If you build it, they will come. And if you put it on the table, chances are someone is going to take it.
This includes, but is certainly not limited to, condiment sachets, paper napkins, individual coffee creamers, cracker packets, and just about anything else “not wrapped for individual sale” that can easily be stuffed into purses and/or pockets without a single qualm.
Whether it’s your best friend, grandma, crazy uncle or maybe even yourself doing the lifting, evidence of the petty pilfering can be found in drawers and car glove boxes across the nation – each with their own little cache of restaurant and sugar caddy bounty.
“It’s easy for some people to say – to rationalize – taking these items is not going to have an impact. 'No one is going to feel it if I take five Sweet N’Lows,'” says Kristene Doyle, psychologist and the Executive Director of the Albert Ellis Institute.
For those people, it’s the restaurant's way of paying it forward.
“Although there is an unwritten understanding that condiments and small spices or ingredients for making the food served at restaurants more flavorful are there for limited use, some people choose to see this as an unpaid bonus of having come to the restaurant,” agrees Patricia Farrell, clinical psychologist and author of “How to Be Your Own Therapist.”
Farrell adds some of the caddy swipers might say to themselves, “It's there for me, isn't it? Why shouldn't I take it? If they only wanted me to have a little bit, why didn't they just put out a little bit?” - an example of what psychologists call attribution of responsibility.
“In other words, the person taking all of this stuff isn't responsible; it's the establishment's problem. They should have been more careful and it wouldn't have happened,” Farrell explains.
While every freebie opportunist has their own personal reasons for the habit, there are a couple non-pathological, generational factors as well: the current age of entitlement, and what has been identified as a Depression-era mindset.
Entitlement issues are especially prevalent in Generation X and Y (roughly defined as anyone born between 1964 and the mid-1990s), says Doyle.
“They’re used to being told they're perfect; they deserve what they want; they get what they want. It's the ‘if it’s there, I want it’ mentality,” Doyle explains.
On the other hand, the generation that experienced tough economic times, rationing and salvaging during the Depression and even up into World War II, learned to save, plan for possible need and prepare to be as resourceful as possible.
“From the Depression, it was 'we don’t have a lot, we might not have any in the future, I will gather it, hoard and reduce anxiety to ensure I’ll be OK,'” says Doyle.
And while it's easy to label younger people with a sense of entitlement and the older generation with the belief they "need" these items, clinical psychologist Noel Goldberg adds that age isn't always a defining factor.
“If you grew up with parents from the Great Depression, or grandparents from the Great Depression, they can pass on this learned behavior just like folks who have to ‘clean their plate’ when they eat,” he clarifies. Same goes for people who grew up with tough socioeconomic backgrounds.
In very severe cases of this behavior, deeper psychological reasons like kleptomania, hoarding or obsessive-compulsive disorder could be afoot.
Those with kleptomania will experience "an increasing tension or an irresistible urge prior to engaging in the behavior, followed by a feeling of pleasure, gratification, or relief during the behavior. It may also involve shame or guilt following the behavior," says Marla Deibler, clinical psychologist and the Director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia.
Hoarding, on the other hand, tends to be distorted belief about the value of items, adds Doyle. “People that are real hoarders have this excessive attachment to items that typically aren’t valuable.”
Goldberg further explains that for those with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, the anxiety relates to lack of control, so by hoarding, counting or keeping items, they somehow feel they are in more control over some type of anxiety.
Regardless of the reason, restaurant owners feel (and accommodate for) the expected pinch.
“As a restaurant operator, it is amazing to me how much of a negative financial impact every sugar packet, ketchup packet that leaves the building unaccounted for affects our bottom line,” says Nick Pihakis, CEO of Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q.
“Our table condiments account for about 1% of our total supply cost. I know this sounds unbelievable, but that equates to about $900,000 on an annual basis. As crazy as it may sound, we continue to stock our tables, for our guests, with these bits of convenience or opportunity, however you look at it.”
Like Pihakis, usually the business owner takes this standard of practice into account when budgeting and pricing items that are purchased.
As for the psychological takeaway, Deibler says, “The question is, where is the line drawn? Stealing a cracker, a pack of sugar, a salt shaker, a plate, or something larger and of more value? You decide.”