Jun 19

What if on your next coffee run, you discover that Starbucks has started running on the honor system? All the baristas are gone, and in their place, you find Tupperware filled with coins and bills. Would you pay for your daily soy Latte? Or would you “forget” to shell out the five bucks? Be honest.

This, of course, is only a thought experiment, as I doubt Starbucks will be adopting the honor policy anytime soon. But in another part of the world, it’s a real question that residents are facing on a daily basis. As the New York Times recently reported, the attorney general’s office in Indonesia has been opening thousands of “honesty cafes” as part of its anticorruption campaign.

The idea is that these cashier-free cafes will teach people to be honest and curb the country’s corruption problem (which pervades business, politics, and education) by inducing residents – especially the young – to get into the habit of practicing honesty. As the Times reports, “…the cafes are meant to force people to think constantly about whether they are being honest and, presumably, make them feel guilty if they are not.”

It’s a laudable plan, and a lovely feel-good idea, but will it work? I have my doubts.

First I think that people will also cheat to a certain extent in these honesty cafes (as they do in our experiments). In fact, according to one Indonesian student, they already do: “Some of my friends don’t pay the right amount.”

But that’s not the worst of it. I worry that these cafes won’t just fail to discourage cheating – they will actually lead to more of it. In some of our research, we found that cheating on one occasion makes it easier for people to cheat again on a later task, because it alters their self-concept. (Think of dieting as an analogy: once you break your diet once, it’s that much easier to say, “Oh what the hey, cut me a slice of that chocolate cake; I’ll count calories again tomorrow.”)

With honesty cafés widespread, residents will have more temptations to cheat, more occasion to cheat, and maybe this will make it such that they will find it easier to cheat again in other contexts.

Maybe these cafes are a good idea, maybe it will not have any effect, but I worry that it might make things worse.