Where have all the teaspoons gone? Have you ever wondered? We did and we turned up a paper by researchers at the Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health in Melbourne, Australia. Puzzled by the continual disappearance of cutlery from their lunchrooms, they did what good scientists do: conducted an experiment. And, as they say on social media, "You won't believe what they found!"
But that's putting the cart before the horse … or more accurately, the discussion before the methods.
In a 2005 paper titled "The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute," researchers tracked the rate of disappearance of marked stainless steel teaspoons from the institute's eight lunchrooms.
They found that within five months, 80% of the subject teaspoons had vanished. The rate of disappearance was somewhat higher in communal lunchrooms (those that served the institute at large) than at the lunchrooms that were used by specific groups, but only slightly.
What caused the disappearances? This is where things get really interesting.
The first possibility raised is based on the familiar economic concept of the "tragedy of the commons" -- which holds that when individuals share property, they tend to exploit it more for themselves at the expense of the group as a whole.
"In the Burnet Institute the commons consists of a communally owned set of teaspoons; teaspoon users (consciously or otherwise) make decisions that their own utility is improved by removing a teaspoon for personal use, whereas everyone else's utility is reduced by only a fraction per head ('after all, there are plenty more spoons…')," the authors wrote. "As more and more teaspoon users make the same decision, the teaspoon commons is eventually destroyed."
But they considered other, darker possibilities as well.
"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," they speculated. "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."
Even worse, the disappearing teaspoon syndrome could be a sign that the whole world is against us.
"Our data might also be contemplated through the prism of counterphenomenological resistentialism, which holds that les choses sont contre nous (things are against us)," they wrote. "Resistentialism is the belief that inanimate objects have a natural antipathy towards humans, and therefore it is not people who control things but things that increasingly control people. Although it seems unreasonable to say that the teaspoons are exerting any influence over the Burnet Institute's employees (with the exception of the authors), their demonstrated ability to migrate and disappear shows that we have little or no control over them."