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Recent research reveals that a lost wallet which is full of cash is more likely to be handed in and returned to its rightful owner than one containing little or no money in it.

A team of researchers, led by the University of Zurich, undertook a study across 355 cities in 40 different countries. Dropping more than 17,000 ‘lost’ wallets at the reception of various institutions across each city, they aimed to assess people’s honesty and altruism when it comes to returning ‘missing’ property to the rightful owner. The wallets were categorised into three sub-groups: either containing no money, or the equivalent of £10.59 or of £74.16. All wallets also contained a shopping list and three business cards with fake names and email addresses.

Globally, the study found that a mere 40 per cent of wallets without any cash were returned and 51 per cent of those with a small amount of cash were returned, whereas 72 per cent of those with the larger amount of cash were returned. Additionally, including a key in the wallet made people even more likely to return it. This suggests that altruistic considerations may be at play when people decide to return lost property.

Scientists maintain that people returned wallets back for two reasons: both because they care about the rightful owner who lost the wallet which reveals altruistic characteristics, and because they care about their own self-image as honest individuals.

Alain Cohn, the study’s co-author and assistant professor of economics at the University of Michigan suggests that ‘we mistakenly assume that our fellow human beings are selfish. In reality, their self-image as an honest person is more important to them than a short-term monetary gain’. Michel Marechal, professor of economics at the University of Zurich, adds ‘people want to see themselves as an honest person, not as a thief. Keeping a found wallet means having to adapt one’s self-image, which comes with psychological costs’.

Applicants for Psychology, Economics and PPE might want to consider the psychological mechanisms involved in decision-making behaviour and the interplay involved between altruism, honesty and making choices.

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