Classical economic theories suggest that the greater the temptation, the less likely we are to be honest — but a new study turns the idea on its head, finding that altruism and a powerful aversion to viewing oneself as a ‘thief’ outweigh the financial incentives to cheat.

According to the study published in the Journal of Science, honesty increased as the incentive to cheat (higher wallet value) increased.

In the study that involved 355 cities in 40 countries and over 17,000 wallets, researchers turned in supposedly lost wallets with no money, nominal amount money, or a substantial amount of money to people in reception areas in various public buildings.

Research participants pretended to have found a lost wallet and quickly handed it into hotels, museums, post offices, banks or police stations and then quickly left.

They found that a majority of people returned the wallets and – contrary to classic economic logic – they were more likely to do so the more money the wallet contained.

The experiment, which cost $600,000, is unparalleled in its magnitude.

“We mistakenly assume that our fellow human beings are selfish,”

“In reality, their self-image as an honest person is more important to them than a short-term monetary gain.”

– Alain Cohn, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Michigan and first author of the study.

Overall across the globe, 51 percent of those who were handed a wallet with the smaller amount of money reported it. When the wallet contained a large sum of money, the rate of return increased to 72 percent.

Some wallets contained the equivalent of $13.45, adjusted for purchasing power in the target country but in three countries (the US, UK, and Poland), the researchers repeated the experiment with $94.15, which boosted reporting rates by an average of 11 percentage points. They also found that having a door key in the wallet boosted reporting rates by 9.2 percentage points in the three countries.

The team’s experiments were mostly meant to study and establish a method to measure civic honesty, the authors said. The fact that regular people and even experts were off base with their cynical predictions may have broader implications, however.

The authors hope that increasing awareness of the negative impact people’s behavior has on others might increase honesty — so by policy to make it more difficult for people to persuade themselves that they are honest when they do something wrong.


Alain Cohn et al “Civic honesty around the globe“, Science 20 June 2019.10.1126 / science.aau8712 (2019))