Mystery of Disappearing Teaspoons

Things I learn from Twitter!!

Someone in my rapidly-flowing Twitter-stream posted a link to this brilliant 2005 study from Australia; my apologies for not remembering who posted the link. If someone knows, do let me know and I shall correct the attribution here.

The study by Lim et al., of the Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health Research, Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health, in Melbourne, Australia, was published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), and is freely accessible via PubMed Central: BMJ (2005) 331 (7531): 1498–1500.

The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute

This group of epidemiologists decided to apply time-honored epidemiological tools to a seemingly intractable and mystifying problem – the disappearance of stainless steel teaspoons from the tea-room of the institute, framed elegantly by the authors in the paper as “Where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?”.

The authors’ urge to do a systematic study to make some sense of the phenomenon of teaspoon loss was spurred on, it appears, by inexplicable betrayals by Google, Google Scholar, and Medline searches, all of which – probably in on the conspiracy – refused to reveal any pertinent information in response to the keywords “teaspoon”, “spoon”, “workplace”, “loss” and “attrition”. Aiming to answer two questions,

  1. To figure out the overall rate of loss (defined, rather sweetly, as ‘displacement’) of teaspoons at the institute, and
  2. To find if any possible correlation exists between the said displacement and the relative value of the teaspoons or type of tearoom,

the authors designed a longitudinal (involving repeated observations of the same variables over a period of time) cohort study, employing 70 teaspoons, discreetly numbered and placed in tearooms around the institute, and observed weekly over a period of 20 weeks, a total of 5668 teaspoon days (teaspoon days = sum of all the days on which the teaspoons were observed). They proceeded with great planning – doing first a small pilot study to determine feasibility, followed by a main study with a larger cohort.

During the main study, half of the total teaspoons disappeared permanently (defined as the ‘half life of the teaspoons’) in 81 days. The type of tearoom setting (communal vs. isolated rooms linked to specific departmental programs) affected the rate of loss, with more spoons leaving the former than the latter. Surprisingly, the quality of the material (stainless steel) of the spoon was not a factor in the rate of loss – an observation which adequately allays my suspicion that this study was covertly funded by the Association of Cutlery Plasticware Manufacturers of Australia. (Not that I am aware of the existence of such an entity; nevertheless…)

The authors discovered that the incidence of teaspoon loss was high enough to warrant an annual purchase of estimated 250 teaspoons, in order to maintain a practical institute-wide population of 70 teaspoons, and concluded that office teaspoons, in their institution, are under constant threat of disappearance. Which is perhaps not surprising, given that, in a follow-up questionnaire, 38% of respondents (from a pool of 90-odd employees) admitted to stealing a teaspoon at least once in their lifetime, and 17% disagreed that stealing teaspoons is wrong.

Attempting to explain the phenomenon of uncontrollable teaspoon displacement, the authors have drawn a parallel with noted ecologist Garrett Hardin’s essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, an instance of over-exploitation of shared resources by individuals, who – in spite of being aware that the depletion of shared resources is ultimately detrimental to all users – nevertheless persist in that behavior finding no harm in the fractional loss via their own agency. To me, this also hearkens back to the story (of uncertain provenance, heard during childhood) of a king who had urged his people to donate a jar of milk, one jar from each household, to the royal pond during the night. Everyone thought that one could simply pour, unnoticed, a jar of water in the pond, since everyone else was sure to bring milk. The following morning pond was only filled with water, since everyone was driven by the exact same thought of self-entitlement.

The authors have, as a result, recommended the development of effective control measures to deter the migration of teaspoons, ranging from designing (or renovating) tearooms – which, in my opinion, should probably be equipped with continuously monitored surveillance equipment – to tagging individual teaspoons via Microchips and Global Positioning Satellite (GPS)-based tracking systems. Other intriguing possibilities, proffered subsequently by other distinguished researchers with experience of similar predicaments, include:

  • Immobilisation, or altogether non-provision of the teaspoons as alternative solutions to manage their disappearance [T Watts, BMJ (2006) 332 (7533): 121]
  • The reappearance of truant teaspoons on their own following a day of complete unavailability of the said items, which may reduce the anticipated need for repurchase [K Darton, BMJ (2006) 332 (7533): 121]
  • Inherent flexibility in the very definition of ‘teaspoons’ (given the various modes in which spoons may be utilized) which may invalidate the very premise of the study [D Silver, BMJ (2006) 332 (7533): 121]
  • Potential confounding factors, which have not been considered in the design or analysis of the study, including the numbers of tea-bags, forks, and the ratio of tea-drinkers vs. instant coffee drinkers [A Woodall, BMJ (2006) 332 (7533): 121]

In a comment, B Herer, a physician from France, alerted to the possibility that this may be not an Australian or English, but a global, phenomenon, given the observation at his hospital near Paris that approximately 1800 spoons disappeared during lunchtime from the hospital cafeteria during first five months of 2001 [B Herer, BMJ (2006) 332 (7533): 121].

The cynic in me can’t help feeling that this is a sad commentary on the greed and selfishness of human individuals – an idea reinforced by the revelation, in the article, that as many as five potentially lost teaspoons reappeared after the results were disclosed internally. Nevertheless, the authors have brought up two intriguing (albeit speculative) alternative possibilities in the discussion:

  1. Resistentialism, the belief that inanimate objects have a natural antipathy towards humans, driven by which the teaspoons are migrating and disappearing on their own, or
  2. Escape to a spoonoid planet; in their words:

Somewhere in the cosmos, along with all the planets inhabited by humanoids, reptiloids, walking treeoids, and superintelligent shades of the colour blue, a planet is entirely given over to spoon life-forms. Unattended spoons make their way to this planet, slipping away through space to a world where they enjoy a uniquely spoonoid lifestyle, responding to highly spoon oriented stimuli, and generally leading the spoon equivalent of the good life.

Any scientific paper, which references the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by the inestimable Douglas Adams (referred in the article in support of the spoonoid proposition), is an absolute winner in my book!

Or, perhaps, there is no spoon?


Oh, and fun stuff I learned from the paper: the word ‘flunky’ – for a research assistant – can be unabashedly incorporated in a scientific paper. Now I simply have to find a context to use it in my next paper.

3 Comments

  1. Great, isn’t it!? If you observe this phenomenon in your own here institution, I suggest instigating a search of the bottom drawers of office desks.

    ‘… tearooms – which, in my opinion, should probably be equipped with continuously monitored surveillance equipment…’

    Please tell me you’re kidding, right?

    • Kausik Datta

      January 26, 2013 at 4:24 pm

      Please tell me you’re kidding, right?

      Why, no, Lee! That proposition is perfectly in line with the authors’ suggestion of microchipping and GPS-tracking each individual teaspoon for better post-displacement retrieval.
      😀

  2. Khalil A. Cassimally

    January 28, 2013 at 11:20 am

    Why, this is awesome and such a typical Australian thing to do! Science with a sense of humour is the way to go if you ask me. BMJ does have those gems from time to time though, doesn’t it?

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