clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Lost wallet? Study suggests cash content might predict if it will be returned

FILE - This undated photo provided by researchers in June 2019 shows an example of the contents of a transparent wallet used in an experiment to test how likely people are to return a lost wallet. "The evidence suggests that people tend to care about the
FILE - This undated photo provided by researchers in June 2019 shows an example of the contents of a transparent wallet used in an experiment to test how likely people are to return a lost wallet. "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 Alain Cohn of the University of Michigan, one author who reported the results Thursday, June 20, 2019 in the journal Science.
Christian Zünd, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — How altruistic is your next door neighbor?

A new study that looks to understand civic honesty by staging lost wallets around the world suggests we may be underestimating our fellow humans.

"We went in originally thinking that when there's more money in the wallet, people are going to be less likely to return it," according to David Tannenbaum, University of Utah professor and co-author of the study.

However, a series of large-scale field experiments conducted across the globe over the course of six years produced surprisingly different results than what researchers expected.

Heather Tuttle

"Much to our surprise when we got the data back, we found the exact opposite of what we expected to find," Tannenbaum said.

The study, published by the Journal of Science, tracked the rates at which 17,303 purportedly lost wallets were returned.

Research assistants involved in the study were tasked with posing as good Samaritans and turning in the so-called lost wallets to desk attendants at various public offices such as banks, theaters, museums or post offices. Business cards and a grocery list in the local language were placed in each of the wallets to signal that the owner was local and could easily be contacted.

The experiment was replicated in 355 cities in 40 different countries and returned about 400 observations per country.

The study found that, on average, the likelihood of citizens globally contacting the supposed owner of the lost wallet increased from 40% to 51% when there was money in the wallet.

Though the results indicated some variation in level of civic honesty from country to country, the increase of wallets returned when money was present was constant globally.

In some cases a small key was placed in the wallet.

FILE - This undated photo provided by researchers in June 2019 shows an example of a transparent wallet used in an experiment to test how likely people are to return a lost wallet. "The evidence suggests that people tend to care about the welfare of other
FILE - This undated photo provided by researchers in June 2019 shows an example of a transparent wallet used in an experiment to test how likely people are to return a lost wallet. "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 Alain Cohn of the University of Michigan, one author who reported the results Thursday, June 20, 2019 in the journal Science.
Christian Zünd, Associated Press

"The money is both valuable to the person who receives the wallet as well as the owner, whereas the small key is pretty clearly only valuable to the owner," Tannenbaum said, noting that "the key allows us to isolate how much (the rate of returned wallets) is due to altruistic concerns."

According to the study, recipients were on average 9.2% more likely to report wallets with keys than those without.

In three countries the amount of money was increased to the equivalent of $94.15 to determine whether greater financial gains would deter honesty. The rates of return increased even further with the larger sum.

The study adjusted for a number of variables. For example, it considered whether fear of legal penalties could be a factor by testing the presence of other individuals when receiving the wallet, the presence of security cameras in the building, and state-level variation in lost property laws within the United States. The conditions did not produce statistically significant variation.

So why did people return the wallet?

The study concludes that two major elements were at play, "an altruistic concern for the owner’s welfare and the costs associated with negatively updating one’s self-image as a thief."

According to the study, "respondents reported that failing to return a wallet would feel more like stealing when the wallet contained a modest amount of money than when it contained no money, and that such behavior would feel even more like stealing when the wallet contained a substantial amount of money."

"What it suggests is that these moral concerns, concern for other people as well as the concern that you don't want to think of yourself as a bad person, these motivations are present across all of these different countries that we examined," Tannenbaum said.

But the study did not stop there.

In follow-up work, he said, people were asked to predict results for the study. Both a sample group of inexpert respondents as well as a group of expert economists "had the exact opposite intuition of how people were going to behave," Tannenbaum said.

The sample group, conducted in the U.S. found that both expert respondents and nonexperts predicted that people would be more likely to return the wallet when it contained no money.

Actual reporting data for the U.S. sample showed that supposed wallet owners were contacted 38.7% of the time when no money was present, 57.3% of the time a smaller amount of money was present and 65.5% percent of the time when the wallet included a larger sum.

Seventy-three percent of the nonexpert sample and 69% of the expert sample believed that wallets would be returned in higher numbers when there was no money.

"When we probe for why, it seems to be the case that (people) think the predominant motivation that drives honest behavior is just self-interest," said Tannenbaum. This element, he noted, could have important implications on policy.

"It suggests that policymakers might have a mistaken mental model of what motivates human behavior," and this, he said, could imply that we are "looking at the wrong kind of policy tools to shift behavior."