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Study: Neighborhood Appearance Affects Behavior Decline

November 20, 2008

Dutch researchers said that visuals such as graffiti, trash in the street, and bicycles chained to a fence all resulted in a decline in how people behaved during a series of experiments.

Researchers reported in Thursday’s online edition of the journal Science that a bit of litter or graffiti didn’t lead to predatory crime, but actions ranging from littering to trespassing and minor stealing all increased when people saw evidence of others ignoring the rules of good behavior.

Lead author Kees Keizer of the faculty of behavioral and social sciences at the University of Groningen explained that in normal behavior most people try to act appropriately to the circumstances, but some tend to avoid effort or seek ways to gain for themselves.

The researchers suggest things like littering an area or applying graffiti change the circumstances by indicating that others are not behaving correctly, which weakens the incentive for people to do the right thing.

For example, researchers were not at all surprised that people littered more in a messy area. “We were, however, surprised by the size of the effect,” added Keizer.

The researchers noted one example of a tidy alley in a shopping area where people parked their bicycles and there was no posted “no-littering” sign on the wall.

The team then attached flyers for a nonexistent store to the bike handlebars and observed the behavior of passersby.

Under normal circumstances, 33 percent of riders littered the alley with the flyer. But after researchers defaced the alley wall with graffiti, the share of riders who littered with the flyers jumped to 69 percent.

The same results occurred in a half-dozen similar experiments.

Keizer pointed out that while the study seems to deliver a negative message, “it also shows that municipal officials and the public can have a significant impact on the influence of norms and rules on behavior.”

The resulting lesson: keep public areas neat and people will be less likely to make a mess.

The researchers said their study was closely related to the “Broken Window Theory,” which suggests that urban disorder such as broken windows and graffiti encourage petty crime.

But Robert J. Sampson, chairman of Harvard University’s department of sociology, said this research doesn’t go that far.

“It’s an interesting study, it’s very clever. And the results are believable within the limited bounds set by their design,” said Sampson, who was not part of the research team.

He said the results, however, don’t show that disorder spreads to predatory crime. “What they show is that disorder increases people’s likelihood of committing (similar) acts.”

Along with the graffiti study, the following experiments worked like this:

Test Two:

A fence partly closed off the main entrance to a parking lot. There was a narrow gap and a no-admittance sign that pointed out a new entry, 200 yards away. A second sign prohibited locking bikes to the fence.

When the fence was clear, 27 percent of people heading for their cars ignored the no-admittance sign and squeezed through the gap in the fence. But after several bikes were locked to the fence in defiance of that ban, 82 percent of people going to their cars squeezed through the prohibited entry.

Test Three:

Flyers were placed under the windshield wipers of cars in a parking garage next to a market. A sign on the wall asked people to return their shopping carts to the market.

When the lot was clear of shopping carts, 30 percent of drivers littered the lot with the flyers. But when a few carts were left in a disorderly state around the garage, 58 percent of people littered.

Test Four:

Two weeks before New Year’s Day researchers visited a bicycle parking shed near a train station and attached flyers to the handlebars. Under normal conditions 52 percent of the riders littered the shed with the flyers. Then the researchers set off fireworks outside the shed – which residents know is illegal in the period before New Year. Hearing the fireworks, 80 percent of riders littered the shed.

Tests Five and Six:

An envelope with money visible through the address window was placed sticking out of a mailbox.

Under ordinary conditions 13 percent of passers-by stole the envelope.

When the same mailbox was defaced with graffiti the percentage taking the money jumped to 27 percent.

After researchers cleaned the mailbox, but messed up the area around it with litter, 25 percent stole the money.

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