As It Happens

People are more likely to return a lost wallet stuffed with cash, surprising research finds

Researchers who set out on a study of "civic honesty" by dropping wallets full of cash around the world thought they were chasing a lost cause. But David Tannenbaum said that more people reported the lost wallet than kept them — and the more money it held, the more likely they were to return it.

Researchers gave employees at public service locations a wallet containing cash, keys and business cards

If you came across a lost wallet containing cash, would you return it to its rightful owner? Researchers were surprised to find that a majority of people would indeed return it rather than pocket the cash. (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)
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Researchers who set out on a study of "civic honesty" by dropping wallets full of cash around the world thought they were chasing a lost cause — but their findings were a pleasant surprise.

David Tannenbaum, a social psychologist and co-author of the study published in Science magazine, said that people were more likely to return the wallets than keep them — and the more cash they contained, the higher the chance they would return them.

"[Our team] would go into these various institutions ... like a bank or a post office, and they would go to the receptionist at the front and they would say, 'Hey, I found this wallet on the street around the corner. I have to leave right now. Can I just leave this wallet with you?'" Tannenbaum told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. 

"And then we were interested to see how often people would return these wallets, or at least report to us that they found these wallets."

Some wallets contained no money, while others carried about $16.50 in local currency. They also included items such as a key, business cards and a grocery list.

The wallets themselves were made of clear plastic, to ensure the recipient saw what was inside.

The finders could also report the lost wallets by using the contact information in the included business cards.

Experiment conducted in 355 cities ​​​​​​

Tannenbaum and his team were so surprised by how many people returned the wallet during their initial test in Finland, that they asked their research assistants to triple the amount of money in the wallets.

"Even more to our surprise, we continued to find the same pattern of results," he said.

The final experiment was wide in scope: researchers dropped off wallets 17,000 times in 355 cities across 40 countries.

A photo of one of the wallets used in the experiment, along with its contents. The wallets were transparent to ensure the recipients knew what was inside. (Christian Zünd via Associated Press)

The presence of money boosted this response rate to about 51 per cent, versus 40 per cent for wallets with no cash.

That trend showed up in virtually every nation, although the actual numbers varied.

Researchers raised the stakes in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Poland. The response jumped to 72 per cent for wallets containing the equivalent of about $94, versus 61 per cent for those containing $16.50. If no money was enclosed, the return rate was 46 per cent.

Altruism and guilt key motivators

Tannenbaum said the results suggested people are motivated by a combination of altruism and an aversion to the guilt of pocketing someone else's cash.

"When the wallet doesn't have money inside of it, it feels like stealing. But when the wallet has money inside, you start to question: 'Hey, if I don't turn this in, what does that say about me?'" explained Tannenbaum.

"And so there is this aversion to viewing yourself negatively and that's part of what's motivating people."

He noted that people were more likely to return wallets with keys than those without.

'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 of the University of Michigan, one author who reported the results. (Christian Zünd via Associated Press)

"That's not valuable to the person who we turned the wallet into, but it is valuable to the owner," he explained.

Robert Feldman, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who didn't participate in the work, said he suspected the experiment might have turned out differently if it involved "everyday people," rather than employees acting in an official capacity.

Still, he called the study impressive and said it seems like "a very real result."

Canada ranked 13th

The team dropped off a total of 400 wallets in seven cities in Canada: Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. 

Canadians who might consider themselves in the top percentile of altruism may be disappointed to learn that the country ranked 13th out of 40 for the wallet return rate.

"I wouldn't read too much into that," cautioned Tannenbaum, who said the study was not particularly honed to focus on nation-to-nation behavioural comparisons.

"The experiment was designed to look at what happens when there's more money in the wallet versus less money in the wallet. And in there, Canada does great as a whole," he said.

"So one way to interpret it is Canadians are more honest when it matters."

However, study co-author Alain Cohn noted that one Toronto hotel gifted even gifted a research team member with a free ticket to a local museum.

"[It was] a thank you when he turned in the wallet — the friendly Canadians!" said Cohn.


Written by Jonathan Ore with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Ashley Mak.

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