A mass social experiment involving 17,000 “lost” wallets in 40 countries found that a majority of people returned the wallets and – contrary to classic economic logic – they were more likely to do so the more money the wallet contained.
“We mistakenly assume that our fellow human beings are selfish,” said Alain Cohn, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Michigan and first author of the study. “In reality their self-image as an honest person is more important to them than a short-term monetary gain.”
The findings defied the expectations of both professional economists who predicted that people would act in self-interest.
Overall, 51% of those who were handed a wallet with the smaller amount of money reported it, compared with 40% of those handed an empty wallet. When the wallet contained a large sum of money, the rate of return was 72%. Almost universally, wallets with more valuable contents were more likely to be returned.
Altruism played a role, the study suggests. This was quantified by also handing out some wallets with a key, which is of value to the owner but not the finder. Wallets with keys were more likely to be returned.
“The effect not only contradicts rational economic thinking, it is rather surprising,” said Shaul Shalvi, an economist at the University of Amsterdam. “The results show just how prevalent civic honesty is, and they raise many questions, such as how environments can be designed to foster civic honesty.”