Have you ever stolen something?
My guess is that the overwhelming majority of you reading this would answer with a fairly emphatic “no.”
But let me rephrase the question.
Have you ever taken something for your school or workplace for your own personal use? A pen or pencil? Maybe a stack of computer paper or envelopes? Or have you ever managed to get a free ride on a train or bus?
My guess is that now, many more of you would answer yes. I know I would, recalling the time I “borrowed” rolls of toilet paper from work because I was too lazy to stop at the store on my way home. But when you think about it, stealing is stealing, whether it’s a $5 dollar bill or a roll of toilet paper.
So why does it feel so different?
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely takes on this discussion in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.
While much of his book, which I was tasked with reading by my NYU journalism professor Adam Penenberg, focuses on issues of pricing and marketing, I was most interested by his look at the murkiness of human morality and character.
He cites many of his own experiments where he determined that people were significantly more likely to steal physical items than cash, despite the fact they may be financially worth the same. He explains that this is because we are much better at rationalizing our “petty dishonesty.”
As he wrote, “cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money.”
Perhaps because of my own acknowledgment that I had behaved in this way (remember the stolen toilet paper?) I decided to attempt my own predictably irrational experiment on the nature of dishonesty.
Last Tuesday evening when doing laundry in my building’s communal laundry room, I purposely left behind a baggy of quarters and an opened box of Bounce dryer sheets — both items that would be useful in our coin-operated laundry room.
Many residents leave their laundry detergent in the room, so it would not be unreasonable for sometime to believe that I had left these items for my own use at a later time.
There are 20 units in my building, located in Hoboken N.J. and during any given week I notice a range of people doing laundry, so I decided a week-long experiment would provide a small but relevant sample size.
(It should be noted that at roughly 10 cents a sheet, the bounce sheets were not quite on par with the worth of one quarter, but I decided it was close enough for my non-scientific purposes).
Under Ariely’s theory and my ensuing hypothesis, when I would return a week later to the laundry room, I could expect to find my baggie not missing any quarters but be missing dryer sheets.
And sure enough, the following Tuesday evening, I noticed that the bag of quarters was laying full and untouched where I left it, while the Bounce box was indeed But missing seven dryer sheets.
Not wanting to rely entirely on my apartment building, I replicated the experiment Monday at a nearby Laundromat, dropping off another baggie of quarters and stack of dryer sheets at 10 a.m.
But when I returned roughly 8 hours later, both the dryer sheets and baggie of quarters were gone. Just to be sure, I checked with the Laundromat attendant, but she kindly told me no one had turned them in.
Should I be upset about losing $3 in quarters? Not really. But for some reason, I was much more upset than by the missing dryer sheets. In some way, this felt like more of a slight, even though the dryer sheets were taken from my own building whereas in this case whoever took the dryer sheets and quarters likely justified that whoever had left them had long forgotten about them.
Still, do I think someone at the laundromat was a thief? Frankly, yes. Do I think whichever neighbor or neighbors took dryer sheets are thieves? Not really. But the experiment illustrates a theory that can have very real world consequences when applied to larger situations, according to Ariely.
“When we look at the world around us, much of the dishonesty we see involves cheating that is one step removed from cash,” he wrote. “Companies cheat with their accounting practices; executives cheat by using backdated stock options; lobbyists cheat by underwriting parties for politicians; drug companies cheat by sending doctors and their wives off on posh vacations.”