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Ethics and greed: Would you return a lost wallet?

June 24, 2019

Finders keepers, losers weepers? Most of us would keep a penny (or even a $1 bill) that we found in the street, without even thinking about it. But what if one of us found a notebook with a name and phone number on it? Or a wallet full of money and payments cards? (And there was nobody around to see—and judge—our actions.)

Recently, three researchers—Alain Cohn from the School of Information, University of Michigan, Michael André Maréchal from the Department of Economics a the University of Zurich in Switzerland, and David Tannenbaum of the Department of Management at the University of Utah— conducted a real-world study on ethics and greed.

The results established that we are much more honorable and trustworthy than we might assume.

In fact, most subjects in the three-year study were more apt to return a wallet when there was money and plastic inside it. And the more money, the better the chances that people would return it, The New York Times reported last week in its coverage of the research.

Experts say the study, published June 20 in the journal, Science, suggests that policymakers and businesses might better prevent dishonest behaviors, such as 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?’” Nina Mazar, a behavioral scientist at Boston University who was not involved in the study told the news outlet in an interview. “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 wallets, transparent business card cases with contents instantly visible, contained three business cards with a male name common to that country (e.g., Dimitri Ivanov for Russia, Tono Hendrianta for Indonesia, Peter Kihiga for Kenya). The American names were Brad O’Brien, Brett Miller, and Connor Baker.

Each business card listed an email address and identified the man as a freelance software engineer so people wouldn’t try contacting employers, the Times said.

Each wallet also contained a key and a handwritten grocery list in the native language: milk (or a locally analogous drink), bread, pasta (or rice or noodles), bananas. Some wallets had no money inside; some had $13.45 in local currency, adjusted to a comparable value for each country.

According to the New York Times report, 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% of people given cashless wallets reported them, compared with 51% of people given wallets with money.

Researchers were surprised, the news outlet noted. 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% compared with 61% of people given wallets containing $13.45 and 46% 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 researcher Alain Cohn, People given wallets with more money have more to gain from dishonesty, but that also increases “the psychological cost of the dishonest act.”

Overall, different nationalities showed different rates of reporting lost wallets. Switzerland and several Scandinavian countries had the highest rates; China and Morocco had the lowest. The United States was in the middle. Americans were about as likely to report wallets containing money as people in Spain, France and Russia.

Research contact:  adcohn@umich.edu