How Honest Are We Really?

July, 2021

Have you ever lost a wallet? If so, was it returned?

Would a person be more likely to return a wallet if it has cash or if it has no cash?

What percentage of wallets overall do you think people return when found?

Vocabulary list 

• Students read each word followed by the definition, focusing on the correct pronunciation.

• The teacher reads the sample sentence and the students repeat, focusing on the correct pronunciation.

• After reading the list, students try to make their own example sentences using the words that are new to them. 

• Students share their example sentences and the teacher gives feedback, correcting errors if necessary.

hand [sth] in (phrasal verb)

hænd ɪn

to return something to an official or person of authority

Your assignment must be handed in before the deadline or it will not be accepted.


altruism (noun)


an attitude of caring about others, even when you do not gain any benefit

Business ideology is about making profit and there is no room for altruism.


evident (noun)


obvious and clear to see or understand

It became evident that the plumber hadn’t done a good job when the toilet started leaking. 


findings (noun)


information that is discovered as a result of research or an investigation

The findings of the report suggested that most people supported the government.


perceive (verb)


to think of something in a particular way

When I was a fireman, I never perceived myself as a hero, I was just doing my job.


drive (verb)


to forcefully influence someone to do something

Care service workers are not driven by money, for them it’s about helping people.


cost-benefit (adjective)

kɒst ˈben.ɪ.fɪt

showing the advantages of an action in relation to its cost

We didn’t do an adequate cost-benefit analysis before agreeing to the loan.


social norm (noun)

ˈsəʊ.ʃəl nɔːm

an accepted way of behaving in a society

The social norms in cultures around the world can vary widely depending on where you go.

How Honest Are We Really?

In 2019, researchers published the results of a research experiment that aimed to find out how honest people are. During the two-year study, the researchers handed in more than 17,000 ‘lost’ wallets that they said had been found in public buildings. They conducted the experiment in 355 cities in 40 countries around the world to find out how many wallets would be returned. The researchers, along with 279 academic economists, assumed that putting money in the wallets would make people less likely to return them. However, the results were not as expected.

All the wallets used in the experiment contained a few business cards with the contact information, a grocery list in the local language, and a key. Some contained about $13.50 in local currency and some had no money at all. They were handed in at police stations, hotels, post offices and theatres. The research assistants then waited to be contacted. When the results came in, they found that in all but two of the 40 countries (Peru and Mexico) people were more likely to report the wallets with money than those without.

There was a lot of variation in outcomes depending on the country. In India, 314 men and 86 women in eight different cities were involved in the experiment. An impressive 43% of the wallets containing money were reported to their owners, yet only 22% of the wallets without cash were returned. For wallets with money, the highest rate of reporting was in Denmark (82%) and the lowest in Peru (13%). Switzerland (73%) had the highest reporting rate of wallets without money while China had the lowest (7%).

The researchers also did a ‘big money’ test with wallets containing about $100 in the US, the UK and Poland to see if this would affect results. They found that 72% of the wallets with the larger sum of money were returned. So what is the reason for all of this honesty?

The researchers suggested first of all that it was just basic altruism – people care about other people’s feelings. This idea seemed evident as when they did a similar test with cashless wallets that only contained a key – something of value only to the owner – those wallets were about 10% more likely to be reported than those with no key. Nevertheless, empathy toward strangers doesn’t explain everything. The researchers believe that their findings also have a lot to do with how people percieve themselves.

Alain Cohn, the study’s lead author, said that, when asked, people said that if there’s cash in the wallet, it feels more like stealing. “When people stand to heavily profit from engaging in dishonest behaviour, the desire to cheat increases, but so do the psychological costs of viewing oneself as a thief – and sometimes the latter will dominate the former” the authors of the study wrote

Dan Ariely, a university economist and author of the book ‘The Honest Truth About Dishonesty’, says that the study shows that material benefits do not always drive people’s decisions about whether to be honest. According to Ariely, “our decisions about dishonesty are not about a rational cost-benefit analysis but about what we feel comfortable with from a social norm perspective”.

Another factor in the experiment was how honest a country’s public institutions are. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranks nations according to perceived levels of public sector corruption and according to Christian Lukas Zünd, one of the lead authors of the study, “Wallet reporting rates in our experiment do correlate with measures like the Transparency International index”. 

Ultimately, for the participants, it seems that honesty does pay. Most of the people who reported the wallets with money were allow to keep the cash.



1. The researchers found more than 17,000 wallets that had been lost.



2. How many of the wallets were returned in India?

a. More than half of all the wallets were reported.
b. Less than half of all the wallets were reported.
c. Only half of the wallets with money were reported.


3. Which one of the statements is true?

a. More of the wallets with $100 were reported than those with $13.50
b. More wallets without money were reported than those with money.
c. More than half the wallets without money were reported.


4. What seemed to prove that people generally felt empathy toward others?

a. People reported more of the wallets with money than they expected.
b. People returned more of the wallets than the researchers expected.
c. People returned more cashless wallets with a key than without a key.


5. The researchers think that, for many people, it is more important to not feel like thief than to get free money.



6. The experiment proved that most people in corrupt countries are dishonest.



  • Do the results of this experiment surprise you? Why/Why not?

  • What do you think the results would be in your country?

  • What do you think the results of the experiment tell us about human nature?

  • What do you think the results of the experiment would have been if there was €1000 inside the wallets?

  • How much faith do you have in people being honest?

  • What do you think makes some people more honest than others?

  • Do you think poor people are more honest than wealthy people?

  • Do you think it is easier to be honest when you are financially secure?

  • Do you have any more thoughts about the content of the article?

  • Author Richard Bach said – “Your conscience is the measure of the honesty of your selfishness. Listen to it carefully”. What do you think he meant by this?