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Surprise: 17,000 lost wallets show humans are nice people (mostly)

Humans are a gregarious species. Most people do the right thing, and it’s this altruism, or self-identification as a “good person” that the climate industry preys on.

In a new study, researchers pretended to be tourists dropping 17,000 wallets they’d “found” into banks, offices, theatres and such, then tracking which ones got returned. To most people’s astonishment (lay person and expert) not only were a lot of wallets returned but the ones with the most money ($94) in them were returned more often.

What nobody seems to have remarked on is that these wallets were just plastic pouches. Which makes it all the more amazing that in so many nations a mere $13 in a plastic envelope might prompt half the population (or more) to send an email. How many people couldn’t be bothered, not because they are dishonest, but they figure, with petrol and parking, it’s not worth the owners time to come collect this? Indeed, people even sent off an email to return the “wallets” which didn’t have money to begin with.

Ed Cara at Gizmodo inadvertently summed up the zeitgeist of Western self hate, saying that this new study shows ” …maybe we’re not as awful a species as we think we are. Or to rephrase, maybe we’re not as awful as the politically correct want us to think we are?

Kennedy said: Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country, but who says that anymore? It would be a brave politicians who put in a plea for a sacrifice for “the team”. Yet, people clearly like the idea of helping others.

The World of Wallet Returns

It’s really amazing how many almost worthless wallets were reported to their owners. Given that both wallets in the graph below were worth $0 and $13, it’s also possible that this test was not measuring honesty, so much as conscientiousness and organisation. Some of the lower scoring countries may have more participants living in a state of chaos. Some wallets will just have been forgotten and lost.

The amount of money in the wallet was adjusted to purchasing power parity for each country.

Research into honesty, Graph. Wallets returned.

Dark blue dots are the return rates of wallets with $0. The lighter blue had $13. | Click to enlarge.


The $94 dollar test wallet was only left in three countries. In all three, people made more effort to return the more valuable wallet. If the wallets had been real ones (instead of just plastic disposable ones) the returns rates would presumably be higher still, especially for the “no money” test.

Graph, Poland, UK, US, big money, honesty.

Fig. 2Reporting rates as a function of monetary stakes.Share of wallets reported in the No-Money (US $0) Money (US $13.45), and Big-Money (US $94.15) conditions.


Lots can be said about the value of a high trust society. It’s not just nice to live in, and safer, but it’s so much more efficient.

Sadly, lots can’t be said here in Australia about why some nations might rate higher or lower on this list. Culture matters, but section 18C means that we can’t offend people even if we want to help them live a less corrupt and depressing existence.

This was a fairly exhaustive study. The researchers changed the names, currency and languages in every country to try to make the wallet appear to belong to a local. They also tried to control for the use of security cameras, onlookers, and penalties. They cross correlated the data in so many ways. In the supplementary file they compared and controlled for email use, GDP, soil fertility, temperature, hotel ranking, geography, years of democracy, family ties, pathogens, and even rainfall. (Read the supplement file). Despite all these variables, mostly, the response was explained by people just being nice.

The researchers commented that a big motivator is that people don’t want to feel like they are stealing. This is called “theft aversion”. Imagine how good people are going to feel here in Australia when they find out their neighbours have been forced to pay for half their solar panels?

The wallets without “big” money or a key were pretty worthless

Wallet and contents. Pictured.

I wouldn’t really call this a wallet myself.

Climate, geography and weather

The most trustworthy groups lived closer to the poles, in colder climates and with more weather variability. I expect that preindustrial people competing against the weather have to cooperate more with strangers to survive.

Peoples with more pathogens in their recent history were also less likely to reach out to strangers to return the wallet. There’s a certain sense to that if you live in a world with cholera, typhoid and dysentery.

Experts mostly didn’t predict this

Clare Feisler Washington Post

The fact that people were more likely to return wallets that included money (especially a lot of money) surprised the researchers. It also surprised the 300 top academic economists they surveyed, who predicted people would be more likely to keep the wallets with money.

In 38 of the 40 countries studied, wallets with money were returned more often than wallets without money, which supports the idea that people are not purely selfish. Moreover, wallets with more money ($94.15) were more likely to be returned than wallets with less money ($13.45). The effect not only contradicts rational economic thinking, it is rather surprising. Both laypeople and expert economists predicted the exact opposite pattern of results in surveys reported by the authors.

Brianna, Abbott, Wall St Journal

The findings add to a growing body of research exploring, mainly in Western countries, how people balance their sense of honesty and self-interest. Most of these people who were studied proved willing to be dishonest to get ahead, so long as their self-interested pursuits didn’t leave them feeling like a cheater or damage their moral self-image.

Researchers also physically collected 172 wallets from the Czech Republic and Switzerland and found more than 98% of the money still inside.

They didn’t collect the wallets in most countries so they couldn’t tell if the money was still inside. But they selected Switzerland and the Czech Republic to test that, and found 98% or 99% returned the cash with the wallet.

Ed Cara, Gizmodo

The team also tried to rule out as many other possible explanations as they could. The list of factors that seemingly didn’t influence people’s willingness to return the wallet included the presence of a security camera or other bystanders where the wallet was returned, whether the country’s laws punished people for holding onto lost property, the age of the recipient who took the lost wallet and whether they were likely a local resident, and the identity of the research assistant who turned the wallet in

Still, the authors warned, these are only correlations. But if our propensity to return a lost wallet really does indicate just how altruistic and moral we can be to strangers, then maybe we’re not as awful a species as we think we are. At the very least, we might be underestimating our collective willingness to do the right thing.

What do you know: we are good people, and political correctness is wrong, again.

Does any western politician today play to this common altruism? Who offers a vision of putting it out “for the nation”– of being better people so we are all raised up?

The EcoWorriers ask people to save the world, to do the “right thing”, so they play upon it — but they also call people deniers, bully, scare, prophesy death and disease, rising floods, plus promises of jobs and riches. In other words it’s a random shotgun approach: carrots, sticks, everything.


Cohn et al (2019) Civic honesty around the globe, Science 20 Jun 2019: eaau8712 DOI: 10.1126/science.aau8712

Supplementary info

Shaul Shalvi (2019) Financial temptation increases civic honesty, Science 20 Jun 2019: eaax5034 DOI: 10.1126/science.aax5034
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