Fresh Ideas: Have we lost our inner moral compass? |

Fresh Ideas: Have we lost our inner moral compass?

Ursula Carlson

Rene Chun, who writes for the print and online magazine Wired which focuses on emerging technologies that affect our culture, economy, and politics and has been publishing monthly since 1993, has a brief but provocative piece in the current Atlantic Monthly titled “The Banana Trick.”

Originally developed to speed impatient patrons through a checkout line at the supermarket, the self-scanning line has become, instead, a convenient way for middle-class people to economize on groceries by simply doing crafty shoplifting. Not that anyone uses that word — not even the stores who euphemistically refer to this type of stealing as “external shrinkage.”

Strangely enough, chances of being punished for this kind of shoplifting in some places is on the wane. Even if a store manager wants to press charges, many police departments “can’t be bothered with supermarket theft,” Chun writes. In 2012, she reports, the Dallas Police Department enacted a new policy: Officers would no longer routinely respond to shoplifting calls for anything amounting to less than $50. In 2015, the threshold was raised to $100. That’s a lot of groceries.

So, you might well wonder, how prevalent is this shoplifting? Chun writes online anonymous questionnaires indicate it’s common. A company that offers coupons to internet shoppers, for instance, surveyed 2,634 people and of those 20 percent admitted to having stolen at self-checkouts in the past. More than half said they did it because they thought “store security was unlikely.”

Chun also cites a 2015 study by the University of Leicester in England which found “widespread theft.” After auditing 1 million self-checkout transactions over the course of a year which came to $21 million in sales, nearly $850,000 worth of goods left the store without being scanned or paid for.

In terms of numbers of self-checkouts worldwide, it’s expected there will be 325,000 of them by next year, a number that’s up from 191,000 in 2013. So opportunities will abound for all those who think as one commentator does on Reddit: “Anyone who pays for more than half of their stuff in self checkout is a total moron. There is NO MORAL ISSUE with stealing from a store that forces you to use self checkout, period. THEY ARE CHARGING YOU TO WORK AT THEIR STORE.” Now there’s a bit of logic Saturday Night Live would embrace!

To try to account for the above mindset, Chun quotes Barbara Staib, director of communications of the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention. Staib states self-checkouts tempt people who are already inclined to shoplift by “allowing them to rationalize their behavior.” These same people, Staib contends, are otherwise law-abiding citizens. They would “chase behind you to return the $20 bill you dropped because you’re a person and you would miss that $20.” But a robot cashier gives the false impression of anonymity and therefore a sense of power. But a psychologist at Temple University sees it differently. He believes there are personalities sometimes typed as “risk takers,” people who might become BASE jumpers or Mafia hitmen and who are basically bored by the “routine of shopping.”

Years ago, a Latvian, accustomed to Soviet poverty, was astounded by the profusion of glorious products found in an American supermarket. She was amazed we could take a cart and fill it ourselves, saying, “Doesn’t everyone steal?” She was envisioning people stuffing their coat pockets with pork chops and chocolates. I was shocked and said, “No. Americans would NEVER steal.”

Times change, as they say.

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.