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You are more likely to get your wallet back if it's full of cash

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a lost wallet on the sidewalk
Our own self image as an honest person is more important than a quick hit of cash. Photo: Getty

You are more likely to return a lost wallet stuffed with cash than keep it, a team of economists has found.

In a worldwide experiment involving 17,000 “lost” wallets in 40 countries, researchers found that most found their way back and the likelihood of a safe return increased with the amount of money inside it —contrary to popular opinion.

Wallets used in the study either contained no money, a small amount, or a larger “big money” sum, which reflected the spending power of the different countries. They also held a grocery list and business cards showing an email and phone number for an “owner”.

Cash in these wallets — about £10 in local currency — boosted the return response rate to around 51%, against 40% for wallets that held no currency. This trend popped up in every nation but actual numbers varied.

Share of wallets reported in the 'No Money' and 'Money' condition by country.
Share of wallets reported in the 'No Money' and 'Money' condition by country.

In the UK, US and Poland researchers used a “Big Money” wallet, boosting the cash inside to the equivalent of £75. The response rate jumped to 72%, compared to 61% for those containing just a tenners-worth of local notes.

Interestingly, the Guardian reports that wallets dropped off at the Vatican and at two anti-corruption bureaus were among those that never made their way back to their rightful owners.

So ‘finders keepers’ isn’t a thing, then?

Alain Cohn of the University of Michigan, one of the authors who reported the findings in the journal science said: “The evidence suggests that people tend to care about the welfare of others, and they have an aversion to seeing themselves as a thief.

“When people stand to heavily profit from engaging in dishonest behavior, the desire to cheat increases but so do the psychological costs of viewing oneself as a thief — and sometimes the latter will dominate the former.”

Another author, Christian Zuend of the University of Zurich, said: "it suddenly feels like stealing" when there's money in the wallet.

That idea was supported by the results of polls the researchers did in the US, the UK and Poland, Zuend said.

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