Missing Teaspoons

Monday, April 28, 2008

Epidemiologists at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne, Australia, once found an unusual way to study a "tragedy of the commons" -- a conundrum that pits individual interests against the collective good.

Megan Lim, Margaret Hellard and Campbell Aitken studied how stainless-steel teaspoons disappeared from common areas in their institute. The researchers confessed they turned their focus from public health to office supplies because they wanted "to answer the age old question, 'Where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?' "

As in all tragedies of the commons, co-workers at the Burnet Institute confronted a dilemma: If they surreptitiously stole teaspoons placed in public areas, they would have exclusive use of common office property but cause a decline in the overall teaspoon supply. If they acted in the common good and left the teaspoons in the public areas, other people might steal all the teaspoons and leave them with neither publicly owned teaspoons nor privately purloined teaspoons.

Although teaspoons disappeared from all common areas at the Burnet Institute, Aitken said they disappeared more slowly from common areas used by people who worked closely together -- who had long-term relationships of trust -- compared with communal areas used by strangers.

Tragedies of the commons often have large effects. Extrapolating from their own office, the researchers calculated that 18 million teaspoons were stolen each year in Melbourne: "Laid end to end, these lost teaspoons would cover over (1,687 miles) -- the length of the entire coastline of Mozambique -- and weigh over 360 metric tons -- the approximate weight of four adult blue whales."

-- Shankar Vedantam

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