Last Updated on July 15, 2019 by Karl Thompson
People are more likely to return a lost wallet if it has cash in it than if its empty
In a recent field experiment researchers posing as members of the public dropped off 17000 lost wallets at reception desks of banks, hotels and museums in cities in 40 countries.
Some wallets contained no money and others £10 cash, and each had a shopping list, a key and business cards with contact details for the owner.
Only 40% of the empty wallets were returned compared to 51% of wallets with £10. The researchers also tried the experiment with £75 in which case the wallet was returned in 72% of cases.
There were significant cross-national variations: In China less than 20% of wallets were returned while in Switzerland the figure was 75%.
Relevance to A-level sociology
This is a great example of a field experiment and a cross national study combined, which seems to be designed to test levels honesty in different countries.
It’s mainly relevant to the Crime and Deviance module and seems (at face value) to be supporting evidence for the view that 60% of the reception staff in hotels around the world won’t go out of their way to return a wallet with no money it to its owner – but progressively more of them will if there is more money in the wallet – this seems to be suggesting reasonably high levels of empathy/ honesty – if 75% of people return a wallet with £75 in, that’s higher than I would have expected. (Then again perhaps I’m just dishonest scum?).
Limitations of the experiment
Despite the 40 countries, it’s not very representative of the populations within those countries – basically reception staff in hotels/ banks/ museums – that’s a very thin cross section of the class structure.
The experiment also tells us very little about the reasons why people didn’t return the wallets, and very little about why the return rates varied so widely.
The low return rates in China could be because the Chinese are inherently less honest, and the high return rates in Switzerland might be because the Swiss are inherently more honest.
However, it might just be showing variations in cultural norms and values.
In China, for example, the low return rates may be due to a collectivist culture resulting in everyone thinking a lost wallet is no big deal, as everyone’s going to be OK whatever happens to them, due to a collective safety net.
Also, people may not have bothered to return the wallets because very few people actually use cash in China (at least in the cities) – money transfers are done by phone, and people increasingly use their phones to access their properties. Thus, maybe the low levels of return there are because the wallets were seen as something of a ‘back up’ or an ‘eccentricity’?
In Switzerland on the other hand, maybe the high return rates signify the high levels of individualism?
As with many things sociological/ psychological, more research required to dig deeper!
I stumbled upon this in a recent edition of ‘The week’, however there’s also a summary of the experiment here.