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Would you return an empty wallet? What about one with cash? A study offers surprises.

This photo shows the contents of a BigMoney study wallet.
This photo shows the contents of a BigMoney study wallet.

Story updated July 5. See details in story.

Are people likely to return a lost wallet they find? What if it has close to $100 it it? Will they just quietly pocket the cash?

Guess again.

Scientists who dropped more than 17,000 “lost” wallets off at institutions across the globe — some in Charlotte —discovered that people were more likely to return them if they contained cash.

The study flipped a common expectation on its head, and researchers suggest their work could change how policymakers promote honest behavior.

One common model of human behavior says that people are more interested in themselves than others. Another assumption is that dishonesty is more common when rewards rise — for example, people are more willing to cheat for a lot of money than for just a little. At the same time, psychologists predict that humans don’t want to see themselves as liars or thieves.

So, which one wins, positive self-image or the temptation to cheat?

That’s where the wallets come in. Scientists from the Universities of Michigan, Zurich and Utah traveled to 40 countries and dropped off wallets at public and private institutions, mostly in larger cities. In Charlotte, they visited five banks, eight cultural venues (think museums and theaters), six hotels, one post office and seven public offices.

How it worked

A research assistant holding a clear business card case approached the institution’s front desk. Pretending to be in a hurry, they explained they had found the wallet a block away; could the employee please take care of it? The researcher then rushed away without leaving personal information.

Each wallet contained three business cards (each with a unique email address), a grocery list in a local language and a key. Initially, the wallets contained either no money, or $13.45 or the equivalent in local currency.

In 38 of the 40 study countries, people who received wallets with money were significantly more likely to email the supposed owner than those who received the wallets without money. Only Mexico and Peru bucked the trend.

At first, the scientists weren’t sure what to make of their findings.

“We were initially worried that the amount was not large enough to be financially meaningful and that people simply wouldn’t bother stealing it,” said Christian Zünd, a University of Zurich economics graduate student and coauthor, in a teleconference.

‘BigMoney’ added

So the scientists added something they called the “BigMoney condition” in the United States, United Kingdom and Poland.

Researchers added a third type of wallet containing $94.15. To their surprise, even more people tried to return the “BigMoney” wallets.

When the data from all three countries was pooled, participants attempted to return 46% of the wallets with no money, 61% of the wallets with $13.45 and 72% of the wallets with $94.15.

In Charlotte, specifically, the “BigMoney” didn’t change things: 56% with no money were returned, 80% of those with $13.45 were brought back and 75% of those with $94.15 were returned.

Respondents worldwide reported that keeping a wallet with money would feel more like stealing than keeping an empty wallet, and keeping the wallet with the most money would feel the most like stealing. Self-image — not wanting to be seen as a thief — likely played into these results.

But what about altruism? Did some people just want to help others? The scientists performed an experiment in which some wallets with money had keys, and some did not. Participants were more likely to return wallets with keys, suggesting they were also motivated by a desire to help the owners recover important items.

Alain Cohn, study coauthor and University of Michigan assistant professor of information, noted that this project is different from laboratory studies because it allowed researchers to test individuals’ reactions without their knowledge. Researchers could also determine the effects of many variables, such as the presence of a security camera or coworkers, on people’s actions.

The findings weren’t only a surprise for researchers. During surveys conducted after the wallet drop, the team discovered that both economists and other citizens in the BigMoney countries mainly expected that having a financial incentive would lead to more dishonesty.

Luckily for some research participants, when they emailed to return the wallets, they were told to keep the money.

The study overall cost $600,000, and Cohn estimated that sending research assistants back out to collect wallets across the globe would have doubled the study’s cost.

In an earlier version of this story, Christian Zünd’s name was misspelled.

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