How to Stop Roommates From Using Your Stuff

I want to share a pretty cool psychology experiment with you, you’ll love it because the insight you’ll learn will be able to help you fend off your roommates or dormmates from using your stuff.

Your pans, your bowls, your stapler etc.

I know, infuriating when they use them without asking, even more so if they use them and don’t clean up and just leave them lying around dirty, the bowls and pans at least.

On to the experiment then.

The experiment

Dan Ariely, renowned behavioural economist and author of great books like Predictably Irrational, slipped in to the dorms at MIT as part of the experiment and, floor by floor, planted a six-pack of Coke in all of the shared refrigerators he could find.

Over the next few days he would return to the fridges and check on the cans, keeping a diary of how many of them remained in the fridge.

Within 72 hours, every one of the cans of Coke disappeared.

The money however remained untouched for 72 hours until Ariely removed the cast from the refrigerators.

Is there an explanation for this?

Yes.

But before we delve into that, Ariely asks you to imagine the following to put things into perspective:

“Suppose there are no red pencils at work, but you can buy one downstairs for a dime. And the petty cash box in your office has been left open, and no one is around. Would you take 10 cents from the petty cash box to buy the red pencil? Suppose you didn’t have any change and needed the 10 cents. Would you feel comfortable taking it? Would that be OK?”

I’m not going to pretend that it wouldn’t be super easy to just take the red pencil and keep the 10 cents so let’s just skip to Dan’s conclusion:

“When we look at the world around us, much of the dishonesty we see involves cheating that is one step removed from cash. 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. To be sure, these people don’t cheat with cold cash (except occasionally). And that’s my points: cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money.

How you can use this insight to your advantage

In his other book Behavioural Economics Saved My Dog, Dan recounts how a reader of his, or rather a friend of that reader, used this scientific insight to his advantage:

“My friend said that in his workplace items such as staplers, tape dispensers, and so on used to be constantly taken from his desk. He then glued a coin onto each piece, and no one has taken anything with a coin on it in five years. Does this fit with your findings?”

Dan commented the following in response:

“This is exactly the point. It turns out that we can rationalise lots of our bad behaviours, and the more distant they are from cash the simpler it is for us to rationalise them. What your friend has done by sticking money to the items it to make it clear that borrowing the office supplies without returning them is not just about the office supplies, it is also about stealing cash. And with this reframing he made the action more morally questionable in the minds of the potential thieves.”

Closing thoughts

So you now know you can stick money on your personal belongings to keep people you live with from using your stuff.

Life is all about quick wins, isn’t it.

But I also hope that you’ve learnt something about the predictability of human psychology and how it can work in funny ways sometimes.

And that the explanations for the strange inner workings of our minds actually make a lot of sense, a lot of the time.

I just want to leave you with a final thought or two.

I realised that whenever I go to Sainsbury’s and use my Nectar card, I will always get a coupon with some sort of discount on some of my most frequent past purchases, like a discount for a bag of spinach I often buy, or triple Nectar points on my next shop, or £2 off when I spend £20 on my next shop.

A lot of the time though, I see people pay for their shopping but leave their freshly printed coupons behind…

I think you know where this is going.

Because sometimes these coupons are essentially free money (i.e. “£2 off on your next shop” coupon) – if you use someone else’s coupon to get a discount, are you stealing from Sainsbury’s?

Is it wrong to use that coupon and get £2 off your shop?

After all, it is one step removed from cash…

Well what if you had the opportunity to steal £2 in cash from a cashier in Sainsbury’s and used that to buy your shop?

Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts…

Final thought with a different twist:

If you have a job and you’re getting paid X thousand pounds a year for your efforts – is that money just one step removed from slavery?

P.S. Thanks for reading and feel free to subscribe to my email list.

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