Why Stealing $10 of Pencils Doesn't Seem as Bad As Stealing $10

By Valerie Ross | June 26, 2012 10:16 am

Most of us would consider ourselves honest people—but that doesn’t stop us from fudging the rules in favor of our team, giving an inflated report of our own performance, or buying knock-off accessories rather than the legit version. At Wired, Joanna Pearlstein talks to behavioral economist Dan Ariely about what leads us to lie, cheat, and steal—and rationalize our behavior to ourselves as not being so bad.

Wired: You write that people find it easier to rationalize stealing when they’re taking things rather than actual cash. You did an experiment where you left Coca-Colas in a dorm refrigerator along with a pile of dollar bills. People took the Cokes but left the cash. What’s going on there?

 This, I think, is one of the most worrisome experiments we’ve ever conducted, and it’s again about rationalization. There’s a story about a kid who gets in trouble at school for stealing a pencil from another kid, and the father comes home and says, ‘Johnny, that’s terrible, you never steal, and besides, if you need a pencil, let me know and I’ll bring you a box from the office.’

Why is that slightly amusing? Because we recognize that if we were taking the pencil from the office we would not have to confront that we are being immoral, in the way that we would if we took $10 from the petty cash box (even if we used that cash to buy pencils).

We know that taking money that isn’t ours is just plain wrong. But taking pencils that aren’t ours doesn’t seem so bad; looking down at a box of #2’s in hand, which are up for grabs around the office anyway, doesn’t make us take stock of our misbehavior the way looking down at a few hastily palmed bills would. As we move away from cash, Ariely says, we’ll have to confront our own immoral behavior a lot less often, making it much easier to rationalize a little petty theft—or grand larceny. Read the rest at Wired.

Caught-stealing image via Shutterstock

  • Jacob K.

    I don’t think Mr. Ariely quite has his hypothesis right. I don’t think it’s necessarily moral rationalizing. It’s actually a pretty clear illustration of the economic principal of marginal utility.

    Basically, the $10 in pencils isn’t actually worth $10. They cost $10 at the store, but most of us don’t currently want to buy $10 of pencils. Instead, we wait until our need for pencils (demand) increases to the point that we’d be willing to part with that money. Before that point, our valuation of the pencils lies at some point below $10.

    In contrast, as a median of exchange, $10 represents $10 of value in any context. I can get $10 of cheeseburgers, or $10 of video games, or $10 of clothing. Whatever my specific need is, a $10 bill gives me the ability to fill it if someone is selling for $10 or less.

    In essence, the money represents not $10, but every single thing I could ever spend $10 on, including those pencils. The pencils, however, are just one of those things I could spend $10 on, and I cannot exchange them for something else worth $10. You really are stealing more from someone if you steal their cash rather than their stuff. I would imagine it feels worse to us because we intuitively understand that we’re taking more value from someone when we take their money.

  • floodmouse


    This link points to another recent Discover magazine blog, “Paying For Creativity,” where there is an interesting discussion of how different people view the act of downloading digital information (songs, etc) without paying for it. Some people argue it’s theft, and some insist that it’s not. Apparently digital information is like pencils: People regard the object as different from the cash equivalent.

  • Gwwiz

    I think what Jacob is saying makes sense. Consider your own answers to these two questions: What could I do with a (ten dollar) box of pencils? What could I do with ten dollars? The satisfied need does not compel, right? The pencils can only ever satisfy a limited set of needs, while the cash equivalent is closer to being a multi-tool for addressing our needs.

  • dino

    I think I slightly agree with Jacob. The only different perspective I have is that the stolen pencil (from fellow student) signifies something of value to that student because he/she needs it for class task as much as the stealing student. To both students this pencil is valued highly, hence the need to discourage thieving behaviour. On the other hand, the “work” keeps piles of pencils in their stock rooms, further reducing their value as there is virtually no demand until someone walks to the stockroom to withdraw it


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