Broken Windows and the Spreading of Disorder

…The research I’ve described to this point demonstrated that when people observe that their peers have violated one social norm, they are more likely to violate a related but different social norm. But could observing a seemingly small violation in the environment actually cause a person to steal when they otherwise wouldn’t have? To address this question, the researchers placed a stamped and addressed envelope clearly containing some money halfway in a mailbox so that it was visible and accessible to passersby. The only aspect of the study that Keizer altered was whether there was litter on the ground surrounding the mailbox. When there was no litter around the mailbox, 13% stole the envelope and the money inside it. However, when the environment was littered, the theft rate nearly doubled—25% stole the envelope!

The implications of this research are clear. First, more generally, the findings show just how powerful subtle cues in an environment can be in terms of influencing people’s behavior. This means that we have to be quite careful and deliberate in how we set up and maintain the environments that we create for our target audience. Second, more specifically, this work suggests that allowing visible signs of norm violations in domains that might seem less important might elicit norm violations in much more important areas.

For example, retail outlets might think that occasional graffiti in the dressing rooms or bathrooms is not worth worrying about; however, this research suggests that its presence might actually increase theft from the store. In an office context, this research suggests that allowing certain aspects of the office to remain disorderly or in disrepair could trickle down to subtly influence the workforce to slack off or, even worse, engage in some sort of workplace malfeasance.