Honesty is Majority Policy in Lost Wallet Experiment

If you find a wallet stuffed with bank notes, do you pocket the cash or track down the owner to return it? We can each speak for ourselves, but now a team of economists have put the unsuspecting public to the test in a mass social experiment involving 17,000 “lost” wallets in 40 countries. From a report: They 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. The findings defied the expectations of both professional economists and 2,500 respondents to a survey, who predicted that people would act in self-interest. Research assistants posed as people who had found wallets, hurriedly dropping them off in public places including banks, theatres, museums and police stations. Most of the wallet drops were in large cities, and there were about 400 observations per country.

The wallets contained either no money, a small amount or a larger sum, along with a grocery list and business cards with an email and phone number for the “owner.” The amounts were scaled to match spending power in different countries. The entire cost of the project was about $600,000. 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%.

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