Sandefer’s evolution of thinking aligns with how Robert Feldman, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who studies everyday deceptions such as white lies, makes sense of friends’ semi-thefts. Feldman thinks that people genuinely intend to return borrowed items, but that they often forget to, and then later are too embarrassed to admit that they still have whatever they took. “As time goes on,” he told me, “the easier behavior is to simply hold on to things and convince yourself that if my friend wanted it, he or she would be asking me for it.” On top of that, the friend in that scenario might hesitate to inquire about the unreturned item, because that could come off as petty. And so the item stays put in its new home.
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After an object changes hands, any guilt associated with taking it tends to conveniently fade. “There is a point at which it becomes not something that is borrowed, but something that is now part of your world,” Feldman said. “You don’t feel guilt about it, and don’t think about how you got it, about the true ownership and the source.” This is an example of how proficient people are, he said, “at bending reality to suit our needs.”
Feldman suspects that people generally resist labeling their behavior as stealing even if that is, on some level, what they’ve done. When I asked Carruthers what word he’d use to describe what he did, he said, “I think stealing is probably accurate, but inaccurate for the good feelings I had and still have for my dear friend. It wasn’t borrowing—this was a total theft. Let’s split the difference and call it acquiring.”
Whatever you call it, and however innocuous it seems, it does erode trust. “Is it going to ruin a friendship? Probably not,” Feldman said. “But I think anytime you do something that makes you feel guilty or makes you go through cognitive machinations to try to explain a behavior to yourself, I think that can hurt a relationship.”
Indeed, some people remember unreturned items for a long time. Ashley Arruda, a 32-year-old college student in Winnipeg, Canada, told me that she still sometimes thinks about the VHS tape of the girl-group movie Spice World that she lent to a friend and never got back. That was more than 20 years ago.
“I was a little pissed off” at the time, Arruda said, but not anymore. Even so, and even though she assumes that the VHS was thrown out years ago, the incident still pops into her head every so often, when she hears a Spice Girls song.
Those who still have a friend’s possession may, after months or years, wonder whether they should finally return it. Basic ethics would seem to recommend doing so, but friendship hardly requires it. Langan noted that if two people remain good friends even after one takes something from the other, their friendship has absorbed the tension. Maybe an apology would mend some small tear in the relationship, but, in general, Langan doesn’t see a pressing need to “readdress a past infraction when it doesn’t matter for us now.” (But if the person who was stolen from remains upset, it might be a good idea for them to bring it up, for the sake of the friendship.)