ResearchBlogging.orgLast week I posted about the effects of alcohol availability on the amount of violence in an area and mentioned that disorder in the area might also contribute to this. I thought this needed expanding upon, are we really so shallow as a species that we allow the environment that we may be in only briefly to dictate how we behave?

This approach to behaviour is referred to as the Broken Windows Theory and states that signs of disorderly behaviour will beget more disorderly behaviour. These signs might be graffiti, littering or the observation that legitimate signage requesting a particular behaviour is being ignored. We are a species that learns by watching others, it is reasonable to conclude that we don’t only pick up good and productive behaviours in this way but potentially antisocial or destructive behaviours as well.

Acting on this theory cities around the world have embarked on projects to clean up urban areas in order to reduce the instance of petty crime. Trouble was that there was no conclusive evidence to back this theory up. A paper that goes some way towards rectifying this was published in late 2008. It looked at the effects of manipulating the environment on the propensity for people to break either social norms, police enforced ordinances or requests by companies.

The paper hypothesised that people were not merely copying behaviours but that indications of social or legal norms not being followed in an area allowed other personal goals to override our normal instincts to act in socially acceptable ways. To investigate this the researchers set up conditions to see if the breaking of one rule lead to the breaking of a different rule e.g. graffiti leading to littering or litter leading to stealing.

In all 6 studies were performed, in the first an ally where bicycles were commonly parked was set up to have either clean or graffiti covered walls. The effect of this environment on littering was then observed by attaching a useless flyer onto the bicycle handlebars and counting instances of littering compared to those that took the flyer with them (there were no bins in the ally). In the clean wall condition 33% of those collecting bikes littered, compared with 69% in the graffiti condition.

In the second study the conditions were whether an injunction to not lock bicycles to a fence would affect whether or not people would take a police sanctioned detour. Two signs were placed along the fence of a car-park, the first prohibited locking bicycles to the fence while the second advised that the closest entrance to the car-park was closed and that a second entrance 200 metres further along had to be used. The entrance was closed with a temporary fence but a gap left that could be used. Bicycles were then conspicuously left either locked or not locked to the fence. When the bicycles were not locked to the fence 73% of people entering the car-park took the detour compared with only 18% when the bikes were seen violating the sign.

I think we can see a pattern emerging. I’m going to skip the third and forth studies that are variations on the littering theme and to go straight for the fifth and sixth. These two studies concerned stealing and had very similar set-ups, an envelope visibly containing a €5 note was set-up hanging out of a mail collection box. The box was then either clean and the area around it tidy or the box was graffitied or there was litter around the box. Taking or opening the envelope were both counted as stealing. The clean and tidy condition resulted in 13% of passers-by stealing the envelope, whereas the graffiti and litter conditions resulted in 27% and 25% of people stealing respectively.

What does this tell us about human behaviour? First off I see it as very positive, social conventions are a powerful factor for encouraging acceptable behaviour, on balance people prefer to act responsibly in the absence of cues that suggest irresponsible behaviour is tolerated. This suggests that policing general behaviour may be achieved in a subtle fashion by re-enforcing social conventions rather than with actual shows of force and punishment. That said the authors of the paper take a slightly more pessimistic view of areas that have already succumbed to spreading disorder, concluding with this thought:

“.. once disorder has spread, merely fixing the broken windows or removing the graffiti may not be sufficient anymore. An effective intervention should now address the goal to act appropriately on all fronts.”

The trick then is prevention rather than clean-up, at least in areas where behaviours have become entrenched. I think this is good news over all.

Keizer, K., Lindenberg, S., & Steg, L. (2008). The Spreading of Disorder Science, 322 (5908), 1681-1685 DOI: 10.1126/science.1161405

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