Would You Pay for Something if You Didn’t Have To?

Here’s an interesting experiment.

You’ve seen American newspaper vending machines:

vending-machine

You put the money in, the glass door opens, you get your paper.

Now, let’s go to a province in Austria:

austria_newspaper

Here, you put the money in at the top. And you just grab your paper from the moisture-sealed bag below.

There’s nothing forcing you to pay, though. You could theoretically not pay anything and still grab a paper. It’s all based on the honor system. And therein lies the experiment.

Essentially, researches would clean out the coinbox and put one paper in the bag. After someone took the paper (and some time had passed), one researcher would check to see how much money that person paid. Another researcher would follow that person and, after enough distance had passed, stop the person “randomly” to interview him/her about a seemingly unrelated matter. By doing this, the researchers learned about the person’s “social behaviors.” (Not everyone was willing to be interviewed, and this was factored into the results.)

The people who had bought the paper had no idea there was a connection between the purchase and the questions they were being asked.

So what were the results like?

Not surprisingly, most people did not pay the 60 cents asking price for the paper. In fact, the average payment was only 26 cents.

What’s fascinating is the descriptions of people in relation to how much they paid.

Here is a list of characteristics compared to how much people paid more or less than the 26-cent average.

honesty-study

So males paid 7.76 cents less than the 26-cent average.

Those who regularly volunteers paid 8.05 cents more than the 26-cent average.

And… wait a minute… what’s that one…?

The people paying the least amount?

Church goers.

They paid 22.13 cents less than the 26-cent average. In other words, virtually nothing.

The researchers tried to explain this:

People who regularly attend service at church pay 22.1 cents less for the Sunday tabloid… This is a large effect, and we can only speculate with regard to its reasons. One reason might be that the church attendees lacked the coin money to make a proper payment. Active religious participation is high in the region, and on a typical Sunday morning it is plausible that many people might have donated some of their coin money to the church. Of course, this explanation does not change the fact that church attendees are particularly dishonest when paying for the newspaper. Another possible explanation is that the church attendees share relevant social traits. Gneezy (2005) found that honesty interacts with social preferences towards the person who benefits from one’s honesty. According to this explanation, a typical church attendee might believe that it would do little harm to the wealth of the publisher if he does not pay for the paper.

You can download the full study for free and gauge for yourself how valid this study is.

In the meantime, I wonder what other explanations there might be for these results.

And where would atheists stand in relation to the other characteristics included on the list?

(via Epiphenom)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • PrimeNumbers

    More proof, if it was ever needed, that being religious doesn’t make you moral. Or is it that the less moral among us are more drawn to religion?

  • Jonas

    Are they asking the same questions of all the interviewees, and are some offended by where the questions are leading? — that could throw off the study. — Also if you look for a factor, like ‘religious belief’ or ‘church attendance’ you will find it.

    Side comment: Where I used to live, there was a street vendor selling papers by hand, right next to a dispensor. One day I bought one from the box, instead of from him. His reaction: He said: “Right to the Box” as if I offended him. — Sorry but to my mind, the cost was the same, I don’t tip the vendor, and pay extra for a paper.

    Today vendors hand out free papers, like the Boston Metro, and I’m not giving him money for a free paper.

  • jedipunk

    Maybe the people that stole have a higher tendency to lie about going to church.

  • http://jeffolsson.blogspot.com/ Jeff Olsson

    Having just read the entire paper I offer the following:

    The sample size was quite adequate at 402 customers and 215 interview respondents.
    There appear to have been ample controls in place for the biases mentioned, which include location, time, observer effect, and more.

    Religiosity as a determinant of dishonesty was not one of the major conclusions listed in the summary because that was not what the study was specifically designed to test. Even still, it was the single most significant finding (statistically). Furthermore, the authors’ response to this finding was well reasoned:

    “People who regularly attend service at church pay 22.1 cents less for the Sunday tabloid (see Church in column 6).20 This is a large effect, and we can only speculate with regard to its reasons. One reason might be that the church attendees lacked the coin money to make a proper payment. Active religious participation is high in the region, and on a typical Sunday morning it is plausible that many people might have donated some of their coin money to the church. Of course, this explanation does not change the fact that church attendees are particularly dishonest when paying for the newspaper. Another possible explanation is that the church attendees share relevant social traits. Gneezy (2005) found that honesty interacts with social preferences towards the person who benefits from one’s honesty. According to this explanation, a typical church attendee might believe that it would do little harm to the wealth of the publisher if he does not pay for the paper.

    In my mind the religious folks are guilty as charged.

    Jeff

  • http://www.otmatheist.com hoverFrog

    If they’d put the coin box outside a church then God would’ve been watching and then they’d have paid more…..Maybe.

    I would have paid full price AND given my read paper to someone else to read. ‘Cos that’s the kinda guy I am: Godless.

  • mikespeir

    Or is it that the less moral among us are more drawn to religion?

    Doesn’t seem to be doing them a lot of good if so.

  • Eliza

    Valerie Tarico gave a very interesting talk on morality (& raising freethinking kids) at a Seattle Atheists meeting yesterday. One of her closing points was that religion coopts morality (claiming to be the source), and – pertinent here – channels it in ways which may be counterproductive, or moot, in the big picture of real life (my interpretation – those weren’t her exact words). Example: people feeling so good and moral that they accept Jesus & are saved for eternity, & threfore not placing importance on being honest about how much they pay for a paper.

    And, as hoverFrog said, some may be acting in the less-well-developed stage of moral development in which they respond to external monitoring (by God, or peers) without much of an internal compass.

  • Morgan55

    I actually did a version of this on myself a few years ago. While getting the Sunday paper from a box, I noticed that the Sunday paper cost more than the weekday. Wondering how the box knew which day it was, I put in the amount of the weekday paper and pulled. It opened, I took the paper, and before closing it, put in the balance of the payment. Nobody watching. Still curious about the workings of the box, it honestly didn’t even occur to me to do otherwise until my father asked me about it as we discussed the box. He was very proud.

  • Miko

    Regarding the interviews themselves, I wouldn’t read too much into a sample size of ~200. Some of those groups just got too small to be meaningful. However, the religious group looks to be large enough that I’d trust it if I trusted any of the individual group results. Call it enough to suggest more research is worthwhile.

    Most interesting of all in my view, in their preliminary (non-interview) experiment, across all datasets, they saw 63-67% paying absolutely nothing. In particular, adding a plea to follow the law had the same results as the control. (Total nonpayments dropped in the interview version, although I don’t find their explanations as to why compelling. See p. 15).

    Also of interest, 58% indicated they did not trust the legal system of Austria and 44% admitted they would cheat on taxes given the chance. There’s a body of work going back 30+ years suggesting that delinquent behavior rises when people either don’t respect the law, find the police overly intrusive (e.g., surveillance state) when think they can get away with it, or think that their taxes are unfairly high.

    As such, I would think being in continental Europe is a major factor here. I would expect that you’d see more honesty in a liberal free-market democracy such as Ireland, say.

    Also if you look for a factor, like ‘religious belief’ or ‘church attendance’ you will find it.

    Actually, no. Rescaled so that a 1 indicates regular church attendance and a 0 represents other responses, they found a mean of 0.18, meaning most people said that they did not attend church regularly.

  • Polly

    Would I pay?

    Depends. If I have the change, I might. If not, I might not. I assume that if controls aren’t in place then “payment” is strictly on a chariatable/voluntary basis and that the money isn’t really needed. Lots of local papers and bulletins are distributed for free.

    BTW, all paper vending machines I’ve seen are on the honor system. For the price of one you can take as many papers as you like and resell them.

  • Luther Weeks

    What I would like to know is the correlation between Tax Cheating and goes to Church, perhaps that is why both numbers are high.

    Another experiment would be to compare the various habits depending on the publication.
    – Tabloid
    – Respected news magazine
    – Religious publication
    – Science oriented

    Of course its unlikely many Atheists would be purchasing or stealing the religious publication nor that a valid average religious person would purchase a science oriented publication. But it would be interesting to note if religious people are more likely or less likely to pay for religious matter.

  • Luther Weeks

    Speaking of stealing. I got the Readers’ Digest for many years, perhaps 10, without paying. It was sort of above board since they kept pestering me to renew my subscription and I kept declining.

    For me it was a real moral dilemma.

    – Should I continue to receive the publication, destroying trees but also increasing costs for a publication that I would classify as evil, (OK, I don’t believe evil as such exists)

    OR

    – Do a change of address so that some illdirected soul would get the publication for free, saving that person money.

    I always took the 1st option under the assumption that the 2nd was much less moral as it might well add to someones’ false beliefs.

  • http://infidelicacy.blogspot.com/ Steve

    I would pay, much to my wife’s chagrin. “You’re too honest,” she would say.

    Regardless, this reminds me of a story I read about in a food blog a few years ago- Waiters and waitresses noticed that the Sunday customers, right after the days services were done, were notoriously horrible tippers. Some would tip ten percent, but a lot of them wouldn’t tip at all.

  • http://secularsage.wordpress.com Secularsage

    Hmm. You can’t really draw that conclusion based on the study, because the sample isn’t representative of the population.

    First of all, almost half of the people who were approached declined to be interviewed. That means that there may have been some bias in those who did accept the interview.

    Second, those who accepted the interview were paid for their time. This means that those who felt their time was worth 20 Euros were more likely to be interviewed than those who didn’t. One would expect that the people who were interviewed have different attitudes about money than those who don’t. This is a serious problem with the study.

    Third, if you look at the way the data was analyzed, the variable “Church” was recoded such that “Regularly” was the only option. “Sometimes” and “Never” were lumped into a single category. In survey research, it is common for people to lie about the extreme that they feel will please the interviewer most. In this case, the research was occurring in a religious neighborhood on a Sunday. Dishonest people were likely to say that they regularly attended church, while honest people who weren’t big churchgoers were likely to say “sometimes.” This doesn’t appear to have been accounted for in the study, and thus the question probably does not reflect accurate responses.

    Finally, and this is most important of all, the study only concerns people who are buying newspapers from machines, and does not include those who might buy their papers from news stands or who have their papers delivered. The study does not provide any support to show that those who buy news stand copies are the same as those who buy through another means. In other words, one cannot project these findings to the population at large because the researchers have taken a convenience sample.

    I’m not saying that churchgoers are or are not more honest than anyone else; I’m simply pointing out that this study can’t be used to draw that conclusion.

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    Sobering results. I wonder if they would hold true in other countries. Still sad though.

  • Janz

    I’m just concerned so many didnt pay or paid so little. I mean if theres a charge, then its stealing if you dont make the cost.
    I’ve always paid on the honesty system. And extra if its for charity. Only a little…Im still a bit mean..but I’m honest lol.

  • Margaret

    I would guess that it was a religious publication in the box. The religious folk reasoned that they had already paid for the paper when they put money in the collection plate at church.

  • x

    The truth is that there is a discrepancy between Christians who claim to live a holy life and those who actually strive to. Sitting in church and religious discourse does not make one holy, walking the life of Christ did, that is the goal. Few Christians live as they believe they should, and while to err is human, humanity is not an excuse for habitual errancy. Rather than denying unflattering truths, each Christian needs to look within their own life and their own church and compare Scriptural mandates and professed standards to what is actually practiced. Then they need to close the gap.