Would You Return This Lost Wallet? - The New York Times
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 percent of people given cashless wallets reported them, compared with 51 percent of people given wallets with money.
Researchers were surprised. 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 percent compared with 61 percent of people given wallets containing $13.45 and 46 percent of people given cashless wallets.
“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 Alain Cohn, a study author and assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan. People given wallets with more money have more to gain from dishonesty, but that also increases “the psychological cost of the dishonest act.”
Christian Zünd, a doctoral student and co-author, said a survey they conducted found that “without money, not reporting a wallet doesn’t feel like stealing. With money, however, it suddenly feels like stealing and it feels even more like stealing when the money in the wallet increases.”
Research assistants recorded the gender, age and friendliness of each recipient, how busy they were, whether they had computers handy to send email, and whether co-workers, security guards or cameras could have observed the wallet handoff (possibly making the person feel more compelled to return it). None of these factors mattered, they found.
People reporting lost wallets received an email thanking them and saying the owner had left town and they could keep the money or donate it to charity. But, the researchers wondered, if the wallets were actually collected, would people turn them in but keep the money?
So they tested that in Switzerland, which has relatively little corruption, and the Czech Republic, which ranks at the opposite extreme, Dr. Cohn said. In both countries, nearly all the money was returned with the wallets, except for some change, which they think accidentally fell out.
Dr. Mazar, who’s studied people’s honesty in laboratory experiments, said that altruistic result underscores people’s concerns about self-image. “Taking the money and returning the wallet would make you equally bad, or actually even more bad,” she said. “There’s no way you can convince yourself that you are a moral person.”
The researchers surveyed people to see if they expected bigger rewards for returning more money; they didn’t. They also tested for altruism by planting wallets containing money but no key, the one item specifically valuable for the wallet’s owner. People reported those too, although less than wallets with keys.