Scientists use ‘lost wallet’ experiment to see how honest people really are

A group of researchers tested people’s willingness to return lost wallets—their results may surprise you

Today's expression: Get your hopes up
Explore more: Lesson #170
July 8, 2019:

A group of behavioral economists studied how people around the world react to finding a "lost" wallet. 17,000 wallets later, they discovered whether a wallet with cash is more or less likely to be returned, and the result might not be what you think. Plus, learn English expression "get your hopes up."

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Do you have faith in other peoples’ honesty? A group of researchers from the University of Michigan tested people’s willingness to return lost wallets in over 40 countries—their results may surprise you

Welcome back to Plain English everyone, great to have you once again to kick off another work week—back to work for me, since I was off last week for July 4. I’m Jeff, by the way. There’s another name you need to know: that’s JR. He’s the producer. And this is episode 170, so you can find all the episode resources at PlainEnglish.com/170.

Coming up on today’s episode: on average, do you think people would return a wallet if they found one? And do you think they’d return a wallet full of cash more often, or less often, than an empty wallet? A group of researchers from the University of Michigan designed a massive experiment to determine exactly that—and I’ll share the results of that experiment on today’s episode.

Hey, I wanted to tell you about something quickly. You know, JR and I both read a lot of books in our new languages—JR in English and me in Spanish. One of the ways we do it is via e-books. We get them from Amazon.com and it’s really cool because inside the Kindle app for your iPhone or Android phone—or tablet—you can look up words in the dictionary, even find Wikipedia entries. It’s not quite as cool as the interactive transcripts that we have at PlainEnglish.com, but it’s close. Anyway, I set up a quick link you can follow to get that free app on your phone. It’s PlainEnglish.com/read . I’ll tell you a little more about it later.


Study tests people’s honesty around the world

Here’s an age-old question: if you found a wallet on the street, would you try to find the owner and return it? I think most people would like to say that they would try to return it. But here’s a twist on that question: would you react differently if the wallet were full of money or empty?

The question of the lost wallet or lost money is one of the classic ways scientists can measure honesty. But most studies of honesty are performed in a single location. For example, researchers would go to the same place, leave a wallet, and observe how people react to it.

But now a group of behavioral economists at the University of Michigan have taken their show on the road. They designed an experiment that they played out in over 40 countries, in 355 cities, and involving 17,000 people. This was a massive study—all to measure the honesty of people under different circumstances and in different places.

Here’s how the study worked: In each city, a research assistant, pretending to be a customer, would approach an employee in the reception area at public places such as police stations, hotels, banks, and post offices. The assistant would then hand the staffer a wallet containing some money, a shopping list, business cards, and a key; the assistant would say they found it in the street nearby and would ask the staffer to try get it back to the owner. The name and email address of the wallet’s “owner” (I’m putting that in air-quotes, for those of you not following along on the transcript)—the owner’s contact information was in the wallet, so it would have been very easy to track the so-called true owner down. The researchers then waited to be contacted by the staffers they had approached earlier.

There’s another twist. Some wallets contained money, while others had no money. What’s more, the wallets had different amounts of money—some had just a little; some had a lot. So think for a second: what percentage of wallets do you think were returned, worldwide? And secondly, did the wallets with more money get returned more often, or less often?

Here’s what happened: people were more likely to return a wallet with cash than a wallet without cash. On average, the wallet with cash was returned 51% of the time, compared with just 40% for the empty wallet. That held true in 38 out of the 40 countries. Even better, listen to this, the more money there was in the wallet, the likelier the staff was to return it to the rightful owner. Does that make sense to you? I think most of us might automatically assume that, the more money we lose, the less likely we are to recover it. But the study contradicted that common belief. What could be the explanation?

Social scientists think that most of the time, humans want to do good. That may be for altruistic purposes, which is to say, they want to do good for its own sake. Or, they may do good so they can maintain a good image of themselves. People want to see themselves as good, as honest; so even if their motives are selfish, researchers think, people strive to do the “right” thing. Perhaps people suffer a little inside when they know they’ve done something wrong. So that bad feeling that comes from keeping a lost wallet, especially one with a significant amount of cash, that feeling of guilt overwhelms the benefit of keeping someone else’s money.

The study found that the percentage of people who returned a lost wallet varied from country to country. It turns out the best place to lose your wallet is in a Scandinavian country; the worst place was in Asia and Africa. You do not want to get your hopes up if you misplace your wallet in Mexico, Peru, Kazakhstan, or China. The United States is somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Think back to when I asked you if you thought that the wallets with money were more likely to be returned. Did you think that the wallets with money were less likely to be returned? If so, you’ve got company. The researchers asked 600 people to predict the results of the study. So, totally separate from the main study, the researchers asked people, hey, what do you think the results of a study like this would be? The majority of people were cynical. The majority of people said, no way, the wallets with a lot of money are not coming back. They’re gone forever. The majority of people were wrong in their predictions.

So here’s the take-away: individuals want to do good, but we’re also very skeptical of our fellow man. Honesty is a funny thing. I think many of us just assume that people are dishonest and can’t be trusted, but honesty and the ability to trust people is what makes our society work. It’s fascinating.


I have lost my wallet three times, in three different countries, none of which was the United States, believe it or not. And it was never returned! But I will say this. The last time I lost my wallet was in Mexico, it was actually stolen, and I don’t want to tell the whole story because it’s really embarrassing, but after that happened, no fewer than four people went way out of their way to help me out. So one bad thing was offset by several other people really helping me out, so it restored my faith in humanity.

I mentioned earlier about the Amazon Kindle app for your phone. This is how I like to read books in Spanish because I often come across words that I don’t know. That’s part of reading in a new language, right? If you read a normal book, you have to stop, take out of your phone or computer, look up the word, and then go back to your book and continue. But with the Kindle app, which is free, you can open a dictionary right from inside the app. You can even look up words or phrases in Wikipedia or—and this is cool—use Google translate all from right inside the app. You never have to close the app, in other words. And it’s free! The books aren’t free. But the app is, and there are a lot of books that are just a few bucks, most of them are under $10. That’s how I read books in Spanish; it’s how JR reads books in English. So check out the app; you can download it by going to PlainEnglish.com/read and it’ll take you to a link to download the app.

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Expression: Get your hopes up