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How Honest Are You?

By Stephen Morales

Imagine yourself in a hotel and finding a wallet with PhP700 in it. Because you’re in a hurry, you turn it over to the front desk and ask them to take care of it. What do you think will happen? Will it find its way back, as you found it, to the rightful owner? If you think not, don’t bet on it, because odds are you’d be wrong!

A recent global study found that 51 percent of people do the honest thing, and if you happen to be in Switzerland, Norway, Denmark or the Netherlands, the odds can go as high as 70 percent. Surprised? Well, better hold on to something because the study further found that the more cash the wallet contains, the better chances it has of being returned!

Global Civic Honesty

A joint project of economists from the Universities of Michigan, Utah and Zurich that was published in the journal Science last June, the experiment was conducted in 355 large cities in 40 countries around the world (the Philippines not included). Over 17,000 “lost” wallets in all were turned over to banks, museums, hotels, theaters, post offices, police stations and other establishments or institutions that typically have a front desk or reception area.

Using localized names and languages, the wallets uniformly contained business cards with the contact info of the “owner," and, to give it something humanly relatable, a typical grocery list. A key was also added in some. The wallets either contained no money or the equivalent of US$13.45 (just under PhP700) in local currency.

The researchers anticipated that wallets with no money in would have the best chance of being returned, but, to their surprise, only 40 percent on average of empty wallets were handed in compared to 51 percent of wallets containing cash. This was observed in 38 of the countries, with only Mexico and Peru deviating.

Upping The Ante

Was the amount of cash not large enough for people to risk getting fired? To find out, the researchers ran follow-up experiments in the US, Poland and Britain (they must’ve been running out of wallets!), but with US$94.15 in (about PhP4,800) instead of $13.45. To their even bigger surprise, the return rate rose to 72 percent!

If you guessed wrong too, don’t feel bad, because economists and most of 2,500 people surveyed didn’t do so well either. Despite our preconceived notions about human nature, it appears that the majority of people - or frontline employees at least - don’t subscribe to the adage “finders, keepers” in reality. Is it because Big Brother is watching? The researchers don’t believe so because, from their observations, it didn’t matter whether there was a CCTV camera at the premises or not.

The results, of course, are mere statistics on idiosyncratic behavior, and don’t necessarily reflect the location’s character. There were, in fact, surprising non-returns, such as wallets that were dropped off at the Vatican and at two government anti-corruption offices.

Self-Image Over Self-Interest

The study confirmed expectations that civic honesty would probably be more apparent in richer countries, but other than that, the results left the economics experts scratching their heads. With their science failing them, the study authors turned to psychology to explain what, in economic terms, looks like irrational behavior.

In follow-up surveys and interviews, they learned that people generally feel that not returning an empty wallet isn’t a big deal, but with money in it, it would feel like they were stealing, and this feeling would increase along with the amount the wallet contained. It seems that the average person is honest at heart and cares more about how they feel about themselves than the money or the possibility of getting caught. “We mistakenly assume that our fellow human beings are selfish,” said the lead author, Alain Cohn, an assistant professor in economics at the University of Michigan. “In reality, their self-image as an honest person is more important to them than a short-term monetary gain.”

More Good Than Bad

Psychologists believe that when basic human needs are more or less satisfied (as is likely in the case of working people sampled), self-image significantly dictates or moderates behavior. Honest people avoid dishonesty lest they contradict themselves, and if there’s one thing the brain hates, it’s contradicting itself. In clinical experiments, just imagining committing a dishonest act can be so stressful for some people that it manifests in headaches and other forms of physical discomfort.

While the results were a surprise to the economists, it wasn’t so much for some psychologists. In fact, they dovetail with those of a recent psychological study (see “Are People Fundamentally Good or Bad?” in our July issue) which found that the average person is tipped more towards good than bad. The economists’ findings appear to be further proof that civic honesty has become more or less part of our DNA. Evolutionary and social psychologists believe that it is a behavioral strategy that has served the individual and the species well by fostering trust and cooperation in society.


In the other component of the study, it is not clear whether the grocery list made an impact on decisions, but the presence of a key may have been a secondary factor, according to the researchers. They found that wallets containing a key were returned more, and this was most true in Switzerland. Perhaps the grocery list was deemed not as valuable as a key to the owner for finders to bother about returning it.

Previous psychological field experiments have had better luck with wallets holding photos, such as one in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2009, in which researchers placed family photos or pictures of a cute puppy, a baby, or an elderly couple in the wallets.

In any case, it is clear that altruism, or selfless concern for others’ wellbeing, plays a role in people’s decisions in such situations, especially if they can put a face to whomever they’re helping. It simply feels good to do good. In fact, many people refuse to accept rewards for doing the right thing because it’ll spoil that good feeling, and some even consider the offering of a reward to be an affront.

The Takeaway

It’s funny that the economics experts spent over half a million dollars on their study (and an awful lot of good wallets!) just to prove themselves wrong. Humans aren’t just about money and balance sheets and diminishing returns; if they’re irrational in that way, then it is what it is.

We hold dear certain things more than monetary gain, such as happiness and self-worth. Call us nuts, but sometimes we buy things we can’t afford, or stick to a brand out of loyalty, or even lose money on a horse because its name sounded nice. In any case, it’s nice to know that people in this day and age are more honest than we might think, and that if we lose a wallet, odds are - no matter how slight - we’ll get it back. But if I were you, I’d put a photo of my grandma in mine - just to better the odds!


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