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A Hitch In The Sharing Economy: Why Consumers Don't Take Care Of Shared Objects

Double park. Give it a dent. Don’t change the oil. A new study finds that people treat their Zipcars like a magic fairy will come fix everything once they’re done with it.

In the new sharing economy, participants can receive all sorts of goods and services without buying a single new object. The burgeoning economy, led by startups like task-sharing service TaskRabbit, carsharing services RelayRides and Getaround, and home-sharing service Airbnb, asks just one simple thing of its users: that they trust each other. Generally, this concept works (though occasionally it doesn’t). But a new study warns that participants may not always take the best care of their loaned objects because they don’t feel a psychological sense of ownership.

The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, examines the use case of Zipcar—a carsharing service where participants rent vehicles from a company instead of other people (a la RelayRides and Getaround), but many of the results could apply to the latter companies, as well as sharing services in other industries. The researchers conducted 40 interviews with Zipcar members in Boston and rode in vehicles with members of the service.

Unsurprisingly, the study authors found that Zipcar members don’t feel a sense of ownership of their rented vehicles. One member named Mike described in the study how he feels about Zipcars: "I’ll double park a Zipcar real quick if I’m just running into Starbuck’s or something. Which I wouldn’t want to do with my car. Or, I’ll parallel a Zipcar in a tighter spot than I would with mine because it’s not mine. I’m just not worried about it. When I’m driving a Zipcar, it’s like any other service that you do. It’s convenient. Like if I’m in a restaurant, I don’t think I own the kitchen. If I’m in a Zipcar, I don’t feel like I own the car, I’m just using the service."

Mike—and presumably many other Zipcar users—view each Zipcar as a platform for a service more than an object. And that leads them to take risks with the vehicles that they might not do otherwise.

There’s also the problem of negative reciprocity. According to the study, there are three basic types of reciprocity that occur when people exchange objects: generalized reciprocity (nothing is expected in return), balanced reciprocity (where goods or services are given with the expectation that a similar good or service will be received), and negative reciprocity (good and services are exchanged in the name of self-interest, with just one side benefiting). The researchers found significant feelings of negative reciprocity among Zipcar users.

Zipcar member Chuck described the feeling: "You can just beat the hell out of it; it’s not your car. Like, I don’t have to think about changing the oil; I don’t have to care whether or not the tires are flat. … And you know some magic car fairy will come and fix whatever is not right with it later."

As with many sharing services, Zipcar takes great care to ensure that users are respectful—they get slapped with fines if they leave the gas tank empty or fail to keep the vehicle clean. But that’s not always a deterrent; I have stepped into many Zipcars only to find that they are filthy and need gas.

The good news is that these feelings of negative reciprocity may not always extend to sharing services that allow for more direct personal contact with other users—in peer-to-peer carsharing, for example. As the report explains, "There is no sense of mutual responsibility toward others, which we explain by the fact that the access experience is mediated by Zipcar." Services that have less mediation or involve different kinds of goods and services won’t necessarily have the same problems—especially if they also have a user rating (or reputation) system that keeps people accountable and ensures trust.

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  • kd

    Makes a lot of sense, the motivation for doing these things, as you describe reciprocity may be extrinsic - having to do with money and ownership, and this phenomena extends to almost every communal shared service or product, inherently, the we have taught ourselves to only care and be mindful only when we own something or we get paid to do something. In some cases even getting paid is not enough 

  • Enoch Wurzel

    Wouldn't a user rating service provide some sort of solution here?
    I mean, you wouldn't "rent" your car, flat etc... to someone you know has repeatedly failed to take care with other users. if it worked well enough for Ebay, it must work for other cases.

  • Blackbird

    Isn't that the "tragedy of the commons" phenomenon at work? If no one is protecting a property, it will be abused, hence the importance (in simplistic economic theory) of private property.

  • Enquiring mind


    Yes it is a similar dynamic to the one outlined in "tragedy of the commons" and in some game theories.

    Such phenomenon/theories are generally found to not hold true when social interaction is introduced.  This is touched upon in the article and feedback (like ebay) could be a way of effectively introducing such interaction into this particular business model.

    Also see

  • Alex

    I'm a former ZipCar member and frequently would get dirty, even nasty cars with broken trim and signs of abuse. And virtually every time I got in the car it had just barely 1/4 of a tank. If you're booked for 5 hours, no big deal. But if you're booked for 90 minutes and had no time to spare (often because that was all that was available) it was a huge hassle. It's a great concept, but I think these problems need to be addressed.