Wednesday, December 10, 2008


If you're walking by a wall covered with graffiti, are you also more likely to litter? The Broken Window Theory, crystallized by political scientist James Q. Wilson and criminologist George L. Kelling, posits that the environment has a significant effect on whether people engage in antisocial behavior. But there's been little empirical research on just how "broken windows" lead to social disorder and crime.

In a series of experiments, researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands found that if people see one norm or rule being violated (such as graffiti or a vehicle parked illegally), they're more likely to violate others such as littering, or even stealing. In one setup, for example, the experimenters attached useless fliers to the handles of bicycles parked in an alley that had a sign on the wall forbidding graffiti. There was no trash can in the alley. The experimenters covertly watched how many people tossed the fliers on the pavement or put them on another bike rather than pocketing them for disposal. On another day, they set up the same condition in the same place, except with graffiti on the wall. The results were striking: When there was no graffiti, a third of 77 cyclists tossed the flier away; but more than two-thirds littered after the graffiti was applied.

Auditory cues can also set the scene for disorder; four out of five cyclists littered their fliers when they could hear illegal firecrackers being set off, whereas barely half did so when it was quiet.

Source: Constance Holden, "Study Shows How Degraded Surroundings Can Degrade Behavio,"

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