Disorder and bad behaviour

2008-11-29

in Science, Security

Research conducted by Kees Keizer of the University of Groningen has demonstrated that the willingness of people to litter and steal increases when they are in disorderly surroundings. When experimental subjects were exposed to law- or rule-breaking, they were significantly more willing to litter, trespass, and steal. This is suggestive of how even relatively subtle cues in our surroundings and the behaviour of other people can affect our behaviour, perhaps in ways we aren’t consciously aware of.

One could certainly theorize about the social and evolutionary roles of such behaviour. When an individual is in an orderly situation, the costs associated with rule-breaking may be higher. It is clearer that they are making an individual contribution to the problem, and the absence of other violations suggests that enforcement exists and is effective. Conversely, those surrounded by disorder often have more of a need to fend for themselves, as well as less of a risk of being singled out and punished.

It would be quite interesting to see this kind of research extended, and some of its conclusions used to create new policies. The kind of harmful anti-social activities that could theoretically be combated seem very numerous: from the corruption of government officials to insider theft in the workplace to the dumping of toxic materials in parks or bodies of water. While this study provides no direct evidence that modifying the environments in which people find themselves can alter their behaviour, it does seem plausible and worth looking into.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan November 29, 2008 at 10:30 am

Wait, you want to eliminate bad behavior?

A society with no anti-social behavior could hardly be called a society.

Milan November 29, 2008 at 12:02 pm

I hardly think reducing littering and bike theft would rob us of our humanity.

Milan November 29, 2008 at 5:20 pm

Also interesting:

“A study just published in Psychological Science by Simone Schnall of the University of Plymouth and her colleagues shows that washing with soap and water makes people view unethical activities as more acceptable and reasonable than they would if they had not washed themselves.”

Sarah November 29, 2008 at 5:54 pm

Doesn’t it just show that people’s behaviour is shaped by social norms? ‘Law’ is only effective is people act on it, so if other people ignore a specific law (e.g. they speed, even though they wouldn’t knowingly endanger other peoples lives in other ways) then one is more likely to ignore it oneself. Governments are already putting in place environmental changes in an effort to reduce criminal behaviour or even ‘anti-social’ behaviour.
Personally, I think the notion of state crackdowns on bad manners is horrifying – in practice it merely serves to further criminalise and alienate disadvantaged groups, which (if we’re honest) was probably the underlying intent. Let’s focus on the actual harm caused by a behaviour & the most effective way to reduce that harm (e.g. paying someone to collect litter or remove graffiti, which is cheap, rather than stigmatising and punishing offenders which is financially expensive and socially very harmful).

Tristan November 29, 2008 at 7:36 pm

I think you are equivocating.

Of course reducing litter and bike theft would be good. However, a society where litter and bike theft were reduced at the cost of all anti-social behavior being eliminated is another story.

Milan November 29, 2008 at 7:50 pm

However, a society where litter and bike theft were reduced at the cost of all anti-social behavior being eliminated is another story.

I really don’t think that is a danger.

This is like the research showing that putting a pair of eyes on a “please pay for your cup of coffee” jar causes more people to pay. It is a little psychological trick that encourages greater compliance from most people.

It is not a challenge to people’s basic liberty. Indeed, the research showing that people make choices predictably on the basis of external cues suggests that littering, etc aren’t really manifestations of liberty in the first place.

Emily November 30, 2008 at 6:03 pm

I think the best example of this ‘civilizing’ in practise is when they play classical music in the back parking lots of McDonalds and things.

Bach cramps your style when you’re trying to start a gang-fight.

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