Imagine this: A hotel receptionist is handed a lost wallet. It contains, among other things, several identical business cards with a name and email address. Will the receptionist reach out to the apparent owner of the wallet?

It turns out, the answer is more likely to be a ‘no’ when you’re in China rather than countries like the United States, Canada and Switzerland. That’s according to a new study led by a team of American and Swiss researchers who published their findings in Science last week.

A sample wallet used in the study. Researchers used local currency, and the business cards were written in the local language. (Picture: Science/ “Civic honesty around the globe”)

To be clear, the project’s main purpose wasn’t to rank countries by their level of honesty. Instead, the focus was to examine whether monetary incentives would push a person to act dishonestly, regardless of their nationality. But the result, which incidentally ranks China at the bottom of 40 countries in terms of honesty, surprised even the scientists themselves.

“It could be that the level of altruism is relatively low in China, but this is pure speculation,” researcher Alain Cohn at the University of Michigan told the South China Morning Post.

China ranks behind 39 other countries in the study. (Picture: Science/ “Civic honesty around the globe”)

So, does the paper prove that people in China are more dishonest? Not necessarily.

There are questions about the survey’s methodology. It involved dropping thousands of transparent wallets with a name and email address clearly visible.

But using email as the only way for someone to communicate with the lost wallet’s owner may be where the study fails to take into account the unique circumstances in China, where email is rarely used.

Chinese citizens are far more likely to contact each other through WeChat, whether it’s with friends, families, colleagues or strangers. Emails, on the other hand, often get ignored -- even in work settings.  

Wuhan University professor Wu Lin suggested that the results might have been different if the business cards displayed a phone number or a WeChat ID. But Cohn disagreed. He said even when the researchers took into account how common businesses in each country email their customers and suppliers, China still ranks last.

On the other hand, the study’s authors found that report rates are higher in countries with broader political representation, higher primary education enrollment, and moral norms that extend beyond “in-groups” like families.

Regardless of where people live though, they have something in common: Receptionists were more likely to report wallets with money rather than no money. In China, less than 10% of workers returned a penniless wallet. The figure shot up to over 20% when it held 49 yuan.