The researchers write:

"When people stand to heavily profit from engaging in dishonest behavior, the desire to cheat increases, but so do the psychological costs of viewing oneself as a thief — and, sometimes, the latter will dominate the former."

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.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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