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Published on May 25, 2021

The View from my Seat

If you found a wallet, would you keep it?

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

For a lot of people, honesty still seems the best policy.

And I am proud to count a granddaughter among those folks.

She found some money at her middle school and, without hesitation, turned it over to her teacher.
The school principal called my daughter that night and congratulated her on raising a youngster who would turn in lost money.

What the principal said next intrigued me. She said most kids would have kept the money.

I don’t know if the principal is right about that, but I have some evidence that, despite all the talk about lying, cheating and unethical behavior we hear about, there are still honest people out there.

In fact, if you lose a wallet or cell phone, you shouldn’t assume it is gone forever.

I belong to a Facebook group in Pearland that is loaded with desperate messages from people who have lost wallets.

But there are also nice messages from people who have found wallets and want to see that they are returned. There are also messages from people grateful their wallet has been returned.

Here are just a few of those messages:

“Someone found me on Facebook and sent me a message saying they left it in customer service … nothing was taken and no transactions on cards.”

“Thank you to the person that found my wallet at the Walmart by 288 and turned it into the lost and found.”

“I found a wallet at Vintage Park Lane Pearland, if you lost it let me know. I have it. God bless you.”

“I found a license at the rodeo. I turned it in but I found the lady on fb and messaged her letting her know. Daily schedules and life suck sometimes so if there’s a chance to help …”

Granted, this is all anecdotal, and I am sure many of the poor souls who have lost wallets will never see them again, but there are major studies proving people may be more honest than we think.

In one large, three-year study on honesty published in the journal Science, researchers “lost” 17,000 wallets in 40 countries around the globe.

Alain Cohn, the lead author for the University of Michigan, explained how the study worked.

Acting as a tourist, a research assistant would walk up to the counter in a public place, like a bank or a post office, and would mention that he had found the wallet outside around the corner.

The phony tourist would explain that he was in too much of a hurry to track down the owner and would ask the employee to please take care of it.

Each wallet included business cards with email addresses to indicate the owner, a key, a grocery list and a varied range of local currency.

The wallet contained either no cash or the equivalent of $13.45 in U.S. dollars. For the United States, the United Kingdom and Poland, the researchers added a third option – the equivalent of $94.15.

The study’s authors hypothesized that employees would be more likely to email the wallet’s owner if it contained no cash.

They were surprised by the results.

“We observed the opposite effect” said Michel Marechal, a University of Zurich economics professor who helped in the study. “People were more likely to return the wallet when it contained a higher amount of money.”

In the experiment, 51 percent of wallets with cash were returned, compared with 40 percent of those without money. Also, the wallets with the $94 were returned at higher rates than wallets with $13.50.

In all, 90 percent of the money was turned in.

What explains the results?

Keeping a wallet with no money in it did not feel like stealing, Christian Zund, a co-author of the study, said.

“With money, however, it suddenly feels like stealing, and it feels even more like stealing when the money in the wallet increases,” Zund said.

So, the next time you lose your wallet, don’t give up. There is a chance someone like my granddaughter will get it returned to you.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)