A Stolen iPad — Not: A Cascade of Judgment Errors

I went to the local Apple Store last Saturday to get a look at the new iPhones. It’s a busy Saturday afternoon at the mall and my usual parking spots, not far from the Apple Store, are full. I snake my way through the lot until I finally find an open spot way over behind the cinema. The extra distance isn’t too far and, besides, I can use the ‘clicks’ on my FitBit.

The store is alive with energy — not unusual for an Apple Store on a Saturday afternoon — but the crowd is just a little more dense today. The new iPhones are displayed on three large tables, one each for gold, silver, and Space Gray. The iPhone 6 an 6+’s are alternated so that everyone can compare each phone side by side.

I start at the gold table and decide that, as much as I like the color of the gold back, I do not care for the white front. The silver looks nice but there’s that white face again. Space Gray it is.

After about 45 minutes of comparing apps and websites and podcasts and emails, I am comfortable with my decision: Space Gray 6 Plus. I’ll buy it in a month, when the initial rush has settled down. I make my way back to the car and set my purse down on the driver’s seat. To my horror I discover that the iPad— that was in my purse an hour ago — is now gone.

I immediately flash back to the last hour in the Apple Store. The store was crowded. There was a lot of jostling and jockeying for positions at the tables. On three different occasions I respond to questions from complete strangers who appear to be trying to make the same decision that I am. In each case they have nudged their way up to the table next to me and in each case there are two people together. I am a little surprised at my extraversion but the people seem interested in my logic and the occasion seems to warrant it.

My tote bag sized purse was hanging — open — from my left elbow the entire time. Given how tall I am, this is a fairly comfortable height for someone to reach in during the bustle.

I open the ‘Find my Phone’ app on my iPhone and, without zooming in, convince myself that the iPad is still in the Apple Store. I lock the iPad remotely and sprint all the way back to the Apple store where a uniformed police officer is conveniently standing guard in front of the store. I tap the officer on the shoulder and I invite him over to the doors where I tell him that my iPad has been stolen and that it is still in the store. He asks me if it can be anywhere else and I assure him that it was in my purse when I entered the store an hour ago.

I start looking at every person leaving the store with great suspicion. By this time the store manager has joined in the fray. I activate the ‘ping’ feature a number of times and we’re all trying to listen above the din of the store. To no avail — the hubbub is just too loud. I seriously considering shouting and asking everyone to be quiet but decide, instead, for constraint.

I open Find my Phone again and this time make the effort to zoom in. I am dismayed to see that the iPad is now over by the theaters. Call off the search. My connect-the-dots mind quickly reasons that the culprits made a quick exit and disappeared into the anonymity of a dark movie theater. I have no choice now but to send the erase command to the iPad.

Realizing that the chance of immediate recovery are gone, the police officer begins to take my report. He writes down my identifying information from my driver’s license and asks me a few questions. We walk back to his car where he gets a business card so that I can send him the serial number when I get it from the someone at the Apple Store.

I get back to my car and my mind is reeling. I am disappointed that my usually optimistic view of humanity was now been tarnished by this theft of personal property. Damn, I want to trust, people but now I had an experience to the contrary.

 

And then reality returns. As I pull out of the parking lot, I hear a ‘slap’ as the iPad that was leaning up against center console flops onto the floor.

No! I had taken my iPad out to use while my partner was driving earlier and decided to leave it in the car rather than carry the extra pound of weight in the store. The iPad had not been stolen after all. I was just an idiot.

I went back to the store and apologized to officer and the store employees for my bout of idiocy. The officer rolled his eyes as if he had played out this scenario more than once before.

 

In the days since I have been deeply bothered by the incident. The details are subtle. Basically, I made several errors in judgement because of snap decisions in the moment.

  1. I jumped to the conclusion that my iPad was stolen. Rather than going with my general belief that people are basically good, I allowed myself one and only one conclusion. The immediacy of the crowd and the likelihood that the believed-to-be stolen iPad was still in the store added a sense of urgency and ruled out my usual stepping back and seeing if there were any other possible explanations.
  2. I did not zoom into Find my Phone when I first opened it. If I had have zoomed in I would have seen that the iPad was right beside me in the car the first time I looked it up.
  3. I did not park in my usual area when I come to the Apple Store. If I had have remembered that I was parked behind the theater, it might have occurred to me that the iPad was in the car rather than concluding that it was IN the theater (as my ‘thief’ script had told me).
  4. The presence of a police officer primed me into thinking that a theft was in progress.
  5. The scenes in which people brushed up against me to get to the table, while someone else asked me a question, reminded me of the classic pick-pocket technique and I was sure I had been the victim.

Daniel Kahneman is right. System 1 is unreliable. I made a cascade of quick judgments that were wrong. I am really quite embarrassed and not in any hurry to show my face at the Apple Store again.

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