BY LISA HAIDOSTIAN
Daily News Editor
Published October 14, 2008
It might be the most commonly asked question on campus: Can you watch my stuff? Students at the library in need of a bathroom break ask a neighbor to keep an eye on their laptops. But what happens when someone actually tries to steal it? Or how far will University students go for their fellow students? Psychology Prof. Norbert Schwarz said that a "culture of trust" tends to prevail. "If you changed everything to basically a culture of distrust where you always assume that anyone could screw you over at any moment — which basically is true —you won't make it through the day," he said. To find out for ourselves, The Statement sent Lisa Haidostian to conduct four social experiments to reveal the limitations of trust and camaraderie on campus.
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“Can you watch my laptop?”
Option 1: Pack up all books, notes, binders and laptop, go to the bathroom, put your backpack on a gross floor and then settle back into your seat at the library, provided it’s still unoccupied.
Option 2: Ask the student studying next to you if he can watch your things for a minute.
Most students choose Option 2.
But how seriously do students take the responsibility of guarding another’s belonging? And if a theft did happen, what on earth would the person asked to watch your things do about it?
I recruited several Daily staffers to help me find out.
The experiment went like this: someone sat down at a table in the UGLi and spread out their things, pretending to study for a few minutes. He or she then asked someone or some group nearby to watch their things. Three to 10 minutes later, another Daily staffer came by and tried to take the laptop. We varied who we asked to watch it (males, females, groups), who stole it (male or female) and how conspicuously they did it (grab it and go, or sit down for a bit and then take it).
The results were pretty consistent. Besides a few anomalies — one girl and one group who didn’t notice the theft (all apologized profusely once told), and one particularly brazen boy who saw that the laptop was gone, packed up his stuff and fled to the opposite side of the library — a couple patterns emerged.
The first was that, generally speaking, students don’t take the responsibility lightly. Several times our thieves were chased halfway across a floor. Often, people caught the thieves right away and asked for the laptop back.
But here’s the catch, and pattern number two: when our thieves said they were friends of the laptop owner, they were consistently let off the hook.
Schwarz said this was a consequence of people’s tendency to trust those they can identify with.
“In a campus environment, it’s pretty much a default that you trust people who look like you,” he said.
Nursing junior Christine Novotny, who asked our thief if he was with the girls who were studying and let him go after he said yes, said she wasn’t surprised by the results because students want to have faith in each other.
“I think in general, people like to be (trusting) so they give them the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “We’re all students. I think it’s just kind of nature to want to believe it’s okay.”
Most students interviewed who intervened said they felt uncomfortable accusing another student of stealing a laptop.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh gosh, this is going to be awkward,’” said LSA junior Katy Wallander, who ran after me on the 2nd floor. “My heart is still pounding a little bit.”
In their approach, many students used indirect language like “Excuse me,” “Is that your laptop?” and “Someone asked me to watch that.” None of them were jerks.
Schwarz said that if students weren’t in a place that they know and frequent, the results would have been way different.
“People are more alert in a less familiar environment,” he said.
Almost all agreed that they would be less keen to ask someone to watch their laptop at, say, a public library.
“At a public library, people wouldn’t be as trusting because you know nothing about the people there, but at the University it’s like, okay,” said Engineering junior Sumeet Vaidya, whose breathing noticeably accelerated after he thought someone’s laptop was almost stolen under his watch.
He intervened in time, but I asked him how he would have reacted had it actually been stolen.
“I would have probably flipped out and run around looking for somebody and asked everybody around,” he said. “And then, obviously, I would have felt guilty and would have helped find it.”
“Can I use your bathroom?”
It’s the morning before the Michigan-Toledo game, I’m halfway to the stadium and I need to pee.
Not really though.
But what if that was the case? I wanted to see how many strangers tailgating outside their house would let me in to use their bathroom. The answer: every single person I asked. Not one even bothered to follow me inside to make sure I didn’t take something.
Of the 15 or so students interviewed, all said they would have been less willing to let someone in if she didn’t look like a student. Most said they wouldn’t let that person in at all.
“It’s a pretty good student community,” said LSA senior John Shepard, who let me into his house and said he wasn’t at all suspicious of me. “People are friendly to each other.”
For my first trial, I approached six guys standing on the lawn of a house down Church Street. Raising my voice a couple octaves so as to fully assume the role of an innocent drunk girl heading to the game, I blurted out my request in one breath.
The guys, who had now formed a semicircle around me, looked at each other. After about two seconds of painfully awkward silence, the guy who I will take to be the nice one said “Absolutely.”
The guy who I will take to be the one who’s never had a girlfriend shouted after me, “If you shit I’m going to kill you! Only number one!”
I escaped inside and panted in the bathroom for a few seconds. I heard them laughing outside at my expense. I emerged, told them it was for a story I’m writing, and asked if they had trusted my intentions.
“Sure I did,” one guy said. “What’re you gonna steal? A dirty sock?”
The guy who threatened to take my life if I soiled his toilet said, “I was not creeped out — I was flattered, because you are the first female to be here.”
The rest of my experiences were less eventful. After asking one guy if he lived at a house with about 15 kids partying on the lawn, he said no and asked why. I said I needed to use the bathroom. “Go wild,” he said.
When I appealed to some students grilling out on East University Avenue near Packard Street, a girl on the porch stared at me for a second, took a bite of her hot dog and said “Yeah, straight through.”
She said this was not the first time someone had asked to borrow the bathroom, and that she has always said yes.
“I’ve taken care of a girl’s bloody foot in my bathroom,” she said.
Schwarz said he wasn’t at all surprised by the results.
“If you’re in a familiar environment and people around you seem like you, you’re pretty much in autopilot,” he said. “As long as you seem to share some group attributes, people are willing to trust you.”
He said people are much more likely to let their guard down if they’re in a comfortable environment and the person they’re asked to trust looks like a student.
“The more similar they are to you, the more these things fly,” Schwarz said. “If you moved off campus, these things again become more distant and formal and people would be more cautious.”
2. “Can you help me with my homework?”
Econ 101, the fabled B-school weeder class, is notorious for cultivating a culture of cutthroat underclassmen intent on beating the curve and telling their friends about their A in the class.
But as not all of those freshmen make it into the Ross School of Business, there must be a lot of liberal arts majors wandering around with residual knowledge of basic economics that they haven’t applied for years.
To test whether these students would try to summon those equations to help another student in need, I approached random students on campus and asked if they would help me do my homework. Every person and group I appealed to accepted my challenge.
With this semester’s CTools homework in hand, I headed to the UGLi and scouted out tables of students who had the distinct air of an econ major.
I’m either damn good at profiling or the class is omnipresent — more than 60 percent of the students I asked had taken the class.
For my first trial, I asked a table of freshman-seeming guys if they had taken Econ 101, but they hadn’t, so I moved on.
Further toward the back of the floor, I saw a boy and a girl sitting across from each other with what appeared to be math books spread across their table.
“Sorry to bug you guys — have either of you taken Econ 101?”
They said that they were both taking it right now. I explained my predicament (“I know that when marginal benefit and marginal cost intersect it’s in equilibrium, but where is it most efficient?”) and asked if they could look at it. Without hesitation, LSA freshman Chris Boffi got to work.
Unfortunately for my victims, the homework wasn’t due for two weeks and hadn’t yet been covered in class. Oops.
Boffi’s eyes bore into the worksheet and he reread the directions as he twirled his mechanical pencil with his left hand. He was silent for a while looking at it, but then started talking things out.
“I don’t think you have to worry about social cost until this one,” he said.
He drew some lines on the graph but then decided he was attacking the problem in the wrong way. He was. We hit the five-minute mark and the pencil was relocated to between his teeth. Soon after, he admitted defeat. “Yeah, I don’t know,” he said.
After I told them it was a set-up, they laughed. Both said they figured most students would at least give the homework a try.
“I mean, if I needed someone else’s help, I’d expect them to help me,” Boffi said.
Results for the rest of the experiments were quite similar. Seldom was I met with a quizzical stare, and never was I brushed off.
LSA sophomore Kendra Marshall, who had taken the course a year ago, was a bit flustered and it seemed clear she was trying to avoid the responsibility in the politest of ways (“Is this in the book?” she asked).
A table of three sophomore econ majors went to town on the assignment, deliberating over the answers for nearly nine minutes.
“Would it be 70?” LSA sophomore Jennifer Bown asked.
“No, it couldn’t be that,” LSA sophomore Beth Robinson reasoned.
Afterward, they said their memories of the class’s arduousness propelled them to help.
“I’m just kind of like, ‘Oh gosh, 101,’” Robinson said.
Even though Econ 101 has a reputation for fierce competition, all three students I found who are currently taking the class put in earnest attempts to help me.
“I feel like, in general, it’s out of empathy,” Marshall said. “I think people are more willing to help than they seem.”
“Can I have a bite of your pizza?”
Let’s be honest with each other. The best part about going out may very well be the food gorge that follows.
It is a scientific fact (probably) that drunk people love each other, but I decided to see whether they would love me enough to give me a bite of their pizza.
To see how far students would let another student impose on their late-night feasting, I approached random people at pizza havens New York Pizza Depot and Backroom Pizza and asked to try their slices.
The results weren’t exactly what I expected. A few guys let me dig in, but for the most part, I was utterly rejected.
Two separate times students offered to buy me a slice, but refused to let me even have even “a tiny nibble” of their slice.
“Because I don’t know who you are,” said the LSA freshman who wouldn’t give me her name and was mindlessly texting as she responded, as if she is often approached by strangers to share in a slice of pizza together. “Because I bought this piece of pizza.”
One girl said “I don’t want your mouth on my food,” and another told me that college students have herpes.
Discouraged that I look like I could be carrying a sexually transmitted disease but determined nonetheless, I kept asking. I transitioned between the joints so patrons wouldn’t catch on.
Finally, on the picnic table outside Backroom, a benevolent soul said, “Go for it.”
I took a bite of a hot slice of cheese. It was delicious. I asked him why he let me try it and if he was creeped out by the situation.
“She doesn’t look like a hobo,” he shrugged to his friend. My confidence swelled.
I continued on my quest, less out of concern for my story and more because the taste of the pizza made me need more. A boy who only would say he was an Engineering senior refused, saying he was “kind of a drunk mess.”
I asked who he might be willing to give a bite to. As he took a large one, he said “absolutely nobody.”
None of the people I approached seemed bothered by my presence, and only one responded that she was “weirded out.” Most just slurred that they were hungry.
I ended up getting two more bites (one girl explained her reasoning as, “because I thought you were a hungry drunk girl that might be an old friend of mine”) and then I called it a night.
In explaining why people would give me a bite at all, Schwarz said “by and large, people share.”
He also said there was an “in-group element,” and people outside of the student-look would be out of luck.
“If I went up to a late night pizza place and asked for a bite of your pizza, you would act much differently,” he said. “And if I was dressed like a bum, there’s no way I’d get a bite of your pizza.”