People Are More Honest Than We Think, and I Find That Sad

People are more likely to return a lost wallet with money inside than an empty wallet.

That should seem like a given to me, but apparently, it came as a surprise to a group of international researchers who set out to test the tension between financial self-interest and the honesty of people around the world.

The study found that people who found wallets returned them more often when they had a small sum of money than if the wallets didn’t have any money at all—and returned the wallets even more often if they had nearly $100.

On average returned 40% of wallets with no money in them but 51% of wallets with some money. I find those results OK, but I would have hoped it would have been much higher, for both situations.

But what really disappoints me is that the researchers were surprised with such results, expecting the return rate to be much lower.

Have we gotten to the point where we no longer expect people to do the right thing or to behave with honesty?

Alain Cohn, one of the study’s lead authors, concluded that “Sometimes psychological incentives can dominate financial incentives. We should adopt a broader view of human behavior.”

I don’t understand what the researchers’ view of human behavior was prior to the study. It seems as if they went into the study expecting the worst of people, and were surprised when the results did not quite support their view. If nobody had returned a wallet, such behavior would have confirmed their beliefs.

I would have come at the study from a completely different viewpoint and would have expected everyone to return the lost wallets. Anything less than a 100% return rate would be disappointing.

I guess it’s just two different views of human behavior; one perspective views people as inherently dishonest, the other views people as honest. I’m willing to live with the disappointment that comes with having the second perspective and someone acts counter to my belief system, rather than being able to say “I told you so” when someone does behave less than honorably.

And please note that I don’t always live up to my own idealized view of human nature, but to me, it is important to have an honor code that I work towards. If I expect myself to follow such an honor code, why would I expect anything less from anyone else? That seems to suggest an inflated view of one’s own honesty relative to others.

By the way, if you are interested, here are the results of the study by country, and here is the link to the original research.

While there may have been enough people in total involved in the study (17,303 wallets were scattered across 355 cities around the world, which is an average of fewer than 50 wallets per city) to draw some broad conclusions, I’m not sure how much you can project the results of a study based on the behavior of a small number of individuals to an entire country, so I take the country by country results with a grain of salt.

P.S. It’s interesting that Dan Ariely wrote about this lost wallet issue a few months ago (before the results of this study came out), and he referenced a term that provides an explanation as to why someone may not return a lost wallet: “moral licensing.” Sometimes when we do a good deed, we feel an immediate boost to our self-image. Sadly, that also makes us less concerned with the moral implications of our next actions. After all, if we are such good, moral people, don’t we deserve to act a bit selfishly? As an example, after we go to the gym, we’re more likely to order a double cheeseburger. This may explain why a person who finds a wallet may decide to return it but first takes any cash.

*image from the Newdaily