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Caught looking

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Imagine that you sell newspapers on the honor system. You put some papers out on a table, along with a can for the money. It would surprise hardly anyone if, at the end of the day, more papers were taken than were paid for.”

But Dan Ariely, a professor of media and management at MIT who has studied people’s online behavior, say that when experimenters who actually tried this mounted a mirror above the newspapers, more people left money when they took a paper. Apparently, many of us can be shamed into honesty.” [Men reading this will recognize an echo of the “public bathroom syndrome,” where if you’re the only one in there, it’s far less likely that you’ll rinse your hands than if there’s someone else there too.]

“That’s the trouble with the internet. It’s a place where nobody knows you’re a crook. Even you may not know. Anonymity allows honest people to sustain a higher level of dishonesty without guilt, as is obvious to many people who have tried online dating.

From Daniel Akst’s excellent piece in today’s New York Times Money and Business section.

The newspaper experiment reminds me of my travels in New Zealand some years ago. I noticed throughout this magnificent country, on pristine, completely untraveled roads, occasional unattended farm produce stands, with a cigar box for the money. I was amazed that such a country still existed. When I returned to the states, I remarked on this to a friend of mine who had lived in Israel for years. He couldn’t believe such a system could really exist. I asked him what would happen if you tried it in Israel. He said that not only would no one leave any money, but when you went back to close up at the end of the day, the entire stand and its contents would have been stolen.

For another view, see here.

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  • Eric Olsen

    Below on the front page, sorry for the confusion. I see him as asking the wrong questions and certainly coming up with the wrong answer.

  • below???? where? But I didn’t come to any conclusion!

  • Eric Olsen

    We came to opposite conclusions – see below.