Thought Leadership

A question of honor

By Colin Walls

I am of the opinion that most people are fundamentally honest. I think it is very sad that we spend so much money and effort on locks, intruder alarms, car alarms and so forth, just to defend ourselves against the tiny minority of people who would otherwise abuse trust. If you saw a little old lady drop a $50 bill, what would you do? I am confident that most readers would draw her attention to it – probably bend down and pick it up for her – and bask in the feeling of having done something good for the rest of the day. Sociologists debate whether there is really such a thing as altruism, so I am not going to pursue that line for the moment. Just enjoy the moment.

I remember visiting an ornamental garden at a large country house one afternoon some years ago. It was open in aid of a charity. The admission tickets were a non-trivial amount – maybe £5 [$8] – but there was nobody at the entrance collecting the money. There was just a sign and a box to put your money into. I put in £20 and took £10 change and was amazed to realize that there was well over £100 in the box. When we were leaving later on, I noticed the box was even more full of money. I hope it was still there when they closed. This got me thinking about “honor boxes” [or “honesty boxes” as I think they are called on my side of the Pond] …

It is common to see produce [vegetables, flowers, eggs, honey etc.] for sale at the road side, with a box for the money. Commonly, the box just has a slot to put money in, so there is not really an opportunity to steal the cash, but a dishonest person could just take the goods and not pay. I have often wondered how much that happens – how honest are people? I just came across some interesting research on the matter …

There was this guy, who worked as a manager at a government research facility. He was a good boss and, every Friday, he would bring in bagels and cream cheese for his team. [I could easily imagine my boss doing this kind of thing, but, as we are normally 6000 miles apart, I do not seem to benefit from such gestures.] In due course, people in other departments heard about this and they wanted bagels too. So, he started bringing in larger and larger quantities of bagels and recouped the cost using an honor box. He received about 95% of expected takings and he regarded the shortfall as oversight as opposed to dishonesty.

In due course, his circumstances changed and he quit his job. He decided to downshift and started a business delivering bagels to local companies, continuing to use an honor box for payment. In due course, he found himself delivering thousands of bagels each week to dozens of companies and was making at least as much money as he had in his previous job. He was also unintentionally carrying out research.

He had anticipated getting the same 95% of payments, but was disappointed. He had not realized that, in his previous job, he was well known personally to the customers and this encouraged honesty. He concluded that a company who paid 90% or more were “honest”; 80-90% was tolerable; less that 80% would result in a “reminder” note being attached to the honor box.

The level of payment could also vary from day to day. Broadly speaking, at times when people felt happier [warm days or low-stress holidays like Fourth of July, Labor Day and Columbus Day], they tended to be honest. When people were down [like on unseasonably cold days] or they were stressed [around high-expectation holidays like Christmas, Valentine’s and Thanksgiving] people would cheat. Also, if people felt part of a community [like in small offices or at unusual times, like after 9/11], they would be more honest; more impersonal contexts [like large offices] led to more dishonesty.

I do not think these results are particularly surprising – they largely bear out what I would expect [if I thought about it]. But the research, albeit unwittingly, gives some clear parameters that could be applied to sales situations where an honor box makes sense.


0 thoughts about “A question of honor
  • Excellent theme today, Colin. I must say that I often find the behavior of people, when left to their own choices, quite interesting. Although disappointing on occasion.

    One of the things that I think perhaps reflects upon the results you mentioned in your text (for example, the honor system payment box at the garden) is the social status and background of the parties in question.

    This occurred to me because of what I saw when I was younger when I worked with the public, and in recent years.

    In my personal experience I have found middle-class, and/or educated individuals tend to have a better upbringing, and hence better (generally, though not all) behavioral characteristics including more honesty.

    One time in a previous company we were at a product convention in San Diego. During the day, only potential customers & other individuals related to the industry were allowed in (i.e., generally professional people). Things were pretty calm and normal. During the evening, hourly workers from a local facility were allowed in.

    Guess what happened? There was a barrage towards the free food, and frequently I saw people quite often stealing souvenirs and promotional items as if it was Halloween.

    I think that says something perhaps.

    In my experience dealing with the public in retail stores, the theft problems were never from people who were starving poor-oh no! Just simply those were had no morals, class, and were not the brightest individuals.

    I met people from the same social class as the bad individuals however these were held to higher discipline & standards at home, and despite their modest backgrounds, I never had a problem with these people at all.

    Reality is a harsh teacher sometimes.

    I tend to think it’s partially the items I’ve mentioned, but it still comes down to a personal decision. I prefer to be honest.

  • Although I am very reluctant to categorize people by “class”, I do think that people’s behavior is largely influenced by the way they are treated. If factory workers, for example, never feel that they are trusted, they are unlikely to ever behave in a trustworthy manner. Bit of a chicken and egg.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at