Civic honesty around the world

If you were to lose your wallet, where would you prefer to do so? Invariably, when engaged in storytelling among friends, those who have been to Japan will always say that it is the ideal place to lose your valuables because they always find their way back to their owners. And often, in a predictable mantra of self-beating, we would even add that that kind of "return" would never ever happen here in the Philippines.

But if we set aside our own personal stories about honesty in public situations, how honest are people around the world about returning a lost wallet?

This was put to a clever test. A study about civic honesty just came out, and the results surprised the researchers, the subjects, and the economists. It also surprised me, and I am guessing, it will also surprise you. 

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. The amounts were calibrated according to the purchasing power of the countries to consider the local perception of the value of the money inside the wallet. The researchers pretended to bring a lost wallet to the reception area of banks, theaters, museums, post offices, hotels, police stations, courts of law, or other public offices, without noting who received it. Within 100 days, if the wallet was returned to the owner whose contact details are inside the wallet, then the wallet was considered returned.  

The first surprise was none of the 40 countries turned out a zero return rate. Among the 40 countries, the overall wallet return rate ranged from a little over 20% (China, Morocco, Peru, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Malaysia) to almost 80% (Switzerland, Norway, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden). But while it was reassuring to note that we modern humans were consistent in churning out positive rates of civic honesty across the globe, the more detailed findings could further shock you.

The results also overwhelmingly found that across the countries they studied, if the wallet contained money, the more likely it will be returned. Even more shocking was that the likelihood that the wallet will be returned increased as more money was found in the wallet. We would think the opposite would be true, right? The more money you find in a wallet that randomly landed on your care, the more you would want to keep it. But science has proven in this study that when it comes to civic honesty, this was not true. We humans are not simple economic machines. 

The researchers think that while the incentive of coming upon some money by chance gives you a boost, it is always accompanied by a formidable cost – a psychological cost. This mental cost makes you feel like a thief, and the more money you decide to not return to the owner, the more of a thief you will feel. In the case of lost wallets, it would seem that most of us are not willing to pay the mental cost of feeling like a thief.

What made the study even far more interesting was that they also asked the subjects about what they thought the return rate would be. Their answers revealed that they had very little faith in the civic dishonesty of their fellow citizens. But how about experts, specifically economists who professionally study economic behavior? Nope. They also responded that more money will encourage the wallet "finders" to be keepers. So whether commoner or experts, we think we generally will give in to our "inner thief," rather than the inner saint. But we now know from the study that the opposite is true.

Our own sense of morality seems to frustrate our primal drive to maximize gains at any cost – to operate like simple economic machines. Science just showed that this holds true for lost wallets. But are you thinking what I am thinking? What would it take for some electrochemical razzmatazz in the sense of morality of corrupt officials, past and present, to recover the public funds that they have "found" for themselves and kept? What happened when they did not banish but in fact harbored and nurtured their "inner thieves"? – Rappler.com

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.