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An Enormous Study of Honesty Across 40 Countries

All economies rely on personal honesty; laws and regulations can only get us so far. An enormous study into civic honesty has recently been published in the journal of Science.[1] A field experiment was conducted in 355 cities spanning 40 countries. Wallets were dropped off in institutions where they would be seen by members of the public. These institutions covered banks, theatres, post offices, hotels and other public offices, such as courts of law. A researcher pretending to be in a terrible hurry would pass the wallet to a member of the public, saying that they had just found it lying on the ground. The wallets contained the business card of the simulated owner and they either contained no money, or local currency with a low or a high purchasing power in the country concerned. The experiment was conducted to find out what proportion of the wallets were returned and what the effect would be of varying amounts of money, from no money, to some money, to ‘big’ money.

Consistent across all countries was the finding that wallets were more likely to be returned if they contained money, and the effect was larger with big money then with just a little money. Even in the no money condition, over a half of all wallets were returned.

There was large variation across countries, with Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Poland returning the largest proportions. China, Morocco, Peru and Kazakhstan came bottom of the league. The UK came in at number 22 out of 40 for the no money condition. However the UK had the greatest difference between the no money and money conditions, such that our position was a more respectable 13th when the wallet contained money. Economically favourable conditions, inclusive political institutions, and educational attainment correlated with honest behaviour.

A survey of general members of the public and also of academic economists showed that they did not predict the results of this study. In neither case did they think that money would make a return of the wallets more likely. It turns out that as the monetary value increases, so the rewards of cheating increase, but this is more than balanced by the wish to avoid feeling dishonest. That is to say, the psychological cost exceeds the financial gain, when both are high.

Richard Lilford, ARC WM Director


  1. Cohn A, Maréchal MA, Tannenbaum D, Zünd CL. Civic honesty around the globe. Science. 2019; 365: 70-3.
Fri 11 Oct 2019, 12:00 | Tags: Richard Lilford, Psychology, Economics