Honesty is the best policy? Research reveals when people are most likely to return a lost wallet
According to classic economic theory, if you find a wallet on the street and find money in the wallet, your self interest in keeping the cash is likely to override the more honest behaviour of returning the wallet.
However, new research in 40 countries has found that people are more honest than they think, at least when it comes to returning money to strangers.
A study of 17,000 “lost” wallets in 355 cities revealed that people are more likely to return a wallet if it had money in it than when it was empty.
The study also found that if there was more money in the wallet, the more likely people were to return the wallet.
The study was published in the journal Science said that a team of people handed in wallets that they claimed to find on the street in front of major institutions, such as banks or post offices.
The wallets contained no money, or the equivalent of US$13.45 in local currency, a grocery list and three identical business cards in the local language which made it possible to return the wallet.
In 38 out of 40 countries, people were more likely to return the money if it has money in it.
"This is something we didn't expect," said behavioural economist Alain Cohn of the University of Michigan to the ABC.
Dr Cohn said that there were two factors to explain the findings.
"One is altruism — where you care about the other person even though they are a stranger."
The second finding is that people didn’t like to view themselves as dishonest.
"They said the more money in the wallet, the more they would feel like a thief if they didn't return it," he said.
"The larger the amount of money, the more worried you are about your self-image — the more difficult it is to convince yourself that you're still a good person."