07/26/2013 08:13 am ET Updated Jul 26, 2013

Skeptics, Brace Yourself: The Honor System Is Alive And Well


Are you an honest person when nobody’s watching?

Well, riddle us this: Would you pay for something if you were nearly certain you could take it for free, without consequence?

For the fourth year in a row, beverage company Honest Tea decided to test the limits of our honesty (while promoting their brand's name perfectly). From July 8 through 18, the company placed unmanned kiosks around the country and asked people to deposit a dollar for each beverage they took with them, using the honor system.

After the 10-day observation period, Honest Tea analyzed how frequently people in each of their test cities gave the right amount of money for their tea consumption. They compiled the results into what they call the National Honesty Index, which, among other stats, found that 92 percent of Americans were honest enough to fork over a buck for their beverage. Alabama and Hawaii tied for the most honest state, with 100% of the experiment participants leaving a dollar in exchange for the drink. (See the slideshow below for a state-by-state breakdown.)

While Honest Tea's data by no means quantify how truthful Americans are outside of this single experiment, the numbers allude to something against the conventional skepticism wisdom: We honor the honor system -- at least when it comes to paying for iced tea.

But this experiment isn't that unusual -- we're tested by the honor system quite often. Can you recall the "please take one" signs staked into candy bowls on Halloween? Some, perhaps naive, neighbors would leave unguarded sweets on their doorsteps, trusting decorated ghouls and goblins to take just a single piece, while leaving the rest for other sugar-seekers. (Needless to say, we have all at least witnessed the classic bowl-to-bag dump.)

Greedy ghosts aside, the honor system seems to be a pretty solid one when it comes to garnering authenticity. We, as humans, like to see ourselves as honest people. Many of us consider "honesty" to be part of our core values, explains Dr. Kip Matthews, a licensed psychologist in Athens, Georgia. When you label yourself one way and behave another, you experience what is called cognitive dissonance, he says, which is an unnerving sensation.

On the other hand, when you leave a situation feeling in synch -- in this case, trading the dollar for the tea, because you see yourself as an honest person behaving in an honest way -- you leave feeling good about yourself. In this experiment, it was self-reflection that really guided the honest (or dishonest) action.

So, let's get down to the nitty-gritty. Would you have made Americans proud in the social experiment?

Honest Tea's Honesty Index Results By State:
Note: Louisiana, Arizona and Mississippi did not have sample sizes large enough to be included in the rankings.

2013 National Honesty Index