What would you do if you found a wallet?

Joost Ardts

Hundreds of wallets, full of valuables, are being lost every day. How many of them find their way back to their right full owners? What would the finder do? Would material self-interest prevail over civil honesty? And what if the wallet contains no money, a bit of money or a large sum of money? If you would ask people, they would say that the wallet that contains no money gets returned, whereas the one that holds a bit of money would not get returned as often, especially the one that holds a large sum of money. Just a matter of self-interest, right?

Wrong. Contrary to what 593 experts and non-experts predict, an international study conducted in 355 cities spanning 40 countries around the Globe, showed that citizens were more likely to return wallets that contained money, and even more so if the wallet contained a large sum of money. In this study more than 17,000 ‘lost’ wallets containing varying amounts of money where turned in at public and private institutions. Next it measured whether recipients contacted the owners to return the wallets.


People in Switzerland, Norway, The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Poland aced the experiment by returning the biggest number of lost wallets (ranging from 65% to 80%). All in all in 22 out of the 40 countries the return-rate for wallets that contained money was 50% or higher. Differences between countries appeared to be related to economically favourable geographic conditions, inclusive political institutions, and national education. In addition, cultural values that emphasize moral norms extending beyond one’s in-group are also positively associated with rates of civic honesty. In addition there were a few factors that affected the way people responded to the lost wallet – to illustrate, the larger the sum of money, the higher the return rate and wallets that had a key were returned way more often than those without the key, which according to the research has to do with people thinking the key has a more significant value to the owner.

 The unanswered question

Fascinating research, with interesting results that make you feel proud to be a human being, but also leaves you with a big unanswered question: experts and non-experts predicted the opposite from what the research showed. Instead of keeping the wallet, as predicted, the overwhelming evidence suggests exactly the opposite. So what is happening here? Why do we think negatively about other people’s actions, when in general people apparently do the good deed and return the wallet? 

What sprung to my mind are some studies that point to self-protective mechanisms (inflated self-review) and studies on risk and reward perceptions in moral dilemmas. To illustrate, a study found that more than 90 percent of professors rate themselves as above average teachers. And two-thirds believe they’re in the top quarter. The same study asked students and found similar results: 70 percent think they are above average and 25 percent believe they belong to the top one percent best students. It’s math that doesn’t add up and implies that people tend to think they are better than others. Another study among Harvard Business Review readers shows that almost half of the 1700 managers surveyed believe that other managers would violate a code of ethics if they thought they would not get caught. Both are examples of self-protective mechanism, in which people attribute socially desirable, praiseworthy and successful behaviours to themselves, whilst attributing socially undesirable, blameworthy, and unsuccessful behaviours to others. The latter example, like in the case of the found wallet, also highlights the risk/return ratio that people have in mind when deciding what to do in such a moral dilemma, where again people tend to think more positively about themselves and having a higher moral standard than others have. In other words, not returning a wallet is something that others would do, but you would not do.

 But what are your thoughts? Thinking about this unanswered question, what are studies that spring to your mind?

Baumhart, R.: 1961, How Ethical are Businessmen? Harvard Business Review, 39 (July/August), 6-19 and 156–176.

Beu, D. S., Buckley, M. R., & Harvey, M. G. (2000). The role of pluralistic ignorance in the perception of unethical behavior. Journal of Business Ethics, 23(4), 353–364.

Cohn, A., Maréchal, M. A., Tannenbaum, D., & Zünd, C. L. (2019). Civic honesty around the globe. Science, 365 (6448), 70-73.

Ellemers, N., van der Toorn, J., Paunov, Y., & van Leeuwen, T. (2019). The psychology of morality: A review and analysis of empirical studies published from 1940 through 2017. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 45, 372-388.

Gilovich, T. (2008). How we know what isn’t so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life. The Free Press, NY.

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