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Honesty: How Prevalent Is It?

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How trusting are you? Do you think people are basically honest, or do you think people are usually honest only when they think someone is watching? This project explores how well the honor system works for a bake sale-type charity donation. Find out if your hunch is correct.


Areas of Science
Time Required
Long (2-4 weeks)
Material Availability
Readily available
Average ($50 - $100)
No issues

Andrew Olson, Ph.D., Science Buddies


This project is based on an entry to the 2007 San Francisco Bay Area Science Fair:

  • Brown, E., 2007. "How Would You Take Your Cookie?" San Francisco Bay Area Science Fair.


The goal of this project is to find out how well the honor system works for donations to a worthy cause. Will people be more honest when someone is watching?


If you've ever done fund-raising with a bake sale for your school or some other organization, you know it's a lot of work. You have to organize donations, advertise the sale, then set up and sell the items and collect the money. How do you think it would work if you tried to raise money on the honor system? For example, what if you had cookies or some other baked goodies available for a voluntary donation? Do you think people would make contributions honestly, or would they take cookies without paying? Would it make a difference if the location for donations was watched or not? That's what this experiment is designed to find out.

You'll need to get permission from your school (or other organization) to set up this experiment. You'll also need a worthy cause (like a class trip, or a charity organization) to accept the donations you collect. You will need a secured lockbox to collect the donations-you don't want to tempt someone into walking off with your cash box, so make sure it is locked closed and securely fastened in place. Finally, you'll need two locations to try your experiment. One location should always be under observation: the school office, for example. The other location should be a public place that is not always under direct observation: a public lobby, for example.

What do you think will happen with donations at the two locations? Try this project and find out for yourself!

Terms and Concepts

To do this project, you should do research that enables you to understand the following terms and concepts:



  • Wikipedia contributors, 2007a. Deterrence (psychological), Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved September 4, 2007.
  • Wikipedia contributors, 2007b. Honor System, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved September 4, 2007.

Materials and Equipment

To do this experiment you will need the following materials and equipment:

Experimental Procedure

  1. Do your background research so that you are knowledgeable about the terms, concepts, and questions, above.
  2. Obtain permission and cooperation from your school (or other organization) in order to do this project, so you should make sure to obtain this at the start, before devoting a lot of time to the project. If you can't make this step work, select another project instead.
  3. Select a worthy cause for which you can collect donations (For example, a class trip, or a well-regarded charity such as UNICEF).
  4. Select two test locations for setting up your honor-system donation.
    1. One location should be under direct observation by a responsible adult during times that donations are accepted.
    2. The other location should be a public place that is not always under direct observation.
  5. Prepare a box for accepting donations.
    1. The box should be securely locked.
    2. The box should have a slot that allows donations to be inserted easily, but not taken back out.
    3. The box should be securely fastened in place.
  6. Make a sign to explain what group the donations will benefit. Be sure to include the requested donation per item. You may also want to put up additional signs elsewhere in the building to advertise the sale.
  7. Set out the cookies, sign, and donation box.
    1. Use the two locations (supervised and unsupervised) on alternate days, but during the same time period for each location.
    2. Remember to count the number of cookies at the start of each session.
  8. At the end of each session, count the number of remaining cookies, and the amount of money that was donated.
  9. For the purposes of the experiment, count each cookie as representing an individual participant for your study. To see how many sample points you should collect at each location in order to have statistical confidence in your results, see the Science Buddies resource Sample Size: How Many Survey Participants Do I Need?
  10. Calculate the amount of money donated per cookie for each location. Is there a difference between the two locations?
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Cite This Page

General citation information is provided here. Be sure to check the formatting, including capitalization, for the method you are using and update your citation, as needed.

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Honesty: How Prevalent Is It?" Science Buddies, 20 Nov. 2020, https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/HumBeh_p040/human-behavior/honesty. Accessed 29 Sep. 2023.

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2020, November 20). Honesty: How Prevalent Is It? Retrieved from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/HumBeh_p040/human-behavior/honesty

Last edit date: 2020-11-20
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