Monday, June 18, 2007

Using Incentives in Unusual Ways

This past week I had an opportunity to make use of the power of incentives in an unusual way. The neighborhood kids, who are very cute and friendly, come through the house to play with our dog. Sometimes they hang out in the living room and watch TV or sit at the counter while I work in the kitchen.

Last Wednesday evening I realized my cell phone was missing. I had used it the previous evening to make a call, and hadn't touched it since then. It was not where I recalled leaving it. The only people in the house since that call were me, my wife, and a neighborhood kid (who was about twelve years old) who passed through to play with Charlie. Lest you get the wrong impression, we don't just leave the door open. The kids come to the door, knock, and I take them to the backyard.

The twelve-year old girl was my prime suspect. The other possibility was that I had moved the phone and forgotten it, but I ruled that out after my wife got home Thursday evening. I tried calling my phone from her phone but got no answer. I called Verizon to report my phone lost or stolen and asked them to disable it.

The next day was hot and dry, so the neighborhood kids opened a fire hydrant (as they often do) and played in the jet of water. I took the dog outside for a walk, and took note of which kids were outside playing. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to make use of the power of incentives! I called over one of the little kids, a third grader, who is extremely cute and sweet. I told her that I had lost my cell phone, and whoever got it back to me would get $20. She was very excited, and she ran over to tell her friends.

Word apparently got around quickly, as another kid I had never seen before came over to verify the offer and get a description of the phone. I printed out a picture. Within thirty minutes of the original offer they had figured out the culprit (it was indeed my prime suspect, the girl who had come through the house), but they could not convince her to give up the phone. I did not want to get directly involved in order to minimize conflict with neighbors. I decided to simply wait to see what would develop.

After about an hour another neighborhood kid (one of the kids who gave us our dog, actually, and a regular visitor to our house) stopped asking if he could walk our dog. I said he could, and he said he could take me to the house of the girl who had stolen my phone. We walked up the street, and the girl's mother was leaning out of the door. She asked me to come in.

Once inside, the mother ranted at her daughter for quite a while, saying that the daugher had "brought devil work into her house". Apparently the mother had played in the water from the fire hydrant with the kids, and $60 had fallen out of her pocket and been lost. She thought this was a cosmic injustice, as she felt she was a good mother, but a neighbor told her that it was due to "devil work" that had been brought into her house. She dismissed the idea, but then thought about the cell phone her daughter had given her...

Apparently her daughter had come home the night before with a cell phone and charger (I hadn't even realized the charger was missing), saying that another neighborhood kid had found it. The kid in question had not been in our house in over a week. The mother took the phone with the intent to put a new SIM chip in it, giving it a new number and making it her own phone. She would give her daughter her old phone. She got suspicious, however, when I tried to call the number last night from my wife's phone, and decided not to get the chip replaced.

I verified that it was my phone by looking at the pictures on it. The daughter had erased most of the pictures, but there were still two pictures of our deceased cat and one picture of my wife's grandmother. The daughter had also erased all our contacts. Amazingly, the daughter had been unable to place any calls from the phone because she didn't realize that it had an Atlanta area code. She needed to dial 615 first to make calls here in Nashville.

The daughter still denied stealing the phone, even though it was clear at this point that there was no other way the phone could have escaped the house. At this point I decided to pretend I was a deceitful police officer. I told her, truthfully, that there is a webcam in our living room, and that it updates every few seconds. I also told her that the pictures are stored for later viewing. That part was a lie, but she didn't know that. She had probably seen the webcam in the past, as she was fascinated with MP3 players, cell phones, and other small electronics. I told her that she could continue to deny she stole the phone, but that it would probably go easier for her to admit it now, rather than having me go back home and pull up a picture of her caught in the act of stealing the phone.

Faced with the possibility of evidence, she finally confessed, and her mother gave her a sermon. The daughter was ordered to apologize to me, which she did. The mother repeatedly mentioned the $60 that she had lost, obviously fishing to get the $20 that I had promised for the return of the phone. I felt that the $20 belonged to the kid that had brought me over to the house, but in order to avoid tension with a neighbor I paid the woman $20, took my phone and charger, and left. I promised the other child that I would still give him $20, which I did the next day (I had to go by the bank).

It was pretty stupid of me to allow someone to steal my cell phone and charger from my house, and I ended up paying $40 to get them back, but I think it could have ended much worse. It would have cost more than $40 to replace the cell phone, and I could have angered my neighbors by being more aggressive, or elevated tensions even higher by bringing in the police. I was also pleased that I managed to get other people to do some of the work for me. In hindsight, if I had been really clever I would never have disabled the phone. Instead I would have simply walked around the neighborhood calling my phone from my wife's phone, waiting to hear a ring. Then again, as far as I knew, the phone had been sold and was nowhere near my house. I think $40 was a fair price to pay for both the return of my phone and a good story to tell.