New study involving returning lost wallets: people in the world are more honest than you think, but a reader calculates that honesty is greater in less religious countries

July 23, 2019 • 11:30 am

Reader Neil called my attention to a new paper in Science that tests honesty around the globe in a time-honored way: do people return lost wallets? You can access the paper by clicking on the screenshot below  (pdf here, reference at bottom):

Rather than describe the results myself, I’ll just take a snippet from a Science News and Views article by Shaul Shalvi about the paper, which involved 17,303 wallets turned in to authorities in 355 cities across 40 countries. Shalvi’s words are indented, mine are flush left:

To disentangle the influence of self-interest, self-image, and altruism in a field experiment, Cohn et al. handed wallets to front-desk employees at major institutions, including banks, theaters, and other public offices, claiming to have found them on the street. Each wallet contained a grocery list, a key, and three identical business cards, providing people with a way to show civic honesty by returning the wallet to its owner. To vary temptation, different amounts of money were also included in some of the wallets. Cohn et al. conducted many control tests and analyses to rule out the possibility that people would return the wallet out of fear of being identified or punished.

The wallets were transparent business card cases, allowing the official receiving the wallet to see what was inside.  A “returned” wallet was one in which the owner was contacted within 100 days (each wallet had an email address in it).

Whereas selfishness predicts that people will be less likely to return wallets containing money, altruism and the desire to maintain a positive self-image predict the opposite pattern. In 38 of the 40 countries studied, wallets with money were returned more often than wallets without money, which supports the idea that people are not purely selfish. Moreover, wallets with more money (US$94.15) were more likely to be returned than wallets with less money (US$13.45). The effect not only contradicts rational economic thinking, it is rather surprising. Both laypeople and expert economists predicted the exact opposite pattern of results in surveys reported by the authors.

Furthermore, a key is valuable to the wallet’s owner, not the wallet’s finder. In the United States, the United Kingdom, and Poland, the authors added an experimental treatment in which wallets included money but no key. Doing so allowed them to assess the specific contribution of altruism to honesty. Indeed, adding a key increased the likelihood of the wallet being returned. Taken together, these results support the idea that people care about others as well as caring about being honest.

Here, from the paper is the rate at which wallets were returned in the 40 countries, with moneyless wallets shown by gold dots and money-containing wallets with red ones. As you see, in every country save Mexico, wallets were returned more often when they contained money. Switzerland leads the pack for honesty, while the US didn’t do so well, falling in the middle of the pack. China was worst in returning moneyless wallets, while Perus was worst in returning wallets with money.

(from paper). Fig 1 Share of wallets reported in the NoMoney and Money conditions, by country. (Left) Share of wallets reported in NoMoney (US$0) and Money (US$13.45) conditions, by country. The amount of money in the wallet is adjusted according to each country’s purchasing power. (Right) Average difference between Money and NoMoney conditions across quartiles based on absolute reporting rates in the NoMoney condition. Error bars represent standard errors of the mean.

Also, they asked 299 Americans (“Americans” in the U.S., that is) to predict reporting rates for wallets containing no money ($0), some money ($13.45) and “big money” ($94.15).  The actual reporting rates are on the left, the 299 American’s predicted reporting rate in the center, and the “expert” reporting rates were rates predicted by a sample of 279 academic economists.

(from paper): Fig. 2 Reporting rates as a function of monetary stakes. Share of wallets reported in the NoMoney (US$0), Money (US$13.45), and BigMoney (US$94.15) conditions.

People tended to overestimate the rate at which wallets were returned and, surprisingly, guessed that the more money a wallet contained, the less likely it was to be returned. In fact, the empirical results were the opposite. Economists didn’t do much better, guessing that all wallets would be returned at a high rate of around 65-70%, with no difference predicted between wallets containing no money or some money, and a slightly lower rate of return with Big Money wallets. In other words, both experts and citizens generally overestimated the honesty of their fellows, and also erred in thinking that wallets with money would be returned less often.

One interesting analysis was conducted by reader Neil, who said this:

What jumped out at me was the ranking of the countries by how often the residents reported finding a wallet with money. I made a spreadsheet that compares the wallet w/money reporting rate and the rate at which people report that religion is an important part of their lives (from Wikipedia). There is an obvious trend in the data that suggests that religion may not make people behave better. Well, we both already knew that. The strange thing is that the authors of the paper didn’t notice the correlation or didn’t think it was worth mentioning.

Here are the data Neil transcribed, including the index of religiosity (no data were available for China, but it would be low, which would reduce the correlation a bit. “Walled” in column 1 is “wallet”:


And the negative correlation between proportion of wallets with money returned and the religiosity of a country.  I calculated that the negative correlation was high: -0.802, which gives a significance level of p < 0.0001: a highly significant relationship.

I report this in passing as it’s not at all certain that religiosity has anything to do with returned wallets, for there could be other variables responsible for keeping or returning wallets that correlate with both religiosity and tendency to return wallets. The most obvious is income: poorer countries tended to be those in which wallets were returned less often, which is  expected. We also know from other posts I’ve made that there is a negative relationship between religiosity and indices of well being, including income, so that poorer countries also tend to be those in which people are more religious. (One theory for this is that people become religious as means of seeking help or solace when they can’t get it from their government or society–see Marx.)So while this correlation may not have anything to do with the effects of religion on honesty, it does show, as Neil noted, that religiosity itself cannot be used as an index of honesty. It would be interesting in this study to add “income” to the variables and then see if religiosity has an effect on reporting independent of income.

Note that the authors are heartened by the high percentage of returned wallets, and the effect of money in increasing the return percentage. They conclude that their “findings. . .reveal a high level of civic honesty among nations.”


Cohn, A., M. A. Maréchal, D. Tannenbaum, and C. L. Zünd. 2019. Civic honesty around the globe. Science 365:70-73.


24 thoughts on “New study involving returning lost wallets: people in the world are more honest than you think, but a reader calculates that honesty is greater in less religious countries

  1. The correlation with religiosity is interesting. I thought of a different possible correlation: with economic equality. The person at the front desk of a bank, theatre, or other institution is likely to be somebody making not much money; in countries where the social safety net helps more such people have a decent standard of living, it’s more likely that person will feel like s/he can afford to do the right thing. Sort of like the cross-cultural correlation between proportion of women in STEM and the opportunities for women (and men) to do what interests them rather than do what will ensure them a higher income.

  2. I wonder if one reason wallets with lots of money are more likely to be returned is due to the reward potential? In other words, most people are honest enough to return a wallet, but are more likely to put the effort in to return wallet to a “rich person” in the expectation that the owner will give a (larger) monetary reward for doing so.

    1. Another possibility is that when there is little money the finder figures that it doesn’t make much difference, and thus isn’t worth the effort to return.

      1. This is exactly how I would figure it. If I found a wallet with nothing more valuable in it than $13, I might figure the cost to me returning it in effort is higher than the benefit the owner would receive, But if it contained a key or $100, that is another story and I’d make an effort to return it.

        1. The USPS will deliver wallets to the address on the driver’s license for free.

          I didn’t know that until I watched Mark Rober’s video up above ^^^^

      2. Many years ago I spotted a small roll of bills on the floor of a post office lobby. First thought: My lucky day. Picked it up, turned out to be $80. Second thought: Damn, now I have to turn it in – so at least in my case, the larger amount did make it more necessary to return it. I did turn it in to the postal clerk, but no one claimed it after 90 days, so the post office gave it back to me. [I contributed it to a group helping immigrants, because that post office was frequented by them, and I figured most likely it was lost by somebody planning on sending a money order to the folks back in the home country.]

  3. That’s not ignorable. Why would countries with more religious people not return wallets? Is religion so unhealthy that it contributes to making people more depressed about their lives such that they would be more willing to take from others? Does it lower empathy?

    1. From the results, I don’t see how anyone could say this has anything to do with religiosity among the citizenry. The correlation is far too weak, the countries at the top have far more other factors in common than a lack of religiosity, and a country like Poland is at the top. The conclusion just doesn’t follow from the data.

    2. Assuming the correlation is statistically significant and not just noise, I can think of another reason religious people might be less likely to return wallets — the tendency to interpret chance events as “signs from God.”

      In a supernatural belief system, nothing which significantly effects you is random. If a comet crosses the sky, it’s a message. If a tree falls on your house, it’s a warning. If you find a wallet, it’s a gift. God put that wallet there, for you. The fact that 3 means of identification suggest that Joe Blow of 29 Maple Street dropped the wallet there by accident may or may not be as important as the fact that you were just then thinking about needing some money and — wham! — there it was! Nothing happens by chance. Praise the Lord!

      Maybe. I suspect that if there’s a new line of rationalization for doing what’s easy and pleasing, people will often take it.

  4. I think the correlation between the religiosity of these countries and the “honesty” or whatever one might call it in these tests is a bit too low to consider lack of religion at a reason. This is especially true considering that the countries with the highest honesty also tend to already be high-trust societies with good economies and strong social cohesion. I think those and other factors are behind the success of these countries in the experiment, rather than a lack of religiosity.

    1. Yes. Who needs to worry about confounded effects when there is a drum to beat.
      Also importantly, this is a comparison of aggregated data, where the size of the aggregates varies,to different aggregated data. Eye rolling is my kindest description of this analysis.

  5. “there could be other variables responsible for keeping or returning wallets that correlate with both religiosity and tendency to return wallets.”

    Indeed. Keep in mind that the Bible says that “The love of money is the root of all evil” (Timothy 6:10), and that Christ said “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:24). So not returning wallets with large amounts of money might well be the altruistic/Christian thing to do. 😊

  6. There’s also the issue of access to email. Paywall blocks me from checking but I’m sure the overall reporting percentage for a given country has an impact on this, just probably not the disparity between money/no-money return rate.

    1. A number of years ago, I found a wallet with $1200 in it. When I called its owner to arrange its return, the woman asked me if I was white. I said I was, and she commented that she thought so because this was something only a white person would do. She herself was Chinese, so the clear implication was that a Chinese person would not.

  7. Not a wallet ,but a courier bag .
    I used to be a motorbike courier in London ,one night i was heading out up the A40 near Norholt airfield ,the cars was squared wheeled so i was slowly cutting up the traffic .
    I found a fellow couriers artwork bag ,it had a parcel in it ,also his clipboard and for some reason his Lloyds bank cheque book,
    I found a cop shop dropped it off and phoned his office and told them what had happened .

    Didn’t think any more of it until a few months later i had spend xmas and new year with my parents here in Shropshire ,when i got back to London there was two letters for me ,one was a xmas card with a £5 note in it from the guy who’s bag i found ,he thanked me for my kind action .
    Other letter was a parking ticket .

    1. I once lost a small bag off the back of my motorcycle (a “fanny” pack that was strapped to the seat, apparently not very well) that had my wallet and a few other items in it. I re-ran my route a couple of times but did not find it. The next morning I walked out my door and almost stepped on it. Some kind soul had brought it to my home sometime during the night and set it on my door step. Nothing was missing. I wish I could have thanked that person.

      1. Last year i found a Triumph pannier by the side of the road ,it was one of those you can remove from the bike ,it can’t have been locked in right .
        Took it to the cop shop at Telford ,there was a strap of some sort hanging out of it .
        Anyway i waited a month and then went back to see if anyone had claimed it ,they had the next day .
        The plod said the guy was very grateful to get it back ,i wasn’t have a reward .But it would have been nice if he had contacted me to say thank you .

  8. Just after I started my first job at 15 years old I found a wallet at work. I immediately returned it to it’s owner.
    He said his money was missing then spent five minutes berating me, calling me a thief and liar and worse.
    I told him it was how I found the wallet.

    Later that night he apologized, having realized he had spent every cent he had on concert tickets, which were still in the wallet.

    That experience is still burned into my memory and made me hesitate when I found two wallets in separate incidents. I still returned them.

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