Honesty Around the World

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If you found a wallet on the sidewalk, what would you do? Would it matter if there was money, or even a lot of money?

Recently, Alain Cohn, of the University of Michigan, joined with colleagues to conduct an experiment that mirrors that situation. 

They focused on honesty, and factors that impacted such behavior around the world. Research team members returned what they claimed was a lost wallet to places where you might do so, such as to a receptionist at a hotel. The wallet was a clear plastic, so the receiver could see the contents. The authors of the study then examined whether the supposed owner of the wallet was ever contacted via email, as this information was in the lost item.

They also varied things a bit. In some cases, there was no cash, in others, there was $13, and in some cases, they left $100 in the wallet. 

They visited 355 cities in 40 countries around the world, leaving over 17,000 wallets with people. 

Here’s what they found: Many people returned the wallet. Those in Switzerland were most likely to do so, followed by people in Norway, and then the Netherlands. 

But, the more interesting part of their findings included the role of money. People were more likely to return the wallet when there was money involved. In fact, almost 70 percent of the wallets containing $100 were returned to the owner. The pattern held in 38 of the 40 countries. 

This was surprising to the research team, so they asked others what they expected would happen. Both experts and non-experts expected the opposite pattern.

In explaining the results, the Cohn and colleagues pointed to self-concerns. They wrote: “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.”