Safety of Our Stuff

As I sat typing my essay in the Student Center, I noticed a girl nearby, downing Rockstar energy drinks and typing furiously on her laptop. She looked at me as I glanced at her, so naturally I looked away. A minute later, she got up to use the restroom, leaving her laptop, backpack, textbooks and Rockstar sitting unattended.

Was I supposed to be watching her stuff? She never asked me, but was our unintentional exchange of glances supposed to be some acknowledgment of my role as her keeper?

I nervously watched her possessions out of the corner of my eye, taking note of every passer-by. Six anxious minutes later, the girl returned, sat down without even a look my way and continued her typing.

If her plan was to trick me into watching her possessions, then it worked. But it makes me wonder: What if someone did try to take her things? Would I have done anything? Was she confident nobody would try to steal something, or was she just really naive?

We’ve all heard the airport security warnings: “You’re special and unique! But your luggage isn’t! Don’t leave your items unattended!” But when a warning isn’t given, what would it take to make people more cautious?

Last June, the FBI named Irvine the Safest City in America for the fifth year in a row. In comparison to other UC campuses, UCI is known to be quiet and safe. “We live in a bubble,” some will say.

But do we take that for granted? Does it make people careless and unaware? There are some students who try very hard to ensure their possessions aren’t left unattended, such as bringing their stuff with them to the restroom or to get coffee and hoping their spot will be open when they return. But a quick glance around the Student Center or the library shows that there is a good number of people who are counting on others to watch their stuff, whether they actually asked them to or not.

The question that those people don’t take into consideration, though, is: How much are strangers willing to get involved to help you out? And how much would you get involved if something dangerous or out of the ordinary were to happen?

Last March, Tyra Banks set up a social experiment on her talk show that asked the question: “What would you do?” In the segment, unsuspecting guests at a restaurant were the witnesses of a fake laptop theft. The goal was to see if any of the witnesses would speak up and help the victim (who left her laptop unattended — see how dangerous it can be?) or if they would pretend like they didn’t see anything.

Only three out of seven of the witnesses spoke up while the other four remained silent. After the experiment was revealed to them, they all had their excuses for not getting involved: “It’s none of my business,” “I didn’t actually see anything” and one person even laughed while admitting he was just relieved it wasn’t happening to him.

It’s safe to say that most people witnessing a theft are relieved that it isn’t their items being stolen. But what if it were a more serious situation? Take the famous cause of Kitty Genovese, for example. She was raped and stabbed to death in 1964 while several witnesses did nothing to stop it or call for help. More recently, last October in Richmond, Calif., a 15-year-old girl was beaten and gang-raped outside of her high school homecoming dance. Over a dozen people were witness to the attack and they did nothing but watch, laugh and take pictures.

Psychologists call it the “bystander effect,” a term that attempts to describe the phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress. Psychologists have attempted for decades to learn why people don’t help.

Though there isn’t one answer to that question, there are plenty of options people are faced with when put in situations where they can help. Whether we’re witnessing petty theft or someone being injured, it seems the Golden Rule would apply: Just because it’s not happening to you right now, it could happen later, and you’d definitely want someone to do something about it then.

I left the Student Center shortly after the girl returned. The anxiety that she would walk away from her things again was too much for me to handle that afternoon. As safe as this campus may seem, I’m not taking my chances.