In one of his latest efforts, typical of his research style, Trinkaus sat quietly at a church near New York Citys Penn Station, observing whether visitors actually paid for the church-offered candles they lit. He found that the percentage of those making donations of any kind declined from 92 percent in 1998 to 28 percent in 2003. The study ended late last year, when, to curtail its financial losses, the church stopped leaving the candles out.
Trinkaus veered off the traditional academic path in 1978, while spending a week in a jury pool. Fellow would-be jurors fell into two camps, he found: "those who wanted to be on the jury in the worst possible way and those who wanted to be off in the worst possible way." There was almost no middle ground. He wrote up his observations for Psychological Reports, the first of scores of articles he calls "informal looks" to distinguish them from the more substantial papers he writes on business ethics and other topics. He looks for trends, trying to "put some numbers on things" that others may have already suspected.
The supermarket is a great place to study human behavior, Trinkaus says. In a 1993 report, he described 75 visits in which he watched the same checkout lane for 15-minute stints. He stood off to the side, holding a shopping cart so as not to attract attention, discreetly keeping records with a handheld counter. He discovered that only 15 percent of the shoppers obeyed the 10-item limit; most exceeded the limit by two items. In a follow-up report in 2002, just 7 percent of the buyers obeyed the limit, and the violators purchased 14 items, on average. People also split large orders in half to meet the posted limit. Shoppers were no better behaved in the bakery department; 90 percent of the shoppers used their hands rather than tongs to select items. The availability of tissue paper helped, but not by much: 60 percent still used their hands.
Trinkaus claims that "all my studies point in the same directionthat things are changing for the worse" in terms of courtesy and civility. "Were seeing more selfish behavior, more people looking out for themselves," he notes. He suspects that Americans infatuation with technologycell phones, MP3 players and the Internethas led to a lack of communication. "People interact less with one another these days and more with machines. That can be isolating, possibly contributing to antisocial behavior."
Trinkaus realizes that his reports lack scientific rigor but also believes that a quick, preliminary look at a subject can be instructive. "My main hope is to get people to think," he says. "And to smile. Theres not enough smiling in this world."
Steve Nadis does his food shopping in Cambridge, Mass., where hes been known to exceed the 10-item limit.