Would You Return a Lost Wallet? (What if It Had Lots of Money in It?)

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Would You Return a Lost Wallet? (What if It Had Lots of Money in It?)

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Imagine you are walking down the street and you see a wallet. You open it and it has an ID but no money. Would you return it? What if it had $20? What if it had $200 or even $2,000. Would that prompt you to change your decision?

Is it stealing if you keep it? Are you a sucker if you return it?

What factors would influence your decision to keep the wallet or return it? Ethical considerations? The hope of a reward? Would it matter if you liked or didn’t like the face on the ID? What if you were short on money and had been craving a new item to purchase? Would you try to calculate how much you could use the money versus how much you imagine the stranger might miss it?

In “Would You Return This Lost Wallet?” Pam Belluck writes:

It’s obvious: Someone finding a lost wallet is less likely to return it if money is inside, right?

That’s what top economists, as well as regular people, usually predict, given what most of us assume about human nature. But according to a clever new study involving thousands of people in 40 countries, what most of us assume about human nature is wrong.

The three-year study, possibly the largest real-world test of whether people behave honestly when given incentives not to, found they are actually more likely to return lost wallets containing money. And the more money, the better the chances people will return it.

Experts say the study, published Thursday in the journal Science, suggests that policymakers and businesses might better prevent dishonest behaviors like lying on tax returns by using moral carrots instead of punitive sticks.

“It shows that when we make a decision whether to be dishonest or not, it’s not only ‘What can I get out of it versus what’s the punishment, what’s the effort?’” said Nina Mazar, a behavioral scientist at Boston University who was not involved in the study. “It actually matters that people have morals and they like to think of themselves as good human beings.”

For the study, researchers planted 17,303 wallets in 355 cities on every continent except Antarctica. The American segment, conducted in 2015, involved 25 cities including Albuquerque, Chicago, Memphis and New York.

The article continues:

Research assistants walked into post offices, hotels, police stations, banks, museums or similar places, approached someone at the reception desk and said “Hi, I found this on the street around the corner.” They slid the wallet toward the person, saying “Somebody must have lost it. I’m in a hurry and have to go. Can you please take care of it?”

In all but two countries, more people emailed to return wallets containing money than cashless wallets. Only Peru and Mexico bucked that pattern, but those results were too slight to be statistically significant, the researchers said. On average, 40 percent of people given cashless wallets reported them, compared with 51 percent of people given wallets with money.

Researchers were surprised. But then they ran the experiment again in three countries (Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States), adding “big money” wallets containing $94.15. The difference was even starker. Way more people emailed to return the wallets with the larger amount: 72 percent compared with 61 percent of people given wallets containing $13.45 and 46 percent of people given cashless wallets.

Why?

“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, a study author and assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan. People given wallets with more money have more to gain from dishonesty, but that also increases “the psychological cost of the dishonest act.”

Christian Zünd, a doctoral student and co-author, said a survey they conducted found that “without money, not reporting a wallet doesn’t feel like stealing. With money, however, it suddenly feels like stealing and it feels even more like stealing when the money in the wallet increases.”

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Would you return a lost wallet you found? Why or why not? What factors would influence your decision? Is keeping a lost wallet stealing?

  • Have you ever found a wallet? Did you return it? Were you tempted to keep it? Why or why not? What factors influenced your decision: the amount of money, the photo of the person on the ID, consideration of the other person? Do you think you made the right decision? After having read the article, would you change your decision?

  • Conversely, have you ever lost a wallet (or something valuable) on the street? If yes, was it returned? How did you feel, whether it was returned or not? How did the experience make you feel about your fellow humans?

  • Are you surprised by the findings of the study? What light does the report shed on human nature? On the whole, do you think people are good, kind, honest and caring? Or do you think most people are greedy, dishonest, selfish, unethical and self-interested?

  • Ms. Belluck writes:

Experts say the study, published Thursday in the journal Science, suggests that policymakers and businesses might better prevent dishonest behaviors like lying on tax returns by using moral carrots instead of punitive sticks.

Do you agree? What other conclusions might be drawn from the study?