The psychology of leaving a stranger with your valuables

The psychology of leaving a stranger with your valuables

The psychology of leaving a stranger with your valuables

I’m often out and about around the country and am never without my laptop. This means on trains, in coffee shops, or elsewhere; it’s unpacked, set up and out as a portable office. The dilemma is when a ‘comfort break’ is needed – do you pack everything up and shut your laptop down? Or risk leaving it out?

Usually I leave it in the trust of a stranger. So far it’s never let me down. All I mean by this is a quick word with someone next to me to ask them to keep an eye on it.  

Having just done it, while its always made intuitive sense, I thought I would think through the logic. After all, if I’m worried about the risk of a stranger nicking it, why trust a stranger to look after it…

  • It’s who you pick. Often in life we rely on what are known as ‘short cut rationales’ – instinctive judgements based on limited facts (politics is a classic case, if you identify with a political party and an issue you’re not well-up on is discussed, most people automatically side with the person they know usually has similar views to them).

    The same’s true on picking people, small key factors will help you decide who to pick eg. what you hear in a conversation, what they’re reading or doing – it all helps you make the decision that this is someone who is unlikely to steal from you. And if you’re unsure about them, you don’t leave your stuff with them.

  • Random chance means it’s unlikely you’ll pick a dishonest person. I like to think most people are fundamentally honest. Especially when it comes to other individuals’ possessions (people tend to consider stealing from an individual worse than from a corporate entity for example).

    Yet the chance of having unguarded valuables stolen by a stranger is high. After all, in a room of forty or fifty people, it’s likely someone is dishonest – and it only takes one to steal.

    However the maths means this high risk is reversed when you’re asking someone to help you. If we take the probability of someone being dishonest as one in 50, (or even one in 20 if you’re less trusting) then by picking one person to look after your valuables, it’s actually rather unlikely you’ll pick the dishonest one – and this is skewed further if your judgement of people is reasonable.

  • Picking them provides an identification point. By choosing someone and looking them in the eyes, you’ve identified them. Therefore the consequences of them stealing are upped.  Even if they have the occasional light fingered temptation – they know you will recognise them. And while of course it’d still be difficult to track them down this added element of doubt is a good deterrent.

  • Closed environment. If I think of the last two times I’ve done this, one was on a train – when I made sure I went to the loo and got back to my seat before the train stopped. This meant the person would still be in the closed train environment when I came back.

    And this morning it was in the ITV staff canteen, where by definition it’s a limited number of people working in a similar industry. Even in a café I’d normally be tempted to consider doing this as there are other people about, though I think I’d draw the line at doing it in a park.

  • A natural empathy helps protect. I also think there’s an inbuilt responsibility chip in many people, that when someone else gives a reasonable request to help – we put ourselves in that position and like to deliver.

So am I too trusting in human nature? Or do you have similar views too? I’d love your thoughts below.

PS. I’ve just been sent this link and apparently there was a psychological experiment on this subject (ta Dave Ellman) – which shows that if you ask people to look after your stuff, there’s a massively increased chance of them intervening if someone tries to take it.