“Would you mind keeping an eye on my computer?” I asked, wanting to get a refill for my coffee.
“Yeah, sure” responds the stranger sitting next to me.
This conversation might sound familiar to those of you who frequent coffee shops and cafés alone and stay there for hours on end. At some point, you’ll need to go to the bathroom, want another cup of coffee, or maybe a chocolate croissant as well.
When I came back to my computer, said stranger asks, “Why would you trust me with your computer?”
Caught off guard, I pause for a second and said, “I don’t have a reason to, but Psychology research suggests….”
Yes, yes, I quoted research to a complete stranger at a coffee shop (don’t judge). In all seriousness, here is what research said about asking strangers to watch your stuff for you –
Beach Blanket Study
In the summer of 1972, Psychologist Tom Moriarty set up 56 fake thefts to happen at Jones Beach in New York. They were interested in seeing whether people witnessing the theft would intervene and stop the crime from happening.
Here is how the experiment went – a “confederate” (probably was a research assistant like myself) would lay a beach blanket somewhere close to where an individual, a couple, or a family might have set up their beach blanket and basking in the sunshine. Then, for half the time, the confederate would listen to the portable radio for 2 minutes, and then say to the people in the next blanket, “excuse me, I’m going out for a swim, would you watch my things?” For the other half of the time, the confederate would listen to the radio for 2 minutes, then engage in some unrelated conversation and leave for his or her swim.
While the beach blanket and the portable radio were unattended, another research assistant would come and pretend to steal the radio. The question is: would those people in the beach blanket next to them witnessing the crime stop the stealer?
In the condition where the strangers agreed to watch the portable radio, the strangers stopped the thief 95% of the time! Comparatively, those who engaged the stranger in some unrelated conversation, saw only 20% of thefts being interrupted. That’s a huge effect from just kindly asking your neighbor to watch out for your things. 1 short second to save your portable radio! (well, I think that would be equivalent to your macbook in 2015 terms right?)
Even though I ask my neighbor to watch my things every time I leave the table, I question this experiment for several reasons. This experiment set-up confounds another famous marketing experiment, where people are more likely to allow you to cut the line if you provide them with a reason (any reason) [Langer, Blank, & Chanowitz, 1978]. In the blanket study, in addition to asking the stranger to watch the radio and blanket, the confederate also provided a reason “I’m going out for a swim”, which might have exaggerated the percentage of people who would agree to watching things for you. (Do I have to explain that I’m going to the bathroom?) Which leads to another question, is it necessary that the person says yes to your request? Or would they still chase after the thief for you even if they said no?
Before I read about more studies that addresses my coffee shop habits and self-control issues at the dessert shelf (see previously: compromise effect at sbux, and choice overload problem) I would suggest you ask the person next to you to watch your things before leaving the table. It might just save your laptop and backpack while you wait for your latte.
S (back in asia in t-3 days!)
Moriarty, Thomas. “Crime, commitment, and the responsive bystander: Two field experiments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 31.2 (1975): 370.
Langer, Ellen J., Arthur Blank, and Benzion Chanowitz. “The mindlessness of ostensibly thoughtful action: The role of” placebic” information in interpersonal interaction.” Journal of personality and social psychology 36.6 (1978): 635.