We tend to think of honesty in terms of business tactics. But, what about us individual people? Today, we look at how honest people are. To answer this question, we highlight an interesting global study.

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A Global Study: How Honest People Are


Recently, several professors conducted a study on honesty around the globe. They published the results in Science magazine. In the abstract, they noted that:

“Civic honesty is essential to social capital and economic development. Unfortunately, it often conflicts with material self-interest. We examine the trade-off between honesty and self-interest. To do these, we use field experiments in 355 cities spanning 40 countries. In these experiments, we turned in more than 17,000 lost wallets with varying amounts of money at public and private institutions. Afterwards, we measured whether recipients contacted the owners to return the wallets. In virtually all countries, citizens more often returned wallets with more money. Neither nonexperts nor professional economists predicted this result. Additional data suggest our main findings as explained by a combination of altruistic concerns and an aversion to viewing oneself as a thief. In fact, both of these increase with the material benefits of dishonesty.”


Now, we turn  to Merrit Kennedy, writing for NPR, for a synopsis of the findings:

“So picture this: You’re a receptionist at, say, a hotel. Someone walks in and says they found a lost wallet but they’re in a hurry. They hand it to you. What would you do? And would that answer be different if it was empty or full of cash? All the wallets were about the same — a small clear case holding a few business cards, a grocery list in the local language, and a key. Some contained no money and some held the equivalent of about $13. Research assistants turned them in at the kinds of places people would typically bring a wallet they found on the ground — police stations, hotels, post offices and theaters.”

“The rates at which people tried to return the wallets varied a lot by country, even though the presence of money in the wallet almost always increased the chances. In Denmark, for example, researchers saw more than 80% of wallets with money reported. Peru saw a little over 10%. And sometimes, honesty does pay. Almost all of the people who reported a lost wallet got to keep the cash.”

Click the image to read more from Kennedy.

How Honest People Are

For a good overview, listen to the brief NPR podcast with the authors.


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