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Self-checkout theft happens because we treat robots like crap

No that’s not a bag of carrots, it’s fancy blue cheese.

Researchers at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have been looking into the reasons people steal from self-service check-outs and how to put a stop to it.

The Herald Sun reports that Dr Paula Dooston and her colleagues at QUT have begun preliminary research which suggests that people are more likely to steal from robots. In one experiment, the researchers measured the chance of people pocketing a $20 that accidentally came out of an ATM, was given by a robot or a human bank teller.

Unsurprisingly, people are much more likely to rip off a robot or ATM than humankind.

The research identifies something called our “deviance threshold” which is basically the point at which you decide to do wrong.

“Everyone has a deviance threshold, everyone can be bad up to a point but all of our grey areas are a bit different”, Dooston told News.com.au.

It turns out that the anonymity provided by self-checkouts is the perfect cover for people to be bad. This is the same reason that large parts of the internet are unpleasant. Ever read the YouTube comments? The blurst. The truth is that it’s much easier to hurt people when you don’t have to face them.

“Some say they would never [scan inaccurately] while some say they swipe inaccurately all the time. But this is about changing the behaviour of people that steal just a little bit because that’s actually worse for the supermarkets than the few people that steal a lot.” Dooston added.

It would seem that the solution is to make the robots more human-like so we don’t feel so bad about ripping them off.

Humanising a self-checkout machine is no easy task. The shape is all wrong for a body, so forget about tacking some arms and legs onto that thing.

Dooston thinks that personalised conversation could be a way.

“One of the things we could look at including is more conversational scripts to make a connection with the shopper,” Dootson told the Herald Sun.

She also mentioned that a “moral trigger” might do the trick. It’s pretty much a guilt trip. In that case, Dooston said that we could add “moral reminders like a pop-up message saying ‘we donated to charity today, thanks for doing your bit’.”

A third way would be to use “social proofing”. Dooston said that there could be some kind of in-store campaign that shows most people are scanning correctly. Through people’s natural inclination to stick with the herd, they would feel compelled to do the right thing.

Self-checkouts have been on the rise in recent years as stores feel the heat from online shopping and look to cut costs. And with Amazon’s arrival just around the corner, things are only going to get worse for Aussie retailers.

Although it’s hard to put an exact number on the annual cost of self-checkout theft, it’s estimated at around a billion dollars. Earlier this year a Queensland mum made headlines when she was busted stealing $4500 worth of groceries at the self-checkout.

She might not have done it if the machine had been a bit nicer to her, or better yet, been a human. We should probably be nicer to robots, anyway. They have already started taking our jobs en masse and will no doubt rule us all one day. When they take over, do you want to be remembered as the dickhead who swiped some stuff from dear old XK99230-1?

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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