science of us

What Kind of Person Steals Their Co-workers’ Lunch?

Photo: William Andrew/Getty Images

For the past month or two, my place of work (this very website) has been plagued by a relatively harmless but deeply mystifying figure: the phantom lunch thief. What’s happened since has followed a trajectory sure to be familiar to anyone who’s ever worked in an office with more than, say, 30 employees: a menacing, all-caps Post-It note was posted, instructing the thief: “PLEASE DO NOT TAKE FOOD THAT DOESN’T BELONG TO YOU.” The appropriate authorities were alerted. The authorities sent out slightly mean emails about how we’re all adults here, and even those of us who didn’t do anything wrong were embarrassed. For a few days, no lunches were stolen. But then, just when you thought it was safe to leave an Amy’s frozen burrito in the shared fridge for 12 days, the lunch thief struck again. Collectively, and publicly — all wanting to make very clear that we were innocent — my colleagues and I wondered: who does this? What kind of person steals lunch from people they work with, and why?

To find out, I had to identify one such person. First, I offered my own office lunch thief immunity (or, well, anonymity) if they came forward to tell me their life story, but nobody took me up on it. I asked Twitter, where many people expressed outrage over the very idea of lunch theft, but again, no actual thieves surfaced. I even made a Google Form about it, and nobody filled out my Google Form. I was very nearly too dejected to continue my search when I remembered: Reddit. If not there, where?

On Reddit, I found a few lunch theft discussion threads, and messaged about 15 or 20 users who indicated that they had stolen, or would steal, lunch from a co-worker, several of whom sounded very pleased with themselves. I told them I was a reporter, and asked if they’d be willing to elaborate on their experiences in lunch theft. Unfortunately, most relevant postings I found were from, like, four years ago, and again it seemed no one would come forward. But then someone wrote me back. Eventually he agreed to speak with me, and we arranged a phone call. His name is Rob, and he’s a programmer in his early 40s. Together we decided there are probably enough programmers in their 40s named Rob that divulging this amount of personal information was okay.

Rob hasn’t stolen a lunch in two years, he tells me. Incidentally, that is about the amount of time he has worked from home. Before that, though, he worked in various large, corporate offices, where large, shared refrigerators made it easy to steal without repercussion. (And where, he says, the salaries were high enough he was never actually hungry.) It started with cans of soda.

“When I first started working I would work late a lot, and I would forget to bring extra food and drinks, so I would just take a soda here and there,” he tells me. “I’d usually replace it, at first. Then you get kinda lazy, and you stop replacing it, and pretty soon you move on to packaged things, like cupcakes.”

From there, Rob says, his standards devolved: first he promised he’d never take the last soda, or the last cupcake, but then he’d be mad he was working so late, and he would take it, intending to replace it, and knowing he wouldn’t. He tells me he would never take someone’s sandwich, but when I ask what the fullest meal he’d ever stolen was, he cops to taking other people’s frozen TV dinners — and then, only at the end of the day, when most people had already gone home: “I was kind of a night picker, I guess you’d say.”

Rob says it was easy not to get caught, despite the “passive-aggressive notes” left out by his boss after thefts. “People really fear confrontation,” he says. “Even if you were the only one there last night, and they had the food before they left, and they came in the next morning and it was gone … even if they know if you’re the last one there, a lot of times people won’t confront you about it.” When I ask him if he ever feels bad about it, he says it “kinda depends on the co-worker.”

Before I called Rob, I expected — hoped, really — that our conversation would reveal something sinister about his personality, perhaps something tellingly psychopathic. But Rob seems like a nice guy. He expresses remorse for his actions, sounding genuinely devastated when I ask him to imagine his victims gazing sadly into the refrigerator. “People get hurt, I guess,” he says. “Knowing you have that soda there in the fridge at 3 or 4 in the afternoon when you really need it … that’s gotta suck for someone else [when it gets taken].” I imagine him here looking in the mirror and not recognizing the person he sees. “Now I think about it, yeah it’s pretty bad of me to do that,” he adds. “I’m not a horrible person, but clearly I have ethical issues.

At this point in the conversation, I feel bad. And after talking to Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, I know why: I may never have stolen a lunch from a co-worker, but I am no better than Rob. I’m simply bad in a different way.

“Everybody’s got something they do that they can justify and feel is okay,” says Markman. “It might not be lunch stealing. But there’s always some rule that you personally feel you can violate. And the thing about that kind of rule violation is there’s always going to be somebody else who doesn’t understand how you could possibly do that.” When he says this, I am overcome by shame, replaying every petty crime I’ve ever committed: the school printers I illegally used for personal projects, the lies I’ve told to get out of things I didn’t want to do, the mean things I’ve said about people I’m publicly nice to because I was in a bad mood and bored. There I was, thinking myself above the lunch thief, but haven’t I too bent the rules of common decency to my will on occasion? What is it that allows me to preserve the notion that I am good, and Rob is evil?

Markman tells me this is called a fundamental attribution error, and people do it … a lot. When we try to explain someone else’s actions, we attribute them to their character — usually, someone very different from ourselves. “Rob steals cupcakes because he is a psychopath,” for instance. But when we explain our own actions, we instead attribute them to our circumstances: I had to take home a fist full of office tampons because I couldn’t spare eight dollars to buy my own (to give you a purely illustrative example). This thought process allows us to preserve the notion that we are good people, fundamentally unlike the bad people who do things we don’t like.

“Most people want to generally go around seeing themselves as being honest, good folks,” says Markman. “But if you give people a chance to do something that violates the rules, and there’s probably not a big chance they’re going to get caught, you’ll find a fair number of people who would be willing to do stuff that they would say to your face they’d never do.”

I tell Markman I’m slightly disappointed — I hoped he’d be able to tell me the deep, dirty secret of lunch thieves everywhere. I hoped they were demonstrably different from me in some chemical way. I can tell Markman feels sorry he can’t do that for me.

“I think they’re just hungry,” he says. “And your lunch was convenient.”

Still, just because it’s human doesn’t mean it’s not infuriating. “Anytime somebody steals something from you, it feels like a personal violation,” Markman adds. “And what makes matters worse with lunch in the workplace is that these people are your colleagues.” Lunch thieves may not be fundamentally worse people than the non-thieves, but also, what the fuck, man?

As for Rob, I’d call him semi-reformed. The last time he was in an office, he regularly bought gallons of milk for office use, as a sort of karmic payback for prior sins. “I was like, you know what, I’m just going to buy a gallon of milk every week and put it in the fridge and write ‘Free to Anybody’ on it,” he says. “And then of course, some jerk takes the whole thing home.”

What Kind of Person Steals Their Co-workers’ Lunch?