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There are times when maintain a certain self-image outweights financial gain.

Lost wallets with more money in them are more likely to be returned, says a new study published in Science Magazine.

This result goes against the conventional wisdom that reckons a lost wallet full of cash will probably stay with the lucky finder. Americans assumed wallet return rates would be highest when the wallets didn’t contain money and lowest when the wallets contained a significant amount of cash, the researchers found in one component of the study. Professional economists whom the research team contacted to didn’t predict the study’s result very well either.

“The results should be considered surprising,” Craig Fox, a professor of psychology at UCLA who was not involved in the study, told MarketWatch.

It appears self-image may be a strong pull for people to return strangers’ wallets.

To conduct the study itself, the team ran field experiments in 355 cities in 40 countries with a total of more than 17,000 “lost wallets.” In each city, research assistants turned in “lost wallets” at banks, museums, post offices, hotels, police stations, and other public offices, asking receptionists or other employees to take care of them and contact their owners.

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All wallets contained three identical business cards with male names common for the country, a grocery list in the local language, and a key. Some of the wallets — “NoMoney” wallets — contained $0. Others — “Money” wallets — contained a local equivalent of $13.45.

In almost every country, citizens were more likely to return the wallets that contained money. Switzerland had the highest overall wallet return rates. China had the lowest.

Switzerland had the highest overall wallet return rates. China had the lowest.

“The researchers do provide at least indirect evidence that self-image is at play in their field experiment,” Fox said, adding, “In hindsight, it does make sense that people might value their self-image more than money.” He also noted that previous research has indicated people are reluctant to cheat for financial gain “because it spoils their self-image as honest people.”

Researchers conducted nationally representative surveys in the U.S., the U.K., and Poland and asked individuals to what extent they would feel like they’re stealing something if they didn’t return the wallets. In all three countries, individuals said they would feel most like a thief for not returning a wallet containing a large sum of money.

Study authors wondered whether the same would be true if the wallets contained a large sum of money, thinking $13.45 may not have been enough to induce dishonesty. In the U.S., the U.K., and Poland, the researchers went on to run another test that included “BigMoney” wallets with a local equivalent of $94.15.

The “BigMoney” wallets were even more likely to be returned. Across the three countries, “NoMoney” wallets had a 46% return rate; “Money” wallets had a 61% return rate; and “BigMoney” wallets got back to their hypothetical owners 72% of the time.

The study was co-authored by researchers from the University of Michigan, the University of Zurich and the University of Utah.

The results could also be partly driven by altruistic motives, Fox said. In one component of the study, researchers found that individuals were more likely to return wallets that contained keys than those that didn’t.

That was the case for a New York City woman who still remembers the special feeling of returning a lost wallet she found years ago.

Karen Bergreen, a comedian living in Manhattan, said she always returns whatever she finds completely intact and unscathed. About 15 years ago, Bergreen was in the back seat of a taxi when she found a well-worn wallet filled with credit cards and about $50 in cash. Bergreen was a lawyer earlier in her career, and the experience proved handy. Based on the name on the cards and Bergreen’s knowledge of the legal industry, she determined the missing wallet’s owner was a lawyer at a high-powered law firm.

Bergreen was pregnant and called the man’s office from a pay phone at a hospital, where she was having a regular check-up. She told the secretary not to cancel the man’s cards because she would return the wallet.

“You have a feeling of goodness that’s really palpable when you hand the wallet back. That’s ruined if you give yourself a tip,” she said.

Bergreen said someone getting their wallet back would feel immense relief and happiness, all because of the simple act of returning a little, but important item to its rightful owner. “When do you get that opportunity to be that charitable for no effort?” she said.

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2019-06-21