Does the amount of cash in a lost wallet impact how likely a person is to return it?
Classical economic theories suggest that the greater the temptation, the less likely we are to be honest -- but a new study turns the idea on its head, finding that altruism, and a powerful aversion to viewing oneself as a "thief," outweigh the financial incentives.
A team of researchers studied these questions in a huge experiment spanning 355 cities in 40 countries -- one of the most rigorous investigations so far into the intersection of economics and psychology.
"Our results suggest that even experts tend to have cynical intuitions about other people's motivations, often exaggerating the role of financial incentives and underestimating the role of psychological forces," added Cohn.
The experiment, which cost $600,000, is unparalleled in its magnitude. More than 17,000 identical wallets were dropped off at banks, cultural establishments like theaters and museums, post offices, hotels, and police stations or courts of law.
Some had no money, while others contained the equivalent of $13.45, adjusted for purchasing power in the target country.
In three countries (the US, UK and Poland), they repeated the experiment with even more money: $94.15, which boosted reporting rates by an average of 11 percentage points compared to the smaller amount.