MELBOURNE - You have lost your wallet. Inside are your business cards with your email address. How likely is it that you will receive a message telling you that it has been found? If the wallet has money in it, does that improve, or reduce, the odds that you will get it back, with its contents intact?
To ask these questions is also to ask to what extent most people are basically honest, or care about strangers. Some evolutionary psychologists argue that altruism is limited to our kin and to those who can reciprocate whatever help we give them. Is that too cynical? Last month, researchers from the United States and Switzerland shed some light on that question when they published the results of a huge and ingenious study involving more than 17,000 “lost” wallets in 40 countries.
At banks, theaters, museums, hotels and public offices in 355 different cities, research assistants handed in a wallet, telling the person at the counter that they had found it on the street, but were in a hurry. The assistant then asked that person to “please take care of it” and left without providing contact details or asking for a receipt.
All the wallets were made of transparent plastic and three identical business cards with an email address were immediately visible. The wallets also contained a grocery shopping list, written in the local language. Some wallets had $13.45, or its purchasing power equivalent in local currency, while others — in a trial limited to the U.S., the United Kingdom and Poland — contained $94.15 or its equivalent. Most wallets also contained a key. The researchers recorded the number of messages reporting the wallet found that were received at the email address on the business cards. To enable the researchers to study factors that led to reporting, each wallet contained cards with a unique email address.
As one might expect, the reporting rate tended to be higher in more affluent countries. Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden topped the list, with more than 65 percent of presumed wallet owners notified. Poland and the Czech Republic were close behind — and ahead of wealthier countries like Australia, Canada and the U.S.
Some people believe that religious believers are more likely to obey moral rules than non-believers, but the study does not support this view, at least if we can judge the extent of religious belief by the proportion of people in a country who say that religion is important to them. In Sweden, Denmark, Norway and the Czech Republic, at least 75 percent of the population say that religion is not important to them, yet all these countries have high reporting rates. On the other hand, over 80 percent of the population in Peru and Morocco say that religion is very important to them, yet both countries have reporting rates below 25 percent.
Women were roughly 2 percent more likely to report a wallet than men. This study thus adds to previous research suggesting that women tend to be more ethical than men.
The most striking result of the study, however, is that wallets containing money were more likely to be reported to their presumed owners than wallets with no money. That finding was consistent across 38 of the 40 countries — the exceptions were Mexico and Peru, where the presence of money made no statistically significant difference to the (low) reporting rate. Moreover, in the three countries where the wallets containing $94.15 were “found,” they were reported at a higher rate than those with only $13.45.
The researchers considered various possible explanations for this outcome, including fear of being punished for keeping the money, expectation of a reward for reporting it, and the possibility that even when the found wallet was reported, it would be returned without the cash. But when reported wallets were collected, 98 percent of the money in them was returned. Other evidence suggested that neither fear of punishment nor hope of reward was likely to be the primary motivation for reporting the finding of the wallet.
Why, then, would people be more likely to report a wallet that has more money in it? The researchers propose four factors that determine whether someone with the opportunity to return a wallet will do so: the economic payoff from keeping it, the effort of reporting it, altruistic concern for the owner and an aversion to seeing oneself as a thief. According to this model, although the presence of money increases the economic payoff of keeping the wallet (and the more money the higher the payoff), that economic gain is outweighed by the combination of altruistic concern and the desire to see oneself as an honest person.
The evidence that altruistic concern plays some role in the decision to report the wallet comes from comparing return rates for wallets with and without a key. The key is presumably important to the owner, but, in contrast to money, is of no use to the person in possession of the wallet. Hence, it is unlikely to be relevant to that person’s self-image as an honest person rather than a thief. Yet wallets with a key and money in them were more likely to be reported to the owner than those with money and no key, suggesting that it was not only concern for one’s self-image that motivated the reports.
We should all be encouraged by these findings. It is common to hear people complain that we live in an era in which self-interest prevails, moral standards have collapsed, few care about others and most people would steal if they thought they could get away with it. This study provides solid evidence that the world is not nearly so bad.
Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, a laureate professor at the University of Melbourne and the founder of the nonprofit organization The Life You Can Save. His books include “Animal Liberation,” “Practical Ethics,” “The Life You Can Save” and “The Most Good You Can Do.” © Project Syndicate, 2019 www.project-syndicate.org