Would you return a lost wallet?

The researchers in this 2019 Swiss/US study intentionally “lost” > 17,000 wallets under experimental conditions:

“We conducted field experiments in 40 countries to examine whether people act more dishonestly when they have a greater economic incentive to do so, and we found the opposite to be true. Citizens were more likely to return wallets that contained relatively larger amounts of money. Neither nonexperts nor professional economists were able to predict this result.

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.”

The study did well in some aspects, including publicity. However:

1. The researchers admitted in the final paragraph:

“Using average reporting rates across countries, we find substantial variation in rates of civic honesty, ranging from 14 to 76%. This variation largely persists even when controlling for a country’s gross domestic product, suggesting that other factors besides a country’s wealth are also at play.”

Yet the paper’s first page contained the above graphic, which used each country’s GDP as a dependent variable! Wasn’t a behavioral economics study of honesty required to present their data honestly, and use factors that were experimentally significant?

2. “Other factors..at play” were relegated to the supplementary materials. The paper was only three-and-a-half pages long, so there was room for further explanations.

Here’s one comment on cultural differences from a Chinese PhD student:

“Biased design. In China (and Asian countries), people seldom use email, and our merit is to leave things untouched (“路不拾遗“:no one picks up lost articles in the street (idiom)).”

3. The study design had nothing to do with avoiding taxes, but three of the four sentences in the paper’s first paragraph did. This impressed as pointless.

https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6448/70 “Civic honesty around the globe” (not freely available)


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