Researchers dropped 17,000 'lost' wallets across 355 cities in 40 countries and the honesty of people varied from country to country.

By Ian Horswill

Posted on June 21, 2019

If you’re unfortunate to lose or misplace your wallet, what’s the chance you’ll ever get it back?

Researchers, including those from the University of Michigan, the University of Zurich and University of Utah, planted 17,000 “lost” wallets across 355 cities in 40 countries and kept track of what happened to them.

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You might be surprised to learn that the more money in the wallet, the higher the chance of it being returned to its owner, the study ‘Civic Honesty Around the Globe’published in Science revealed.

The presence of cash — the equivalent of about US$13 in local currency — boosted the chance of the wallet being returned to 51 per cent, versus 40 per cent for wallets with no cash. The trend showed up in nearly every nation surveyed, although the actual numbers varied.

Researchers raised the stakes in the US, the UK and Poland. The response jumped to 72 per cent for wallets containing the equivalent of around US$94, versus 61 per cent for those containing US$13. If no money was in the wallet, the return rate was 46 per cent.

“The evidence suggests that people tend to care about the welfare of others, and they have an aversion to seeing themselves as a thief,” said researcher Alain Cohn, of the University of Michigan.

Another author, Christian Zuend of the University of Zurich, said “it suddenly feels like stealing” when there’s money in the wallet.

“And it feels even more like stealing when the money in the wallet increases,” he added.

The wallets in the study were actually transparent business card cases, chosen so that people could see the money inside without opening them. A team of 13 research assistants posed as people who had just found the cases and turned them in at banks, theatres, museums or other cultural establishments, post offices, hotels, police stations and other public offices.

The key question was whether the employee receiving each case would contact its supposed owner, whose name and email address was displayed on three identical business cards within.

The business cards were crafted to make the supposed owner appear to be a local person, as was a grocery list that was also enclosed. Some cases also contained a key, and they were more likely to get a response than cases without a key. That led the researchers to conclude that concern for others was playing a role, since — unlike money — a key is valuable to its owner but not a stranger.

The effect of enclosed money appeared in 38 of the 40 countries, with Mexico and Peru the exceptions. Nations varied widely in how often the wallet’s “owner” was contacted. In Switzerland, the rate was 74 per cent for wallets without money and 79 per cent with it, while in China the rates were 7 per cent and 22 per cent. The US figures were 39 per cent and 57 per cent respectively.

“People want to see themselves as an honest person, not as a thief. Keeping a found wallet means having to adapt one’s self-image, which comes with psychological costs,” said Michel Maréchal, Professor of Economics at the UZH Department of Economics.

Lost money study Photo: Christian Zünd

The actual wallets in the study were actually transparent business card cases, chosen so that people could see the money inside without opening them. Photo: Christian Zünd

The study measured how employees act when presented with a wallet at their workplaces. But would those same people act differently if they found a wallet on a street?

“We don’t know,” said Michel Marechal, an author from the University of Zurich. But he said other analyses suggest the new results reflect people’s overall degree of honesty.

Shaul Shalvi, of the University of Amsterdam, who wrote a commentary that accompanied the study, told The Associated Press that he suspected the study sheds light on how people would act with a wallet found on the street.

He said the results “support the idea that people care about others as well as caring about being honest”.