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People Are More Likely To Return A Wallet With Cash In It: Study

Would you return a lost wallet?

Science says that might depend on whether or not there's cash in it.

A team of researchers undertook a major social experiment, turning in over 17,000 "lost" wallets in banks, theatres, museums, post offices, hotels and police stations around the globe, with varying amounts of money in each.

What they found was that, in virtually all countries, people were more likely to return wallets with cash inside.

Researchers put this down to a combination of altruistic concerns and people's aversion to considering themselves a thief.

"We mistakenly assume that our fellow human beings are selfish," lead author of the study and assistant professor of economics at the University of Michigan Alain Cohn said.

"In reality, their self-image as a honest person is more important to them than a short-term gain."

wallet cash
People were more likely to return the 'lost' wallets if they contained cash. Photo: Getty.

Classic economic models based on rational self-interest suggest that honest behaviour (i.e. returning the wallet) becomes less common a the material incentives for cash increases (i.e. said wallet coming with a hefty amount of cash).

However, researchers found the opposite to be true, noting that most existing literature on honest behaviour is conducted in a lab setting, where people know they're being monitored.

In this scenario, research assistants visited 355 cities in 40 counties, conducting roughly 400 tests in each city.

They pretended to 'find' lost wallets on the street, which contained three identical business cards (with the "owner's" name and email address), a grocery list, a key, and either US $13.45 in local currency, or no cash at all.

"Hi, I found this on the street around the corner. Somebody must have lost it," they told employees at the various institutions visited.

Would you return the money? Photo: Getty.

They would then push the wallet towards the employee, asking them to "take care of it" as they were in a hurry -- before rushing off, without leaving contact details.

In 38 out of 40 counties, citizens were statistically more likely to return the wallet if it had cash in it.

Researchers even ran a 'BigMoney' condition in three countries (the US, the UK and Poland) and left seven times that amount ($US94.15) and found that return rates increased again.

The most honest countries were Switzerland, Norway and the Netherlands, where between 75 and 80 percent of all wallets were returned. Australia came in at #12, four places behind our New Zealand cousins but far higher than the US (21) and the UK (22).

countries most likely to return money
Swtizerland was the most honest country, researchers found. Photo: Science.

In the least honest countries -- China, Pery, Kazakhstan and Kenya -- between just eight and 20 percent of wallets were returned.

Interestingly, wallets dropped off at both the Vatican and two anti-corruption bureaus were among those not returned.

The study was published in the journal Science on Friday.

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au