Are Lost Wallets Often Returned?

You're walking down the street and you find a wallet with a $100 bill in it: What do you do? As surprising as it might sound, most people would turn it in. In a worldwide research effort spearheaded by a group from the University of Michigan, 17,000 wallets were "lost" in 40 countries over the course of two years. Some had the equivalent of $13 USD in them, along with an assortment of business cards and such, and some had no money. Universally, the wallets with the cash were turned in more often than those without.

Finding their results hard to register, the team dropped another batch of wallets in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Poland -- only this time, the money-loaded wallets held $100 rather than $13. The results were startling: 72 percent of the money wallets were returned, compared with 46 percent of those without the cash. Speculating on what was going on, the team came up with two main theories. First, it could be altruism at work; that is, people are decent at heart and want to do the right thing. The other possibility? People don't want to see themselves as thieves. It's one thing not to turn in an empty wallet, but what does it say about you if you keep one with $100 in it?

Show me the money:

  • American paper money is green because green has the qualities of being resistant to flaking, fading, and discoloration.
  • Two-thirds of all of the $100 U.S. banknotes ever printed can't be accounted for; they are believed to be overseas.
  • Paper money is considered to be dirtier than a typical toilet and can hold the flu virus for more than two weeks.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the likelihood of a lost wallet being returned?

According to a global study published in the journal Science, the likelihood of a lost wallet being returned actually increases with the amount of money inside. The study found that wallets with money were returned at a higher rate than those without—specifically, wallets with the equivalent of $13.45 were reported as found 51% of the time, compared to 40% for empty wallets. This suggests that the presence of money can influence the finder's sense of altruism or honesty (Science, 2019).

Does the amount of money in a lost wallet affect return rates?

Yes, the amount of money can significantly affect the return rates of lost wallets. The aforementioned study in Science revealed that not only were wallets with money more likely to be returned, but also that the return rate increased as the amount of money rose. For instance, wallets containing $94.15 were returned 72% of the time, indicating that the perceived value of the wallet's contents plays a role in the finder's decision to return it.

Are there any cultural differences in the return rates of lost wallets?

Cultural differences do play a role in the return rates of lost wallets. The study spanning 355 cities in 40 countries found significant variations among locations. For example, wallets were returned roughly 40% of the time in countries like China and Morocco, while in countries like Denmark and New Zealand, the return rate was over 80%. These discrepancies suggest that cultural norms and values, as well as economic factors, influence people's decisions to return lost property (Science, 2019).

How does the presence of identification in a lost wallet impact its return?

The presence of identification in a lost wallet greatly increases the chances of it being returned. The study from Science reported that wallets with a key and a clear form of identification were returned 49% of the time, compared to only 15% for wallets without any identification. This indicates that finders may feel a stronger moral obligation or find it easier to return the wallet when they can identify the owner.

What factors influence whether a person will return a lost wallet?

Several factors influence the decision to return a lost wallet, including the amount of money inside, the presence of identification, and the finder's personal beliefs and values. Additionally, the local social norms and the ease of returning the wallet play a role. The Science study suggests that people are more likely to return a wallet if they feel empathy towards the owner or if they anticipate the positive social consequences of their good deed.

More Info: NPR

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