According to research findings recently published in the journal Science, there is much we can learn about human motivations and virtue from the ways in which others return a missing wallet.

In an experiment led by the University of Michigan's Alain Cohn, researchers worked to see if putting money in a wallet would make people less likely to return it. Acting as simple strangers or tourists, research assistants turned in wallets to public places like police stations, hotels, theaters, or post offices--asking employees to return the wallets to the original owners.

The team dropped off more than 17,000 wallets in 40 different countries over the course of two years, with each "lost" wallet containing a grocery list, a key, and a few business cards. Some wallets contained $0, others $13, and, in another phase of the experiment, other wallets had nearly $100.

Assuming the larger payoff would entice people to pocket their findings, researchers discovered some surprising results.

According to this study, people are actually more likely to report receiving wallets with money than receiving wallets without money. Cohn explains, "The highest reporting rate was found in the condition where the wallet included $100." Seventy-two percent of wallets with nearly $100 were reported, a stark difference from the 61 percent of the wallets containing $13 and the 46 percent of wallets with $0.

So, what's with all the integrity? The research team offered a few explanations.

On one hand, there's the idea that the person who reports receiving a lost wallet cares about the stranger who lost it. Yes, altruism still exists in our world.

At the same time, however, researchers believe the experiment results demonstrate how self-perception is linked to these moments of honesty. It turns out, people do not want to see themselves as thieves--as Cohn says, "The more money the wallet contains, the more people say that it would feel like stealing if they do not return the wallet."

Not everyone is honest, but as the results of this study so clearly illustrate, most people are. Give your employees and coworkers the benefit of the doubt--at least until they do something to break the trust that you put into them. 

Published on: Aug 3, 2019
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