If you found a lost wallet, would you attempt to return it to its owner?
That’s the question behind a new report that studies human behavior when people are placed in a situation to return a wallet with valuables inside, and the results are not what you might think.
“We went in thinking that people were going to be less likely to return these wallets,” said David Tannenbaum, one of the researchers on the project. “Much to our surprise when the research came back, it had done the exact opposite – people were more likely to return the wallet when it had money in it. We couldn’t believe it.”
Tannenbaum, a professor of management at the University of Utah, and three other researchers from the United States and Switzerland tested out this theory in 40 different countries across the globe to get comparable results on human behavior when it came to honesty.
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They visited between five and eight large cities in each country and left 17,000 wallets to see if they were returned. Each wallet was transparent so people wouldn’t have to open it to examine the contents, which included three identical business cards to indicate the owner, a key, a grocery list and a varied range of local currency. Research assistants then left them with an employee at a local bank, theater, museum, post office, hotel, police station or court of law and asked them to “take care of it,” saying they found the wallet but were in too much of a hurry to track down the owner.
The wallets contained either no cash or the equivalent of $13.45 U.S. dollars. The wallet was returned 11% more often when it had money inside. However, researchers thought the high return rate might be because there wasn’t a significant amount of money in order for the employee to keep it, so in the United States, United Kingdom and Poland, they added a third variable – the equivalent of $94.15, or seven times the original amount.
Wallets containing the largest amount of money were returned 72% of the time, 11% more than the $13.45 wallets and 26% more than the cashless wallets. Switzerland and some of the Nordic countries such as Denmark and Finland had the highest return rate while countries like China, Morocco and Peru had the lowest. The United States ranked in the middle.
Researchers did not know why the wallets with the most amount of cash were returned the most often. At first, they only tallied the wallets returned, not if the cash was still in them. When they went back and looked, 98% of the returned wallets had the original amount of cash in them.
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Researchers theorize the decision to return a lost wallet is a combination of factors including economic benefit, the time-cost of finding the owner and concern for them; but more significantly the researchers believe the wallets were returned because the employee didn’t want a negative self-image.
“You have to say, ‘If I keep this wallet, do I have to view myself as a different person? Am I a thief?” said Tannenbaum.
What to do if you find a lost wallet
If you happen across a lost wallet and want to return it, this is what the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) says you should do:
If you find the wallet in a building:
- Make sure to visibly pick up the wallet to avoid accusations of trying to steal it and hand it to the employee at the front desk.
- If you’d like to stick around to make sure the wallet is returned, you can call the phone numbers listed on credit card and they can connect you to the owner.
If you find the wallet out in the open or on the street:
- Call the local law enforcement’s non-emergency phone number to report the wallet found. They will tell you if there is a patrol car in the area that can come to you or where to return it.
The ITRC warns that if someone claims to be the owner before you can file a report to let it go. Whether you believe them or not, if they have criminal intentions, they might be dangerous and you are not responsible for what they might do with the wallet.
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