Some time ago, a man wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a hoodie drove a dirty Ford Explorer into a carwash in Fort Worth, Texas. As soon as the car came back clean, he got it filthy again, and drove to the next carwash. He did this with every single full-service carwash in town.
The man wasn't suffering from a strange mental disorder; Patrick Kinkade was a criminologist conducting an experiment.
Kinkade left a large amount of loose change inside the car each time he dropped it off. When he got the car back, he counted the money still inside to see if any of it had been stolen.
He found, surprisingly, that money was taken from his car about a third of the time. The car was admittedly a fat target because Kinkade left lots of loose change inside it, but if the theft rate in Fort Worth is anything like the theft rate nationwide, it's possible that millions of dollars are being stolen from cars each year during car washes.
In a new paper titled "Getting Hosed," Kinkade and fellow researchers Ronald Burns and Michael Bachmann at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth found that there were certain factors that increased the risk of theft.
At some carwashes, Kinkade dropped off the car with a copy of Maxim magazine inside it — the magazine contains plenty of suggestive pictures of semi-clad women. Underneath a seat, Kinkade also left crushed beer cans.
The idea, he said in an interview, was to suggest the driver of the car was somehow "deviant." Kinkade said he and his colleagues wanted to explore the possibility that when people's behavior marks them as being somehow out of the mainstream, they are more likely to become victims of crime.
Kinkade emphasized he was not using the term "deviant" pejoratively, but as a technical term that distinguishes between mainstream and nonmainstream behavior. Lots of people view suggestive and explicit pictures in magazines, but they tend to do it in private.
"The experimental condition created the perception that the driver of this particular vehicle was perhaps a deviant," he said. "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."
Kinkade found that the cash was twice as likely to be stolen from when the magazine and beer cans were present. He also found that larger amounts of money were taken from the car, compared with when the magazine and beer cans were absent.
Kinkade said he didn't go back to the carwashes to confront the thieves, since the research experiment wasn't meant to be a sting operation.
The researchers stressed they weren't suggesting that people who become victims of crime somehow bring it upon themselves: Reading a certain magazine doesn't mean people deserve to have their cars stolen from. But the researchers speculated that criminals may prey on people who seem like they are out of the mainstream.
"You may be targeted because you can be blamed for your own victimization," Kinkade said. "The criminal may say, 'Well, I'm a criminal and I'm doing criminal acts against people, but that person over there is also a criminal and so he deserves it.'"
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some time ago, a man wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a hoodie drove a dirty Ford Explorer into a car wash in Fort Worth, Texas. As soon as that car came back clean, he got it filthy again and drove to the next car wash. Did this with every single full-service car wash in town. Now, the man was not suffering from some strange mental disorder. He was a criminologist conducting an experiment. And NPR's Shankar Vedantam is here to tell us what that experiment was.
Shankar, good morning.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So why go to one car wash after another dressed that way?
VEDANTAM: Well, the guy in the hoodie and the cowboy boots was Patrick Kinkade from Texas Christian University, and along with this dirty car, each time he dropped it off at a carwash he left a large amount of loose change inside the car. And what he wanted to find out was how often does the car gets stolen from when I drop it off at a carwash.
Now, admittedly, this was a very fat target because he left a lot of money in the car. But what he found was actually pretty astounding, which is that almost a third of the time money got taken from the car.
VEDANTAM: And if you were to extrapolate this over the tens of thousands of carwashes that occur every year in the United States, the potential losses from theft at carwashes probably is in the millions of dollars.
Now Kinkade and his colleagues, Ronald Burns and Michael Bachmann, wanted to find out are these things that you can do that make you either more likely or less likely to become a victim of theft. And the experiment was designed to find out what those things were that increased or decreased your odds.
INSKEEP: The question is whether you are sending signals that incite being robbed.
INSKEEP: So what are the signals?
VEDANTAM: Well, Kinkade studies whether people's behavior marks them as sort of mainstream, or somehow outside the mainstream as deviant. And his theory was when you mark yourself as being somehow being outside the mainstream, it increases your risk of becoming a victim of crime.
And so what he did was experiment, sometimes he just dropped off the dirty car with a lot of money at the carwash. But sometimes inside the dirty car, he left a dirty magazine, too.
VEDANTAM: Here's what he told me.
PATRICK KINKAID: The experimental condition created the perception that the driver of this particular vehicle was perhaps a deviant. 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 probably the person had been drinking and driving.
VEDANTAM: I want to point out Steve when Kinkade uses the term deviant, he's not necessarily using it in a pejorative sense. He's using it in a technical sense, merely in the sense of saying, this person is acting somehow outside the mainstream, outside what you would expect most other people would do.
And so what he did was in this case the men's magazine he used was Maxim, which is full of, you know, suggestive pictures of barely clad women. And when the magazine was left in the car, the car became twice as likely to get stolen from, and not only that, when it had the magazine and beer cans, the amount of money stolen from the car on each of those occasions was nearly 50 percent higher.
INSKEEP: So wait a minute, so reading Maxim makes you a victim of crime.
VEDANTAM: Well, it's not so much reading Maxim, but letting other people know that you read Maxim potentially makes you vulnerable to crime.
INSKEEP: Because guys may read Maxim or some more explicit magazine in private more likely than in public.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. The fact that those magazines get read in private tells you that reading those magazines in public or leaving those magazines around marks you as somehow being outside the mainstream.
Now, Kinkade is not saying you deserve to get robbed because you read Maxim magazine. What he's saying is that when criminals deciding whom to go after they're making a series of judgments. So if you leave a lot of money lying in the car, that's a potentially rich target. If you leave your car doors unlocked in a public street, that's a potentially easy target. He's saying there is a third dimension to it. When you signal somehow that you are outside the mainstream, in the criminal's mind this potentially makes you an easier target. Here he is again.
KINKAID: You may be targeted because you can be blamed for your own victimization. The criminal may say, well, I'm a criminal and I'm doing criminal acts against people, but that person over there is also a criminal, so he deserves it.
INSKEEP: So this may explain why people who look a little strange who are homeless, who seem ill, they actually are more likely to be targets of crime? Is that what you're saying?
VEDANTAM: That is exactly what Kinkade is saying, right. And either by design or just by accident you happen to project yourself as being outside the mainstream, you potentially become immediately much more likely to become a victim of crime.
INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks for coming by.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam, who shares social science research with us. You can follow him on Twitter at Hidden Brain. You can also follow this program @MORNING EDITION and @nprinskeep.
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