Does Increase in Temptation Decrease Honesty?

People behave more honestly the more it pays to be dishonest.

Posted Aug 19, 2019

Many of us hold that the more profitable it is to be dishonest, the more dishonest people are likely to be; when self-interest conflicts with honesty and altruism, the larger the self-interested gain, the less likely it is that honesty and altruism will prevail. However, an interesting recent international experiment suggests that this may not always be the case.

In the experiment, research assistants posing as tourists enter a variety of public buildings (banks, theaters, museums, post offices, hotels, police stations, courts of law, etc.) and pretend that they have found a wallet somewhere nearby. The assistants say to the person at the counter something like “Hi, I found this on the street around the corner, somebody must have lost it. I’m in a hurry and have to go. Can you please take care of it?” They push the wallet to the person at the counter and then just leave, without asking for any receipt or other sorts of indication that might later prove that they left there the wallet.

Pexels/image 1877353
Source: Pexels/image 1877353

All the wallets had in them a key, a grocery list, and business cards of the wallet’s supposed “owner” with an email address. Some wallets had in them no money at all. Others had in them a small amount of money (around 13 dollars), and yet others a larger amount of money (around ninety-five dollars). Then the researchers waited to see whether anyone would write to the email address in the business card of the wallets’ supposed “owners” to let them know that their wallets have been found.

This was a large scale experiment. The researchers gave out this way 17,303 wallets in 355 cities across 40 countries around the world. Of course, the grocery lists were adjusted for the local languages and the money to local currencies and sums.

Some countries did better in this honesty test than others (Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Poland were the best). But the main finding of the experiment was that, contrary to what might have been predicted, in almost all countries people were more likely to return wallets that contained the money, and the larger the sum, the higher was the percentage of the wallets returned. One way of presenting the results: The higher the temptation, the more it was resisted. Or the higher it was in people’s self-interest to be dishonest, the lower was the rate of dishonesty. This finding repeated itself around the globe in almost all countries.

What might be the explanation of the results? One possible explanation is that, at least in this experiment, whenever the material benefits of being dishonest increased, so did the aversion to seeing oneself as a thief or an immoral person. Or whenever the material benefits of being dishonest increased, so did the rate to which one would see oneself as an altruistic and good person if one returned to the wallet. And this suggests that the relation between self-interest and honesty is more complex than we sometimes take it to be.

 Pexels/image 251287
Source: Pexels/image 251287

Further, it may be that a very important factor in the conflict between self-interest and honesty is the way people see themselves if they behave dishonestly. If their self-image as good, decent people are shaken when they behave wrongly, they may forgo many material benefits. This suggests that education or public discussion may, in many cases, be very efficient, perhaps more efficient than laws, threats, and punishments.

It may also be interesting to conduct further research that would examine other variables. For example, do religious and non-religious people differ in their average rate of honesty? Are there differences between age groups? Genders? Income levels?

But the conclusions drawn from this experiment may also be criticized. It might be argued that although contacting the wallets’ “owners” shows honesty, not contacting them does not show dishonesty. It may well be that officials who didn’t contact “owners” didn’t steal the wallets but just left them in the lost-and-found department till owners come to look for them. Refraining to contact “owners” may show not dishonesty but, rather, passivity, disorganization, understaffing of lost-and-found departments, or just different establishments’ regulations about handling found items. It’s also possible that some people felt that they needn’t be bothered when no money or just 13 dollars were involved. More work in this area needs to be done.


Alain Cohn, Michel André Maréchal, David Tannenbaum, and Christian Lukas Zünd, “Civic Honesty Around the Globe,” Science 365 (5 July, 2019): 70-73.  DOI: 10.1126/science.aau8712