What An Experiment Revealed About Global Honesty

Picture this: You’re a receptionist at a hotel. Someone walks in and says they found a wallet, but they’re in a hurry and they hand it to you. What would you do, and would your answer be different depending on whether it was full or empty? Those questions prompted researchers to conduct a study to see just how honest people are globally. The experiment started small, with a research assistant in Finland turning in a few wallets containing different amounts of money. Researchers assumed that putting money in the wallet would make people less likely to return it, because the payoff would be bigger. A group of 279 top-performing academic economists agreed. Researchers, however, found the opposite to be true. People were more likely to turn the wallet in when it contained a higher amount of money. Researchers decided to do the experiment on a much larger scale, putting together a team that dropped more than 17,000 wallets in 40 countries over the course of 2 years. Some contained no money, while others held the equivalent of $13. They dropped the wallets near police stations, hotels, post offices, and theaters. In 38 out of the 40 countries, people were more likely to turn in wallets with money than those without. In a second phase, researchers put $100 in the wallet, and were stunned that a whopping 72% of the wallets were actually turned in. What’s behind all this honesty? First, it’s basic altruism — the person finding the wallet was concerned about the feelings of the stranger who lost it. However, more than that, it was what people thought of themselves. They didn’t want to be guilty of stealing. In the end, honesty does pay and in this case, it definitely did. All of the people who turned in a lost wallet got to keep the cash that was in it.