The journal Science recently published a fascinating article from Alain Cohn et al, which looked at cultural proclivities for honesty around the world via a rather ingenious method: they had research assistants turn in “lost” wallets all over the world and recorded when the receiver of the lost wallet attempted to return the wallet. The wallets were fake and included a false ID of a person who appeared to be local to the country in which the wallet was lost. The ingenious element was that instead of leaving the wallet in the open, the research assistants actually handed the wallet to somebody, thus enabling them to record interesting ancillary data like the age of the recipient, if they had a computer on their desk, and whether or not the person was local to the country. Clearly, the researchers were hoping to engage in a little bit of data mining to ensure their not insignificant efforts returned some publishable results regardless of the main outcome.
As it turns out, they needn’t have been concerned. The level of civic honesty, as measured by return rates, varied significantly. In addition, there is an interesting effect where the likelihood of the wallet being returned increases if there’s more money, an effect that persists across cultures. I encourage you to read the original article, which is fascinating, but a few of the highlights are that the US and Canada are somewhere in the middle, with about 55% return rates. On the top end of honesty are the Scandinavian and northern european countries, with rates at around 75%. On the bottom end of the curve are China and Peru, with about 14%. One could write an essay on the perils of letting the world economy become dependent on trade with a country with such a cultural bias against honesty, so I’ll leave that for another time. In the case of China, all the study did was confirm what anybody who does business in China knows: to them not cheating is a sign you’re not trying hard enough.
Here’s where things get really interesting: in keeping with modern scientific publishing standards, the researchers made their entire dataset available in an online data repository so that others could reproduce their work. There’s a lot of interesting conclusions one can make beyond what the authors pointed out in their paper, perhaps due to the political implications and the difficulty of doing a proper accounting for all the possible biases. But unburdened by the constraints of an academic career in the social sciences, I was more than happy to dig into the data to see what it could turn up…
Perhaps the most interesting thing I found is that women appear to be more honest than men. Over the entire world-wide dataset, women returned the wallets about 55%, versus 45% for men. This varied quite a bit over different cultures, and the data is not weighted by population, so one should take the absolute magnitude of this result with a bit of skepticism. However, looking at the data it appears that women were more honest than men in most cultures, so I think even a proper accounting for sample bias would find this result holds.
Here is the full dataset of men versus women broken down by country. You can see that the most populous countries are those where women appear to be more honest than men, so fixing the chart above to account for sample bias would likely still find a significant difference.
Another interesting question to ask of the data is whether or not there is a generational difference in honesty. Surprisingly, the answer turns out to be that there’s not a statistically
Looking at the breakdown by country, we see that there are no big differences between the generations, with one exception that I’m not even going to try to explain:
There are still a great deal of interesting variables in the dataset to explore. Please post a comment if you find any others.