You have little chance of having a lost wallet returned to you if it is handed into hotel staff in Kenya, according to research into civic honesty


A team of economists have devised a real-life moral dilemma which investigated whether individuals who were handed a “lost” wallet stuffed with bank notes would pocket the cash or track down the owner to return it.

While we all have our own opinion on what we would do, a team of economists have put the unsuspecting public to the test in a mass social experiment involving 17,000 “lost” wallets in 40 countries.

The team visited 355 cities in 40 countries and turned in a total of 17,303 wallets between July 2013 and December 2016 to form the basis of a study approved by the Human Subjects Committee of the Faculty of Economics, Business Administration, and Information Technology at the University of Zurich. The researchers were testing how the unsuspecting public from 40 countries would react if they were handed a lost wallet.

Share of wallets reported
Share of wallets reported in the No Money and Money condition by country
Left hand side: Share of wallets reported in treatments NoMoney (US $0) and Money (US $13.45) by country. The amount of money in the wallet is adjusted according to each country’s purchasing power. Right hand side: Average difference between treatment Money and NoMoney across quartiles based on absolute response rates in the NoMoney condition. Error bars represent standard errors of the mean.

The research saw the ‘lost’ wallets handed in to five different types of institutions. These were banks, theatres, museums or other cultural establishments, post offices, hotels, and police stations, courts of law, and other public offices. So owners could be contacted and the wallets returned, each contained either some or no money along with contact details for the owner so they could easily be traced. 

Transparent business card cases to ensure that recipients could inspect the wallet’s contents without out having to open it. Each contained the same personal items: three identical business cards, a grocery list, and a key. The business cards displayed the owner’s name, email address, and job title. Their purpose was to identify the owner and provide contact details.

Example wallet
Example of a wallet used in our field experiments. All wallets belonged to a male software developer with country-specific names (see Table S1 for the complete list of names). We placed the business cards in the wallets so that this information was visible to all participants. The wallet dimensions were 93mm x 59mm x 5mm and it weighed approximately 24 grams in the NoMoney condition.

The business cards and shopping list serve to identify the owner as a local resident, signalling that it would be relatively easy to contact the owner and return the wallet. For the business cards, researchers typically created three fictitious male owners for each country using common local names. The business cards provided the owner’s email address, and identified him as a freelance software engineer (to avoid attempts by recipients to reach the owner through his place of employment).


In Kenya, researchers carried out data collection in Nairobi, Nakuru, Nyeri, Eldoret, Kisumu and Mombasa with 274 wallets handed in. Plans to include Malindi were abandoned after the research assistant was arrested and interrogated by the military police for suspicious activity.

Wallets contained either Ksh 507 or no money in the names of John Omondi, Peter Kihiga and Samuel Jabali. 

Three shopping lists were included. The first listed iria, ngima, chapati and muraru. Chak, kuon, chapati and rabolo were listed on the second with maziwa, ugali, chapati and ndizi on the third.

Overall across all the countries featured in the research, 51 percent of those who were handed a wallet with the smaller amount of money reported it, compared with 40 percent of those handed an empty wallet. When the wallet contained a large sum of money, the rate of return was 72 percent.

Return rates varied widely between countries. Danes, Swedes and New Zealanders were the most honest when the wallets contained larger sums. In China, Peru, Kazakhstan and Kenya, on average only 8-20% of the wallets were returned to their owners.

When the Kenyan results were analysed, the ‘owners’ of just 15 percent of the wallets with no money in them were contacted with 19 percent containing cash reported. In the UK, the number without money reported without money was just over 30 percent, but this rose significantly for wallets which had cash inside to 60 percent. 

Two wallets, reported as lost at anti-corruption agencies in Kenya and Malaysia, were never seen again.

When the results were adjusted to take into account GDP, Kenya was ranked significantly higher with the reporting rate rising to 56 percent for wallets containing no money and 59 percent for those with cash inside.

Wallets returned by hotel employees
Share of wallets reported by hotel employees in treatments NoMoney (US $0) and Money (US $13.45) by country. The amount of money in the wallet is adjusted to purchasing power parity for each country. ‘AVERAGE’ shows the averages across all 40 countries.

However, when the results from those handed in to hotel reception desks in Kenya were collated, just 4 percent of wallets which contained money saw attempts to contact the owner, rising to 6 percent for those with no cash inside. This meant Kenya was ranked in last place behind China, Indonesia, Mexico and Ghana.

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