Signs of petty crime, such as litter and graffiti, really do encourage more serious law-breaking

The Broken Windows theory of crime reduction, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book The Tipping Point, has received new robust empirical support from a series of studies by Dutch researchers.

According to the theory, more serious crimes can be averted by reducing low level crime such as littering and graffiti. Gladwell attributed the dramatic fall in crime in New York in the 90s to the zero tolerance approach of the police at that time, which effectively put into practice the advice from the Broken Windows theory.

In the new studies, Kees Keizer and colleagues altered various signs of orderliness in a social scene and then observed whether passers-by conformed to some other social norm, such as not dropping litter. Their main finding throughout was that signs of petty anti-social behaviour really do have a powerful effect on people’s tendency to disobey basic rules, even increasing their tendency to steal.

Here’s the complete list of effects: bicycle owners in an alley were more than twice as likely to drop litter (a flier attached to their handlebars) if the walls were covered in graffiti; people were more than twice as likely to squeeze through a forbidden entrance to a car-park if nearby bikes were illegally chained to a fence; they were far more likely to litter (a flier attached to their windscreen) if trolleys were not returned to a shop, or if fireworks were illegally set off nearby; and finally, passers-by were far more likely to steal a money-containing envelope protruding from a postbox if litter was on the ground, or graffiti was on the postbox.

“There is a clear message for policymakers and police officers,” the researchers said. “Early disorder diagnosis and intervention are of vital importance when fighting the spread of disorder. Signs of inappropriate behavior like graffiti or broken windows lead to other inappropriate behaviour (e.g.,litter or stealing).”

ResearchBlogging.orgK. Keizer, S. Lindenberg, L. Steg (2008). The Spreading of Disorder Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1161405

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to podcast interview with lead author.

4 thoughts on “Signs of petty crime, such as litter and graffiti, really do encourage more serious law-breaking”

  1. While we're on popular-collections-of-anecdotes-with-a-vague-theme, Levitt & Dubner's 'Freakonomics' contradicts Gladwell about the effectiveness of zero-tolerance. By comparing state crime rates they show that the drop in crime in New York was actually pretty much as expected from the massive investment in more police at the time, and that zero-tolerance (which was a distortion of the broken windows theory anyway) seemed to have little effect.

  2. You can read Gladwell’s response to Freakonomics < HREF="" REL="nofollow">here<>.

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