“Losing” 17,000 Wallets Around The World Teaches A Lesson About Human Honesty

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What do you do if you find someone’s lost wallet on the street?

Leave it there? Turn it in to the police? Go through it… and try to get in touch? Steal the cash?

Researchers in Finland devised an experiment that could help them find out how a majority of people would answer that question when they dropped off “lost” wallets at local businesses around the world, asking employees there to take care of returning it.


They “lost” over 17,000 wallets in 40 countries over the course of 2 years and guess what?

People turned out to be more honest than you might think – about 46% of wallets containing no money were returned, while 61% of the ones holding cash were given back.

The wallets themselves were similar, holding business cards, a grocery list, and either a small amount of cash ($13) or no money at all.

A secondary study tested people further, with some wallets containing “big money” – around $100 – and in this one, the wallets were returned a whopping 72% of the time.


Perhaps not as surprising, the more affluent the country, the more likely people were to return the wallets with money.

Switzerland, Norway, Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden returned the highest percentage of wallets while China, Morocco, Peru, Kazakhstan, and Kenya coming out at the bottom of the pack.

The United States came out somewhere in the middle.


Researchers aren’t sure what drives people to return wallets, but economist Dan Ariely told NPR that they’re reasonably sure human empathy plays a role.

“The study shows in a very natural, experimental way our decisions about dishonesty are not about a rational cost-benefit analysis but about what we feel comfortable with from a social norm perspective and how much we can rationalize our decisions.”

If this doesn’t make you feel a bit better about the human race (just a bit), then I don’t know what will!