Are most people honest?

You’re walking down the street and find a lost wallet. What do you do? Researchers decided to voluntarily create this situation in different cities throughout 40 countries. In addition to finding out that reactions varied between different populations, the goal was to see whether the psychological burden of seeing oneself as a thief had an influence on behavior. Can this burden outweigh economic benefits?

The research team composed of A. Cohn (University of Michigan), D. Tannenbaum (University of Utah), and C. Lukas Zünd and M.A. Maréchal (University of Zurich) wanted to test people’s honesty in a more realistic environment rather than a laboratory setting. Laboratory experiments often involve financial rewards that are too small to influence participants' "natural" behavior; not to mention the fact that subjects know they are being observed. Laboratory tests have tended to show that dishonesty increases as material (financial) incentives get bigger. After a certain point, people choose their own self-interest over the welfare of others. Psychological models have also shed light on the importance of maintaining self-image: we cheat (to earn money, for example) as long as it doesn’t endanger our self-image.

The Swiss and American scientists wanted to examine the effect of financial incentives on civic honesty rates in a real-life context. In 355 cities in 40 countries, 17,303 “lost” wallets were given to private or public institutions: banks, theaters (but also museums and other cultural establishments), post offices, hotels, and police stations (or courts). The wallets were transparent and contained three identical business cards (with the name and email address of the owner), a grocery list (in the local language), and a key. The main variable was whether the wallet contained money. The amount (in local currency) was adjusted according to purchasing power in each country. Claiming to be in a hurry, a research assistant would deposit a wallet at one of the institutions without leaving any contact information. Using this protocol, 400 observations were made in each country.

So how often did the employees try to contact the wallets' (fictitious) owners? In theory, wallets containing money should be returned less often than those without any money. For their test, the researchers took into account the number of emails received (using the address appearing on the business card) in the 100 days following the deposit. The results thwarted the predictions of professional economists…

Indeed, in almost all countries (38 out of 40), the citizens tried to contact the owners of the “loaded” wallets. Overall, 51% of employees tried to contact the owner when the wallet contained money, while only 40% did so when the wallet contained no money. And when there was a large sum of money (about $95, or 7 times the “normal” amount), the number of returns increased to 72%! Note that this “big money” condition was only tested in three countries: The United States, the United Kingdom, and Poland.

So why were people so honest?
According to the authors, four elements should be considered:
- The economic gain of keeping the wallet
- The effort involved in contacting the owner
- Altruistic concerns (thinking of the owner's well-being)
- The costs associated with shifting to a negative self-image as a “thief”
The interaction of these elements could lead to a behavior in which, according to M.A. Maréchal: “The psychological forces -- an aversion to not viewing oneself as a thief -- can be stronger than the financial ones.”
Finally, the study reveals profound differences between countries, but we’ll let you check out the ranking for yourself.
Source: Alain Cohn, Michel André Maréchal, David Tannenbaum, Christian Lukas Zünd, civic honesty around the globe, in Science, June 2019.


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