Why Natalie became a thief for a day: If you saw someone shoplifting, would you report them? Are you sure? Nicholas Roe meets a student who found out how many people would do the right thing

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Not many A-level projects shed light on the human condition, but Natalie Jeal's did. Horribly. 'It was an awful picture of society,' she says.

For the sake of her psychology course at Lewes Tertiary College in East Sussex, Natalie, 17, tried her hand at shoplifting. Practical experiments contribute to exam marks and she decided to spice up her contribution with a sideways look at dishonesty.

Natalie and some friends focused on a psychological theory called the 'Bystander Factor', which is a pretty scary area to investigate, mostly because of the origin of the theory.

In 1964 a woman called Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in front of a New York apartment block in an assault lasting half an hour and witnessed by more than 40 people, and nobody said or did a thing to stop it. Bystander Factor: the more there are of you, the less likely it is that anyone will bother to care.

What would happen, Natalie wondered, if you faced a lovely little English town such as Lewes with a similar test of conscience? So she and three fellow students asked the manager of Boots the Chemists if they could have permission to do some blatant shoplifting.

He agreed. He had reason to. Customer thefts cost about pounds 500m a year in Britain, according to the British Retail Consortium, from the 1.5 million known cases - and many more that have to be guessed at from dwindling stock levels. It is a huge problem, for which we all pay in the long run because 'shrinkage', as it is known, is eventually added to the prices we pay. Like all retailers, Boots suffers from its fair share of shoplifting.

Natalie arranged her test with propriety. She went to the shop beforehand and bought a big bottle of purple bubble bath costing pounds 2.80 - big and purple so that everyone would see it; bubble bath 'because we're all poor and I wanted some anyway'. Then she went outside and waited 30 minutes while her three friends took up observation positions and the shop filled with new customers. Natalie was now ready to start her experiment.

'I felt so awful,' she explains. 'I could feel my heart racing and I was really shaky. I did think about pulling out, but I thought 'I've got to do it', because it was an experiment. Anyway, I had already paid for the bubble bath.'

Why so worried? She shrugs. 'Because I was pretending to be a shoplifter, and that's not the sort of thing you want to go round doing.'

She goes on: 'I went to a quiet corner and took the bottle out of my bag and started walking round with it in my hand. When I found a lady who was taking her time, I made sure I got eye contact with her. I held the bottle in front of me so she could see I was taking something. Then I took my bag off my shoulder, opened it and put the bottle inside. This was all done while I was facing her. I put the bag on my shoulder and looked at her again to make sure she realised what I had done, and I walked out.'

And?

'The woman did nothing.'

Natalie's friends were disappointed because they had nothing to record in their notebooks, but it was early days yet. Five minutes later, Natalie returned and did it again in front of someone else. Still nothing.

She did it again. And again. And again. Natalie says: 'My friends recorded that people were staring at me with a look of disbelief on their faces. But they did nothing.'

Natalie went through the same routine in front of men and women, in singles and in groups of two, three and four. One man followed her out, then got on his bicycle and rode away. Three teenage girls stared at Natalie both inside the store and outside when she and her friends were resting on a bench. But they, too, said and did nothing.

In fact, nobody responded at all until experiment number 15, when Natalie picked on a lone, middle- aged woman in a red beret.

'I put the bottle in my bag and she started coming down the aisle towards me. Then a man walked between us and I walked out, but my friends said she would have grabbed me if the man hadn't got in the way.'

That woman did report the 'theft' to staff, but this one incident was the full extent of civic conscience expressed in Lewes that afternoon, despite all the provocation. Natalie 'robbed' Boots 22 times and nobody else said a word.

'People don't want to get involved,' Natalie says. 'If anything happens they just want to stay right out of it. I don't know why. I think it's just the way we are.'

Professor Adrian Furnham, a psychologist at University College London, offers two explanations: 'One is the diffusion of responsibility - why the hell should I do something when there are other people here to do it? Why should I be the one? And then there is the fear of a faux pas.'

The woman who did respond, what made her any different? 'She didn't feel foolish and she knew what to do. I have done the same myself over a drunk in an off-

licence who put a bottle of whisky in his jacket. I knew what was going on and I don't like paying for shoplifters. But that doesn't mean I haven't walked past accidents.'

Professor Furnham believes that Natalie's experience had much to do with the anonymity of towns, and he doubts that her results would be replicated in, say, a small village store.

Nobody should be too cock-a- hoop about that, however. Eighty per cent of the UK's population lives in towns. James Bulger was pulled crying through an urban street; Les Reed was murdered on a Cardiff estate because he complained about yobs destroying traffic bollards.

Natalie sounds disappointed that her work produced so few conclusions for her project book, but at least she is glad about the woman in the red beret. 'I was so pleased,' she says. 'I thought, 'Well done.' '

Why? 'Because if I saw someone shoplifting I wouldn't let them get away with it.'

Why? 'Because we have done this experiment.' And if they hadn't? 'I don't know.'

You also have to ask whether Kitty Genovese, the woman who was stabbed in New York, would have met a different fate in Lewes.

(Photograph omitted)

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