Do people honor impersonal agreements?

I followed through with my end of the agreement:

Experimental Results: Liars and Outliers; Trust Offer:
Last August, I offered to sell Liars and Outliers for $11 in exchange for a book review. This was much less than the $30 list price; less even than the $16 Amazon price. For readers outside the U.S., where books can be very expensive, it was a great price.

I sold 800 books from this offer — much more than few hundred I originally intended — to people all over the world. It was the end of September before I mailed them all out, and probably a couple of weeks later before everyone received their copy. Now, three months after that, it’s interesting to count up the number of reviews I received from the offer.

That’s not a trivial task. I asked people to e-mail me URLs for their review, but not everyone did. But counting the independent reviews, the Amazon reviews, and the Goodreads reviews from the time period, and making some reasonable assumptions, about 70 people fulfilled their end of the bargain and reviewed my book.

That’s 9%.

There were some outliers. One person wrote to tell me that he didn’t like the book, and offered not to publish a review despite the agreement. Another two e-mailed me to offer to return the price difference (I declined).

Perhaps people have been busier than they expected — and haven’t gotten around to reading the book and writing a review yet. I know my reading is often delayed by more pressing priorities. And although I didn’t put any deadline on when the review should be completed by, I received a surge of reviews around the end if the year — probably because some people self-imposed a deadline. What is certain is that a great majority of people decided not to uphold their end of the bargain.

The original offer was an exercise in trust. But to use the language of the book, the only thing inducing compliance was the morals of the reader. I suppose I could have collected everyone’s names, checked off those who wrote reviews, and tried shaming the rest — but that seems like a lot of work. Perhaps this public nudge will be enough to convince some more people to write reviews.

Mr. Schneier says this is an exercise in trust, but I think it is also a test of integrity. C.S. Lewis said “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” and I agree. It is not honorable to enter into a gentleman’s agreement and then renege because of the ease of doing  due to the impersonality of making the agreement across the Internet. This fits in handily with the series of articles on manly honor published by Mr. McKay at the Art of Manliness. I concur with those articles as well, that we have evolved into a society where honor does not exist. It amazes me that in a nation[1] founded on “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” that we have no place for natural law, with its sense of right and wrong being established by an external source.

But maintaining one’s integrity or honor is difficult, and recovering it is even more so.  We must all strive to be better than the low standard that society has set for us. I can only speak of my own sub-culture (suburban redneck), but we live in pretty impersonal times when there’s no one around to keep a check on us to keep us on the straight and narrow. It’s hard to develop morality in isolation. I think this is one of the reasons I respect “backward” groups like the Amish. While those outside their community are dancing to the fiddle of Nero, they are resolute in maintaining their standards. Their lifestyle seems harsh to an increasingly humanist world, but when things start falling apart around them, they have the support of each other. For those of us living as a part of the greater world around us, we must re-establish cultural norms that have so well served many generations before ours.

So back to the question I started with: Do people honor impersonal agreements? Those with integrity and honor do.


[1] If you are not a citizen of the United States of America, do not despair. The Laws of Nature and Nature’s God are still applicable, whether a particular people choose to recognize them or not.

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