On Statistics, Criminally

Yesterday’s Harvard Business Review Daily Stat (article abstract here) irked me, and I’m not sure why.

Car-wash attendants who cleaned the interiors of automobiles stole loose change 30% of the time, but the rate doubled if the driver had left a beer can and a racy magazine in the car, say Ronald Burns, Patrick Kinkade, and Michael Bachmann of Texas Christian University. The experiment suggests that you’re more likely to become a victim of petty crime if would-be criminals see you as more socially “deviant,” the researchers say.






I think it has to do with the fact that I disagree (at least, I think I do – this is a dumb statistic that lacks significant real-world application, even though they’d like you to believe that it’s totally applicable to all crime).

I’d also be curious to see what a study would say about how criminal car-wash attendants would react to my car. Chances are I wouldn’t even notice if anything got stolen, or that no car-wash attendant would go so far as to even disturb the clutter out of fear for their life. (This is why I rarely get car washes – I don’t want anyone random to see my clutter. It’s just like that scene in 50/50 all over again. When I got a flat tire last summer, the attendants at Discount Tire assured me they’d seen much worse, but I think they were lying because whenever I say that to someone, I’m lying through my teeth to preserve what dignity they have left. It’s just like, “It happens all the time.”)

But seriously, are criminals more likely to target criminals? What if it’s just that people who leave beer cans and porn in their car are more likely to have spare change lying around? I mean, that’s obviously not a clean car to begin with. And someone who forgets porn is probably more likely to forget their spare change. (Ew, but at that point, would you want to touch the spare change?)

It is true that you’re more likely to have crime happen to you if you’re involved in crime. If you’re a drug dealer, you’re more prone to being robbed or shot. As someone who probably has shady characters in and around your house at all hours of the night, you’re essentially welcoming an element of society that’s more prone to crime against you since they’re already involved in crime.

But as a criminal, does this prove that you have some semblance of a conscience, as shown by your choice of victims? Are you more discerning? Do nicer cars have better spare change?

I feel like this study begs more questions than it provides answers. Do nicer cars have less change because of the propensity to charge purchases? What does the amount of change in a car say about the driver’s spending habits? Will car-wash attendant theft decrease as we move away from being a cash-based society? Can we quantify criminal behavior just by looking at car-wash attendants? (Of course not, that was a dumb question.)


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