Stealing Books

By Maura Farver

 

 

The Boston Globe recently covered a story about how Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac books were routinely being stolen from Porter Square Books in Cambridge (September 6th, 2017 “Who is stealing all the Bukowski and Kerouac novels?”). The article discussed the store’s strategy to dissuade potential thieves, and the first attempt involved creating a display of the “Most Frequently Stolen Books.” Unsurprisingly to a Behavioral Economist, this tactic was not helpful.

Porter Square Books may actually have been encouraging the behavior by drawing attention to…a social norm.

By calling out which books are frequently stolen from the store, Porter Square Books may actually have been encouraging the behavior by drawing attention to what could be interpreted as a social norm. We are heavily influenced by what we perceive everyone else is doing, and so alerting customers that these books were frequently stolen implies stealing these books is a common standard, and it may have given others license to steal as well. For that matter, the Globe article might also be popularizing a bad social norm!

In a 2007 paper, Schultz et al tested social norms around energy use and found that when people learned they were using more energy than the mean of their neighbors, they tended to decrease their energy use (1). When they used less than the mean, though, (and were already doing better than their neighbors) they tended to increase their energy use – but adding an “injunctive” norm, or message about what is approved or disapproved of (in this case, a smiley face) prevented that boomerang effect.

To strengthen their message, the bookstore may have considered posting a message like “99.9% of Porter Square Book enthusiasts do not steal from us.”

To strengthen their message, the bookstore may have considered posting a message like “99.9% of Porter Square Book enthusiasts do not steal from us. We appreciate your continued loyalty” instead. This message would convey the social norm that most people don’t steal and that not stealing is the socially approved behavior.

Moving the books to behind the counter was probably a good move, though – increasing the friction and therefore the effort required to steal those books – but it might also reinforce the social norm that it is common to steal books there. They also added a nice John Wayne cutout over the books behind the counter that says “In retirement, John Wayne continued to serve the community by keeping watch over frequently stolen books.” A picture with eyes looking at you has actually proven to be an effective deterrent to unwanted behavior. A 2011 study found that posters with images of eyes led to half as much littering in a university cafeteria than posters with flowers did (2), while another study found that people paid nearly three times as much for their drinks in a university coffee room (to an un-manned “honesty box”) when there was an image with a pair of eyes visible (3). Perhaps John Wayne’s watchful gaze alone would reduce book theft and not call attention to the popularity of the theft. Regardless, we wish them the best of luck in resetting their social norms and keeping their visitors honest.


Image Credit: https://www.biography.com/.image/t_share/MTE4MDAzNDEwNzIyMzI2MDMw/john-wayne-9525664-1-402.jpg

  1. The Constructive, Destructive, and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms, P. Wesley Schultz,1 Jessica M. Nolan,2 Robert B. Cialdini,3 Noah J. Goldstein,3 and Vladas Griskevicius Psychological Science, Volume 18—Number 5, p429- 434.
  2. Effects of eye images on everyday cooperative behavior: a field experiment Ernest-Jones, Max et al. Evolution and Human Behavior , Volume 32 , Issue 3 , 172 – 178
  3. Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting Melissa Bateson, Daniel NettleGilbert Roberts Biol. Lett.