20,000 Wallets Were Left Around the World to Test People's Honesty. The Results Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity

Scientists who handed in almost 20,000 "lost" wallets around the world to test the honesty of members of the public found people are more likely to give back wallets stuffed with cash than when they are empty. Experts say the findings question the idea that people are self-interested and dishonest.

The teams based in the U.S. and Switzerland wanted to look at the concept of civic honesty, which they say is "essential" for society to function and for economic development, but is at odds with what some see as our innate instinct to be selfish.

The study published in the journal Science saw researchers return transparent business card cases to an unwitting staff member at the counter of public places including banks, cultural centers like museums, post offices, hotels, and police stations. Different amounts of money were placed in the wallets.

Researchers then waited to see if the person would contact the fake owner, to test if they would be tempted to steal the money. If the researchers didn't get a response sent to an email address set up for the wallet owner in 100 days, they assumed it was a goner.

In each country, around 400 experiments took place in the five to eight largest cities. A total of 17,003 wallets were placed in 355 cities in 40 countries around the world. Either no money, or the equivalent of $13.45 adjusted according to the purchasing power of the country, was left in the cases. A key, business cards and a grocery list written in the local language were included to signal the owner could easily be contacted and appeared to live locally.

In 38 out of 40 countries, participants were overwhelmingly more likely to try to return the wallet to its owner when it contained money than when it was empty. People in Mexico and Peru were less likely to return a wallet with money than without.

In 98 percent of the cases, the money, not just the wallet, was given back. The likelihood of the case being returned rose from 40 percent when it didn't contain money to 51 percent when it did.

The displays of honesty could be explained because the amount of money included wasn't enough to prompt nefarious behavior, the authors suggested. To investigate this, the team ran another study in the U.S., U.K. and Poland where the amount of money in some wallets was upped to $94.15. To the surprise of the researchers, the rate of people giving back the wallets was 46 percent without money; 61 percent with $13.45; and 72 percent when $94.15 was left behind.

The researchers also looked at whether the presence of other individuals when the wallet was handed in made a difference to levels of honest behavior, as well as security cameras in the building (and in the U.S., lost property laws.) They found these didn't make a significant difference to how people acted.

And when the researchers asked the participants if they wanted a finders fee, they didn't expect a reward larger than the money in the wallet.

Past studies have suggested that people are less likely to be honest the bigger the material incentive, and will be dishonest if they think they won't get caught and risk damaging their reputation. But most research into honest behavior has been done in a lab setting, and focuses on participants from Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies, the authors explained.

The researchers believe the participants gave back the wallets because they didn't want to feel like a thief. In nationally representative surveys in the U.S., U.K. and Poland, the researchers asked respondents to rate whether keeping the empty wallet, money filled and most-money filled wallet would make them feel like they were stealing. The more money in the wallet, the more they'd feel like thieves, the respondents said.

A separate survey of 299 people carried out by the researchers asked whether respondents could predict whether a wallet would be returned if it contained no, some, or a lot of money. Most thought the wallet containing the $94 wouldn't be returned, but the empty wallet would. And a survey of 279 economists came to the same conclusion.

David Tannenbaum, co-author of the study and assistant professor of the management department at the University of Utah, told Newsweek the experiment-side of the study spanned July 2013 to December 2016, and the researchers encountered some bumps along the road.

"There were many challenges," he said. "One challenge was simply bringing research materials into the countries. For example, how can you pass customs with a suitcase full of keys and wallets? We also had to deal with unforeseen circumstances like natural disasters (e.g. flooding in India) and of course make sure our research assistants were safe."

"We also had to deal with the residual fear and anxiety from recent acts of terrorism. For example, while we were conducting the experiment in Kenya the terrorist attacks in Paris happened, and one of our experimenters was arrested and interrogated by the military police for suspicious activity."

But the hard work was worth it.

"When we initially started this project we assumed that people would naturally be less likely to return a wallet when it had more money inside," he said. "We were surprised when we found the opposite. And the fact this finding is remarkably consistent across countries was even more of a surprise."

"[The] higher material benefits of dishonesty also increase the psychological costs of the dishonest act, and these psychological costs can dominate the material interest to behave dishonestly," explained Tannenbaum.

Addressing the results in Peru and Mexico, he explained: "We don't know why Peru and Mexico look different. One thing to note is that the decrease in reporting rates for both countries is not statistically significant, meaning that the size of the decrease is not distinguishable from what you might expect due to chance alone. In other words, the decrease could just be random noise."

Like all studies, the work was limited, said Tannenbaum, as this type of study isn't as controlled as a lab experiment, but the methods are robust enough to shed a light on attitudes towards honesty.

On Amir, professor of marketing at the University of California, San Diego who has researched dishonest behavior and was not involved in the paper told Newsweek people expected the worst of the participants because they "entertain the view of humans as self-interested via immediate economic outcomes, and fail to take into account that people also manage their own view of themselves."

"This is important because it means that in order to improve society, instead of relying on threat and punishment, we can educate and promote moral standards and that would carry significant positive effect for all. That even an empty wallet was returned more than half of the times, strengthened the optimist in me," said Amir.

"This study underscores the notion that people are in general quite honest, a notion that seems to be eroding in our society these days. In addition, it supports the notion that people are very much governed by their learnt internal moral standards. So rather than invest in more oversight and enforcement, we should invest in education of values."

Shaul Shalvi, associate professor in the Center for Research in Experimental Economics and Political Decision making and at the Psychology Department at the University of Amsterdam told Newsweek he too was surprised by the results: "In the age of fake news, when facts matter less than opinions – there are a few things more important than studying human honesty in my mind."

Shalvi, who has researched morality, said it would be interesting for future work to test whether the same response would be seen in wallets owned by tourists or immigrants.

He said: "We know from years of research in psychology and economics that people are parochial—they are more likely to help, cooperate and trust people from their in-group than out-group members. This is why it's unclear if the levels of civic honesty observed in the current work will be achieved if the wallet's owner is not from the same group the person who is considering whether to return the wallet belongs to."