Saturday, May 30, 2009


The bagel man, the honor system, and the power of “free”

I recently ran across this old item.[1] It was published in the New York Times Magazine section five years ago, and talks about a guy who made a business of catering bagels for offices, getting his payment through an “honor system”: he left the bagels unattended, along with a box for money. If you took a bagel, you were expected to pay a dollar for it. And most people did.

It’s interesting to read his statistics about those who didn’t. I have a few comments and speculations about it all.

Note that he found it necessary to close the payment box against those who would dip in:

After the doughnuts, Paul F. loaded two dozen money boxes, which he made himself out of plywood. A money slot is cut into the top. When he started out, he left behind an open basket for the cash, but too often the money vanished. Then he tried a coffee can with a slot in its plastic lid, which also proved too tempting. The wooden box has worked well. Each year he drops off about 7,000 boxes and loses, on average, just one to theft. This is an intriguing statistic: the same people who routinely steal more than 10 percent of his bagels almost never stoop to stealing his money box — a tribute to the nuanced social calculus of theft. From Paul F.’s perspective, an office worker who eats a bagel without paying is committing a crime; the office worker apparently doesn’t think so. This distinction probably has less to do with the admittedly small amount of money involved than with the context of the “crime.”
There certainly seems to be, as most of us think of it, a difference between stealing money, stealing hard goods, and stealing abstract things such as artistic or intellectual property. There’s also a difference between small amounts and large ones. Just as more people will snitch a bagel than will steal the money, it seems likely that many who would take a single bagel wouldn’t consider grabbing a boxful.

There’s also the relationship one has with the entity one’s stealing from. Theft from a big company seems easier for us to justify than theft from a smaller company, or theft from an individual. I wonder, too, if there could be a diversity factor here. Would “Paul F.” see different statistics if he were Latino? Black? Middle eastern? East Asian? Does it matter? I think it might, overall. I certainly wouldn’t be more likely to sneak an item without paying for it, regardless of the vendor’s ethnicity — I wouldn’t do it in any case. But for, let’s say, a white male office worker who is inclined to get away with the occasional free bagel... would it matter?

The bagel man also speculates that executives, who grab freebies more often than lower-level employees, perhaps snitch them “out of a sense of entitlement.” The authors consider that maybe it’s because cheating is what they do, how they got where they are. Could either really be so? Or is it that they don’t steal purposefully? Perhaps it could be absent-mindedness in the face of a busy schedule, or simple cluelessness (“Ah, look: someone put out some bagels. Oh, hey, Susan, I’ve been looking for you. Can we talk about [....]”). Those seem more likely reasons to me. Rather than assume that someone though he had a right to a free bagel, I’d like to think he thought they were put there for the taking, and just didn’t notice the payment box.

A lot of this reminds me of the item I talked about last year, on the power of “free”. There’s certainly something oddly compelling about the idea of free bagels, something that might push us to think — because we want to think so — that they’re out there for free. We take advantage of that aspect all the time, when we do provide free refreshments in order to draw people to meetings. When Stu Feldman was at IBM, we were talking about attendance at meetings once, and he said to me, “We can pay people six-figure incomes, and they’ll still get sucked in by free cookies.” (And now Stu is at Google, where they most certainly nudge more work out of people in exchange for free food.)

I’d like to see more formal studies on this, and I’m sure they’re out there. But there’s probably nothing as extensive and long-term as this informal one by the bagel man.

[1] I’m sorry not to have a “hat tip”, but I got there through a link to a link to a link, and then it sat in my browser tabs for a few days before I read it. So I have no idea where I came from to get there.


Maggie said...

This is really interesting. Dan Ariely has published at least one paper on what we (as humans) consider cheating. I started it some time during the semester and now I've lost it.

I think it was "Dishonesty in everyday life and its policy implications." I could spend the summer just reading all of the stuff linked there, if I didn't have other things to do all summer, unfortunately!!

Frisky070802 said...

I remember reading that column at the time and being impressed that such a low theft rate was possible. I wonder how it is affected by general economic climate ... are things as safe today?