You find a lost wallet. Do you return it? Do you think other people would return it? It might take some time to track down the owner and that could be a bit of a hassle to some people. And what if there’s a little money in the wallet? A lot of money? Who couldn’t use a little extra cash?
These are the questions at the heart of the most extensive experiment in civic honesty to date, published June 20, 2019 in Science. And the results are remarkable and encouraging.
Most of us would predict that the more money is at stake, the more likely individuals are to keep the wallet. Even economists who study incentives expected people to pocket the cash.
But human beings deserve more credit than that. Over three years as part of this study, a team of economists left more than 17,000 wallets containing varying amounts of money at civic institutions in 40 countries, then measured how many were reported to their owner. Rates of return varied greatly, from 14 percent in China to 76 percent in Switzerland. The United States ranked in the middle. But strikingly, in 38 out of 40 countries, the more money a wallet contained, the more likely people were to return it.
Even the researchers believed the opposite would be true. After exploring possible explanations for their finding in follow-up studies, they concluded that people everywhere were motivated by a combination of altruism and an aversion to viewing themselves as a thief.
Click this link to read the story in USA TODAY and also watch the video of kids returning a wallet they found while riding their bikes. This article also contains some tips for what to do if you find a wallet from the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC).
A couple of weeks ago, I walked out of my local supermarket with my groceries in hand and just outside the door was a very expensive handbag lying all by itself on the sidewalk. I stopped short, then looked around but saw no one. For a split second I wondered “Is this a joke or am I on camera to see what I would do?” Then I picked it up, and walked right back into the store to the customer service desk. Just as I was handing it over to the clerk and explaining that I had just found it outside, a very harried-looking woman rushed in and spotted me and exclaimed that it was hers. Relief was written all over her face as she described how she got into her car, reached for her car keys and suddenly realized her purse was missing.
When you leave your wallet in a store, or it falls out of your bag on a plane, it begins a perilous journey into the depths of human morality. Will a stranger turn the wallet in? Will they pocket the cash and run? This experiment involving 355 cities and thousands of “lost” wallets suggests that humans are far more altruistic than you might think, but for strikingly self-serving reasons. I honestly don’t care about this scientific interpretation; the only thing that matters is you give back what doesn’t belong to you. It’s like being a good neighbor or or a good friend. You do things for others without expecting anything in return. I’ve written about this before in Kindness Matters.
Clearly, should you find a lost wallet it’s best to return it. But a second, survey-based phase of the study suggests that kindness and altruism weren’t the only motivations involved; another major factor was “an aversion to viewing oneself as a thief.” People want to feel morally good about themselves – which explains the higher rate at which wallets with greater sums of money were reported, because you’re more of a thief if you keep $94.14 than $13.45.
When traveling as a college student in Paris in 1979, I had my wallet stolen while riding the Metro. So I lost some French francs along with my driver’s license and my student I.D. But back in the United States about two months later, I got an envelope in the mail from France. Inside were my two I.D.s along with a lovely letter written in French from the person who found my wallet ditched on the street. I’ll never forget the thoughtfulness of a French stranger who took their time to return it all the way back to the U.S., concerned that I would need these two documents.
Have you ever had a lost wallet returned to you? Or found one and successfully tracked down the owner? Tell me about it.