American Sociological Review

Date: 1956

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Public Attitudes Toward Stealing as Related to the Size of the Victim Organization1

This study concerns attitudes toward stealing from each of three categories of organizations: small business, large business, and government. It was conducted in an effort to determine how size of the victim organization affects public attitudes toward stealing. The study seemed important not only for the immediate issue, but also for possible insights into attitudes toward bureaucracy, especially its impersonal aspects, and for what it could add to an understanding of the relationship between organizational size and attitudes in general. Usual assumptions pertaining to the effect of organizational size on attitudes suggest the following hypothesis: If obliged to choose, most individuals would prefer to steal from, and be more approving of others stealing from, large scale, impersonal rather than from small scale, personal organizations.

To explore this hypothesis a systematic random sample of 212 non-transient adults of Bloomington, Indiana, was drawn and interviewed in their homes. These individuals in addition to background information queries were given fifteen hypo-thetic situational questions, a set of five for each type of organization, involving stealing from government (GOV), large business (LB), and small business (SB). The respondents were asked to approve or disapprove, using Likert scale categories, of stealing under a variety of circumstances. The first section of this paper analyzes situational question responses. A second section examines responses to a forced choice hypothetical circumstance query. Respondents were requested to select the one organization—GOV, LB, or SB—from which they would prefer to steal if forced by necessity. They were then asked to give reasons for their selection or rejection of each organization.


Cross correlations between each of the organizations indicate that respondents generally disapprove of stealing regardless of the size of the organization. Despite this general disapproval, important differences in degree of disapproval were found. The Stealing Attitude Scores (Table 1) show greatest disapproval toward stealing from SB and lesser disapproval toward stealing from LB and GOV. Although differences in degree of disapproval between LB and GOV are negligible, the results, at least for the large versus small dichotomy, support the hypothesis.


When the Stealing Attitude Scores of people with various backgrounds are compared, some further differentiation is discovered. In terms of socio-economic status it was found that regardless of organizational size, the lower the SES, the greater the approval of stealing.2 Similar results were obtained by separate analysis of occupation and education. In general, on Counts’ occupational scale, respondents who rated lower were more approving than were those who rated higher. The same consistency was found in connection with level of education. Respondents with less than thirteen years of schooling were less disapproving of stealing than were those with more education.

Although relationships between approval or disapproval and social class exist, the various socio-economic levels seem to be affected differentially by the size of the victim organization. Table 2 demonstrates that lower socio-economic respondents show the greatest proportional difference in scores between government and small business. A 77 per cent proportional difference resulted for lower SES as compared with 38 per cent for upper respondents, indicating the differential effect of organizational size upon subjects’ attitudes. Respondents, then from lower socio-economic levels, are more affected by size of organization than are those from upper levels.

Comparable relationships of the following sort were also found:

1. Sex. Stealing Attitude Scores for the sample of 110 men and 102 women differ, with females more inclined to approve of stealing than males. However, men who approved did so to a greater degree than did women. Analysis of the differences in scores between GOV and SB, for both men and women, in the most disapproving column (21–25) testifies that size of the victim organization also affects men differently than women. Females, although more approving of stealing, showed the greatest proportional attitudinal difference against stealing when SB is the victim: 67 per cent compared to a 54 per cent difference for men.

2. Religiosity. Analysis of religiosity and Stealing Attitude Scores indicates nominally religious respondents as more critical of stealing than respondents not claiming religion. Examination of the most disapproving category reveals no change in the proportionate difference of attitude from GOV to SB. However, non-religious respondents were least disapproving of stealing from LB. Comparison between low disapproval and high disapproval scores for religious and non-religious respondents, using LB as the base for non-religious subjects in this instance, indicates that nonreligious interviewees show the greatest proportional difference: 81 per cent as against 56 per cent for religious respondents.

3. Veterans. Although male veterans of World War II were more approving of stealing than were male non-veterans, veterans were more affected by size of the victim organization. Comparison of differences between GOV scores and SB scores shows that veterans differed 86 per cent; non-veterans only 47 per cent.

Note has been taken that: (1) Nearly all respondents disapproved of the stealing behavior outlined in the situational questions, regardless of size of the victim organization. (2) Intensity of disapproval varied with size of the organization. Respondents were more disapproving of stealing from SB than from LB or GOV.

(3) Further variations in attitudes were related to other social elements such as SES, sex, religiosity and group membership. (4) Additional differences in attitudes as affected by organizational size were observed within each of these social units. (5) The influence on stealing attitudes of any one background classification seems to depend on its relationship to one or more classifications.


To arrive at the basis for these differences in attitudes, each respondent was asked to choose the type of organization from which he would rather steal if in need and he felt he had no other choice. Interviewees were then requested to explain their preference. In general respondents remained faithful to their strong disapproval of stealing from SB. However, the forced stealing question produced an altered order of stealing approval: LB now became the preferred first choice, then GOV and finally SB. The forced stealing choice reveals more than a change in order; of greater significance is the large number who preferred to steal from LB rather than from GOV as compared to the negligible difference in approval between LB and GOV when the situational questions were employed. Now 102 respondents preferred to steal from LB; 53 from GOV; and 10 from SB. Of the remaining subjects nine did not distinguish between LB and GOV, five did not differentiate at all, thirty refused to steal under any condition, and three would not answer the question.

Respondents who made a stealing choice used two basic lines of reasoning to explain their preference—these involved consideration of the principles of least evil and/or least risk. The majority had registered their disapproval of stealing when they answered the situational questions. The selection question forced them to make a stealing preference for themselves. This placed them in a situation many found objectionable. To modify this position, most respondents decided from which organization stealing was the lesser evil before choosing their victim.

The second major line of reasoning involved the principle of least risk. The possibility of being caught and punished for theft seems to have a strong influence on stealing preference. However, this reasoning often runs counter to the first. Respondents who conceive of the problem in terms of both concepts and who cannot integrate them must weigh and evaluate the principle of lesser evil against the principle of least risk. Although these themes run through most of the reasons advanced by respondents for their stealing, different categories of interviewees see these ideas in different ways. An analysis of these various categories of stealing preference and reasons advanced for stealing choice in its relationship to size of the victim organization follows.

SB as the Preferred Victim

Of the 212 respondents, only eight men and two women preferred to steal from SB. Their mean scores for the situational questions are slightly lower than those of subjects in other categories, and they show a greater predisposition toward cheating SB than do other respondents. This is the only category where the mean score for SB is not the most disapproving score. The order of mean scores from the most disapproving to least disapproving for these individuals is: LB 20.0, SB 19.5 and GOV 18.6 (the most disapproving score for each classification is 25).

Their reasons for choosing SB as the potential victim were relatively simple and direct. Selection was made mainly on the principle of the least risk. Even if caught, these respondents felt that the small business man, who was on personal terms with his customers, would be more lenient than the managers of LB or GOV. A woman respondent put it: "The small businessman would be more human; he would give you a break. Big businessmen are cold-blooded and the government of course, might catch you."

The risk factor seemed to operate as a deterrent for these respondents. They did not feel more justified in cheating SB as against the other organizations, but they perceived the situation as involving the least risk. Only one respondent felt morally justified in stealing from SB. Most were afraid of the consequences of stealing from large scale organizations. Government especially inspired the fear of being caught and sentenced. The replies indicate that were it not for the fear of punishment, these individuals might have preferred to steal from the larger organizations. Their use of the principle of least risk seems to run counter to the original hypothesis which implies that the respondents would be more kindly disposed toward personal small business than toward impersonal large business. However, the findings revealed that though the personal element is recognized, it is evaluated in conjunction with fear of discovery and punishment. For these respondents the principle of least risk seems to have more importance for their decisions on stealing than the principle of least evil.

LB as the Preferred Victim

One hundred and two members of the sample preferred to steal from LB. The overwhelming popularity of this type of organization reverses the disapproval order elicited by the situational questions. The mean scores for these questions indicated only minor attitudinal differences, especially between GOV and LB: 20.8 for SB, 19.6 for LB and 19.4 for GOV.

The forces making for favorable attitudes toward stealing from large scale business seem more complex than those involved in creating similar attitudes toward small business. Many reasons for and against stealing from LB were offered. Some involved conflicts of values which were difficult to resolve. Most respondents based their choice of LB as the victim on the principle of lesser evil, feeling that stealing from big business was not as bad as stealing from small business because LB was impersonal, powerful and ruthless.

While few respondents specifically mentioned the term "impersonal," they often implied it: "They’re corporations." "Big business deals with you at arm’s length; you can deal with it in the same way." For some, bigness and impersonality bred resentment and distrust. Two grounds were offered for this feeling; one concerned weakness generally associated with bureaucracy, the other the notion that big business is ruthless. Reasons advanced under the first classification claimed that LB wasted time, space, and energy. Second category reasons were more varied, for example: "I’m more callous toward big business because they’re more ruthless." "After all they cheat you." "Why don’t they pay a living wage?"

Many regarded big business profits as excessive and this belief was used by some as a basis for their resentment. Examples are numerous: "They have the highest margin of profits and can afford the loss better; besides they allow for it." "Big business has tremendous capital, a part of which they’ve cheated from me." Distrust and resentment of big business led 21 per cent of the individuals who would rather

steal from LB to apply the "eye for an eye" principle in making their decision. They believed that big business robbed them either by outright theft, or by charging exorbitant prices. In either event, this "behavior" on the part of LB provided justification for those who chose to steal from LB since they considered this decision the lesser evil. Another 68 per cent legitimated their preference for victimizing LB on a "Robin Hood" philosophy. For them robbing the rich to give to the poor—in this instance themselves—was a lesser evil.

Some preferences appeared based mainly on the principle of least risk. In all, seven per cent believed that LB provided more opportunity for theft with less chance of discovery or punishment. The anonymity of big business is believed to offer greater opportunity for stealing from LB rather than SB. The choice between the two large scale organizations was made in favor of LB as the victim because of the respondents’ greater fear of government. As one man expressed it: "There is no sense stealing from the government because the FBI is smarter than the police."

Grounds for stealing preference, even in the abstract, have been presented as if they were mutually exclusive, as if there were not a multiplicity of reasons which had to be considered and weighed before decision could be made. This is not so. The impersonality, the inconsiderate materialism, the opportunity offered by the anonymity big business provided were among the elements in favor of choosing LB. Many individuals who extended these reasons also had "cause" for not preferring LB, such as admiration for the big businessman, or intense dislike for government, or the belief that the small businessman might be more lenient if he caught them. Special difficulty arose when decision had to be made between LB and GOV where both organizations were considered big and both stand accused of bad bureaucratic practices.

Generally, however, grounds for preferring to steal from LB were related to reasons for not stealing from SB. One combination of reasons reads: "A man has to be very small to take from the little man. LB can afford it. If you clip government, you just clip yourself and what’s more, you have a good chance of being caught." Table 4 shows the relative frequency of these reasons.

The data presented for this category again point out that while bigness and its corollaries play important parts in affecting the decision to steal from LB, these

factors alone were often not sufficient to determine this choice. Many other reasons were offered. The pro and con of the particular choice appears to have been considered before final decision was made, and the principles of lesser evil and least risk run through the majority of the reasons proffered.

GOV as the Preferred Victim

Fifty-three members of the 212 sample chose to steal from government. Their mean scores (20.9 for SB, 20.2 for LB, and 19.5 for GOV) for the situational questions are slightly higher than those for respondents who chose SB or LB. The mean scores demonstrate that members of this category both preferred to steal from GOV and were less disapproving of others stealing from government.

The task of choosing a victim appears less complicated for these individuals than for those who preferred to steal from LB, but more complicated than for those who elected to steal from SB. Fewer secondary reasons for their choice were offered. Clear-cut primary reasons often coincided with reasons for not stealing from either SB or LB. Intense dislike for government also helped make for definite preferences.


All of the reasons for stealing listed in Table 5 involve the theme of lesser evil. Most of the 32 per cent who thought that government could best afford the loss felt also that what they might take would not hurt it to the extent that similar thefts would affect smaller organizations. This notion is subscribed to by an additional eight per cent who believed that stealing from GOV was the lesser evil because the loss was well distributed. The choice was further justified on grounds that a great deal of money was collected in taxes; some of this taxation, it was hinted, was unnecessary. Many argued then, that GOV was big and wealthy and stated their preference in terms of the "Robin Hood" principle.

Bureaucracy, which was equated to size and disfunctioning, was an additional justification for the choice of GOV as the victim. Although this type of criticism was leveled against LB, it was more frequently applied to GOV. Such items as waste and red tape were not uncommon grounds for stealing preference. Only 9 per cent of this category proferred this as their primary reason, but many others mentioned bureaucratic inefficiencies as a secondary reason. That bigness and its corollaries played a part in determining this choice is seen in the following examples: "Government is the bigger concern; it wouldn’t hurt government as bad as an individual or smaller concern." "They waste anyhow; they throw away more than I would take."

Though GOV is generally conceived of as larger than LB, the section of Table 4 dealing with GOV indicates the importance of factors other than size as a determinant of choice for some respondents. Concepts of loyalty, patriotism and fear of government swayed many individuals to select LB rather than GOV. Yet, size was still important for many of those who chose to steal from government.

The bigness of GOV, however, does not account for all who elected it as the victim. Lesser evil may be premised on factors other than bigness, and the 13 per cent who were against the Democratic administration grounded their judgment on this theme. Their feelings are reflected in such statements as: "I’m anti-socialist." "It’s a God damned government anyway—if it were O.K., I’d take from big business."

Another category felt that stealing from GOV was the lesser evil because the respondents were part of the government and had contributed to its support. They reasoned that stealing from GOV would be stealing from themselves, and so less criminal. These individuals were among the most difficult to force into a decision involving their possible stealing. Their scores on the situational questions were among the most disapproving. They selected GOV reluctantly and only because they felt this choice was the least dishonest.

An additional 13 per cent whose scores on the situational questions were also very disapproving, thought that it was government’s function to take care of the needy. These individuals intimated that if government failed in its duty, they were then more justified in stealing from it.

The following generalizations seem to be indicated: (1) While bigness and impersonality played a part in determining the preference for GOV as the victim, these elements do not seem as important for this category as they did for LB. (2) Other factors with strong emotional overtones—loyalty, patriotism, even anti-administration sentiment—appear to affect the decisions of some of the respondents. (3) Making decisions for this category seems easier than for those who chose LB, but not as easy as for those who selected SB. (4) Enough reasons pro and con were advanced so that the weighing process noted in the selection of LB was evident once again. (5) Some of the same reasons for preferring to steal from LB were again in evidence for those who selected GOV.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

1 From , 1956, 21:320–327. By permission.

2 This finding is consistent with attitudes concerning "chiseling" unemployment compensation from the government. However, this lesser disapproval on the part of lower SES respondents probably does not justify any conclusions about a greater morality on the part of the upper classes.


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Chicago: "Public Attitudes Toward Stealing as Related to the Size of the Victim Organization1," American Sociological Review in Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, ed. Young, Kimball, and Mack, Raymond W. (New York: American Book Company, 1962), Original Sources, accessed December 3, 2022,

MLA: . "Public Attitudes Toward Stealing as Related to the Size of the Victim Organization1." American Sociological Review, Vol. 21, in Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, edited by Young, Kimball, and Mack, Raymond W., New York, American Book Company, 1962, Original Sources. 3 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: , 'Public Attitudes Toward Stealing as Related to the Size of the Victim Organization1' in American Sociological Review. cited in 1962, Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, ed. , American Book Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 3 December 2022, from