Returning Wallets

Cohn, Alain, Michel André Maréchal, David Tannenbaum, and Christian Lukas Zünd. 2019. “Civic Honesty around the Globe.” Science, June, eaau8712.

Civic honesty is essential to social capital and economic development, but is often in conflict with material self-interest. We examine the trade-off between honesty and self-interest using field experiments in 355 cities spanning 40 countries around the globe. We turned in over 17,000 lost wallets with varying amounts of money at public and private institutions, and measured whether recipients contacted the owner to return the wallets. In virtually all countries citizens were more likely to return wallets that contained more money. Both non-experts and professional economists were unable to predict this result. Additional data suggest our main findings can be explained by a combination of altruistic concerns and an aversion to viewing oneself as a thief, which increase with the material benefits of dishonesty.

Here is a graph of the results:

In contrast to many observers, I did not find the tendency to return wallets with more cash to be a surprising one. Wallets don’t cost a lot, and if there’s nothing valuable there (e.g. substantial cash or important ID), it’s perhaps not worth my time to try to get ahold of its owner. Moreover, on this account, I believe the rankings should have been displayed by the red dots (wallets with money), not the yellow ones (empty wallets).

As for the numbers themselves, there are few surprises here for people familiar with the stereotypes. The Scandinavians are still at the top (even if one wonders for how much longer). The Meds are at the bottom in Europe.

Czechia and Poland can now into Nordics, while Russia is at mainstream Euro levels. This doesn’t accord with stereotypes so much. However, I have long noted that Russia is becoming less of a sovok and more of a SWPL place over time. As the Iron Curtain retreats into history, we might expect the artificial resemblance that appeared between Southern and Eastern Europe that has been championed by Hajnalists to likewise fade away.

Socialism’s baleful legacy is also observed in China – the only high-IQ dishonest society in this sample.

At first, I speculated that this might be a product of laws that promote perverse incentives. For instance, there was an infamous case in which a man went to help an old woman who had been knocked down by a car, only to get sued by her for medical expenses. The judge ruled in her favor, making a circular argument that he wouldn’t have helped her if he wasn’t the one who had hit her in the first place. This is sometimes cited to explain why the bystander effect is so strong in China. By extension, perhaps there are similar fears about being accused of stealing money if one returns a wallet. By the same logic, why would you return it you hadn’t stolen it in the first place?

Hugh-Jones, D. 2015. “Honesty and Beliefs about Honesty in 15 Countries.” University of East Anglia Discussion Paper.

Then again, I recalled another a 2015 study in which online participants were presented with a coin toss and told to say whether it was a “heads” or “tails.” When they reported a “heads,” they got money; when they reported a “tails”, they got nothing. It was done completely anonymously, so there was no risk of being found out and shamed/punished for it. Consequently, the share of people reporting “heads” above 50% could be considered as a proxy for honesty. The countries in question included the following: Brazil, China, Greece, Japan, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, the United States, Argentina, Denmark, the United Kingdom, India, Portugal, South Africa, and South Korea. Estimated rates of national dishonesty ranged from 3.4% in Britain to 70% in China.

While they weren’t included in these studies, by most observations you don’t have this semi-psychopathic cynicism in other Chinese cultures that avoided Maoism, such as Taiwan (regardless of their other problems).

The Third World third worlds. Nothing to say there.

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. Please keep off topic posts to the current Open Thread.

    If you are new to my work, start here.

  2. I believe if you look at the study itself, you’ll realize it actually describes the honesty of people acting as government or institutional employees rather than as private citizens; a perhaps related but distinct measure.

    Government in Mexico is traditionally and infamously corrupt. If the police stop you, the question is likely to be ‘how much money do you want,’ or worse, ‘give us the TV you have in the back.’

    So if a Mexican government clerk is handed a wallet, he may well figure that even if he doesn’t steal it himself, if he hands it off to someone to return, they’ll just steal it instead. On the other hand, a German clerk will not only do his part correctly, but will assume that everyone else involved will as well.

    This is not quite the same as if, say, either party, acting as a private individual, sees the wallet lying on the street. I wouldn’t rule out the Mexican doing the right thing just as often as the German — or at any rate, the difference in behavior between the two declining markedly.

  3. sudden death says

    nevermind this all fake Western science, cause when commie Chinese talk about friendship with RF, they are 200% honest all the time!

  4. In contrast to many observers, I did not find the tendency to return wallets with more cash to be a surprising one.

    yes i found that odd – seemed obvious to me the ones who’d lost money would be the most upset but it may be a function of people who hardly ever use cash nowadays and were thinking of their various cards.

    (i have cards but prefer using cash)

  5. I’m surprised Serbia is so high

    Then on the other hand I believe our demographics are severely abnormal, and that we have a heap of dumb people, almost no average, a little more of the smart and the geniuses not more than anyone else. Kinda like if you pushed the middle of the bell curve to the bottom but kept the extremes up

  6. I don’t think many Russians have particular illusions about Chinese self-interests (and vice versa), which however cannot be said of Polish obsequiousness before the US. Doctor, heal thyself.

  7. I believe the rankings should have been displayed by the red dots (wallets with money), not the yellow ones (empty wallets).

    I agree — and am also not sure how useful it is to the “end-user” to have the ranges between No Money and With Money so prominently featured in their main graphical presentation of findings, their Figure I.

    Here is a list, in text form, ranked by “Return wallet with money in it”:

    80%+ countries
    1. Denmark
    2. Sweden
    3. New Zealand

    70-80% countries
    4. Switzerland
    5. Norway
    6. Czech Republic
    7. Netherlands
    8. Australia

    60-70% countries
    9. Poland
    10. Croatia
    11. Germany
    12. Canada
    13. Romania
    14. United Kingdom
    15. Russia

    Conspicuously absent from the Top 15 (of 40 countries) in the study is: The USA.

    I suspect that if White Americans of Christian origin were analyzed alone, we would be in the Top 10, or so, as well.

    All states with non-European immigrant populations almost certainly have negative impacts derived therefrom — from the low-trust Muslims, etc. directly, but and also likely from a spillover effect whereby many natives themselves become less honest. Would a UK sample in 1950 be higher? I’d think so.

    <25% countries
    – Malaysia
    – Morocco
    – Ghana
    – China
    – Kazakhstan
    – Kenya
    – Mexico
    – Peru [lowest, about 12%]

  8. German_reader says

    Socialism’s baleful legacy is also observed in China – the only high-IQ dishonest society in this sample.

    A lot of people would claim it goes deeper than this and point to the contrast between Christian-influenced guilt culture and East Asian shame culture.
    I don’t have an opinion on that, but data for non-communist East Asian societies would have been interesting.

  9. data for non-communist East Asian societies would have been interesting.

    Anatoly cites Hugh-Jones (2015): In the coin-toss experiment involving participants from fifteen countries (incl. the BRICs and a sample of the higher end of the OECD), the least honest four were:

    • China (most cheating on coin-toss experiment to get a payoff)
    • Japan (2nd most cheating)
    • Korea (3rd most cheating)
    • India (4th most cheating)

    East Asians are, historically, not at all known for their honesty.

    Still, this coin-toss experiment findings are surprising because so many associate the low levels of street crime in Japan and Korea (including the “walking off with a lost wallet” variety) with inherent honesty.

  10. reiner Tor says

    I think that without communism (which was more horrible in China than anywhere else except perhaps the 1920s/30s USSR and Cambodia, and probably the fact it was more recent than the USSR means it has a larger impact) the Chinese would still be worse than the Scandinavians, but there’s no reason why they would be worse than the Indonesians.

  11. Kent Nationalist says

    This seems like more evidence agains the Richard Lynn thesis about the differences between white/black/asians, where whites supposedly are in between blacks and asians on many physical and mental traits

  12. reiner Tor says

    I think it was always obvious that European guilt culture is pretty unique.

  13. It is curious to me that India and South Africa would score higher than China. I’d like to see more data on Japan and Korea.

    But, if I were to take the coin toss stuff at face value, I wonder if it might have something to do with the East Asian proclivity for gambling. If being handed a wallet with money triggers the same circuits.

  14. What could explain it? I wonder if Chinese were more functionally urban for longer – maybe less opportunity to ostracize – probably true in just having a larger population, without it necessarily being more dense. But I wouldn’t guess that would be true of Korea.

  15. Daniel Chieh says

    Has there been an association with religion? I would think that belief in God and in inflexible morals has been shown to improve cooperation in a group, and I would imagine, honesty within the perceived in-group of co-religionists.

    I would also add that without money, and with ID mostly kept on phones, many Chinese might just feel that there’s almost no point at all to return a wallet. I know quite a few people who only live out of their smartphones now.

  16. reiner Tor says

    Evolution is path dependent. Some chance circumstance (e.g. Europeans being hunter-gatherers for longer or the lower population density or some weird mutation getting traction or whatever) could easily have caused it.

  17. Years ago, in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, there used to be a scam targeting foreigners involving lost wallets. The scammer would drop a wallet full of money in a place where a tourist would likely see it and pick it up. The scammer would then approach the foreigner pretending to have lost the wallet and acting grateful that the foreigner found it. The scammer would then take the wallet back, claim there was less money in it then before they dropped it, and accuse the foreigner of stealing the money. They’d then force the foreigner to cough up the difference under threat of getting beaten up by thugs or arrested by the police.

    Basically, if you’re in a Southeast Asian country and you see a wallet, just walk on by.

    The one time I did lose my wallet, I was able to get it back: I was in college, it fell out of my pocket in one of the computer labs, and the clerk on duty used my college ID to send an email to my university address. This was in Albany, NY.

    Since then, I’ve never had any problems. I once did lose my ATM card in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, presumably when I went to buy a bottle of vodka from duty-free (the only place where I bought anything) and forgot to put it back in my wallet. I didn’t realize it was missing until I got to Budapest four hours later and even then I wasn’t able to cancel my card until a couple of hours after that. There were no fraudulent charges on my card, indicating that either no one found the card or the Russian clerks who did were too honest to go on a spending spree with it.

  18. I assume that thesis was about Northeast Asian and not about East Asians in general. I wouldn’t take data on Chinese mainlanders to be particularly representative of Northeast Asians as a whole. That China is a low trust society is obvious.

  19. Kent Nationalist says

    I wouldn’t take data on Chinese mainlanders to be particularly representative of Northeast Asians as a whole

    But Chinese mainlanders make up the majority of NEAs. In any case, the second set of data suggests that Japanese and Koreans are similar.

  20. Kent Nationalist says

    It is not obvious to me that Japanese people were less conscientious than Europeans, especially given how they act more pro-socially in many ways (e.g. lower crime)

  21. Kent Nationalist says

    Why does it not surprise me that you’ve been to SEA?

  22. I just want to point out that returning a wallet has little to do with honesty. Making the effort to return a wallet some idiot lost somewhere is an act of altruism not of honesty. So the study at least measured both: Honesty and altruism.

  23. Jaakko Raipala says

    The top seems to be made of secular northern European countries. Religions tend to promote trust within the group. Perhaps what we’re seeing in northern Europe is a legacy of very religiously homogeneous societies building up trust over the centuries and not losing it immediately when they started to secularize. At the same time the distrust of outgroups was lost so we see high trust and cuckery going hand in hand for a while until the culture adjusts (by either losing the high trust nature or re-inventing an ingroup/outgroup distinction).

    I second Karlin’s idea that Soviet influence was really bad. It’s obvious in Helsinki where you often meet the following

    • Finns and Swedes (very high trust, will return a wallet)
    • ethnic Russians descending from the pre-revolutionary population, though often by now so assimilated that only their name and the religion that they don’t believe in is Russian (just as high trust as Finns and Swedes)
    • fresh Russian immigrants (low trust but university students etc are converging to Finn behavior)
    • ethnic Finnish immigrants from Russia, especially likely to have Sovietized mentality as they were often deported far away from the border to artificial communities in Kazakhstan or wherever (very low trust, can’t be trusted with wallets or anything, a fairly crime prone and unintegrated “minority”)
  24. The return-wallet test is measuring diversity. With diverse populations there is less sense of living in a society, more anger, lower solidarity.

    The second variable is linked to third-world – I define third world as regions that didn’t go through their own organic civilizational development and simply adopted civilizations developed elsewhere, even if they previously had a local civilization. The overlay of advanced concepts and technologies that was dropped on them with little preparation has made the Third World societies permanently damaged. They know it, so they try to leave. They also mostly hate what happened to them, so they are in different ways dysfunctional. People like that don’t return wallets.

  25. EldnahYm says

    But Chinese mainlanders make up the majority of NEAs.


    In any case, the second set of data suggests that Japanese and Koreans are similar.

    But they’re not similar. Anyone who has been to any of the places knows damn well mainlanders are not similar to Japanese, Koreans, or even to Taiwanese. You’re much more likely to get scammed, not have your wallet returned, or have bribed someone in mainland China. I highly doubt the coin flip test has much relevance to the real world.

  26. bruce county says

    My experience wasn’t a wallet but a very expensive Canon camera back in the old SLR days. I had left it in a cab. Perhaps I was more interested in getting my hot date home to my bedroom.
    I called the cab company and they said a lady has it that had called the cab company. She lived in the Jane-Finch Corridor in Toronto. A dirty filthy black ghetto, not like there are any clean ghettos. I called and arranged to meet her at her home in the ghetto. I was wondering if I was being set up. It turns out okay and we exchange camera for a small cash reward. It never changed my view on humanity in general. I think we all have a very short honest streak in us. I would not return a large amount of cash if found.


    100% in South Korea in this unscientific experiment.

    Of course, some WNs or “Education Realist”-types would say that the Koreans and the Japanese test-prep for this and game “the test” as such – because the children from those countries are taught, ritualistically, at an early age to turn in to the police wallets, money, and such found on the street.

    In any case, you can leave your iPads and phones at a table in a coffee shop in Seoul and come back an hour later, and you will still find them there.

  28. The Economist did the same thing years ago, leaving wallets with a regular amount of money in the capital cities of Western Europe (clearly marked with the name and tel. no. of the owner). They found the same North/South honesty gradient as this study (everything returned in Norway and not much in Italy). I was working in Spain at the time, and out of curiosity, asked my (Spanish) secretary what she would do. Just an anecdote, but she said it would be a “Regalo de Dios” (Gift of God), so there seems to be a inverted religious aspect.

    If it’s true that people pick up their morality from society at large, then it’s looking good for Poland and awful for China. The only explanation that I can see for the Chinese result that they live in a society where honesty is viewed as only for fools and the naive. No surprise then that Western companies are cheated and stolen from in every way when they set up there, and many have pulled out.

  29. Erik Sieven says

    I once lost my backpack with a Macbook within in a train station in China. Got it back 30 minutes later from the security service.. I was so grateful.

  30. It goes to show 78 to 95% of ppl in Mainland China might have common-sense/street-smarts (irrespective of honesty or dishonesty).

    Unsafe to return items in Communist China for reasons mentioned. Such are the parameters that have been institutionally set.

    It is FOOLISH to trigger any interaction with the Public Security.

  31. Anonymous says

    Depends on what causes the behavior in question. You can have different factors behind the same behavior. For example, one group might have a high murder rate due to greater psychopathy, while another due to higher testosterone or lower impulse control.

    East Asians are extremely shy and anxious people, even to a pathological extent in a Western context. The kind of shyness and anxiety we’d regard as debilitating and crippling and rare in the West is quite common in East Asia. Even more so than the Scandinavians, who are traditionally known as the most reserved in the West. An average Scandinavian will be the most extroverted, gregarious, charismatic, and socially dominant person in a typical East Asian social setting. This extreme shyness and anxiety is a major driver of their passive and non-confrontational behavior. It inhibits them from crime but also from being very social and pro-social behavior.

    They’re hermits by nature. That’s why historically they’re known for building walls and sealing themselves off. Korea was known as the “hermit kingdom” long before North Korea existed. You have the “hikkikimori” phenomenon. Video game addiction. Etc.

    Of course you can’t have an entire society of hermits. That’s why Japan and East Asia have all these silly social rules and etiquette. It’s an elaborate system and crutch to enable and smooth over interactions among people who are normally too shy and anxious and would avoid interactions otherwise.

  32. The whole concept of a wallet without money is meaningless anyway.
    I might not return a completely empty wallet, but credit cards, membership cards, or even a list of key phone numbers might make me hand it back.

  33. ethnic Finnish immigrants from Russia, especially likely to have Sovietized mentality as they were often deported far away from the border to artificial communities in Kazakhstan or wherever (very low trust, can’t be trusted with wallets or anything, a fairly crime prone and unintegrated “minority”)

    If this is true, it is a strong argument against the theory of the predominance of the genetic factor in the behavior of different ethnic groups

  34. – China (most cheating on coin-toss experiment to get a payoff)
    – Japan (2nd most cheating)
    – Korea (3rd most cheating)
    – India (4th most cheating

    In this case, it is probably “situational” dishonesty, as the Japanese and Koreans in other situations show exceptional honesty

  35. Unknown128 says

    Honestly, contrary to IQ trust seems to be far more shaped by culture.

    This is well shown by the difference between the republic of china and the people’s republic of China.
    People with almost identical genes only separated by a tiny body of water……one side is extremely high trust and well mannered, the other is the opposite.
    Of course many parts of western societies were quiet low trust even in the 19th century. A high IQ person might select different patterns of behavior depending on what society he lives in.

  36. This is well shown by the difference between the republic of china and the people’s republic of China.

    This is why the Singaporean Chinese – some of the most orderly and law-abiding people in the world – loathe the recent immigrants from China who display a drastically different civic culture.

  37. I agree.

    Fortunately, I have always argued that culture is much less genetically influenced than IQ, e.g. on homicides:

  38. Anonymous says

    The study didn’t use wallets. They used business card cases and handed them over as being lost to places like banks, museums, post offices, hotels, police stations, etc. Then they checked to see if an email was sent to the address on the business card. The cases could also have been put into the lost and found at the institution they were handed over to, or just discarded. They should have had a guy pretending to be the guy on the business card come back later looking for the case to see if it was placed in the lost and found or safely kept in the office in case the owner came back.

    A better study would be to use actual leather wallets with government issued IDs and credit cards, and put them out in public places. The wallets could have tracker chips in them, and then they could check to see if the wallets were picked up and handed over by strangers to the police or government or a local business, or if they were untouched, or if they were just stolen.

  39. I guess it depends on how the experiment was setup, whether they make it easy to return.

    For example, did they leave phone number or e-mail for contact? Not many Chinese people use e-mail. Did they leave the wallet in restaurants, shops, hospitals etc. where there’s a manned-counter you can put the wallet for the owner to come back looking for it? That’s what I did when I found somebody left his phone behind. I wouldn’t be bother searching for the owner myself, I have things to do. If you make it a lot of trouble to return it, they’re less likely to get returned.

    Another thing is that, the Chinese government never stress to the public that pocketing lost items is against the law. So the return rate may not solely about honesty, it could be about how much the public is awared of this law or how this law is enforced in different countries.

  40. Unknown128 says

    This I think shows very well that its not about genes, which bodes well for mainland China, should it be able to follow in the footsteps of their fellow Han.

  41. This I think shows very well that its not about genes

    Or that genes are necessary, but not sufficient.

  42. I have twice walked up to an ATM that was logged in where the user forgot to end their session and retrieve their card.. I could have easily pocketed the max daily amount ($500-$1000), but the shame of having done something so rotten to someone else who had experienced a simple lapse of judgment would have easily overridden any joy I would have experienced from anything I could have done with the money.

    I hate thieves. I just get incandescent when I realize I have been robbed.

  43. They used business cards with email addresses on them. As you say, people in China don’t use email:

    It’s a familiar story for students or businessmen on their first-ever visit to China. After rounds of beer and baijiu with potential clients, or a karaoke gathering through a university exchange program, the foreigner will ask the Chinese person sitting next to her for his email address.

    The Chinese person will smile blankly, somewhat confused. He’ll offer her a phone number, along with a WeChat account. But the visitor doesn’t use WeChat, the messaging tool from tech giant Tencent that is China’s dominant mode of communication. Her Chinese friend doesn’t use Facebook, her main way of staying touch. Email’s a good compromise, she’ll insist.

    The Chinese person will take a few seconds to remember his email address. He’ll then scribble down a jumble of numbers, maybe with a single letter— [email protected]. The foreigner will be puzzled as to why this person has such a strange email account name. And she’ll also be puzzled when emails to her new acquaintance go unreplied.

  44. Don’t many ATMs have video cameras observing them now? This might not be an entirely riskless crime (and it is formally a crime, I would think – unlike not handing in a wallet).

  45. Koreans are known to be exceptionally dishonest in business. Just ask any Korean. They do not trust each other.

    As Woody Guthrie once sang,

    As through this world I’ve wandered
    I’ve seen lots of funny men;
    Some will rob you with a six-gun,
    And some with a fountain pen.

  46. Anonymous says

    Still, this coin-toss experiment findings are surprising because so many associate the low levels of street crime in Japan and Korea (including the “walking off with a lost wallet” variety) with inherent honesty.

    Whites in general have more of the “Dark Triad” personality traits than East Asians. While East Asians are basically like children and will engage in mischief. This is why you see variation for example between street crime and situational dishonesty.

  47. Unknown128 says

    True that, same goes for Russians (including “Ukrainians”) who are genetically not much different from Poles.

  48. Erik Sieven says

    Not handing in a wallet in is a crime in Germany, too. I think the right translation for the criminal act is embezzlement.

  49. AquariusAnon says

    Sounds about right to me: You forget something in China, might as well forget about having it back. Violent crime is low but petty crime is rather common.

    I remember as a kid once I got a pair of shoes stolen and had to go home barefoot after letting it dry for a few hours outside. Granted this was in what was then a working class area.

    Even with WeChat Pay/Alipay, thieves have found a way to steal money by looking for people in line waiting in line with their phone QR codes. Then they would sneakily go up to them and scan their phones and withdraw as much money as they can.