Wallet lost, honesty and future found

Ilo Trajkovski

Last year, I lost my wallet in the parking lot in front of my building. It was “full” – with personal documents, various consumer cards and a solid sum of money for my student daughter’s monthly expenses. My wife and I were very worried, but we still kept hoping that some honest person would find it and bring it back to us. I was even thinking of ways to thank the person.
The hope that this could happen is based on the investment we have made in raising our children. We educated them and still educate them to be honorable and honest with others and decent in public spaces. And specifically, my son, two years before this incident, while on vacation in Ohrid, found a wallet full of documents and money. He reported the lost wallet to the local police station and received a call from the owner within a day or two. The woman, with an address in Skopje, near my settlement in Aerodrom, expressed her gratitude and astonishment that there are still honest young citizens.
So when I lost my wallet, I was telling myself, the honesty that I’ve invested in my child will come back to me with the honesty of the one that will find my wallet. But it didn’t turn out that way. I tell myself, most likely, my wallet was found by someone elderly who probably needed the money more- for example, to buy or offer something to their children. But will this person tell them something about honor as I do? And I tell this because, as a sociologist, I know that without civic honesty there is no peaceful life with other people, there is no orderly society.
I recalled these personal histories these days as I read an excellent study named “Civic honesty around the globe”, published in the June issue of the magazine Science, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The study’s authors, four researchers from various universities in Europe and the United States, conducted experimental research in forty countries around the world. The experiment consisted of measuring the number of returns of lost wallets that were found. To be clear, Macedonia was not part of this experiment. So, the wallet that my son found and turned in and the wallet that I lost and was found, but instead of turning it in, was kept by some dishonest citizen, are not part of the experimentally lost wallets that were later found.
Researchers in 355 cities in 40 countries around the world turned in a total of 17,000 “lost” wallets. All had three business cards with the name and the email of an imaginary owner, a shopping list and an address written in the local language to indicate that the owner is a local citizen. The wallets were translucent so that it could be easily seen without opening whether there was money in it or not. The experiment consisted of an associate coming to the counter of a public institution (bank, theater, museum or post office, police station, etc.) and reporting that he had found the wallet before entering, but was in a hurry and therefore left the officer with a plea takes care of it and exits without leaving contact. Investigators then waited for a hundred days, from the day the wallet was left, to whether the alleged owner would be contacted.
The researchers’ expectations were in line with existing theories of honesty and honest behavior. According to classic economic models based on the theory of reasonable choice, honesty was expected to deviate from personal material interest, that is, the greater the material gain, the greater the dishonesty. Similarly, psychological models based on theories of altruistic behavior were predicted. According to them, dishonesty increases with increasing personal gain – we care about others, but we care more about ourselves.
Contrary to these expectations, the experiment with the lost wallet found that civic honesty is greater the lower the incentives. It was found that in 38 of the forty countries involved in the experiment, citizens turned in significantly more (51 percent) lost wallets containing no money (40 percent). Moreover, in order to check this unexpected result, the amount of money in the wallets found has increased significantly in three countries. It turned out that the larger the amount in the lost wallet the more likely the citizens would turn in the wallet they found! Why is that?
The researchers’ answer sounds distant, Utopian – from our current Macedonian perspective. Let’s remind ourselves that in this country the leaders of the leading political parties as the most powerful social institutions prove to each other who is a bigger criminal than the other! In contrast, researchers argue that the higher rate of reporting wallets with more money is due to citizens’ motives to avoid seeing themselves as dishonest and thieves. Take note – to avoid seeing themselves as dishonest and thieves! It is not about being seen by others as such, but about seeing themselves as dishonest. Full wallets are returned to their owners just because of thought that if they do not return the money they will see themselves as dishonest, as thieves.
The list of countries in which avoiding such a self-image is strongest is led by Sweden, followed by Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, Germany, France and, subsequently, and quite surprising – Serbia! While at the bottom of the list are countries, in which self-perception as a thief is not a sin that one needs to avoid, is led by China, followed by Morocco, Peru, Kazakhstan, etc. I wonder where Macedonia would be on this list.
The latest findings from a survey of trust of Macedonian citizens in each other and in the main public institutions show that we are much closer to China than to Sweden. Distrust is just another expression of dishonesty, and these are key factors in economic and social development. The fate of lost wallets is an indication of the country’s future.

Views expressed in this article are personal views of the author and do not represent the editorial policy of Nezavisen Vesnik