People are more likely to return a lost wallet if it contains money — and the more cash, the better.
That’s the surprising conclusion from researchers who planted more than 17,000 “lost wallets” across 355 cities in 40 countries, and kept track of how often somebody contacted the supposed owners.
The presence of money — the equivalent of about $13 in local currency — boosted this response rate to about 51 percent, versus 40 percent for wallets with no cash. That trend showed up in virtually every nation, although the actual numbers varied.
Researchers raised the stakes in the US, the United Kingdom and Poland. The response jumped to 72 percent for wallets containing the equivalent of about $94, versus 61 percent for those containing $13. If no money was enclosed, the rate was 46 percent.
How can this be?
“The evidence suggests that people tend to care about the welfare of others, and they have an aversion to seeing themselves as a thief,” said Alain Cohn of the University of Michigan, one author who reported the results Thursday in the journal Science.
Another author, Christian Zuend of the University of Zurich, said “it suddenly feels like stealing” when there’s money in the wallet. “And it feels even more like stealing when the money in the wallet increases,” he added. That idea was supported by the results of polls the researchers did in the US, the UK and Poland, he told reporters.
The effect of enclosed money appeared in 38 of the 40 countries, with Mexico and Peru the exceptions.
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