Alain Cohn, Michel André Maréchal, David Tannenbaum, & Christian Lukas Zünd
Science 20 Jun 2019:
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 the conclusion:
Our findings also represent a unique data set for examining cross-country differences in civic honesty. Honesty is a key component of social capital, and here we provide an objective measure to supplement the large body of work that has traditionally examined social capital using subjective survey measures. Using average response rates across countries, we find substantial variation in rates of civic honesty, ranging from 14% to 76%. This variation largely persists even when controlling for a country’s gross domestic product, suggesting that other factors besides country wealth are also at play. In the supplementary materials, we provide an analysis suggesting that economically favorable geographic conditions, inclusive political institutions, national education, and cultural values that emphasize moral norms extending beyond one’s in-group are also positively associated with rates of civic honesty. Future research is needed to identify how these and other factors may contribute to societal differences in honest behavior.
The research is here.