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Science: Evidence of Disorder Can Lead to More Disorder
Graffiti on a utilities box in Vancouver
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A series of clever experiments performed in the Netherlands shows that signs of social disorder, such as graffiti and littering, can increase peoples' willingness to disobey social rules, researchers say.
This finding, reported in the latest issue of Science, is particularly important for policy makers and police officers because it reinforces the "Broken Windows Theory," which suggests that the environment can have a significant effect on whether or not someone participates in antisocial behavior—the backbone of many crime prevention efforts.
Researcher Kees Keizer and colleagues from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands executed six carefully controlled field experiments that tested whether or not people were more willing to defy social norms when they were presented with evidence that other people were doing so. They found that environment did indeed affect peoples' behavior: The mere presence of graffiti, for example, more than doubled the number of people littering and stealing.
In one of their experiments, the team of researchers attached paper fliers to bicycles that were parked in an alley with a sign that prohibited graffiti. The researchers covertly observed people as they retrieved their bicycles from the alley, and noted what they did with the paper fliers. Their results are striking.
One day, when the walls of the alley were free of graffiti, about a third of the cyclists littered their flier on the ground. But, on another day, when the walls of the alley were covered in graffiti, more than two-thirds of the cyclists littered their flier.
Another experiment tested whether or not people would steal money that was protruding from a mailbox when they passed by it. Keizer and his colleagues observed that, when the area around the mailbox was tidy, only 13% of people passing by stole the money. However, when the area around the mailbox was littered with trash, 25% of the people passing by were willing to steal the money.
Over the course of their experiments, the researchers observed that people were much more inclined to disobey posted signs when it seemed like other people were doing so, litter when there was graffiti or the sound of fireworks present, and even steal when there was graffiti present. Given these observations, Keizer and colleagues suggest that as a certain norm-violating behavior becomes more common, it will also negatively influence conformity to other social norms and rules.
"Early disorder diagnosis and intervention are of vital importance when fighting the spread of disorder," the researchers conclude. "But, once disorder has spread, fixing windows or relocating people to more orderly neighborhoods will not be enough because by then, the sources of disorder themselves will have multiplied."
20 November 2008