Would you keep a wallet full of money you found on the street? Or would you return it to the owner identified inside?
That's the question the international magazine "Reader's Digest" tried to answer in a recent experiment
that involved dropping 12 wallets in parks, on sidewalks, and near shopping malls in 16 cities around the world. Each wallet contained the equivalent of $50 in local currency and some sort of personal photograph, along with a phone number.
Magazine staffers then watched from afar to see whether the people who found the wallets would try to find the owner.
Helsinki had the most number of honest people. Eleven out of the 12 wallets dropped in Finland's capital found their way back to their "owners." Lasse Luomakoski, a 27-year-old businessman who returned a wallet, explained the result by saying, "Finns are naturally honest. We are a small, quiet, closely knit community. We have little corruption, and we don't even run red lights."
The city where the least number of people returned a wallet was Lisbon, Portugal, where only one of the 12 wallets was returned. And the one that was returned came from a couple visiting from the Netherlands.
Overall, nearly half -- 47 percent -- of the wallets were turned in. Just over half -- 53 percent -- were kept by the people who found them.
Catherine Haughney, the editor of the U.K. edition of "Reader's Digest", which conducted the experiment in London, says the more important number is the 47 percent who did the right thing.
"With the economy being the way it is in so many countries nowadays, you kind of almost wonder what impact that has on people's ethical values," Haughney says. " So we're taking it more as really great that so many people returned the wallets."
'People Should Help One Another'
Moscow ranked sixth most honest, with seven out of 12 wallets returned. One of the upstanding citizens was Emergency Situations Ministry officer Eduard Anitpin, who said his parents raised him to be "an honest and decent man." Another Muscovite who called the number in the wallet said, "I am convinced that people should help one another, and if I can make someone a little happier, I will."
In Warsaw, five wallets came back. Marlena Kaminska, a 28-year-old biotechnologist, found one in the Polish capital but didn't call the number inside for hours. She told the magazine that some of her coworkers had advised her "not to bother looking for the owner," but her conscience compelled her to do otherwise.
Editor Haughney describes a similar situation in London, where five wallets were returned -- including one by a Polish woman who picked up the wallet but wasn't quite sure what to do.
"She spoke to her boss, who's also from Poland," Haughney says. "And the boss said straightaway, 'The thing you have to do is to phone the number and get this wallet back, because you don't know anything about whose wallet this is, you don't know anything about the circumstances. All you know is that it's not yours, and it should go back to its rightful owner.'"
Economy A Factor
The results showed that age and gender made no difference. All seven unreturned wallets in Poland were taken by women. Young people in New York who saw the family photo inside decided to find the owner, but youths in Prague didn't.
A 73-year-old grandmother in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, where four wallets were returned, said she called the number inside because the wallet wasn't hers. But a 60-something woman in Warsaw looked inside the wallet and disappeared inside a building with it.
It might be relevant to the best and worst results that Finland -- home to the "most honest" city -- has a growing economy and just over 7 percent unemployment. The economy in Portugal -- where the "least honest" city is located --has shrunk three years in a row and has an unemployment rate of 17.5 percent.
And while the experiment revealed the reasons why some people returned a wallet, it didn't tell us why those who kept it did so.
For example, in Ljubljana, Slovenia, why did a man in his early 50s who spotted a wallet on the street begin to dial a number on his phone -- possibly the police -- but then stop, pick up the wallet, and drive off in an expensive car, never to call the owner?
Daniel Ariely, who studies psychology and behavioral economics at North Carolina's Duke University, says that's the more interesting question for him.
He wonders if the people who turned in the wallet were being watched by other people as they picked it up. If they thought no one was looking, he says, they might have pocketed it more easily.
"The simplest way to read studies like this is to say, 'Oh, there are some really good people and there are some really bad people,'" Ariely says. "The reality is that we don't find that. We find that lots of really good people are capable of doing all kinds of terrible things, it's just a question about what is it about the particular environment that facilitates that?"
A Little Dishonesty In All Of Us?
In an experiment to test people's honesty, Ariely fixed a vending machine to return people's money but still dispense candy. He found that people tried three or four times to get the machine to take their coins before giving up and taking the free candy.
Some then called their friends and told them about the broken machine.
The study proved that people who were inclined to be honest could become dishonest if the situation changed and enabled them to.
That may be what happened in one case during the "Reader's Digest" experiment in Bucharest, where one young woman tried to do the right thing but ultimately gave up. She asked two passersby if the wallet was theirs and then pocketed it.
Ariely also says that by telling their friends to come and get free candy, the subjects in the vending machine experiment were trying to feel OK about what they did by getting more people to participate.
"We find that these rationalizations are everywhere," he says. "We find that people have a very easy time rationalizing things like illegal [computer] downloads, or not paying taxes -- all kinds of things -- the moment we give them an excuse for rationalizing it."
So in the end, maybe all people are capable of dishonesty. But "Reader's Digest" editor Haughney prefers a simpler explanation.
"There are honest people who find a wallet and just want to find its owner," she says. "Which is quite heartwarming, really."