Do You Pay for the ‘Free’ Airport Water?’

Words: Shamim de Brún
Images: Unsplash and Twitter

Words: Shamim de Brún
Images: Unsplash and Twitter

The Luas is free, but is the water in the airport too? Hannah Mamalis, a well-known comedian and actor, was publicly shamed over the weekend by a German tourist for partaking in this shady ritual. So she took to Twitter, igniting the debate about whether this water is genuinely up for grabs.

The Background

In 2012, an intriguing concept was introduced at Dublin airport – paying under the market value for water on the honour system. It sounds like a simple idea, but beneath the surface lies a fascinating psychological experiment: Are we willing to pay the nominal fee for a bottle of water when no one is watching?

Dublin Airport is far from alone in relying on the ‘honour system.’ Consider Honest Tea, a thriving organic beverage company. Every summer, they deploy ‘Honesty boxes’ where patrons are asked to leave a dollar for every tea bottle they take. Remarkably, their findings show that about 94% of people comply. W.H. Smith, a British retailer, mirrored this experiment by allowing customers to take newspapers from machines without paying upfront. Again, the results were analogous, with most customers proving their honesty.

Taking Advantage

That said, anyone who has ever passed through the dreaded Terminal 1 of Dublin airport at rush hour can’t help but wonder if everyone is genuinely contributing their euro for the ‘plane water’. It’s easy to believe and sometimes even see some taking advantage of the system.

This thievery it seems, is a somewhat universally Irish experience. A peek into the Twitterverse reveals the people who pocket the plane water are legion. Some opportunists claim to lack the necessary euro at the time, while others relish in the exhilaration of a minor act of rebellion. After all, stealing water, even if it appears ‘free,’ is a deviation from the norm that enlivens the mundane airport routine.

Then again, who can blame yiz? Economics backs this up. When presented with an opportunity for a freebie, standard economic theory says you should pay nothing. Why buy something when you can get it for free? And yet, though the Twitteratti are the loudest, they are not the majority.

When honour is on the line, most people contribute, sometimes even more than the suggested price. According to statistics from 2018 at Dublin Airport, 92% of passengers voluntarily fork over €1 for their bottled water. The remaining 8% who choose not to pay face the subtle judgment of those around them – silent scrutiny from fellow travellers who bear witness. It’s double the risk in Ireland as everywhere else because you’re never more than a few degrees of separation from every Irish stranger in the queue with you.

The Psychology of it

In psychology, this is the influence of ‘communal norms’. Or the wish to avoid being silently shamed, or as in Hannah’s case, verbally shamed for taking advantage of something and losing what little honour you can have. Also, as a people, we’re good at nonverbal shaming, or as some would call it, bombastic side-eye.

You can almost hear your aunts-sisters-brother-twice-removed saying, ‘Why would she do that? It’s very selfish! It’s a euro, she doesn’t need it that much! Sure, she doesn’t even have a mortgage to pay. What’s she buying? Avocado toast?’. So you’re probably more inclined to make sure you pay. And since they got the tap function, how could you not? It’s lickety-split tip-tap quick.

These “communal norms” are based on relationships between people. And let’s face it, relationships are rarely evenly balanced across the board. It’s the kind of interaction we have when taking a friend out to dinner. Like, if you buy me a fancy dinner of your own volition, I may not feel like I have to do the same for you, but I probably will.

This is called ‘socially interdependent decision-making’, and basically, it divides people based on what they value more. When faced with a decision on how to allocate resources between themselves (take a plane water and don’t pay for it) and others (pay for the plane water), some people are “pro-social,” meaning they value more equal distributions of resources. Others are “pro-self” (*cough selfish cough*), meaning they try and maximize value for themselves.

This brings us to the central question: Are you among those who pay for ‘plane water’?

Elsewhere on CHAR: Why are we so obsessed with the price of Frddos?

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