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Keeping People Honest:

By Michael Masterson


We met TN at the American Academy, which crowns one of Rome's seven hills. It's an impressive campus, with several large buildings and gardens. TN, a Rome Prize winner, is spending two years there as a fellow, working on an archeological project in Sicily. She showed us around, including the room she sleeps in. It has a small bathroom, a bed, a table, and a window overlooking a courtyard. Her office is in another wing of the building. There, she has a desk, another table, and shelves overflowing with books on art and archeology.

It all seems very romantic - being off on your own like that, surrounded by intellectuals and artists in a beautiful setting in one of the world's greatest cities. Of course, there are problems. No air conditioning, for one. But TN is used to that.

And then there's the matter of the disappearing food ...

"We - the fellows - share a common kitchen," she told us. "And a few months ago, people started complaining that things were going missing." Sometimes it was a container of yogurt. Once it was a half-eaten sandwich. Then TN realized her coffee beans were disappearing at an alarming rate. Though they've put up signs, the food keeps disappearing ... and they don't know what to do about it.

TN's predicament reminds me of a study about honesty I read recently.
People are more honest, it seems, when they feel like they are being watched. Studies have shown that people are more likely to lie when on the telephone than during face-to-face conversations. And they are even more honest when the observer isn't human.

Researchers at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom conducted the study in a school cafeteria. Drinks were freely available on a table. Beside the drinks was an "honesty box." Behind the box was a sign asking students to deposit a certain amount of money for each drink they took.

The sign displayed a photo. On alternate weeks, the photo changed. One week, it was flowers. The next week, a pair of eyes. After several weeks in several locations, the calculations were made - and the poster with the eyes on it had driven in almost three times as much money as the one with flowers.

I think I'll suggest to TN that they make that little change to their signs ... and see what happens