How Honest Are We?

  • Watching BBC’s “The One Show” highlighted the question “How Honest Are We?” and created an interesting, if somewhat thrown together experiment  concerning the old English tradition of the Honesty Box.

    Honesty BoxWe often see them, typically in rural or semi rural areas.  Small piles of produce on the side of the road with a small “Honesty Box” next to them where anyone taking anything from the wares on offer are expected to be honest and pop the price of the items into the box.  I have one just around the corner from me that I often use.  A dozen fresh eggs for £2 and they always taste better than the  supermarket variety.  The One Show asked a simple question in their piece last night after a spate of thefts where highlighted to them from such boxes.  When people think they aren’t being watched or they can get away with it, just how honest are they?

    The experiment was inspired by the work of Professor Melissa Bateson, a behavioral scientist at Newcastle University who had been running an honesty box for the tea/coffee fund at her place of work.  She had been frustrated by the amount of times the amount of money left in the box did not cover the costs of the items provided.  Clearly, people were just helping themselves to tea and coffee without paying towards the cost of the facility.  In her experiments, she alternated between two different signs that asked people to pay up.  One sign had a picture of a pair of eyes on it, whilst the other had a rather pleasing picture of flowers.  The eyes seemed to have a marked effect, with the honesty box takings showing a distinct rise.  The One Show did the same thing but on honesty boxes out and about.  On boxes with no sign of this nature there were 9 thefts.  Eyes had 3 thefts and the flowers had 6 thefts.  It would seem that even the flowers had some effect!

    It would seem that the mere suspicion that people might be being watched engineered a change in behavior.  Being dishonest is of course socially Eyes Watching Youunacceptable and being social creatures, none of us want to do anything that incurs the risk of being thrown out of society.  At least that’s the theory our good Professor has come up with.

    In therapy, I will always stress the importance of honesty to any client.  Otherwise what is the point?  After all, I’m not there to judge anyone’s behavior, merely help them change it if required, or at the very least understand it.  Everything is confidential, so if a client cannot be honest in a therapy setting, then what chance have I got of helping them?

    I think deep down, we all knew what the answer to The One Show’s question was even before the results of the experiments were in.  Sadly, it would seem that it’s human nature, at least to some degree, that if we think we can get away with something socially unacceptable then we will.  That said, however, I do think that there is a good amount of behavioral learning going on as well.  If we grew up without getting caught or without our parents giving us the learning that such behavior is unacceptable, then it is small wonder that people progress to being dishonest in their adult lives.  For me, the experiment doesn’t go far enough.  Yes, it is interesting to see the results that highlight how we are now, but I’d like to see further work into the causes of this behavior.  As always, I like to treat the cause of a problem, as logically, this makes eradicating the problem itself far easier.


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