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World’s Most Honest Cities? Not So Fast!

What would you do if you stumbled upon an orphan wallet in the street? Would you seek out its rightful owner and return it, all contents intact? Or, if no one’s the wiser, would you pocket it and quickly walk away—finders keepers.

That’s the question at the heart of Reader’s Digest‘s recent experiment in which its editors “lost” nearly 200 wallets in 16 cities around the world. Of the 192 wallets (which each contained a name and cell phone number, a family photo, miscellaneous papers, and the equivalent of $50 in the country’s local currency), 90 were returned by their unsuspecting test groups, the highest numbers in Helsinki, Finland. In turn, Reader’s Digest has declared the city—and its residents—as the “most honest.”

So, an entire community is now being hailed as the most honorable because 11 of 12 passersby did the right thing by the lost item. An irresponbible conclusion, I think. 

If we’re to apply the same logic to the opposite end of the spectrum, those cities with the least number of retrieved wallets are now considered “dishonest.” Are we to believe that people from Lisbon, Madrid, Prague, and Bucharest (one, two, three, and four, respectively) have their moral compasses misaligned?

There are far too many variables in the unscientific social experiment to conclude that an entire community is “honest” versus “dishonest.”

Suppose some of those who returned the wallets were tourists from more “dishonest” cities? Tourists have more time to peer down toward the ground as they wander around town while locals hastily speed to their destination. Or, could the majority of wallets dropped in Helsinki have been in more affluent neighborhoods while Madrid’s wallets were “lost” in a grittier part of town? Countless variables abound.

In end, values like honesty are too difficult to gauge based on geography—or on the fate of 192 lost wallets.

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