This article was written for the Anguillian by Dr. Alexei Podtcheko, Professor of Pathology, as part of Saint James School of Medicine’s regular series of columns.
Today I would like to present you with a brief summary of a study which has gone virtually unnoticed beyond the academic community, but in my opinion, should be brought to the attention of anyone who cares about the health and wellbeing Anguillians.
The title of this research article published in the well-known scientific journal “Science” in 2008 is entitled “Spreading of Disorder”. In this paper, authors provided an elegant confirmation of the “Broken Windows Theory”. An article in Wikipedia, explains “the Broken Windows Theory” as a criminological theory of the “norm setting and signaling effects of urban disorder and vandalism on additional crime and anti-social behavior”. In more simple words, the theory states that maintaining urban environments in a well-ordered condition may prevent further vandalism as well as an escalation into more serious crime. Although the theory was introduced in 1982 by two social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, it has been subject to great debate.
Taking into account this controversy, Dr. Kees Keizer and a team of behavioral scientists from the University of Groningen (Netherlands) designed and conducted several experiments that aimed to settle the matter. In the first experiment, researchers chose an alley near a shopping centre where people park their bikes. There was a large “No Graffiti” sign In the middle of the alley. Dr Keizer’s team attached flyers to the bikes’ handlebars. The cyclist would need to remove the flyer before pedaling away. Given that there were no rubbish bins, would the cyclists take their litter home, or drop it on the ground? The scientists set up cameras and waited. In the setting where the alley walls were clean, 33% of cyclists dropped the flyer on the pavement or put it on another bike – both of which were counted as littering. Interestingly, when the researchers added graffiti and repeated the experiment on another day, 69% of the cyclists littered (an increase of more than 2 times!). The difference was far bigger than would be expected by chance.
In order to confirm that one sign of disorder, graffiti, was triggering another undesirable behavior – littering, researchers tested the theory in another way. This time in a supermarket car park using flyers shoved under windscreen wipers. When the car park was tidy, with all the shopping trolleys put away, 30% dropped the flyers on the ground. When the car park looked chaotic, with several shopping trolleys scattered around, 58% littered. Again the difference was far bigger than would be expected by chance.
The most spectacular result, was in the third experiment. This time, an envelope with a $5 note inside (the note clearly visible through the address window) was left sticking out of a post box. In a condition of order, 13% of those passing took the envelope (instead of leaving it or pushing it into the box). But if the post box was covered in graffiti, 27% did. The results of this part of the study clearly indicated that one example of disorder, like graffiti, can encourage another, like stealing.
This study raised a very important question: exactly why does our capacity to act honorably melt away in dirty or disorderly settings? One explanation might be that if we see that one form of bad behavior has gone unpunished, perhaps we feel that our own lapses will go unpunished as well. Regardless of the reason, the implications for policy are clear. Carelessness in the environment breeds slapdashery in behavior, and small sins can lead to bigger ones. A community left in unpleasantness will eventually see its social norms considerably lowered.
Interestingly, I think that I may found confirmation of this theory right here in Anguilla. We have to admit that in spite of all government efforts, littering is still a big issue in Anguilla. It caught my attention too when I started power walking and jogging. My favorite route to Katouche Bay was heavily littered and I could see that the quantity of litter was on steady increase from week to week. So I decided to take a plastic bag on each walk and fill it with cans, beer bottles, etc. from the sidewalks. It took me several weeks to remove the litter, but now I can see that the appearance of new pieces of litter is significantly reduced on the cleaned route. It may be just a coincidence, but I think that the “Broken Windows Theory” may be applicable for Anguilla as well.
Dr. Alexei Podtcheko MD., Ph.D, Professor of Pathology, Saint James School Of Medicine