People become more trustworthy the more you trust them

My faith in humanity goes up when I see an unattended self-service stand where customers are trusted to pay for what they take. It works because the system is open to public view, and any passer-by (or even just a poster of a pair of eyes) can spot the cheater. (Then again, it takes only a tiny percentage of cheaters to ruin it for everyone.)

I remember reading a story on self-checkout devices which said that product theft actually went down after the devices were installed. Apparently the customers were more trustworthy than the employees when it came to retail theft. People will rise to the occasion and be trustworthy because you expect them to be. (I'm told that schoolteachers have known this trick for years: If you make it clear to students that you expect more from them, they will generally rise to the challenge.)

Fortunately, in my experience at Microsoft, I've seen more metrics + common sense than the pure metrics approach. For example, during the approach to a project milestone, management was watching the bug count very closely, but also understood that the raw numbers were just an approximation of the situation. After all, some bugs are easier to fix than others. A developer's bug count might not go down for a few days because he's working on a complicated bug. Another developer may have a relatively high bug count, but they're all simple bugs that can be taken care of relatively easily. Neither developer was told to "get those numbers under control" (and therefore were not tempted to manipulate the metrics). Indeed, management often chooses to redistribute some of the bugs (when possible) so that the workload is evened out.

Mark (The other Mark)'s middle ground is also employed. During a bug bash a few years ago, management set the ground rules for the event. There were some prizes to be awarded, but they also reminded participants that the goal of the event was to find useful, relevant bugs. They also reminded participants that the bugs filed should have value: Instead of reporting ten variations on the same underlying bug, file one bug that covers all the variations. It turns out that the bug bash indeed had a low incidence of "garbage bugs" that were filed for the purpose of gaming the metrics.

All they had to do was ask.

Comments (24)
  1. Karellen says:

    Veronica: "How much money did you leave up there?"

    Dante: "Like three dollars in mixed change and a couple of singles. This time in the morning, people just get a paper or coffee."

    Veronica: "You’re trusting."

    Dante: "Why do you say that?"

    Veronica: "How do you know they’re taking the right amount of change or even paying for what they take."

    Dante: "Theoretically, people see money on the counter, no one around, they think they’re being watched."

    Veronica: "Honesty through paranoia."


  2. Naimath says:


    People do try to come up to our expectations if we let them know how much trust, and what we expect from them.

  3. Gabe says:

    I don’t understand how the Amish self-checkout works. How do you make change?

  4. Josh says:

    Where do you get Amish from?  The self-checkout referred to is just a different means of buying groceries that some stores are using.  The machines carry money inside them, and make change automatically.

  5. Michael says:

    @Josh – the first link Raymond posted in the article discusses Amish produce stands.  No change provided – you deposit your money in a barrel with a coin slot that prevents reach-ins.  So, trusting, to a point.

  6. James Schend says:

    Michael: You’re trusted to have the right amount of cash on hand, along with being trusted to pay at all. If you only have a $50, you’re trusted to break it first. It’s a double-trust system. :)

  7. Joseph Koss says:

    The local orchard where I grew up (25+ years ago now) had an honor-based cider dispenser outside the "storefront."

    I always thought that it worked out because a thief really couldn’t hurt them all that badly, since for the orchard, cider grew on trees! (translation: the downside was very small to begin with)

    In many ways its the same sort of thing for software. Copies "grow on trees" (no, I am not endorsing piracy) as long as you don’t have to provide support for the illegitimate ones.

    OS venders are sort of in a pickle because if they don’t support the illegitimate copies, such as paying for the bandwidth to patch them, they end up looking bad. The fact that the botnet may reside on mostly illegitmate copies of the OS is just noise in the public eye.

  8. Scott says:

    If you believe the bagel guy from Freakonomics,

    the population’s honesty rate hovers around 89%.

    The question then becomes a calculation about whether or not that 11% is greater than the cost of having an employee monitoring (wages + employee fraud cost).

    In software development, you have the added consideration that failure to trust people causes the impossible-to-accurately-measure costs associated with unhappy employees.

    I expect that a grocery store suffers from making customers grumpy, but probably not to the degree that a software development company suffers from grumpy devs.

  9. Robin Hood says:

    "The question then becomes a calculation about whether or not that 11% is greater than the cost of having an employee monitoring (wages + employee fraud cost)."

    Or the question maybe, does the footfall of people decrease when an employee is not employed? In my local supermarkets they have self service which may people refuse to use, due to a persons job being taken by a machine. This concern is amplified by the current climate.

    It is cheaper to use a machine than to employ someone to do the job, just as it may be cheaper to have a barrel with no one to oversee it. Yet is the price reduction passed on to the consumer?

    To be honest where I live if that stall was left unattended it would be emptied within minutes, with not a penny left in return.

  10. Bryan says:

    "It is cheaper to use a machine than to employ someone to do the job, just as it may be cheaper to have a barrel with no one to oversee it. Yet is the price reduction passed on to the consumer?"

    What if the price reduction were passed on to the employees?

  11. Yet is the price reduction passed on to the consumer?

    The consumer – or the investor.  Or perhaps it just better funds internal inefficiencies.

  12. Brian says:

    "The surest way to make people trustworthy, is to trust them. The surest way to make people untrustworty is to distrust them, and show your distrust to others"

    (US official during WWII who’s name I forget right now)

  13. chrismcb says:

    @Bryan and @Maurits

    I have a choice, I can work for free by scanning/bagging my own groceries. Or for the same price, I can get someone else to do it for me… Guess which one I’ll choose.

    If the "price reduction" is being passed on to the employee or the investor, then I am essentially working for free for the employee or investor.

  14. Falcon says:

    About a week ago, two radio DJs from here, Hamish and Andy, went to Japan (they actually did it in order to interview Tom Hanks, but that’s irrelevant right now). Just the other day, they were talking about this exact concept in a radio segment.

    One example was about vending machines in Japan – apparently they have a button that dispenses all items (without payment), so that people can get food during an emergency/disaster. They said that this wouldn’t last 2 seconds in Australia, because not only do we try to get things without paying, we have to also vandalise the machines!

    (Disclaimer: I may have some details wrong, but I believe that I represented the ideas accurately.)

  15. Lamah says:

    The vending machines aren’t quite as open as that, from what I read. A staff member has to set it to "free drinks" mode, presumably behind the locked service panel.

  16. Steve Smith says:

    When I saw this blog, I remembered this item from Christmas.

    However, whilst searching for it I was saddened to come across this item from last summer.

    There’s probably a moral to this; I have no idea what it may be.

  17. GregM says:

    "I have a choice, I can work for free by scanning/bagging my own groceries. Or for the same price, I can get someone else to do it for me… Guess which one I’ll choose."

    I can stand in a long line waiting for the people ahead of me to unload their groceries onto the belt, be scanned, bagged, and put back in their carts, and to futz around with their defective credit cards, their checks, or digging in their pocket(book) for cash.  Or for the same price, I can scan as I shop, verify that the prices are correct as they’re scanned, see my running total, and then walk right up to one of the empty self-checkout lanes and be out in 2 minutes.  Guess which one I’ll choose.

    Before the self-checkout lanes were added at my local supermarket, there would often be only 1 or 2 lanes open at the off hours that I tended to shop, which would often result in lines 4 or 5 people deep.  With the 4 self-service lanes, there are now at least 5 or 6 lanes open at all times.  With the addition of the scanners that you carry with you around the store, I don’t even have to pass the items over the fixed-position scanner, put them on a belt to be checked, and then bag them.  I use the scanner that I can bring right to the barcode, put the items right in the bags to take home, and be done with it.

  18. Bernard says:

    Here in New Zealand (and I’m sure in other places; I’m just working with the data I have, here) out in the country there are ‘honesty boxes’, which are placed out by the road by a farm or orchard or whatever, filled with appropriate produce, and a box for money. If you want to drive up and take all the fruit without paying nothing’s stopping you; nobody’s about – no one can see you. Of course, it’s only fruit, and you’d be a real jerk to do it.

    What does this have to do with software? Err, nothing. :3

  19. Worf says:

    The flipside of self-checkout machines – they have lower thruput. It takes people longer to get through self checkout than a normal cashier.

    Thus, if choosing between a self checkout that’s full with a lineup, it’s usually faster with the cashier. Or since the self-checkout is an express lane usually, use the express line.

    Just an observation. Though it’s based in reality since most people not only don’t know where a barcode is, they don’t know how to slide it past the scanner, and thus end up trying to scan each item 4 or 5 times. Then they fuss with the bags, which check the weight to ensure no extra items (…or in my case, THE item – it refused to let me through because I put my item in a bag until I hand carried it then took a bag…). If it’s a supermarket, you have people who look everywhere for the PLU code and who don’t realize it’s on the sticker…

    Self-checkout is faster if you can use a machine immediately. Far slower if you have to wait for it to free up

  20. Mike says:

    the self service checkouts are slower for people to use, however there are also more of them – here they tend to use the space of 2 manned checkouts for a cluster of 4 self service ones, so they balance out overall

    as for the quality of software that is running on those self-service checkouts… when my local tesco first installed them they ran perfectly, then after a week a sticker was added to one apologising for the machine running a little slow today, then the same was added to another, then the others… now they take a consistent 5-6 seconds to register each scan! (similar machines in other supermarkets don’t seem to have this problem though, so it must be tesco’s software that is so poorly written – either that or other supermarkets have learned to delete the databases at the end of the day!)

    they are still useful for when i just want 2/3 items and there are queues on the manned checkouts but not the self-service ones though

    i wonder how many people have scanned a laptop through as a bag of sugar….

  21. Drak says:

    In our supermarkets with self checkout you scan the items as you shop, then you go to a machine, have it read your scanner, and pay with a bank card. Doesn’t take very long at all because the people who can’t find the barcode are not finding it in the store, not at checkout.

  22. keff says:

    Thank you Raymond!

    The quote I found is

    ”The chief lesson I have learned in a long life is that the only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust.” –Henry L. Stimson

    … and it shows clearly why police states of today never work, and corrupt the trust of their people.

  23. Bryan says:

    I just go wherever is faster.  I was just challenging the assumption that if the prices don’t go down then the money was kept for profit.

    I do prefer the self-checkouts when that’s reasonable because the baggers usually do a crappy job.

  24. I still owe you some posts covering my recent metrics presentation, but wanted to pass this along in

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