Broken window theory of criminality has been demonstrated

November 23, 2008 | By | 1 Reply More

The “Broken Window” theory of criminality is that when people observe disorder, they are more likely to engage in anti-social acts.  Translated into an experiment, the principle was tested by George Kelling and his associates.  They asked whether people would litter more where there is illegal graffiti and where others have littered.  They have concluded that there is a strong link, as told by The Economist:

[T]he researchers created two conditions: one of order and the other of disorder. In the former, the walls of the alley were freshly painted; in the latter, they were tagged with graffiti (but not elaborately, to avoid the perception that it might be art). In both states a large sign prohibiting graffiti was put up, so that it would not be missed by anyone who came to collect a bicycle. All the bikes then had a flyer promoting a non-existent sports shop attached to their handlebars. This needed to be removed before a bicycle could be ridden.

When owners returned, their behaviour was secretly observed. There were no rubbish bins in the alley, so a cyclist had three choices. He could take the flyer with him, hang it on another bicycle (which the researchers counted as littering) or throw it to the floor. When the alley contained graffiti, 69% of the riders littered compared with 33% when the walls were clean.

The take-home message?  “The message for policymakers and police officers is that clearing up graffiti or littering promptly could help fight the spread of crime.”

This makes me wonder about the post I created yesterday:  Will people tend to act in anti-social ways when they are in an office where there is a messy desk?

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Category: American Culture, law and order

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Erika Price says:

    I've always been a bit leery of the theory, because it has had very little real evidence to date. This research does favor the theory well. Rudolph Guliani used the "broken window theory" as his justification for roughing up small-time punks early in his mayoral career, and regardless of the cause, New York did clean up a bit around that time.

    The theory, by the way, is based on early research by Phil Zambardo, the same psychologist who spearheaded the Stanford Prison Experiment. Zambardo left an empty, unlocked van in the suburbs, and left one in a more sketchy area. The van in the sketchy area was smashed-in and stolen quickly, of course. But the van in the 'burbs? Apparently the locals inspected it, called the cops in an attempt to discover the reason for it, and even tried to seek out the owner, out of what Zambardo thinks is true concern. I'm not sure if it's that simple- I think it's time to control for police presence in studies like this.

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