An honesty experiment study yielded unexpected results. Researchers planted “lost” wallets in cities around the world. But instead of keeping the wallets, most people returned them—especially when the contents were valuable.
Researchers for a report called “Civic Honesty Around the Globe” call honest behavior “central” to a society’s social and economic health. Without it, crime, danger, and financial ruin arise. The Bible has much to say about honesty and righteous dealings. “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them.” (Proverbs 11:3)
For the study, research assistants “turned in” more than 17,000 wallets across 355 cities in 40 countries. The wallets were actually transparent business card cases, so people could see money inside without opening them. Each contained contact information; some contained money. After taking the wallets to front desks at places like banks, movie theaters, and police stations, researchers tracked how often the wallet “owners” received a call. They wanted to know how honest people are—even when being dishonest would mean keeping the cash.
The results surprised them. In wallets with no money, the return rate was about 40%. But with money inside—the equivalent of about $13 in local currency—the return rate jumped to about 51%.
In the United States, the United Kingdom, and Poland, researchers raised the amount of money involved. Wallets containing about $94 were turned in about 72% of the time; wallets with the usual $13, only 61% of the time. With no money inside, the rate dropped to 46%.
Study author Christian Zuend says, “It suddenly feels like stealing” when there’s money in the wallet, “and it feels even more like stealing when the money in the wallet increases.”
National results varied widely in how often the wallet’s “owner” was contacted. In Switzerland, the rate was 74% for wallets without money and 79% with it, while in China, the rates were 7% and 22%. The U.S. figures were 39% and 57%.
Some wallets also contained a key. Those wallets generated more calls than cases without a key. That led researchers to conclude that concern for others plays a role in honesty behavior, since—unlike money—a key is valuable to its owner but not a stranger.
Researchers conclude that most people care about the wellbeing of others and dislike thinking of themselves as thieves . . . especially in Switzerland.
Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands. — Ephesians 4:28