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Are We All Thieves?

Have you ever taken back a pen home from your school or office? Did anyone ever stop you and accuse you of theft? No? Well, a disadvantaged section of the society would disagree with that “no”, including me.

It was 2007, I was a 7 year old, Class 2 student, when my parents got a call about how I’d stolen chalk and a red pen from school. I didn’t understand what was wrong; I had seen most of my friends pick up chalk fallen on the ground and keep it in their pockets. My parents sat me down and explained the entire concept of not taking something that doesn’t belong to us because it’s immoral.

Did I ever again take random pens lying around in school without thinking it was theft? Yes, after a while. Have I taken a 20 rupee note fallen on the ground to buy the same pen? No. Would you?

Psychologists show that people internalize the norms and values of the society they live in (Campbell 1964; Henrich et al. 2001), which in turn serves as an internal benchmark against which one compares his or her behaviour. Professor and author Dan Ariely compared dishonesty and cheating/stealing to a germ, something which infects our morality. Extending the infection metaphor into the action of taking pens shows why we don’t think twice before doing something like that. All of us have seen our colleagues/classmates take random stationery home. Just like the bacteria keeps accreting and infecting our body, witnessing this unethical behavior leaves a microscopic impression on our minds which keeps getting corrupt the more we are exposed to it. This creates the internal benchmark which leads us to believe that what we are doing is within the social norms.

Behavioral Economics, with the help of the Fudge Factor Theory, goes a long way in further explaining why a person is more likely to take stationery home from work rather than an equivalent amount of money in cash. The theory explains how people rationalize their behavior by viewing it as doing something (taking unclaimed objects in this scenario), rather than stealing. “The willingness to cheat increases as people gain psychological distance from their actions.” What this means is that humans are ready to steal something that does not explicitly reference monetary value. This rationalizing of our small crime soon becomes so ingrained into our minds that we eventually stop viewing it as morally wrong but as mere habit.

This theory was put to test by the Author Dan Ariely who put 6 cans of coke in half of the communal refrigerators at an MIT Dorm and plates with six $1 bills in the remaining. The half-life of coke and the money were measured over 2 days and in the end, all the cans of coke were gone but no one touched the money. The students could’ve taken the $1 bill and bought the same coke from the vending machine nearby, but they didn’t. This happened because they couldn’t gain any psychological distance, since the action involved them taking the money, thereby disabling them to rationalize their behavior.

On the contrary, some psychologists have pointed out that this stealing is something intentional and done out of spite to make up for the loss of monetary value. The Fudge Factor Theory of gaining psychological distance from money falls short in this case. Employees behave in an unethical manner when their expectations regarding pay hikes are not met and they feel it is acceptable to take things from the office—to make up for what is “rightfully theirs”. Academic researchers have reported that 75% of the employees admitted to stealing office supplies. Here, the act of stealing is closely related to making up for the financial loss the employees suffered due to the broken promises of an employer. So, how does one rationalize their behavior in this case? Here the employees justify their actions against the wrongs done against them. Furthermore, they rationalize their actions through cost-benefit analysis: pleasure(gain) vs pain. Stealing money is considered a crime and results in punishment but the same cannot be said about taking stationery. Thus, through cost-benefit analysis, the employees find that the pain (punishment) they will receive if they’re caught taking stationery is negligible compared to what would happen if they were seen taking money.

While taking stationery can be unintentional and intentional, taking the equivalent amount of money was always viewed as morally wrong, and taking stationery wasn’t. This rationalizing behavior is directly linked to the Theory of Self Concept Maintenance which highlights that people like to think of themselves as honest (as defined by our social norms) and this sets up a self-defense mechanism in their minds whereby they persistently deceive themselves to maintain a positive self-image. Stealing money directly is something that is viewed as morally incorrect worldwide which is why one shies away from it but in the case of stationery, the facade of an honest person was not altered.

This might seem like a small problem but the damage in economic terms caused by these “petty thefts” behavior is valued in billions of dollars annually and companies worldwide are looking for ways to prevent employee theft. So, can these people still be called thieves? No, not in the literal sense. Dan Ariely in his book “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty” discusses the lessons from locksmiths. In a gist, he talks about how 1% of the people will always be honest and never steal even if a door doesn’t have a lock while another 1% will always try to steal despite the lock and the rest will be honest as long as the conditions are right and they are not tempted. The locks on people’s doors protect them from that 98% who might be tempted to try a door without a lock.

What this essentially means is that the majority of people are not immoral or thieves. It is the situation and what they’ve been conditioned to think as morally correct that determines their behavior. All society needs is to redefine what it considers morally correct even if it is as insignificant as petty theft.

So, the next time you pick up a pen and put it in your bag, stop and think if it is really okay or is your mind deceiving you again.

Aakriti Bothra
Writing Mentorship 2021




4. The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance
6. Campbell, Ernest Q. (1964), ―The Internalization of Moral Norms,‖ Sociometry, 27 (4), 391-412.
7. The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone-Especially Ourselves-Dan Ariely

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