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How trusting are we?

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.

“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.