A while back, Patrick Kinkade, the chair of TCU's criminal justice department, drove a filthy Ford Explorer to several full-service car washes in Fort Worth. Each time, he left behind a large amount of loose change in plain view. Often, about a third of the time, some of the money would be missing.
This was research, and the question Kinkade was asking wasn't whether car wash workers would pocket a few loose quarters if given an easy opportunity, but what factors increased the rate of theft.
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The variable in the experiment was beer and a copy of Maxim magazine. When the ever-classy men's mag was left on top of the seat and empty, crushed up beer cans (presumably Natty Light) were placed underneath. Kinkade explains in "Getting Hosed," a paper co-authored by TCU colleagues Michael Bachmann and Ronald Burns and reported yesterday by NPR, that the idea was to give the convey the impression of deviance.
"The experimental condition created the perception that the driver of this particular vehicle was perhaps a deviant," Kinkade explained to NPR. "And what we did in order to trigger that perception was place a men's magazine on the front seat to suggest some sort of interest in sexuality and a couple crushed beer cans underneath the seat to suggest that the person probably had been drinking and driving."
Money was missing twice as often from the car when it was littered with empties and girly magazines. More of it was gone, too. The takeaway for the researchers is that the suggestion of criminal behavior (drunk driving) and an unabashed interest in pictures of semi-nude women made it easier for the car wash workers to rationalize theft.
The other takeaway: don't leave money in your car when you take it to be cleaned.