Would You Return This Lost Wallet?

An intriguing new study found that people across the world are more inclined to give back a lost wallet if there is money inside.

Comments: 51

  1. "Research assistants walked into post offices, hotels, police stations, banks, museums or similar places, approached someone at the reception desk and said “Hi, I found this on the street around the corner.” They slid the wallet toward the person, saying “Somebody must have lost it. I’m in a hurry and have to go. Can you please take care of it?” This research is flawed from the beginning. The wallets were handed directly to an employee of a business. The employee did not "find" the wallet, and was directed to "take care of it". If the employee kept the wallet, they could get fired if their employer found out....so that's a pretty good incentive to try and return the wallet. Everywhere I have worked, items "found" on the property belong to the business, and are not for employees to keep. While I do believe most people are honest, I think a better experiment would have been to just leave the wallets in public, for anyone to find.

  2. The study is flawed because of the way it was set up. First, by having someone turn in the wallet, they primed the recipients to be altruistic themselves. Second, having the wallets received by people acting in an official capacity (hotel desk clerk, or whatever) makes it impossible to tease apart natural inclination from an artificial sense of duty. Why didn't they just distribute the wallets at random on city streets?

  3. @J......The factor of anonymity was removed in this study by having the research assistants turning in the wallets to identified recipients. What people might do under the cloak of anonymity might even surprise themselves, witness the mob mentality of

  4. Oh my gosh - what a question - of course I would. And I have in the past. Maybe it's the values and integrity instilled in me by my parents, but I would not think twice about returning such an item. One time I found a cell phone while riding my bike. Sure enough, a few hours later, the owner called (the couple were from Wisconsin, house hunting in a Chicago suburb). My husband and I mailed back their phone. A week later, they sent us the nicest thank you letter with a generous check. We didn't keep that either - we donated it to a no-kill animal shelter that we knew were hurting for money. At the end of the day, we always felt better returning someone else's property than keeping it simply because it was/is the right thing to do. I'm probably in the minority with that mindset, but dang proud of it. It's the only way I know how to live.

  5. Most people the world over are raised with a general Golden Rule ethos. The problem is, humans also have a natural tribal fear of Others, which means we subconsciously tend to assume Others have lesser ethics, or none. Part of the reason why many Trump supporters overlook his shady behaviors is an assumption that "everyone (else)" does it, so if that is true, at least this guy says he's doing it on my behalf. He might be a crook, but at least he's MY crook. When that attitude takes significant hold of a society, rule of law dies and populations become, essentially, groups of gangs loyal only to their own and ready to take advantage of those that are not.

  6. Perhaps people are more inclined to return a lost wallet with money inside than one without money because they assume that the wallet owner doesn't care about losing a wallet with little or no money in it. Try the experiment with two wallets, one that has money and the other which has no money but which does have the owner's credit cards and a driver's license. If there is no difference in the return rates for those wallets, it will show that not wanting to be dishonest has little if anything to do with it.

  7. @Jay Orchard I think people would be even more likely to return a wallet with credit card and driver's license; you can use money anonymously, but you'd have to actively break the law, perhaps traceably, to use credit cards or someone else's driver's license. Therefore, you'd need three scenarios: wallet with no money, wallet with money, wallet with no money but with credit cards and license.

  8. My assumption is that the owner has already cancelled all their cards since that’s usually the first thing you do when you realize you’ve lost your wallet. I still attempt to return the wallet because well, who doesn’t want their wallet back? Maybe the wallet itself had cost a lot of money, they need their ID, etc.

  9. Often when I have found a wallet the cash is gone but the cards seem to be intact. I always find a way to return it if there is ID inside. I would always return everything. An opportunity to steal does not help anyone.

  10. The study was useless since wallets were presented to businesses. Wallets should have been left in the street. Also, some wallets should have contained money and some could have just had credit cards. Would they get the same result?

  11. "The American names were Brad O’Brien, Brett Miller or Connor Baker." When was this study conducted, the 1920s? Or is it generally believed that only U.S.-born white men lose their wallets? (And how does the assumed gender, race, and nationality of the owner affect the likelihood that it will be returned?) The lack of diversity in the names would seem to not just fly in the face of contemporary U.S. demographics, but constitute bad science.

  12. @GG - That would be a different experiment - rate of wallet return based on the perceived race/ethnicity of the owner. Maybe you can run that experiment.

  13. This week, for the first time ever, I left my wallet on the subway, and it was returned to me the following morning. Like any cynical New Yorker, I believe that acts like these are truly god-sent and karma-driven. However, there was not a dime in my wallet, and my savior must have known that, upon pulling out my license to find my address. I've been left believing that there may actually be some good people left in New York, who do actions out of the goodness of their heart, and not for the expansion of their wallet.

  14. In my opinion, an equally valid interpretation of the different return rates between wallets with and without money is that people may be more reluctant to turn in a wallet with no money out of fear of being suspected as the person who removed the money.

  15. Of course I'd return a wallet if I found one on the street -- in fact, I've done so. And I have also twice in my life left my purse behind, and had it returned to me -- once in the US and once in Mexico. Both times with money intact (in Mexico, I gave all the money to the cab driver who returned to my hotel to turn in the purse).

  16. Many years ago I worked in one of New York City's noteworthy clothing stores for women on 5th Avenue. Word spread through the store among the employees that an employee going through the fitting rooms came across a bag left behind. On examination she saw it contained $7,000 in currency but with no IDs or other identifying papers. She turned the bag and money over to store management. We later heard that the woman, a South American tourist, came back to the store looking for the bag. Word went out she gave the saleswoman who originally found the bag and handed it in a generous (cash, of course!) reward.

  17. " The study cost $600,000, funded by a Swiss economics think tank." Has anyone done a study on the morality behind flagrantly throwing large sums of money at poorly constructed and ill-conceived studies?

  18. @Megan You should read the Science paper (not the NY Times synopsis). The study is on the trade-off between honesty and self-interest and may be relevant to reducing corruption or increasing tax compliance. It is not about returning lost wallets.

  19. I was an 18 year old, stone broke, didn’t even have gas money to get to work. Then I came upon a wallet with $12. I was elated, a gift from the heavens. I sat at that park bench, ate my bag lunch then minutes later the owner showed up in a panic. I told him I never saw his wallet. The shame still tears at my very soul. I did mail him his wallet and ID but still felt like the biggest idiot ever.

  20. @Harry B "The shame still tears at my very soul." You nailed it in my eyes. That deep and everlasting shame I would always feel rather than a hiccup of joy is a huge deterrent for me.

  21. @Harry B, forgive your 18-year-old self! It’s understandable and you learned a powerful lesson.

  22. @Eileen Fantastic advise. I've done my share of dumb and impulsive things when I was young too. What's key and most important is the lessons one learns from those mistakes and never making the same mistake twice. Forgiving oneself is one of the hardest things to do. Good luck Harry B. Life's too short to remain feeling bad about something that happened so long ago.

  23. I could never understand that people who did have wallets returned which had a substantial amount of money inside did NOT even give a reward! Now, that is another study......

  24. Of course training via the carrot versus the stick works. Have you never had a dog?

  25. @MomT Nah, I've tried. Whacking a dog with a carrot doesn't work at all. They're too short and flimsy.

  26. I lost my purse once, it was returned to me intact. I certainly would return a found wallet. I don't need anyone's money.

  27. As a long-time taxi driver in NYC I have found all sorts of items, including wallets, left on the back seat of my cab. Once even a fold-up bicycle was left in the trunk of my cab. Some rules have evolved regarding what to do: 1. If it's an item of little value, like an umbrella or a glove, keep it or give it away. (I haven't needed to buy an umbrella in 40 years.) 2. If the item has monetary, personal, or perhaps sentimental value, make every conceivable effort to track the person down and return it. (Cell phones are the most common and the easiest to return.) 3. Accept rewards. Tracking a person down and arranging for a return of the item usually means losing time from picking up passengers. That should be compensated. However, if no reward is offered, make no mention of it. Good karma is reward enough. 3. If there is truly no way to track the person down, it's mine. Spoils of war, so to speak. 4. The only exception to making an effort to track the person down is if during the course of the ride that person was seen by me to be outrightly evil. Not simply discourteous or a no-tipper, but evil. Morally speaking, it's like "If Hitler left his wallet in your cab, would you return it?" This has only happened once.

  28. @Old Yeller #4. Was it Trump or Cheney?

  29. People with a high amount of 'self esteem' will return wallets, not cheat on their taxes, etc. They will also try to do the 'right thing' in other situations....for the same reason. People with low self esteem generally won't....deep down they know they're 'no good'....and they act like it. I've known both types personally. Or am I missing something here?

  30. @Kenneth Johnson So China and Morocco are peopled with citizens who have low self esteem?

  31. I lost my wallet a few years ago. Where, I did not know. After turning my house over twice, i cancelled my credit cards and was going to get a new drivers license the next day but that evening my doorman called up--there was a taxi driver wanting to speak to me. The gentleman said he was looking for me for two weeks, went to the address on the licnse (I had moved) and somehow tracked me down. He said, " All the money is there, count it, I am Muslim, I would never take any." I said" I would not insult you by counting. " To this day, I remember and respect. (Next time, let me tell you about how I was able to return a lost cell phone, when access to opening it and thus finding its owner was locked.)

  32. @Steve Zelman How much of a reward did you offer him for his trouble? Please don’t tell me you just said thanks.

  33. Was running in the Marina Green area of San Francisco and my small wallet fell out. Amazingly I had $200 in cash, several credit cards and ID and the lovely “unknown” individual that picked up my wallet tossed it into a postal box. Got a phone call from the postal service to come pick it up. Not one item was missing through all the handling. Hooray for decent people.

  34. I blazed through the article so I may have missed any mention of Japan, but had it been included it would have certainly skewed the results.

  35. @dl Apparently in Japan a lost wallet has to be left in place, so the owner can retrace it.

  36. W/in a short period of time I found 2 wallets. 1 wallet was found in Bklyn. I was able to track the owner down via his HS (school ID in wallet) on the UWS. Wallet also had MetroCard, $100+ & debit card. None of the times I proposed to meet him to return it were convenient for him. After several attempts over nearly 1 week later I told him I would leave it w/school safety officer. He never contacted me to confirm it was received or to say thank you. 2nd wallet was a phone w/out of state license/$$/credit cards included in the case that I found on the corner of my street on way to work. Was able to connect w/her by saying "call mom" into phone. Her mom was able to track her down. She didn't know it was lost & came to my house w/in mins but made sure to mention how busy she was & running late & never said thank you. I was shocked by the lack of gratitude by both individuals. Never occurred to me to take the $$, use the cards or not to pick up off ground. Always worried about the person that lost it. I was not looking to be rewarded in either case. If reward was offered I would've turned it down. I was treating 2 ppl as I would like to be treated if I was ever in same situation.

  37. I found a zippered pouch with about $600 cash in a hotel room in January. The pouch had $100 US bills, New Zealand currency and South Korean currency, but no identification. It was stuck in a chair cushion. I turned it into the hotel with information about where I found it and that it was likely lost by the prior guest. I provided my contact information in a note that I put in the pouch, but never heard back. The manager assured me the prior guest had contacted them about the loss and they returned the pouch to them. I was disappointed when I did not get a thank you. I then left my backpack in the same room and it was returned to me by mail completely in tact. Karma. Maybe that was the thank you I had wished for?

  38. I have no problem with a social contract that says in return for finding my wallet with credit cards, photos, drivers license, personal notes, irreplaceable mementos, etc., someone could take a finder’s fee of a bit of cash. If it’s a purse with a phone and other things, all the more reason for the finder to have a night at the movies on me.

  39. The wallet without money seems to be largely empty: no credit cards, no driver's license, health card, other ID, just a grocery list and a key. So what are you returning? An empty $10 plastic wallet? Seems rather unrealistic. In addition you are burdening employees of various organizations who may not be prepared to return wallets. In the lost letter studies stamped, addressed envelopes were dropped on the streets and the finder merely has to drop it into a mailbox. This dropped wallet study seems to be rather deficient in its experimental design.

  40. @Walter I think it also skewed it by having the researchers hand it to a person rather than organically letting someone find it. I would bet that people feel more obligated to do something if someone else expects it especially if the recipient is at their place of employment.

  41. Who hasn’t lost something valuable like a wallet or cell phone? We all know how it feels. The realization, the frantic searching, the dread.... My guess is that empathy is another reason (besides morals) why people return valuables they find.

  42. I have a new car and haven't quite figured out all the functions on the key fob. The other day, on my way into the grocery store, I pointed the fob over my head and pushed the button I thought locked the vehicle. When I returned an hour later, I couldn't locate my car in the parking lot. The one I thought was mine had Florida plates on it, and a similar vehicle nearby had its tailgate wide open - that couldn't be mine. But it was. I had apparently pushed the "open tailgate button" and had left my car wide open the entire time, exposing my previous purchases that day to all who walked by - a cooler filled with fruit, a gallon of premium paint, several books and a number of new toys for my grandsons. Everything, including a tablet computer in the back seat and an iPod in the console, was intact. I drove away, grateful for my "good luck", but with my faith restored in the honesty of most people.

  43. I would like to see the study conducted with business cards of different jobs. CEO's versus a mid to low level employee. My sense the results would be different. would Avoidence of the pain of insignifigance, feeling guilty, still apply?

  44. What would Donald do? Reply: YES if you think he would turn the wallet in, NO if you think he wouldn't. A completely unscientific poll, but fun nonetheless.

  45. In the last 10 years,this atheist has found and returned 2 wallets with $1,000 in them each,and a plethora of credit cards .Since they both had Id,the owners were contacted within the hour. The first loser of the wallet couldn’t believe all the money was still there. I accepted his $20. The second wallet loser when meeting me for the transfer said when she discovered it lost ,” I believe there are good people in the world and someone is going to return it with all my Xmas gift buying money”. That comment was all the payment I needed. Also, ten years ago, right before Xmas I lost my wallet in a crime ridden part of Philly. A young man called me immediately reporting he found my wallet. During pick up,I offered all the cash ($35). He declined as he said it was the right thing to do. I asked if he had kids. He responded affirmatively so I said I wanted him to buy a xmas gift for them so he accepted the cash.

  46. I’ve found two lost wallets while doing my pre-dawn snorkeling in the Frio River, looking for yesterday’s tuber’s lost treasures. The first, hilariously, belonged to my nephew who’d been there recently. I kept the $20 in it as a finders fee and fussed at him about not carrying his wallet when tubing. Got a hug and a “yes, ma’am “. The second was a wallet down in the very deepest part. It had been there long enough to have a layer of silt. I dove in and had a shock when my hand grabbed it; it felt repulsive!I swam up to the surface, threw it on the bank, caught my breath, and approached it carefully. I used some twigs to pry it open. It was over an inch and a half thick and from what I could tell all hundred dollar bills. Unbidden I thought - blood money. A local police officer and the manager of the property I stayed at showed up. They knew my penchant for pre-dawn swims and would come every morning to check on this old lady. Instead of waving I flagged them down and pointed to it. They made sure I was ok, said they’d take care of it, and drove away. I watched them cross the river on the highway bridge and thought - both these lovely men are underpaid and over worked, and I’m betting whoever lost it will never report it. A bonus from the river and the old lady. Probably a year’s salary for them both. Every time I’ve been to the river since then both men greet me with hugs. And they still check on this old lady doing her pre-dawn swim.

  47. @Melodie Greider Your writing is really good. You should be a writer.

  48. By the way people are taught here in the states, People especially young people persuade themselves To think that to be honest is by doing what’s wrong Like taking a found wallet filled with cash, for example, And not returning it to the owner of that wallet. They make themselves believe that it’s right, Because that’s what they feel. They are being honest, even though they just made the other person’s life more difficult.

  49. In the summer months, I take early morning walks past bars in my neighborhood after weekend nights, prospecting for dropped currency. I've been lucky finding 20's on a couple of occasions. A reverse story with some karma mixed in. I was in a parking lot at Walmart on the edge of the 'hood when a young guy approached me trying to sell some music CDs he'd made. I declined as I don't even own a CD player any longer. After shopping I approached the same guy in the lot and gave him a couple of dollars as a way to support his endeavors. Keep the CD. Later that same morning I'm mowing my lawn and chanced upon a $20- bill in the street by my house. Karma? I'm not sure.

  50. When I was 12, I found a wallet with lots of money in it. My father called the guy and I was startled that he gave me $20 reward. I just presumed people would give the wallet back. When i was 30, I found a wallet and a few credit cards at a busy intersection. There was no money in it. I called the guy and the first snarly words out of his mouth were, "Of course there wasn't any money in it, was there?" The third time... I found a wallet at an academic convention in San Diego. It had only a few bucks in it. A month later, I went to stay with a friend in Berkeley and... right there in the same house was the woman whose wallet I found. It's all karma. Be honest.

  51. Thank you NYTimes and Pam Bullock for your perfectly timed, most informative, researched story!...just yesterday my lost wallet, from the day before, was miraculously returned to me as i was on the way to the DMV, Social Security/Medicare office, and about to report a lost bank card and state guard card license!!!...in one moment, i went from the very depressed, nerve-racking, "senior moment" blank state of mind to the opposite extreme of elated joy at the totally unexpected sight, never to be seen again.. the lost wallet!...our mind may play tricks on us, we should not believe every thing we think...self deception? The honest person (he refused a very generous reward!..i will instead make a charitable donation, food bank) who found the wallet in the street (how that happen?) gave me such a big boost of peace of mind, RELiEF!!!...confirming that most people are honest, believe it or not, that we SHOULD have more FAiTH, even in this very troubling time of uncertainty, random unkindness and violence...there are MORE acts of RANDOM KiNDNESS than not!!!...