Is broken windows a broken theory?

broken-windowsWhen it comes to understanding how conventions emerge and cultures form, one of the most compelling theories of recent times is the broken windows theory.

The theory emerged in New York back in the 80s, and suggested that small signs of disorder were all it took to contribute to much larger degradation in the area.  Whether it was vandalism, a disused building, or a broken window, these seemingly minor things were enough to trigger much larger problems.

So the theory goes anyway, and such was the attractiveness of the theory that it quickly gained popularity with policy makers, with Rudy Giuliani particularly renowned for adopting it in his attempts to ‘clean up’ New York.

Indeed, such as its success been that it has been deployed in the workplace to tackle everything from culture to health and safety.

A recent study suggests that the theory may have some notable flaws however.  The researchers based their study in Munich, with their first experiment focusing on two student dormitories in the city.

By the residents own admission, the two buildings had very different levels of social cohesion.  In one building, residents were allocated by the landlord, whilst in the other, tenants could select their own place from the available plots.

The researchers attached fliers to bicycles outside the dorms with some meaningless text on them.  The aim was to see how many would be thrown away (ie littered) versus placed in a nearby bin.

A second iteration of the experiment saw litter strewn around the bike park area.

As broken windows suggests, the latter iteration did indeed produce a higher degree of littering, but the increase was far from uniform.  It emerged that the increase in littering was actually higher in the dorm with more social cohesion, and that differential was quite substantial.

“Such a stimulus is more potent if it is perceived as defying the conventional expectation,” the authors explain.

The importance of conformity

This idea was further tested in a second experiment that involved another staple of cycling behavior – running a red light.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it emerged that when we see others doing this, we were more likely to do so ourselves.

The interesting part however is that the location of the light mattered.  It seemed that people were more likely to jump the red light in parts of Munich that were ranked as having higher social cohesion.

The findings appear to run counter to the notion of a downward spiral of behavior towards something a bit more nuanced.

To further test their hypothesis, the researchers placed a stamped-addressed envelope in front of a postbox, with the envelope clearly containing money.  How many passers by would post the letter inside the mailbox versus pinching the letter for themselves?

As before, when a battered old bicycle was placed near the mailbox, more people would steal the letter than when no such trigger was nearby, but once again, the findings were not uniform.

For instance, when the envelope contained 100 euros, people were much more likely to overcome the environmental cue and post the letter, whereas when it only contained 5 euros, they succumbed more often.

“When something of real value is at stake, people are no longer susceptible to the suggestive power of weak environmental cues,” the authors say.

So, does that mean that broken windows only applies for fairly minor indiscretions?

Maybe, but at the very least, the study suggests that it shouldn’t be given that a hardline response is suitable in every situation.


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