The New York Times recently reported the results of a worldwide study of human honesty. Across forty countries and six continents, researchers set up a “lost wallet” experiment. To ensure the wallet didn’t truly get lost, an experimenter would go up to someone and hand over a wallet and say: “Somebody must have lost it. I’m in a hurry and have to go. Can you please take care of it?” The wallet contained a business card with an e-mail address, a grocery list, a key (sometimes), and varying amounts of money (zero, $13.45 or $94.15—or the local equivalent in buying power). The researchers tracked which of the people who received the wallet attempted to contact its apparent owner.
The most interesting finding is that in 38 of the 40 countries where 17,000 wallets were “lost,” the more money was in the wallet, the more likely the “finder” was to attempt to return the wallet to its owner. This result puts another stake in the heart of homo economicus, for traditional economists would (and did) predict that the larger the sum in the wallet, the more likely the finder would just keep the money.
The results, instead, support the findings of behavioral ethics. The vast majority of people who are not psychopaths think of themselves as good people and wish others to think of them in that light as well. Nonetheless, it is true that people are tempted to lie and cheat when to do so would advantage them. But there are limits. Dan Ariely has famously demonstrated: “Essentially, we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals.” This study validates Ariely’s point and confounds classic economic theory.
You can keep a few cents or a few dollars that belong to someone else and rationalize it fairly easily. “He won’t miss it,” you might tell yourself. But if you take $1,000 (or even much less) that you know belongs to someone else you could easily contact, you are going to feel like a thief and that sense of guilt is one of the more unpleasant moral emotions.
In addition to wishing to avoid the unpleasant guilty feeling, another motivation for returning the wallet was apparently altruism. The finders were somewhat more likely to attempt to return the wallet if it had a key than if it didn’t. Obviously, the key is of no benefit to the finder but could be a substantial loss to the wallet’s owner.
This study was a sophisticated and ambitious version of studies that have been done over the years. In 1948, researchers left addressed envelopes to be found on the street or sidewalk. Most finders dropped them in a mailbox so that they would be delivered as intended. In that experiment, however, if there appeared to be money in the envelopes, it was more likely that the finders would open the envelope rather than just mail it to the addressee. Why the difference this time? Perhaps the conformity bias. People tend to take their cues as to how to behave from those around them. In the 1948 study, the finders were lone actors. In the recent study, the experimenters’ confederate appeared to have already decided not to keep the wallet and the money. Perhaps this cued (or inspired) the subjects of the study to also act in such an apparently honest fashion.
If you were wondering, Switzerland and Norway were the most honest countries. China and Morocco were the least honest. The U.S. was, disappointingly, no better than middle of the pack.
Dan Ariely, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty (2012).
Pam Belluck, “Would You Return This Lost Wallet?,” New York Times, June 20, 2019.
Alain Cohn et al., “Civic Honesty around the Globe,” Science, June 20, 2019.
Nina Mazar et al., “The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance,” Journal of Marketing Research 45: 633-644 (2008).
Curtis B. Merritt and Richard G. Fowler, “The Pecuniary Honesty of the Public at Large,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 43(1): 90-93 (1948).
Stanley Milgram et al., “The Lost-Letter Technique: A Tool for Social Science Research,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 29(3): 437-438 (1965).