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People surrounded by graffiti more likely to steal

Bad begets worse
21 November 2008

In the mid-1990s, police in New York started a ‘quality of life campaign’, designed to combat minor criminality. Graffiti and the traces of vandalism were removed and street refuse was cleaned up, all from the idea that a disorganized environment would encourage bad behaviour. And it was a success – the figures for minor criminality dropped. However, there was no theoretical foundation or proof for the idea, also known as the Broken Window Theory.

This theoretical foundation and the proof has now been supplied by three researchers from the University of Groningen. The research is published this week in the scientific magazine Science. In a series of six experiments, they show that the degree to which norms and rules influence behaviour varies per environment. This fits in with the sociological ‘Goal-framing theory’, which predicts that people are much less inclined to keep to norms and rules if the environment shows that others are breaking norms or rules. The research sends a clear message to policymakers, state the researchers: clean up the streets, remove graffiti and ensure that an environment demonstrates that norms and rules are being followed.

Prohibition sign
The negative effect of signs of norm-breaking behaviour has been revealed by experiments conducted by Kees Keizer, Prof. Siegwart Lindenberg and Dr Linda Steg, all members of the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. The first experiment compared a situation where a wall in an alley was covered with graffiti with one where the wall was completely clean. In both cases a No Graffiti sign was hung on the wall. One afternoon an advertisement folder was attached to the handlebars of the bikes parked in the alley. In the situation with the graffiti-covered wall, 69 percent of the cyclists threw the folder onto the ground; this was only 33 percent with a clean wall.

No entry
In another experiment, a car park was closed off with a half-open fence. A sign saying ‘no entry, please go around for the entrance’ plus a sign saying ‘please do not chain bikes to the fence’ were hung on the fence. This produced the same sort of results. If bicycles were chained to the fence, 82 percent of the people took a shortcut through the fence to their cars. Only 27 percent did so if there were no bicycles chained to the fence.

Five euros
That the negative effects of such an environment can also encourage more serious offences such as stealing was revealed by an experiment with an envelope hanging half out of a letterbox. The window on the envelope clearly revealed that there was a five euro note inside. If there was graffiti on or around the letterbox, 27 percent of passers-by took the money, with no graffiti only 13 percent did so.

The researchers had expected the observed effect, but were surprised at the size of the difference. The positive message in the research is that norms and rules can significantly influence behaviour, as long as you ensure that the norms and rules are supported by the environment.

More information: Kees Keizer

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.27 p.m.
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