2013. Vol.4, No.4, 438-444
Published Online April 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/psych) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/psych.2013.44062
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Thou Shalt Not Steal: Effects of Normative Cues on Attitudes
Judith de Groot1, Wokje Abrahamse2, Sarah Vincent1
1Department of Psychology, Bournemouth University, Poole, UK
2Department of Psychology, University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada
Received January 14th, 2013; revised February 13th, 2013; accepted March 11th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Judith de Groot et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
In this study, we examine how normative cues influence attitudes towards theft. In a 3 × 2 × 2 within-sub-
jects design (N = 120), we found that people had more negative attitudes towards theft when: 1) a higher
value item was stolen than when a lower value item was stolen; 2) the theft took place in a public setting
than when it took place in a private setting; and 3) the theft took place in a tidy rather than messy setting.
Furthermore, our findings showed interaction effects between the value of a stolen item and 1) the clean-
liness of the environment; and 2) the privateness of a setting, on attitudes towards theft. Theoretical and
practical implications are discussed.
Keywords: Normative Influence; Social Norms; Theft; Injunctive Norms; Descriptive Norms
The number of theft related incidences declined during the
period of 2009-2010 (Research Development Statistics (RDS),
2011). While this appears to be good news, the latest crime sta-
tistics show that around 1440 thefts are reported each day and
this figure probably even falls short of reality (Crimestoppers,
2010). Crimestoppers (2010) suggests that a figure double this
size would perhaps be more representative of actual levels of
theft. Given the prevalence of theft, it is an important area to
Acts of theft may cause damage to society and individuals,
and are generally characterized by a lack of consideration for
other people (Cromby, Brown, Gross, Locke, & Patterson,
2010). That is, it is regarded as a typical immoral behavior.
Attitudes are an important predictor of moral intentions and
behaviors, including a variety of prosocial and antisocial be-
haviors (e.g., Anker, Feeley, & Kim, 2010; Chen & Chiu, 2009;
De Groot & Steg, 2007; Hurd, Zimmerman, & Reischl, 2011).
Different scholars have shown that attitudes towards theft play
an important role in predicting intentions and subsequently
theft behaviors (e.g., Tonglet, 2002; Cronan & Al-Rafee, 2008;
Wang, Chen, Yang, & Farn, 2009; Henle, Reeve, & Pitts, 2010).
Therefore, examining the factors influencing attitudes towards
theft can provide useful ways to decrease the occurrence of
Theft is not a desirable behavior as it is not in line with
commonly held “social norms” in society. Social norms are
thought to be beliefs about what are common and accepted
behaviors (Schultz & Tabanico, 2009). Research suggests that
attitudes that are prevalent in an individual’s social network can
influence the formation of the individual’s own attitude (e.g.,
Huckfeldt & Sprague, 1991; Visser & Miribile, 2004). Conse-
quently, social norms may be relevant for predicting attitudes.
Empirical studies indeed suggest that social norms are strong
predictors for attitudes (e.g., Ajzen, 1988; Jasinskaja-Lahti, Mä-
hönen, & Liebkind, 2011; Nesdale & Lawson, 2011; Nikitas,
Avineri, & Parkhurst, 2011).
Social norms can be activated by a variety of cues in the en-
vironment. In this study, we examine how normative cues in a
theft context may influence attitudes towards theft. By doing so,
we contribute to the theoretical development of the influence of
normative cues on attitudes towards theft.
Normative Cues and Attitudes towards Theft
The Effect of the Value of a Stolen Item and
Privateness of Setting
The focus theory of normative conduct (Cialdini, Kallgren, &
Reno, 1991; Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990) explains how
social norms influence attitudes. The theory asserts that social
norms will mainly affect attitudes when they are salient Cialdi-
ni and colleagues (1990; Cialdini et al., 1991; Reno, Cialdini, &
Kallgren, 1993; Kallgren, Reno, & Cialdini, 2000) make a dis-
tinction between two types of social norms, that is, descriptive
and injunctive social norms. Descriptive social norms demon-
strate what is typically done in a particular situation (Cialdini et
al., 2006). Injunctive social norms refer to what ought to be
done in the situation and guide behavior through perceptions of
whether other people would sanction the behavior in question
(Reno et al., 1993). In most societies the injunctive norm will
be against theft because theft is generally not endorsed—
“Thou shalt not steal.”
Normative cues are elements in the environment that convey
important information that may trigger social norms. Different
potential normative cues may make injunctive and descriptive
norms focal. An example of a normative cue is the financial
J. DE GROOT ET AL.
value of the stolen item. Wenzel (2004) found that people were
more likely to avoid anti-social behavior when the severity of
the sanctions as a result of engaging in that behavior increased.
Mulder and colleagues (Mulder, Verboon, & De Cremer, 2008)
suggest that more severe sanctions evoke stronger social judg-
ments with regard to breaking the rules than milder sanctions.
Related to the focus theory of normative conduct (Cialdini et al.,
1991), the thought of social sanctions may activate one’s in-
junctive norms of anti-theft. A higher level of loss (in material
or emotional value) is incurred by victims of theft when an item
is more expensive. We therefore assume that the perceived so-
cial sanctions of the theft of high value items are perceived to
be more severe than the theft of low value items: people will
have more negative attitudes towards theft if a higher value
item is stolen than when a lower value item is stolen (Hypothe-
Lapinski and Rimal (2005) focus on another type of norma-
tive cue that may strengthen the influence of social norms on
attitudes towards theft, that is, the extent to which an environ-
ment in which the theft takes place is private or public. They
suggest that injunctive norms will exercise little influence over
attitudes and behavior when behavior is not observable and
therefore cannot be scrutinized. Related to the focus theory of
normative conduct (Cialdini et al., 1991), in a private setting
the non-observable character will make the anti-theft injunctive
norm less focal than in a public setting. Consequently, people
will have more negative attitudes towards theft when the theft
takes place in a public setting, than when the theft takes place
in a private setting (Hypothesis 2).
Conflicting Normative Cues and Attitudes towards
Theft: Effect of Tidy vs Messy Setting
Normative cues can conflict in specific situations. For exam-
ple, in a messy setting, the normative cue “presence of mess”
signals that many people litter (making the descriptive norm of
littering salient), which conflicts with the generally salient (an-
ti-litter) injunctive norm. Results of studies by Cialdini and col-
leagues (1990) indicate that an injunctive anti-litter norm is not
as influential in this “conflicting” setting as it is in a setting
where the descriptive norm supports the injunctive norm. There-
fore, descriptive and injunctive norms should be aligned to be
able to exert the strongest normative influence on attitudes and
behavior (Lapinski & Rimal, 2005; Schultz & Tabanico, 2009).
When the descriptive and injunctive norms are not aligned, the
descriptive norm will overpower the injunctive norm. Studies
indeed show that the injunctive norm is not as influential in a
situation where the descriptive norm conflicts with the general
injunctive norm (e.g., Schultz, Khazian, & Zaleski, 2008; Ja-
cobson, Mortensen, & Cialdini, 2011).
Even more so, Keizer, Steg and Lindenberg (2008) show that
if a descriptive norm violates the injunctive norm it will not
only decrease the influence of a specific injunctive norm, but
also of other injunctive norms in that setting. The study showed
that when the descriptive norm violated an injunctive norm,
such as the anti-litter injunctive norm, it resulted in the inhibi-
tion of other injunctive norms as well, such as the anti-theft
injunctive norm. For example, participants were more likely to
steal a letter including 5 Euros from a letterbox when this let-
terbox was surrounded by litter (i.e., violation of the injunctive
anti-litter norm) than when it was in a non-littered environment
(i.e., no violation of the injunctive anti-litter norm). Keizer and
colleagues (2008) refer to the cross-norm inhibition effect in
such situations. Therefore, the cleanliness of an environment
may function as a normative cue in influencing the relationship
between social norms and attitudes towards theft. That is, in a
tidy setting, there will be no signs indicating that specific in-
junctive norms are violated and therefore the injunctive norm
towards anti-theft will remain focal. However, in a messy set-
ting, the injunctive norm (i.e., “you should be tidy”) will be
violated which may result in a decrease in strength of the anti-
theft injunctive norm. Therefore, we expect that people will
have more negative attitudes towards theft when the theft takes
place in a tidy setting than when the theft takes place in a messy
setting (Hypothesis 3).
Normative Cues and Attitudes towards Theft:
The possible influence of the value of a stolen item on atti-
tudes towards theft is based on the perceived level of social
sanctions (Reno et al., 1993) and as such may draw attention to
the anti-theft injunctive norm. As suggested by Cialdini and
colleagues (2006), normative influence can be exerted in tidy
settings (i.e. there are no “norm-violations”), so injunctive norms
such as “you should not steal”, will be salient and spur attitudes
and behavior. We assume that the theft of low or high value
items will draw no extra attention to the already present and
salient anti-theft injunctive norm in such situations. However,
in messy settings, where cross norm-inhibition takes place, the
value of a stolen item may compensate for the inhibition of the
anti-theft injunctive norm because the thought of social sanc-
tions may strengthen or activate someone’s injunctive norms of
anti-theft. Therefore, we expect an interaction between the va-
lue of a stolen item and the cleanliness of the environment on
attitudes towards theft: attitudes towards theft will be less af-
fected by the value of a stolen item in tidy settings where the
injunctive norm is already more salient than in a messy setting
where the injunctive norm is inhibited (Hypothesis 4).
The injunctive anti-theft norm is most salient in public envi-
ronments where behavior is observable and can be scrutinized
than in private settings where this is less the case (Lapinski &
Rimal, 2005). The influence of the value of the stolen item on
attitudes towards theft is based on the level of expected social
sanctions (Reno et al., 1993) which may also make the anti-
theft injunctive norm focal. In public settings, where this anti-
theft injunctive norm is already salient, the value of the stolen
item may be less effective in focusing attention to the injunctive
norm than in private settings where this norm is less salient.
Therefore, we expect another interaction effect between the
value of a stolen item and the level of privateness of a setting
on attitudes towards theft. That is, attitudes towards theft will
be less affected by the value of a stolen item in public settings
where the injunctive norm is already more salient than in pri-
vate settings where the injunctive norm is less focal (Hypothe-
The aim of our study is to examine the main and interaction
effects of normative cues on attitudes towards theft, hereby
increasing the knowledge of how physical characteristics of
theft can function as normative cues to change such attitudes.
That is, we examine the main and interaction effects of: 1) the
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J. DE GROOT ET AL.
value of the stolen item; 2) the privateness of a setting in which
the theft takes place; and 3) the cleanliness of the environment
in which the theft takes place on attitudes towards theft.
Design and Variables
We used a 3 × 2 × 2 within-subjects design to examine the
influence of normative cues on attitudes towards theft. The first
independent variable, value of a stolen item, had three levels
(i.e., low/medium/high value item). The second independent
variable, privateness of the setting, included two levels (i.e.,
private/public environment). The third variable, cleanliness of
the environment, had two levels (i.e., tidy/messy environment).
The dependent variable was attitudes towards theft.
We recruited an opportunity sample of 120 undergraduate
students from Bournemouth University’s social seating areas.
The sample consisted of 80 females and 40 males with a mean
age of 21.4 (SD = 4.5). All participants were familiar with shar-
ing accommodation with people other than family members as
the questionnaire focused on theft scenarios in this type of ac-
commodation. The items in the scenarios were chosen based on
their relevance for this specific group of participants.
Procedure and Materials
A pilot study was conducted in order to gather information
on which object of theft would be relevant to the population of
interest. Wine was selected as it was most relevant to the focus
population (100% of N = 30 had owned wine). The scenario in
which it was implied that a theft was taking place was also
simplified for wine as one cannot borrow the contents of a wine
bottle, unlike other items such as a book.
Four versions of a 12 scenario, 24 item questionnaires were
created using identical scenarios detailing a theft but in differ-
ent order of presentation to avoid order effects. The scenarios
were designed to systematically and exhaustively manipulate
all levels of the independent variables. The value of the stolen
item was manipulated by stating whether the bottle of wine was
either £3, (i.e., low value item), £8, (i.e., medium value item) or
£20, (i.e., high value item). A pilot study (N = 30) showed high
levels of agreement in operationalizing low cost wine as £3
(97% in agreement), medium cost wine as £8 (70% in agree-
ment) and high cost wine as £20 (70% in agreement). The pri-
vateness of the setting was made clear by indicating whether
the wine was either in a room of a home (i.e., private) or in a
shop (i.e., public). Finally, the cleanliness of the environment
was emphasized by including a reference to a tidy and struc-
tured environment or to a messy and unstructured environment.
Steps were taken to ensure the layout of each scenario was
consistent with the other scenarios; names included in scenarios
were from the same origin to avoid possible confounding ef-
fects of discrimination, and both male and female names were
randomly used throughout the scenarios.
An example of a “medium value, public setting, tidy envi-
ronment” scenario was:
“Anna is looking in her local shop [public setting] for
some sweets; she does not find any she wants and so
moves on to the next aisle. Anna is off to a party tonight
so decides to look at the wine. She spots a bottle for £8
[medium value item] neatly lined up [tidy environment]
on the shelf which she picks up and quickly drops in her
handbag. Anna looks for a little longer and then leaves.”
Each scenario was followed by two items measuring one’s
attitude towards theft. Acceptability has been suggested as one
of the main dimensions of attitudes and has been used as a tool
for assessing attitudes in a number of studies (e.g., De Groot &
Steg, 2009; Posthuma & Dworkin, 2000; Terrade, Pasquier,
Reerinck-Boulanger, Guingouain, & Somat, 2009). Therefore,
we measured attitudes towards theft was by assessing the ac-
ceptability dimension of attitudes towards theft, measured on a
7-point likert-type scale ranging from “very unacceptable” to
“very acceptable”. In addition to acceptability judgments, re-
search has also found that an individual uses projections of their
own attitudes when making inferences about the attitudes of
someone else (e.g., Ames, 2004; Goel, Mason, & Watts, 2010).
That is, an individual’s inference about another person’s atti-
tude towards theft may be an indirect measure of their own
attitude towards theft without linking the behavior directly to
themselves. Therefore, a second item to conceptualize attitudes
towards theft was to ask participants to evaluate how acceptable
they thought other people would rate the theft in the specific
scenarios. The attitude towards theft was computed by sum-
ming the scores of both items and dividing them by two. The
attitude scale appeared to have a good internal consistency (α =
0.90; M = 1.82, SD = 0.52).
Main Effects of Normative Cues on Attitudes towards
In Table 1, we show descriptive statistics of attitudes to-
wards theft for the three normative cues. These statistics sug-
gest that participants’ attitude toward theft were more favorable
when: the stolen item was less expensive, the theft took place in
a private instead of a public setting, and when the setting in
which the theft took place was messy rather than tidy.
We employed a 3 × 2 × 2 repeated measures ANOVA to test
whether the differences in mean scores were statistically signifi-
cant. Mauchly’s test indicated that the assumption of sphericity
Descriptive statistics for the three main effects.
95% Confidence Interval
MSD Lower Bound Upper Bound
Value Stolen Item
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J. DE GROOT ET AL.
was violated for the main effect of cost of the item on attitude,
X2 (2) = 34.82, p < 0.001. Therefore degrees of freedom for the
main effect of cost of item on attitude were corrected using
Greenhouse-Geisser estimates of sphericity (ɛ = 0.80), which
alters the significance value of the F-ratio.
There was a significant main effect of cost of the stolen item
on attitudes towards theft, F (1.59, 189.56) = 46.78, p < 0.001,
partial η2 = 0.28. Post hoc pair-wise comparisons using a Bon-
ferroni adjustment indicated that participants’ attitudes towards
the theft of low value items (M = 2.07) was significantly higher
than for high value items (M = 1.59, F(1, 119) = 63.56, p <
0.001). And, attitude towards the theft of medium value items
(M = 1.79) was significantly higher than attitudes towards the
theft of high cost items (F (1, 110) = 25.83, p < 0.001).
There was a significant main effect of privateness of a setting
on attitudes towards theft, F (1, 119) = 75.86, p < 0.001, partial
η2 = 0.39. Participants’ attitudes towards theft were signifi-
cantly more favorable for thefts in private settings (M = 2.11)
than for thefts in public settings (M = 1.52).
Finally, there was a significant main effect of cleanliness of
the environment on acceptability evaluations, F (1, 119) = 6.95,
p < 0.01, partial η2 = 0.055. Participants’ attitudes towards theft
were significantly more favorable for thefts in messy environ-
ments (M = 1.85) than for thefts in tidy environments (M =
Interacti on E ffects of Normative Cu es on Attitude s
Table 2 shows descriptive statistics of attitudes towards theft
for the interaction effect between the three normative cues.
Figures 1 and 2 show the linear pattern of the mean scores.
Means suggest that attitude towards thefts of low cost, medium
value items and high value items increase in strength in a linear
pattern in both the private and public settings and the tidy and
messy settings. Attitude towards theft appear lower for the theft
of low, medium and high value items in private settings and in
messy settings than in public settings and tidy settings.
Descriptive statistics for interaction effects.
Privateness Setting* Value Item
Public* Low Value
Public* Medium Value
Public* High Value
Private* Low Value
Private* Medium Value
Private* High Value
Cleanliness Environment* Value Item
Messy* Low V alu e
Messy* Medium Value
Messy* High V alue
Tidy* Low Value
Tidy* Medium V alue
Tidy* High Value
Relationships between value of the stolen item and privateness of the
setting on attitudes towards theft.
Relationships between value of the stolen item and cleanliness of the
environment on attitudes towards theft.
Results of the ANOVA confirmed that there were indeed two
significant interaction effects. First, an interaction effect was
observed for the cost of a stolen item and the privateness of the
setting on attitudes towards theft, F (1.86, 221.80) = 6.56, p <
0.01, partial η2 = 0.05. This interaction was further investigated
by simple main effects. Given the fact that there were six tests
of simple effects, the criterion for significance was adjusted to
0.008 (i.e., 0.05/6). In public settings, attitudes towards theft
were significantly more favorable when the value of the stolen
item was low (M = 1.72) compared to when the value of the
stolen item was medium (M = 1.46: t (119) = 4.83, p < 0.001,
Cohen’s d = 0.44) and compared to when the value of the stolen
item was high (M = 1.38): t (119) = 5.64, p < 0.001, Cohen’s d
= 0.51. In private settings, attitudes towards theft were more
favorable in general, but especially when the value of a stolen
item was low (M = 2.42) compared to medium (M = 2.11; t
(119) = 4.38, p < 0.001, Cohen’s d = 0.40) or high (M = 1.80; t
(119) = 6.99, p < 0.001, Cohen’s d = 0.64) value items. In pri-
vate settings, the difference between the medium and high
value stolen item was significant as well (t (119) = 4.67, p <
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J. DE GROOT ET AL.
0.001, Cohen’s d = 0.43). In line with our hypothesis, the rela-
tionship between attitude towards theft and the value of the
stolen item is moderated by the privateness of the setting, in
such a way that the value of an item has a stronger effect on
attitudes when the theft occurs in a private setting compared to
when it occurs in a public setting.
Second, there was an interaction effect between the value of
a stolen item and the cleanliness of the environment with re-
spect to people’s attitudes towards theft, F (2, 238) = 4.25, p =
0.01, partial η2 = 0.03. Simple main effects showed that in mes-
sy settings, attitudes towards theft were most favorable when
the value of the stolen item was low (M = 2.13) rather than me-
dium (M = 1.86) or high (M = 1.58). The differences between
the low value and medium value (t (119) = 4.79, p < 0.001,
Cohen’s d = 0.44), low and high value (t (119) = 7.82, p <
0.001, Cohen’s d = 0.71) and medium and high value items (t
(119) = 5.81, p < 0.001, Cohen’s d = 0.53) were significant. In
tidy settings, attitudes towards theft were especially favorable
when the value of a stolen item was low (M = 2.02) compared
to medium (M = 1.71; t (119) = 4.99, p < 0.001, Cohen’s d =
0.46) or high (M = 1.61; t (119)= 6.29, p < 0.001, Cohen’s d =
0.57) value items. In tidy settings, after adjusting the signifi-
cance criterion to 0.008, the difference between medium and
high value items was not significant (t (119) = 2.13, p = 0.036,
Cohen’s d = 0.19). In line with our hypothesis, the relationship
between attitudes and value of the stolen item was moderated
by the cleanliness of the environment: the value of an item was
more influential in shaping attitudes in messy settings as op-
posed to tidy settings.
This study examined the main and interaction effects of these
normative cues on attitudes towards theft. Consistent with Hy-
pothesis 1, participants had most favorable attitudes towards
theft when a low value item was stolen than when a medium or
high value item was stolen. Attitude favorability significantly
decreased between the low and medium value item and be-
tween the medium and high value item. The perceived social
sanctions for theft of more expensive stolen items may be more
severe than for less expensive items. The thought of severe
sanctions may trigger avoidance of anti-social behaviors (Wen-
zel, 2004), such as theft, and, more severe sanctions will evoke
stronger judgments towards rule breaking (Mulder et al., 2008);
hence, the attitudes towards such behaviors may be adjusted ac-
cordingly. Findings are consistent with the notion of Reno et al.
(1993) that injunctive norms guide behavior through perception
of whether most others would sanction the behavior and sug-
gest that the thought of social sanctions may strengthen or acti-
vate someone’s injunctive norms of anti-theft. Beliefs about
sanction severity however, were not explicitly examined in this
current research and therefore explanations of the differing in-
fluence of item value are based on inference. The findings of
this research are however consistent with the theory that sanc-
tion severity affects the level of normative influence and there-
fore severity of sanction may be an underlying influence on at-
titudes towards theft.
The privateness of a setting could be another potential nor-
mative cue to influence attitudes towards theft. We found that
people show more negative attitudes towards theft when the
theft takes place in a public than a private setting, supporting
Hypothesis 2. Like the findings of Kallgren et al. (2000) and
Schultz et al. (2008), results of this current research indicated
that the injunctive norm can have an influence in both public
and private environmental settings. However this current re-
search went further by examining if there was any difference in
the level of influence exerted between the two types of settings.
The notion for this extension was based upon suggestions made
by Lapinski and Rimal (2005) that the level of normative in-
fluence exercised would be dependent on the level of privacy of
an environment. Our finding is in line with the notion that in-
junctive norms will exercise little influence over attitudes and
behavior when behavior is not observable and therefore cannot
be scrutinized (Lapinski & Rimal, 2005). Because norms will
mainly influence behavior when focal (Cialdini et al., 1991), in
a private setting the non-observable character will make the an-
ti-theft injunctive norm less focal than in a public setting hereby
inhibiting its potential influence on attitudes towards theft.
Attitudes towards theft were significantly more negative in
tidy than in messy settings, providing support for Hypothesis 3.
These results provide further evidence for the observation that
if the descriptive norm (littering) violates an injunctive norm
(“you should not litter”) in a specific situation, it will also de-
crease the influence of other injunctive norms (“you should not
steal”) in that setting (see Keizer et al., 2008). This result does
not only hold for changing behaviors as indicated by Keizer and
colleagues (2008), but also for changing attitudes towards the
behavior. Keizer and colleagues (2008) refer to this as the
“cross-norm inhibition effect.”
There was an interaction effect between the value of a stolen
item and the cleanliness of the environment on attitudes to-
wards theft, supporting Hypothesis 4. That is, attitudes towards
theft were less affected by the value of a stolen item when the
theft took place in clean settings, where presumably the injunc-
tive anti-theft norm was more salient, as compared to a messy
setting, where the injunctive norm may have been inhibited by
the salient descriptive norm to litter. A significant difference
was found between medium and high value items and tidy and
messy environments, with the theft of a high value item pro-
ducing a less dramatic increase in attitude strength in tidy set-
tings than in messy settings. This difference was not significant
for the theft of low value and medium value items in tidy and
messy settings. As suggested by Cialdini et al. (2006), norma-
tive influence may already be exerted in clean settings (con-
veying an anti-littering norm) and thus the theft of low cost
items drew no extra attention to the anti-theft injunctive norm;
medium and high value items on the other hand may still focus
some more attention to this anti-theft norm. In messy settings,
which may have downplayed the saliency of the anti-theft in-
junctive norm (i.e., cross norm inhibition effect, see Keizer et
al., 2008), the value of a stolen item seemed to compensate, at
least partly, for the inhibition of the anti-theft injunctive norm.
Finally, the interaction effect between the value of a stolen
item and the privateness of a setting on attitudes towards theft
was in part supported (Hypothesis 5). That is, attitudes towards
theft were less affected by the value of a stolen item in public
settings where the injunctive norm was already more salient,
than in private settings where the anti-theft injunctive norm was
assumed to be less focal. There was a significant difference
between medium and high value items and private and public
environments, with the theft of a high value item producing a
less dramatic increase in attitude strength in public than in pri-
vate settings. There was no significant difference between the
theft of low value and medium value items in public and private
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
J. DE GROOT ET AL.
settings. This result is in line with assumptions from Lapinski
and Rimal (2005) and Reno et al. (1993) who assume that both
the privateness of the setting as well as the value of a stolen
item may activate an injunctive norm towards anti-theft. Our
results therefore suggest that there is a ceiling-effect for the
activation of the anti-theft injunctive norm; if the injunctive
norm for anti-theft is already salient, as is the case in public
settings, the theft of a low value item will not draw any more
attention to the anti-theft injunctive norm; medium and high va-
lue items on the other hand may be focusing attention to this
anti-theft norm slightly more. However, in private settings,
where the injunctive norm is not salient, the value of a stolen
item contribute to the attitudes towards theft regardless of whe-
ther the value of the stolen item is low, medium or high.
Although our results are consistent with our expectations, it
may be argued that the privateness of the setting was not the
factor addressed in the theft scenarios. The thefts in the private
scenarios detailed the appropriation of a known housemates
wine, whereas no relationship between shop owner and perpe-
trator of theft was described in the scenarios for public settings.
Individuals evaluating their attitudes towards theft in the private
settings may have been influenced by the possibility that con-
sent to take the wine would have been given if the owner knew
about the circumstances. However, neither in the public or the
private theft scenarios it was insinuated that consent was given
to take the item. In the eyes of the law, if it is believed that
consent is given, the appropriation of property is not considered
theft (Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1968). The fact that no
such consent was insinuated in our scenarios makes it less
likely that the extent to which the owner would agree with tak-
ing such item was a confounding factor in our study. However,
future studies should more clearly distinguish between the pri-
vateness of the setting and the extent to which the perpetrator
knows the victim of theft.
The predictive power of attitudes has been shown to be sig-
nificant in predicting a variety of normative behaviors (e.g.,
Anker, Feeley, & Kim, 2010; Chen & Chiu, 2009; De Groot &
Steg, 2007; Hurd, Zimmerman, & Reischl, 2011), including
theft intentions and behaviors (e.g., Tonglet, 2002; Cronan &
Al-Rafee, 2008; Henle et al., 2010; Wang et al., 2009). How-
ever, attitudes may not always result in subsequent behavior.
The use of scenarios allows for complex manipulations of mul-
tiple variables; which may be hard to achieve and time con-
suming when using field studies. It would however be useful to
know if the findings of this study are replicable in field studies
that measure observable behaviors.
Findings of this research show which cues in the environ-
ment could function as normative cues in a theft situation which
may potentially have practical implications for theft deterrence.
Findings for example provide an explanation of why it is im-
portant to decrease feelings of privacy to decrease positive
attitudes towards theft. Decreasing feelings of privacy increases
the likelihood that someone believes the behavior will be ob-
served. This knowledge is already widely applied in public
communities and retail via the use of CCTV cameras. But even
relatively easy and less costly cues could potentially decrease
one’s feelings of privacy. For example, simple cues, such as
showing an image of a pair of eyes (Bateson, Nettle, & Roberts,
2006), making one believe that someone is watching them (Pi-
azza, Bering, & Ingram, 2011), or priming with religious con-
cepts (Shariff & Norenzayan, 2007), could potentially support
an anti-theft injunctive norm. Future research should examine
how such cues result in norm activation, hereby decreasing the
occurrence of theft.
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