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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.

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.

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