Thursday, March 19, 2009

This Place is a Dump... Let's Trash It: Experimentally Testing the "Broken Window" Hypothesis

Keizer, K., Lindenberg, S., & Steg, L. (2008). The Spreading of Disorder Science, 322 (5908), 1681-1685 DOI: 10.1126/science.1161405

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research In class we've talked a lot about theories of crime that focus on characteristics of the person (e.g., biological, psychological) or characteristics of the social environment and culture (e.g., sociological, learning). But what about the actual physical environment? Can the simple fact of where a person is located influence him to break the law?

"Broken Window Theory" suggests exactly that - that the more disorder is evident in an environment, the more petty crime and further disorder will spread among people. (The name comes from the idea that there when one window in a house is broken, the others will go before long.) As the authors note, New York was counting on this theory in the mid-90's when they started an anti-graffiti and street cleanliness crackdown. This coincided with a decrease in petty crime, but since this was a quasi-experiment (at best) we can't really know what the cause was. Another big problem with this theory is that no one has ever really defined what's meant by the term "disorder."

Keizer, Lindenberg, and Steg set about trying to test Broken Window Theory experimentally, with better operationalization of the variables than had been attempted before. They conducted their experiments on unsuspecting members of the public (has anyone already claimed the term "guerrila psychology"?) in two conditions: either a norm was violated or not (the contextual norm; example: graffiti right next to a "No graffiti" sign). The researchers then observed to see what people would do when presented with the opportunity of violating another, unrelated norm (the target norm; example: finding a flier attached to your bike handle, do you litter or pocket it?). The difference between the contextual norm and the target norm is major - broken window theory argues that seeing this disorder isn't just priming people to commit the same crime, but just to commit crimes in general.

So what did they find? In a series of six experiments they found that violation of the context norm definitely increased people's likelihood of violating the target norm. The percentage of people violating the norm was consistently 2 to 3 times greater when the context norm was violated, for target norms including littering, trespassing, and even stealing money from a mailbox.

These findings seem to fit with research on justice, which looks at how people feel about law enforcement, among other things. One of the main findings is that how law enforcement treats a person influences how likely that person is to break the law - if a person experiences rude or unfair treatment at the hands of a police officer, he or she will have a less negative attitude towards violating laws. (Unfortunately, the reverse doesn't seem to be true; once people have this negative attitude, fair treatment doesn't do much to change their minds.) The mediating factor in this relationship seems to be a perception of legitimacy. That is, if I've had good relations with police, I'll feel like they're good people to listen to, and this legal system is a good one to follow. However, if I've had negative interactions with the police, then I'll feel like this legal system doesn't have as much relevance for me. Going along with this idea, it may be that when people see that others have broken the law, they'll feel that there's not much chance of enforcement - that the legal system doesn't have much legitimacy around here.

Contrarily, there's idea of injunctive norms (standards of behavior for what not to do) and descriptive norms (what it's evident that most people do in a situation). The authors argue that when these norms conflict, as in their experiments, people will turn to other motivations, like what's easiest, in deciding what to do. At the end of the article the authors state that seeing the injunctive norms violated "...results in the inhibition of other norms... So once disorder has spread, merely fixing the broken windows or removing the graffiti may not be sufficient anymore." They hadn't mentioned before how or what evidence there is for norms being permanently changed like this. If this is the case, it'll be hard differentiating between a legitimacy explanation and a conflicting norms explanation. I'll have to think about this some more...