Why the Honor Till Works

The Famous Honor Till of Swanton Berry Farm Photo: revger/Flickr

Just north of Santa Cruz, California, there's a farm that's famous for its good food and its rather peculiar method of accepting payment. You see, at the Swanton Berry Farm, you're expected to pay what you owe with no one at the counter.

You'd think that people would short the farm all the time, but in reality - even after taking into account thefts and freeloaders - the honor system actually made more money than manned counters.

Deborah Franklin of NPR's food blog The Salt explains the psychology of honor tills:

And today at his farm stand, Cochran says, just as at the donut shop years ago, most customers leave more money than they owe.

That doesn't surprise social psychologist Michael Cunningham of the University of Louisville who has used "trust games" to investigate what spurs good and bad behavior for the last 25 years. For many people, Cunningham says, trust seems to be at least as strong a motivator as guilt. He thinks he knows why.

"When you sell me something I want and trust me to pay you even when you're not looking, you've made my life good in two ways," Cunningham tells The Salt. "I get something delicious, and I also get a good feeling about myself. Both of those things make me feel good about the world— that I'm in a good place. And I also see you as a contributor to that good — as somebody I want to reward. It's a win win."


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The word "honor" might have some effect as a subconscious command or primer to virtuous thought and behavior. Additionally this may not work so well for a large food chain. When something is regarded as more abstract it is easier to dehumanize it as well. This would explain other results of studies that showed college students were more likely to cheat on a test when they were expected to grade themselves and shred their test without it being examined by the professor or anyone else. Under the same conditions of grading their own tests, but being primed with a copy of a Code of Conduct attributed to the college, students were less likely to cheat than controls who were graded by the professor. The honor code has major significance for the prevalence of cheating, however this is not always the case, where honor is valued and nurtured part of a community honor codes may simply be redundant. IMHO, this is because people want to be seen as good so they uphold whatever values are salient to them, if "honor" is not a salient value within a culture it won't have an effect unless specifically primed for. In a culture where getting good grades is emphasized more than honesty one might expect there to be an additional need to prime students for honesty (e.g., McCabe and Trevino, 1993).

For a review of the research (2001): http://faculty.mwsu.edu/psychology/dave.carlston/Writing%20in%20Psychology/Academic%20Dishonesty/Gropu%203/review.pdf
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Years ago I stopped at a small motel in rural Canada. On entering the office there was a sign on the counter saying the owners were away for the weekend. It said to take a key off the board, stay in a room, and leave key with money in a basket on the counter when you left. On leaving the next day I dropped my key and cash into the basket with the others.
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Anyone notice the eyes in the photograph? There are good experiments that show humans are more likely to be honest when a pair of eyes are looking at them, whether they're in a photograph or in real life.
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