Our reporters "lost" 192 wallets in cities around the world.
In each, we put a name with a cellphone number, a family photo, coupons, and business cards, plus the equivalent of $50. We "dropped" 12 wallets in each of the 16 cities we selected, leaving them in parks, near shopping malls, and on sidewalks. Then we watched to see what would happen.
Most honest: Helsinki, Finland
Wallets returned: 11 out of 12. Lasse Luomakoski, a 27-year-old businessman, found our wallet downtown. "Finns are naturally honest," he said. "We are a small, quiet, closely-knit community. We have little corruption, and we don't even run red lights." In the working-class area of Kallio, a couple in their sixties said, "Of course we returned the wallet. Honesty is an inner conviction."
Wallets returned: 9 out of 12. Rahul Rai, a 27-year-old video editor, said, "My conscience wouldn't let me do anything wrong. A wallet is a big thing with many important documents [in it]." Vaishali Mhaskar, a mother of two, returned a wallet left in the post office. "I teach my children to be honest, just like my parents taught me," she said. Later that day, three young adults found our wallet and called us immediately.
Wallets returned: 8 out of 12. Seventeen-year-old Regina Györfi called the cellphone number included in one of our wallets immediately after finding it a shopping mall. "I remember being in a car, when my dad noticed a wallet by the side of the road," she said. "When we reached the owner he was very grateful: Without the papers in the wallet he would have had to postpone his wedding which was to take place the very same day!" However, a woman in her early sixties opened the wallet, and then entered a nearby building. We never heard from her.
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New York City, U.S.A.
Wallets returned: 8 out of 12. Richard Hamilton, a 36-year-old government worker from Brooklyn, found a wallet near City Hall and reunited it with us. "Everyone says New Yorkers are unfriendly but they’re really quite a nice people," he said. "I think you’d be very surprised to see how many New Yorkers would actually return [a wallet]." Not all New Yorkers were so honest: we watched a man in his twenties take money from the wallet to buy cigarettes at a convenience store. However, one of two 17-year-olds who found the billfold explained her motivation to get in touch: "I flipped through all the papers and saw the family photo and thought, 'Aw, he has two kids. We have to give this back.'" Another local told us, "It's so easy to be cynical. But especially after 9/11, that instilled companionship in everyone."
Wallets returned: 7 out of 12. Near the city's downtown zoo, Eduard Anitpin, an officer of Emergency Situations, handed our reporter's lost wallet to a security guard. "I am an officer and I am bound by an officer's ethical code," he said. "My parents raised me as an honest and decent man." Later, another do-gooder said, "I am convinced that people should help one another, and if I can make someone a little happier, I will."
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Wallets returned: 7 out of 12. Some people who found the wallet were more moved by the euros inside than the photos we planted. But Julius Maarleveld spotted the lost wallet and entered a nearby liquor store. Our reporter followed, prompting Maarleveld to speak up: "Are you here for the wallet? If so, [the clerk] is just calling... My wife once lost her wallet. It was found and returned. Isn't honesty wonderful?" Angelique Monsieurs, 42, noticed our reporter drop the wallet on her way into a supermarket and waited for her to exit to reunite wallet and owner.
Wallets returned: 6 out of 12. Seyran Coban, a teacher in training, got to the wallet at the same time as a young man but refused to let him have it. "I didn't trust that boy. People have often treated me with honesty, and if I do the same, that's what I'll get in return," she said. Abel Ben Salem, 46, told reporters he returned the wallet because, "I saw the photo of the mother with her child. Whatever else is important, a photo like that means something to the owner." Yet a man in his early forties quickly grabbed the wallet, put it in his bag, then spent ten minutes making call after call on his phone—none to us.
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Wallets returned: 6 out of 12. We asked Manca Smolej, a 21-year-old student, whether she considered taking the money when she found our wallet. "No!" she replied. "My parents taught me how important being honest is. Once I lost an entire bag, but I got everything back. So, I know what it feels like." A man in his early fifties picked up our billfold, started to dial his phone but then stopped, took the wallet, and drove off in an expensive car.
Wallets returned: 5 out of 12. Ursula Smist, 35, who is originally from Poland, retrieved our wallet and handed it over to her boss. "If you find money, you can't assume it belongs to a rich man," her manager said. "It might be the last bit of money a mother has to feed her family."
Wallets returned: 5 out of 12. Biotechnologist Marlena Kamínska, 28, picked up our wallet and hopped on the bus. Three hours later she called us after talking with coworkers. "There were those who advised me not to bother looking for the owner," she said. "But I thought that someone might badly need that money." As for the other seven wallets, they were all taken by women whom we never saw again.
Wallets returned: 4 out of 12. Sonia Parvan, a 20-year-old student [right, with Cristina Topa], found our wallet and tracked us down. "I know how it feels to lose your wallet. My mother lost it once and didn't get it back," she said. We watched another young woman pick up one of our wallets, ask two passersby if it was theirs, then examine the contents closely and place it in her pocket. We didn't hear from her.
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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Wallets returned: 4 out of 12. In a commercial area, a woman in her late twenties returned our wallet—without any money. But 73-year-old Delma Monteiro Brandāo handed one back after finding it while picking up her granddaughter at school. "This is not mine!" she said. "In my teens, I picked up a magazine in a department store and left without paying. When my mother found out, she told me this behavior was unacceptable."
Wallets returned: 4 out of 12. Jeanette Baum, a 38-year-old music teacher, discovered our wallet and sent email and texts to our reporter after calls didn't go through. "I know what it's like to lose something," she said. "The 'not knowing' afterwards is terrible. That's why I responded as fast as I could." Meanwhile, a tram driver in his early fifties pocketed the wallet, despite the fact that the transit company runs the city's lost and found office.
Prague, Czech Republic
Wallets returned: 3 out of 12. Petra Samcová recovered our reporter's wallet and didn't think twice about returning it. "It’s something you simply should do naturally," she said. Not so two young teenagers walking in a suburban housing estate on the outskirts of Prague, who put the wallet in a knapsack and left in a very good mood.
Wallets returned: 2 out of 12. Beatriz Lopez, a 22-year-old student, found our wallet in an upscale downtown area with her friend Lena Jansen, also 22. "We only wanted to give it back," she said. Jansen told reporters, "I couldn't keep a purse that wasn't mine."
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Least honest: Lisbon, Portugal
Wallets returned: 1 out of 12. A couple in their sixties spotted our wallet and immediately called us. Interestingly, our reporter learned that the two weren't from Lisbon at all—they were visiting from Holland. The remaining eleven wallets were taken, money and all.
The bottom line
Of the 192 wallets dropped, 90 were returned—47 percent. As we looked over our results we found that age is no predictor of whether a person is going to be honest or dishonest; young and old both kept or returned wallets; male and female were unpredictable; and comparative wealth seemed no guarantee of honesty. There are honest and dishonest people everywhere.