Written by Katy Campbell • Published 07th November 2012


Image Courtesy of Jon S

Image Courtesy of Jon S

A couple of weeks ago I was flying back from Edinburgh to London on the red-eye. I nipped into WHSmith to get a copy of the FT and noticed there was a big queue. Just before putting down the newspaper and walking out I saw a money box in the corner where customers wanting to buy newspapers could put the correct money in the box instead of paying at the till.

Now, I paid the full amount, though I’ll happily admit part of me realised I didn’t have to, but the fear of being caught not paying outweighed the prospect of paying the full amount. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I wasn’t the only person thinking that they could possibly get away with not paying, so since my plane was slightly delayed, I stood there and watched what was happening.

Humans have a fear of being caught doing something bad, that is why we are intrinsically good. You go into a shop, and you pick up an outfit though the price is too high, perhaps it goes through your head to walk out with it, but the fear of being caught, the fear of what people would think if they found out, and what you would lose (your job, your house, your partner etc…) stop you.

But not paying for a newspaper and stealing a £1000 outfit are not in the same category so what happens when businessmen and women are placed in a position where they could essentially steal a newspaper? Logically, you would think they would pay, as they are respected members of the community and have a reputation to uphold.

Well, you would think that these are businesspeople that wouldn’t need to scrimp on a newspaper, and could afford that 30p, £1.20 or even £2.50, but as I stood back and watched I figured out that I was wrong. Women with designer bags and heels were walking away with The Times for free, men clutching iPads were picking up several copies of the national papers. And none of them seemed remotely worried that they might have been caught.

So why do we steal? And do they count it as stealing if it is a mere 30p, or £1? Do they logically say to themselves ‘this won’t hurt anyone?’ Or convince themselves it’s not really stealing?

I would expect that when WHSmith check the money in the box against the number of papers taken, they would probably notice that they were making a large loss. I recently read Freakonomics where they touched on this subject. The story was that a man in an office used to bring in bagels, and he would put a box for money so people could pay whatever they felt they wanted for their breakfast. He noticed that it was a solid way to make money. The reason for this is most likely that they knew him, and they wouldn’t want to cheat a colleague. He then started taking the bagels to other companies, where he noticed people were stealing the money, not paying or contributing very little.

The same concept goes with WHSmith, unless it is someone that we know, or unless there is a large chance of being caught, we are more likely to save our money and pay less, or in most cases, steal the newspaper.