An honesty survey that’s kind of bogus

John Kelly
Columnist August 22, 2012

“Washington D.C. is 95% honest” read the headline on a news release that landed in my e-mail box the other day. It came from a soft drink company that had just completed a nationwide “honesty survey.”

I imagine that the country’s social scientists die a little bit every time they see a story like that. They spend their entire careers attempting to carefully tease out the myriad complexities of human behavior — dreaming up randomized, double-blind experiments; begging for funding; crafting peer-reviewed journal papers; toiling in fluorescent-lit obscurity — and then a soft drink company fills a snazzy Web site with claims such as “DC was more honest than NY” and “Bearded guys in Seattle were 100% honest.”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Those tenured professors must just want to weep.

The soft drink company’s National Honesty Index got coverage in all sorts of places (including, obviously, The Washington Post). Who can resist such findings as: People on K Street were less honest (91 percent) than people on Capitol Hill (93 percent) and people with gray hair were more honest (95 percent) than people in Silicon Valley (93 percent)?

How do we know this? Well, this was not a clever experiment of the sort made famous by Stanley Milgram, the controversial Yale professor who in 1961 tested subjects’ willingness to inflict electric shocks on other people. This one featured pop-up “activation stations” in 30 cities around the country, from Boston to Oakland, Galveston to Chicago. The stations were emblazoned with the soft drink company’s name. Dozens of cold bottles of its product were set out in racks. There were Plexiglas boxes in which people were invited to place a dollar to pay for their drink on the “honor system.” Signs indicated that participants might be monitored.

Frankly, knowing that they were being watched like mice in a maze it’s remarkable that anyone didn’t drop a dollar in the box. In fact, I’m kind of impressed by the good people of Brooklyn, only 61 percent of whom are honest, according to the “survey.”

On the other hand, 100 percent of the people in Salt Lake City paid for their drinks, confirming the stereotype that Mormons are good and trustworthy, while Brooklynites will beat you to death with a baseball bat and throw your bloody corpse in the back of a Lincoln Town Car.

Give you a dollar for a soft drink? Fuggedaboutit!

Perhaps I’m taking this all too seriously. These silly surveys are just a way to get a company’s name in the paper, a tasty bone thrown to lazy journalists. Does that make the honesty campaign dishonest? I suppose not. Seth Goldman, president and “TeaEO” of the company, admits the research isn’t very academic. He’s quoted in the press release as saying: “Though our experiment might not pass muster with a social scientist, the results present fascinating and fun insights about the American population.”

Fascinating, fun and entirely worthless, like the empty calories in a soft drink.

Oops! . . . I did it again

Just as unscientific are the results of another bit of corporate “research” and publicity-mongering. This one aims to find out where America’s clumsiest people live.

SquareTrade is a company that provides warranties for electronics equipment. It recently examined all of its customers’ “accidental damage from handling” claims for iPhone and iPad warranties that were at least six months old. It projected them over two years and used this data to name the Top 5 Clumsiest States.

For iPads, the “clumsiest states” were: 1. Mississippi. 2. Nebraska. 3. Washington, D.C. 4. New Hampshire. 5. Alaska.

For iPhones, the breakdown was 1. Mississippi. 2. New Mexico. 3. Rhode Island. 4. North Dakota. 5. South Carolina.

Two observations: First, it’s nice to see the District considered a state. Second, can people in Mississippi be trusted with sensitive electronics?

Reunification

Add these area school reunions to those I listed in my column last week:

Bethesda-Chevy Chase High Class of 1962 — Nov. 17. Visit bcc1962.classquest.com .

Dunbar High Class of 1952 — Oct. 6. Contact Lois (Turner) Hopson Reeder at 202-726-2927 or lth7835@aol.com.

Gaithersburg High Class of 1977 — Sept. 22. Contact Amy Blumhardt, blumhardt@comcast.net, or Jay Noffsinger, tjnoffy@yahoo.com. All interested alumni are welcome.

Luther Jackson High Class of 1962 — Nov. 24. Contact Brenda Marshall Duncan at 703-543-6764 or clandbren@yahoo.com or search “Luther Jackson High School Alumni Association” on Facebook.

Northwood High Class of 1973 — Oct. 19, 2013. Contact Brian Coffman at coffmanpub@comcast.net.

St. John the Evangelist Elementary Class of 1966 — Sept. 29. Contact Nancy Gentile at nancygentile@comcast.net or 301-655-5620.

Wakefield High Class of 1962 — Sept. 29. Call Janet or Bob Coco, 703-644-1715, or e-mail janetcoco@yahoo.com or rcoco@cox.net, or visit wakefieldalumni.org/classes/1962 .

T.C. Williams High Class of 1972 — Sept. 21 and 22. www.tcw72alumni.com .

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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