Consider the following situation: You are in Dutch Hollow, and you see a student, whom you do not know personally, grab a candy bar and walk out without paying.
a) What would be your reaction? What would you do, and why? b) What do you think the shoplifter feels or thinks to justify his or her actions? c) What do you think the right course of action for you should be?
These were the prompts for a short writing assignment in one of the classes I teach. To my astonishment, most students in the class wrote that they have in fact personally witnessed shoplifting at Dutch.
Most, though not all, also said the right thing to do was to try to somehow stop the shoplifter. “In a perfect world,” they said, “That’s what would happen.” Then again, a perfect world would not have thieves, would it? Yet, an overwhelming majority also said they personally have not and would not intervene in any way.
No one wanted to be embarrassed or to draw negative attention to him or herself. No one wanted to be a “snitch” or “holier than thou” or “a goody-two-shoes.” The most common attitude was, in so many words, “If something doesn’t concern me directly, I prefer to mind my own business.”
While I cherish my students and appreciate their candor, those statements gave me pause. More surprising still was the near-unanimity of the top answers to question b. According to my students, the number one justification shoplifters probably make is that they pay so much money to go to Union, that taking a small item, such as a candy bar or a drink, is no big deal.
Shoplifters probably feel that what they are doing is harmless.
Furthermore, several people mentioned that Union may be charging every student an “extra fee” to compensate for shoplifting. There were varying opinions about how much the fee is: one person said 50$ per year and another’s guess was 70$. In other words, in one way or another, shoplifters probably feel that they have somehow more than pre-paid for the items they take.
At this point, I realized I simply had to know the truth. Is shoplifting at Dutch Hollow harmless? What do the managers there do about this problem? Does Union in fact charge a shoplifting fee, and if so, how much is it?
I contacted Dining Services and got a reply from Mr. Jeff Kurto, General Manager.
Mr. Kurto said that the management is aware of the shoplifting issue. The losses that result from shoplifting are not large, but neither are they negligible.
When I asked what is being done to compensate for them, Mr. Kurto said, “There is nothing to do to make up for the losses; however, what I can say is that the more theft is prevalent, the more this affects things such as programming, operations, and special events. Theft brings the entire program down.” Right now Dutch Hollow is set up to operate on an honor system.
But the space is being redesigned because a few people among us are dishonorable. So shoplifters (game theory would call them “defectors” from the commonly agreed upon rules) do have an impact, both on the Dining Services workers and on everyone else.
Next I contacted the Finance Department to find out if the shoplifting fee exists. The response I got was an emphatic “no.” The fee – it turns out – is a Union urban legend. My guess is that it was started by a shoplifter.
But I’d like to end on a good note. Union is a small place. It’s a beautiful place. It’s a community where everyone matters and everyone’s behavior affects other people.
While we do not live in a perfect world, we do help create the world we live in.