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Last Updated: Friday, 12 October 2007, 12:08 GMT 13:08 UK
The mystery of the honesty box
Tony Blair

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Radiohead's move to allow fans to choose the price they pay for a download of an album has reawoken an age-old question. So can we be trusted to pay a fair price for something even if we're not forced?

So it's basically a question of Hobbes vs the anarchist.

Either you think that left to our own devices we'd spend all our time fighting each other and downloading rock albums for nothing - to precis philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

Or you have a bit more faith, believing that even without the intervention of the authorities we will be rational and can be trusted to do the right thing - anarchism distilled.

We all know about honesty boxes. In staff rooms and clubhouses across the country there are boxes for hot drinks or food that rely on members of a community making their fair contribution towards the cost of something.

If people think they can get away with it they will usually behave selfishly and not pay
Dr Melissa Bateson
Behavioural biologist

The principle has been applied in the real world. In the US there are newspaper vending machines that rely on the consumer putting his coin in and not taking more than one paper.

And in Britain, at WH Smith branches in train stations, the customer is asked to make their payment for a newspaper into a container.

According to the company, the "vast majority" pay the correct amount, and one of its shop assistants even reported the boxes make money as people who don't have the correct change over pay. However, they could quite easily pay less or even walk off with the paper for nothing having feigned the act of paying up.

It's the kind of unexpected honesty that might have persuaded Radiohead that they could go ahead and let people pay what they thought was appropriate for their latest album.

A survey of 3,000 people who downloaded the album suggested an average sum of 4 paid, with a third choosing to download it gratis, and several people paying a generous 12.

US newspaper vending machine
The principle is long-established for US newspapers

If those figures proved to be accurate either side could claim victory. Radiohead have not been the victims of a wholesale, self-inflicted robbery and yet, at the same time, there are many fans who have taken their work for nothing.

The power of the honesty box principle may be in our evolution, says behavioural biologist Dr Melissa Bateson.

Last year she led a study based on an honesty box. During alternate time periods, a picture of a pair of eyes or a picture of flowers were placed above the box. Wildly differing sums of money were deposited in the box.

"When we had the picture of eyes on the wall it was nearly three times as much money. Eyes give people the feeling that they are being watched by other people.

"If people think they can get away with it they will usually behave selfishly and not pay, but if you think you are being watched you know the consequences can be quite bad."

So when we dutifully put our coins in the honesty box, it may not just be out of our respect for a fair society, it may also be out of a purely selfish desire not to be punished or looked down on by our peers.

This may even explain WH Smith's success, Dr Bateson suggests.

"There are loads of people around - you wouldn't just take a paper and walk away."


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

When I worked at a church, we had an honesty box for drinks and snacks. Often the sums were close to the amount they should have been, but always slightly lower. Until I posted a picture of Jesus over the honesty box--then the box was never short on payment.
Bryn Greenwood, Lawrence, Kansas, USA

In the school canteen Reverend Mother put a notice on the pile of apples on the counter: "Take One Only - God is watching!" No surprise that on the pile of cookies at the other end a notice appeared: "Take as many as you like - God's watching the apples!"
Keith, Lismore, Ireland

It is also to do with the value or percieved value of the item in question. Newspapers are not cool must have items. Nobody will have gain anything significant by taking one. Albums in this day and age of downloads are percieved in almost the same manner. Any car garages fancy trying this scheme - keys in the car, just leave us a cheque in the postbox?!
rey, Manchester

Interesting - from memory there's a bit in the book Freakonomics which talks about this. There was a guy in the USA selling bagels to large corporations using the honour system. He found that the higher up the floors you went towards the boardroom, the less inclined people were prepared to adhere to this... anecdotal I know, but I'm still inclined to believe it!
Bruce, Leicester, UK

I downloaded Radiohead's CD free because I don't think they are much cop and wouldn't have bought it online or in the shops. It gave me a risk-free chance to confirm to myself that they still produce a load of rubbish... it's in the electronic dustbin now. To be brutely honest if I had've liked it I still wouldn't have paid for it, you'd be mad to do so. It's hardly free they've had millions of pounds of 'free' advertising and marketing from the likes of the beeb etc...
paul, bristol

I once asked the owner of a bookshop, who left cheap books outside overnight, how many people actually used the honesty box. He said nearly everyone did and sometimes he saw people pulling up and jumping out of cars to put money in the box during the day, as they didn't have change when taking a book overnight!
Jamie, Powys, Wales

I sell eggs at my farm gate with a notice to put the money in the box, and 98% of the time people do, probably more, and some even leave IOUs when they haven't enough change and yes they pay it next time they pass. Many of the passing tourists thou' say it wouldn't be safe where they live and are very surprised at my trust.
jmm, cumbria

I work in WH Smiths. We got rid of the honesty box at my branch a couple of years ago because people were pretending to put money in, choosing instead that a button or piece of chewing gum was equivalent in value to 85p. You'll have to pardon my cynicism.
Olly, Bournemouth

I don't understand why there is a discussion about honesty boxes following the Radiohead album release and the manner in which it is purchsed [or otherwise]. The website says with regard to what you pay, 'its up to you.' Surely this invites an indication of the album, or an album's actual value, through what you pay. Radiohead are asking us to pay what we think/believe its worth. Honesty boxes are used where say the price of a cup of tea / newspaper has already been set and its up to the consumer to honestly give the set price.
N, Brighton

Is someone going to put Hobbes' work on the Internet, with an offer to pay what you like for a download? That would tell us a lot about honesty!
Nigel Macarthur, London, England

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