Would You Pass The Wallet Test

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A study conducted by the universities of Michigan, Utah, and Zurich, involving over 17,000 front-desk workers worldwide, aimed to understand what drives honesty. The study found that people were more likely to report lost wallets when they contained money, rather than when they were empty, suggesting that self-interest may not be as powerful as previously thought and that individuals’ desire to maintain a positive self-image and be seen as honest can motivate them to act honestly.

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Lesson Article

Unraveling the Mystery of Honesty: Insights from the Lost Wallet Test

Imagine this scenario: you’re working a slow shift at a hotel lobby when a hurried individual approaches the front desk. They’ve found a lost wallet nearby but don’t have time to deal with it, leaving it in your hands. The wallet contains a key, a grocery list, about $13, and three business cards with a name and email. What would you do?

Between 2013 and 2016, over 17,000 front-desk workers worldwide found themselves in this exact situation, unknowingly becoming part of a massive study on honesty. The results of this experiment, conducted by the universities of Michigan, Utah, and Zurich, surprised even top economists and researchers.

Defining Honesty

Honesty is often thought of in terms of truth-telling in our personal relationships. However, it’s a fundamental pillar of every healthy society. Whether it’s using public services, conducting business transactions, or deciding government policies, we rely on a baseline expectation of honesty from our fellow citizens. Therefore, understanding what drives honesty is a crucial research subject for economists, psychologists, and sociologists.

The Lost Wallet Test

The Lost Wallet Test was designed to answer a critical question: will people engage in opportunistic behavior when there’s little-to-no chance of being caught? To conduct this experiment, 13 research assistants traveled to 355 cities in 40 different countries, recreating the same scenario in various establishments.

The wallets used in the experiment were transparent, allowing participants to see their contents. Half of the wallets contained a key, a grocery list, and business cards, while the other half also included the equivalent of roughly 13 US dollars.

The Unexpected Results

Researchers hypothesized that the presence of money would discourage honesty. They believed that participants’ self-interest would overpower their altruistic desire not to harm the wallet’s owner and their desire to maintain a positive self-image. However, the study found the exact opposite. While only 46% of cash-free wallets were reported, 61% of cash wallets were called in. This pattern held true globally, regardless of the participants’ age, gender, or whether they were being observed during the wallet drop-off.

Increasing the Stakes

In a surprising twist, when researchers increased the temptation to be dishonest by including nearly $100 in the wallets, people reported 72% of these big money wallets. Several theories explain why honesty increases as the wallet becomes more valuable. Some suggest that taking larger sums of money feels more like theft, making it harder to maintain a positive self-image. Others believe that the perceived harm to the wallet’s owner increases with the financial stakes.


The Lost Wallet Test suggests that self-interest might not be as powerful as we often think. Seeing yourself as an honest person can motivate you to be an honest person. By modeling this behavior and celebrating it in others, we can help create an honest society we can all rely on.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do you define honesty in your personal relationships and in society as a whole?
  2. What do you think drives people to act honestly in situations where they could easily get away with opportunistic behavior?
  3. Reflecting on your own experiences, can you think of a time when you were faced with a similar situation and had to make a decision about honesty? How did you handle it and why?
  4. Why do you think the presence of money in the wallets actually increased the likelihood of honesty, contrary to initial expectations?
  5. Do you believe that people’s self-perception as honest individuals plays a significant role in their decision-making when it comes to honesty? Why or why not?
  6. How might the results of the Lost Wallet Test influence the way we view and understand honesty in society?
  7. What are some practical ways we can promote and celebrate honesty in our communities?
  8. Do you think the findings of this study have any implications for government policies or business practices? If so, how?

Lesson Vocabulary

honestythe quality or condition of being honest; integrity; truthfulness – Honesty is always the best policy, even when it’s difficult.

healthy societya society that promotes physical, mental, and social well-being for all its members – A healthy society invests in education, healthcare, and social programs to ensure the well-being of its citizens.

baseline expectationa fundamental or minimum level of expectation – In any job, meeting deadlines is a baseline expectation.

opportunistic behaviorbehavior characterized by taking advantage of opportunities for personal gain – The politician’s opportunistic behavior was evident when he switched parties for his own benefit.

chance of being caughtthe likelihood of being discovered or found out – The thief decided not to steal the item because he knew there was a high chance of being caught on camera.

presence of moneythe existence or availability of wealth or currency – The presence of money can often lead to greed and corruption if not managed properly.

self-interestconcern for one’s own personal gain or advantage – The CEO’s decision to lay off employees was driven by self-interest rather than the company’s well-being.

altruistic desirea selfless concern for the well-being of others – The philanthropist’s altruistic desire led her to donate a large portion of her wealth to charity.

positive self-imagea favorable perception or view of oneself – Developing a positive self-image is important for building self-confidence and achieving personal goals.

increasing the stakesraising the level of risk, reward, or consequences – As the game progressed, the players decided to increase the stakes by doubling the bet.

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