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Broken Windows Theory Experiments
November 22, 2008 8:56 PM   Subscribe

A place that is covered in graffiti and festooned with rubbish makes people feel uneasy. And with good reason, according to a group of researchers in the Netherlands. Kees Keizer and his colleagues at the University of Groningen deliberately created such settings as a part of a series of experiments designed to discover if signs of vandalism, litter and low-level lawbreaking could change the way people behave. They found that they could, by a lot: doubling the number who are prepared to litter and steal.
A story about a series of experiments on The Broken Windows Theory.

The paper The Spreading of Disorder (subscription required) by Kees Keizer, Siegwart Lindenberg, and Linda Steg was Published in Science, 20 November 2008. More information about the study in the Supporting Online Material (free access) page over at Science.
posted by Foci for Analysis (23 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Given how much debate has ensued over the BWT, this is exactly the kind of experiment needed.

Ok, now to the reading. Excellent topic, FfA. Thanks.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:01 PM on November 22, 2008


Very interesting! I was never very clear on how one reached zero tolerance (personal) from the broken windows theory (situational), but still interesting.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:19 PM on November 22, 2008


I always distrust extremely attractive and plausible theories without evidence. A scientist I once knew said "science is all about trying to kill your most beloved children first".

Nice sounding "conventional wisdom" theories often prove to be completely wrong, and it's important to test them too. Great job by the researchers of proving the BWT and estimating the influence of various factors.
posted by benzenedream at 3:12 AM on November 23, 2008


...but I like graffiti. It is frequently an expressive outlet for people who are denied traditional channels of expression.
posted by fuq at 6:56 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


... and what if i define disorder differently from you? and yet you try to apply it to every situation, as you have found it in one place?

... and what if i focus on graffiti and litter (obviously people don't like being around shitty, greasy paper bags and newspaper) while i remove attention from endemic conditions like availability of social mobility, access to health and other institutions, and living wages?

give me a break. BWT is one of the most teleological things i've seen in a long time, and aside from the odd study that shows that people don't like feeling uncomfortable, has nothing predictive or sustainable about it, let alone that it is a form of utilitarianism masquerading as scientific "objectivity."
posted by yonation at 8:56 AM on November 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


If windows get broken, just put decals over them.
posted by hermitosis at 9:16 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


BWT...has nothing predictive or sustainable about it, let alone that it is a form of utilitarianism masquerading as scientific "objectivity."

According to this study, I can predict that people are markedly more likely to litter if graffiti is on the walls than if the walls are freshly painted and the environment is otherwise clean. How is that not predictive? What about this study is flawed?
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:46 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


It is frequently an expressive outlet for people who are denied traditional channels of expression.

I'm full of confusion today. Who is being denied what channels of expression? Is someone confiscating paintbrushes and charcoal pencils? I'm having a hard to picturing a scenario in which someone has easy access to spray paint but can't get traditional art supplies.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:50 AM on November 23, 2008


Argh..."having a hard time picturing..."

Hydrocodone is fun, but it doesn't help my typing skills.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:51 AM on November 23, 2008


"discover if signs of vandalism, litter and low-level lawbreaking could change the way people behave. They found that they could, by a lot: doubling the number who are prepared to litter and steal."

Twenty minutes of observation along many of Oakland's crappier-looking streets would tell you this much at least. Areas "festooned with rubbish" allow people to discard their trash with impunity. If trash was not being discarded with impunity the place wouldn't be ankle deep in Burger King wrappers and Old English cans to begin with. Places that look like shit get that way because people made those places look like shit; they stay that way because people keep them looking like shit.

Unless I'm missing something, these people seem to be looking for a correlative relationship where a causal one already exists.
posted by majick at 10:01 AM on November 23, 2008


What about this study is flawed?

The conclusions don't match yonation's prejudices.
posted by rodgerd at 10:08 AM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


"A successful strategy...Clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate..."

That's some revolutionary thinking right there, oh boy!
posted by mannequito at 10:27 AM on November 23, 2008


Exquisite conference rooms , usually perused by highly polite people and decorated with piece of art shouldn't induce any crime.Yet the most socially damaging crimes are usually commited between these kinds of walls, but it suffices not to categorize them as crimes and , miracle, there's no crime in Washington D.C.

As a crime fighting initiative, removing graffiti seems to be the least we should invest time and energy into, even if Imelda Marcos wouldn't have approved of that!

Additionaly, I didn't understand why in one of the experiments the reasearchers choosed not to use "artistic graffiti". Indeed the article mentions that such art wasn't used, as the researchers didn't want the people to to think it was a "nice place". If anything, testing wheter "nice" graffiti has a desiderable effect (or not) would have enhanced the claim that "not nice" graffiti are undesiderable and that , maybe a blank wall doesn't promote any significant variation from expected behavior.

Unfortunately I don't have a subscription to Science, anyone care to shed some more light on the topic?
posted by elpapacito at 10:40 AM on November 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


What about this study is flawed?

The conclusions don't match yonation's prejudices.


y'all are so hilarious. who said the study was flawed? i said broken windows theory was flawed, because it takes longitudinal studies like this and makes them generalizable. it makes prescriptions for how police should act (with more brutality, usually) and against whom (poor, ethnic people who lack representative political access or wealth to make large-scale graffiti) rather than address the root causes of problems like graffiti and, gasp, garbage on the street.

there's a whole literature out there on zero-tolerance, its deleterious effects, and the very material gains made by its proponents (giuliani, carlos slim, etc being specific examples). to highlight one study that confirms the obvious (people throw garbage where they feel its OK to do so; just like people piss on the toilet seat in clubs) doesn't entail or justify the measures that accompany it when its spun into, like i said, an ostensibly generalizable, internationalist theory.
posted by yonation at 11:15 AM on November 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


So if I understand you correctly, you think studies are flawed if they can be used to support policies that you disagree with?
posted by zixyer at 1:20 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


nope, but you strawmanned me correctly!
posted by yonation at 2:03 PM on November 23, 2008


yonation, you generally miss that it is the residents of these communities demanding, and being ultimately satisfied with, a greater police presence. It is true that BWT has its critics and some of them have been discussed here in the past, but this study doesn't appear to have anything innately wrong with it. It is an intriguing approach to finding out how determinant environment is to behavior.

My own prejudices place me more strongly in the collective efficacy camp championed by Sampson and Earls. Ultimately, I think the outcome of BWT, which in a very practical sense is the modern community policing, has much value, even if the original assumptions are imperfect. It tends to lead toward social solutions to social problems, rather than simplistic lawnorder approaches.
posted by dhartung at 4:27 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]



fuq wrote: "...but I like graffiti. It is frequently an expressive outlet for people who are denied traditional channels of expression."

Gee, fuq, next time the Latin Kings or whoever tag the wall of my house to advertise the boundaries of their turf wars, and then cap another juvenile in broad daylight (that would make the third in my neighborhood in the past two years), I'll just have to remember that it was all about protesting their denial of traditional channels of expression. Where do you live that graffiti is so wonderful? I live in Logan Square on the northwest side of Chicago (yes, I'm a literal-minded guy; my name is Jim, I live in Logan Square). We can do without graffiti, what it represents, the criminal enterprise that it supports, and the evil-hearted gang bangers that spray it, or else pay or dare young kids to spray it. Ever since we applied a paint-resistant coating to our wall, such that we can wash off the spray paint the next day, the gangs finally gave up using us as their bulletin board. But, while that certainly helped out our block, it probably just pushed the problem off elsewhere. Again, why do you think crowns, daggers, strange acronyms and squiggled death threats in black and red spray paint, put there by gangs of drug pushers, constitute an art form? Why do you like it? Or maybe you're talking about the "art" graffiti in Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo because you have not ever experienced the reality of "business" graffiti and what it means to live around it and contemplate what it represents to you and your neighbors living in your neighborhood.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 5:24 PM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Hey, let's not forget the shitty scrawling of morons who think they are artists but are just 14 year olds trying to impress a girl with some spray-paint. Sure, one out of every 100 of those kids learn to do some amazing stuff with a can of krylon, but the other 99 are just obnoxious.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:40 PM on November 23, 2008


Exquisite conference rooms , usually perused by highly polite people and decorated with piece of art shouldn't induce any crime.Yet the most socially damaging crimes are usually commited between these kinds of walls, but it suffices not to categorize them as crimes and , miracle, there's no crime in Washington D.C.

Actually, DC has lots and lots of crime. People have been getting killed just off the mall recently, for example. It sucks, and led them to pass a handgun ban that was judged unconstitutional. I think there's even a particularly bad neighborhood the police put a roadblock on and have been searching every car that drives through. (No idea if how much of this is still going on)

To actually speak to the linked information, though, you might want to consider that in these conference rooms, there is little to no graffiti or vandalism. Yay! That's something, anyway--even if the people in them are authorizing the torture of civilians or taking bribes or whatever.

As a crime fighting initiative, removing graffiti seems to be the least we should invest time and energy into, even if Imelda Marcos wouldn't have approved of that!

I was really, really interested in The Atlantic article. It spent a long, long time meditating on the effects of community policing in not reducing crime, but in creating order and enforcing community standards. The crime rates, in fact, don't go down. You're right about that. It's NOT an effective crime fighting initiative. But the people who live in the community tend to view the police in a better light and feel more safe, likely because non-crime disorder has been reduced. That's a real positive result, I think, and fascinating.

I felt like the article was a little too aggressive in defending its theory, though. It mentioned the ability of a community to suppress, harass, or reject those who are different in a superficial but harmless manner, but only to dismiss the criticism before it was fully explored. But I've always had an attraction to order, community standards, and politeness, so I'm willing to believe their thesis has more going for it than against it, even if just barely.

Additionaly, I didn't understand why in one of the experiments the reasearchers choosed not to use "artistic graffiti". Indeed the article mentions that such art wasn't used, as the researchers didn't want the people to to think it was a "nice place". If anything, testing wheter "nice" graffiti has a desiderable effect (or not) would have enhanced the claim that "not nice" graffiti are undesiderable and that , maybe a blank wall doesn't promote any significant variation from expected behavior.

I have seen thousands and thousands--maybe millions--of pieces of graffiti. The "nicest" I have seen in person is a particularly well-executed painting of someone's handle on a wall or cargo car they did not own. The only truly "nice" graffiti I've ever come across has been on Flickr.

I have seen four or five community murals, though, that have been painted with the owner of the building's permission and really helped spruce up the place. That's something completely different.

I don't want to put you in a box without understanding where you're coming from, but I too would have to agree with the others who tend to think, "WTF?" when people bring up graffiti as art or self expression. The exception to graffiti being vandalism seems to be by far the exception. Most graffiti is vandalism, marking territory, or communicating with gangs. The bulk of the remainder is just teens being teens (NOT art and relatively worthless to the community), with maybe one out of a million being real street art.

The idea that those who tag do so because they lack other forms of self-expression is good-hearted, but it also doesn't seem to hold up to scrutiny or my experience. Impoverished, urban, and ethnic communities (mix and match as you like) are fonts of innovative dialect, dress, music, dance, and food, all of which are ways individuals can express and differentiate themselves. And as much as people hate many of the other effects of big-box stores, they have brought down prices so that even the most impoverished families can afford their kids a notebook to write in or markers to draw with.

To term all or most or even "a significant amount" of graffiti as personal expression does not match up with what I've seen.
posted by Nonce at 11:25 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Nonce, of course categorization of what could be definied as "graffiti" and "art" and the difference ,if any, between them depends on the observer and, at any give time, on the influence that widely held opinions have on others. Given that the "art" vs "not art" is an argument that could be debated until the end of time, we should maybe focus on some other aspects, such as the reasons that cause graffiti of any type to be painted.

For instance, the tagging practice doesn't generate more tagging by itself, unless it's perceived as "cool" or "nice" by somebody who already has a culture of tagging, that is, by somebody who attributes a special meaning to a symbol and seeks to imitate other taggers.

I'd rather spend public resources on addressing the causes of tagging than spending public money to restore a private property to its previous look, which should be a concern of the owner. Of course, it still should be illegal to paint on some property without the owner consent, but I really don't see why the public should be concerned with and pay for the removal of stains, considering that without addressing the root causes a freshly painted wall is likely to be an incentive for taggers. That is not to affirm that there is no such thing as a "neat and clean" perception among public, but just to say that makeup is hardly a priority when the reason behind some tagging is, for instance, gang activity.
posted by elpapacito at 2:48 PM on November 27, 2008


Didn't mean to post and run. Here are some more thoughts:

Given that the "art" vs "not art" is an argument that could be debated until the end of time, we should maybe focus on some other aspects, such as the reasons that cause graffiti of any type to be painted.

Granted. But we can discuss "crime" and "not crime." Graffiti is a crime. And it's a particularly egregious one because it violates a person's right to control their own property. That is something fundamental to our society that almost everyone, including the impoverished who don't own all that much, benefits greatly from.

Graffiti as a byproduct of gangs is also a way for gangs to recruit, threaten, exert control when not physically present, and commit other acts of violence. (Violence being a particularly egregious crime because it violates a person's right to not be injured.)

For instance, the tagging practice doesn't generate more tagging by itself, unless it's perceived as "cool" or "nice" by somebody who already has a culture of tagging, that is, by somebody who attributes a special meaning to a symbol and seeks to imitate other taggers.

This actually is not necessarily the case. Tagging might also encourage further tagging because tagging is inherently fun, just like breaking windows or setting things on fire is fun. It just is, you know? (At least to many, many people.) If I see that breaking a window won't get me in trouble, and it won't cause trouble for someone else, I'll be much more likely to break one, too. Lots of graffiti everywhere may, to some people, indicate just those things. So you're speaking from a flawed premise.

(The counterexample I provided was lifted almost verbatim from the linked information, btw. I can't claim credit for the idea.)

That said, even if certain people place a value of "cool" or "nice" on something doesn't mean it needs to be tolerated or encouraged. Certain brands of anarchists think it is "cool" to throw rocks at policemen, even when they are not beating innocents or actually oppressing anyone. Thankfully, the people who think that is not the case can generally agree well enough to punish those who do throw rocks at policemen for no reason.

Finally, behavior can be imitated even when the person who is imitating it does not think it is "cool" or "nice" themselves. Of the many other reasons to imitate a behavior is self-preservation, or to fit in with a group. Perhaps a portion of those who graffiti do so to show their allegiance to a group, in part small or large to protect their own skin. Or as a right of passage. Or whatever.

I really do think you're underestimating, too, the mothers and fathers of the (generally young) people who tag. Do their feelings not count, or do you really believe that they leave their public housing apartment and look at all the graffiti in the neighborhood and think, gosh, this is nice, I'm glad my kid gets to live here! Or the shop owner whose wall gets spray-painted--she thinks its cool and nice?

I'd be willing to wager that it is a measurably small, small minority of people who are actually affected by graffiti who think it's cool and nice. I'd be curious to know your relationship to graffiti (and, yes, to stereotypes). For example, are you a relatively poor minority in a dangerous part of a city with lots of gang activity living in a building with graffiti inside and out? I'd be surprised--but pleasantly so, as it would at a very interesting twist to our conversation--to hear that was the case.

Of course, it still should be illegal to paint on some property without the owner consent, but I really don't see why the public should be concerned with and pay for the removal of stains, considering that without addressing the root causes a freshly painted wall is likely to be an incentive for taggers.

This post was made precisely to present an argument opposite of that idea. It is not certain that a freshly painted wall is likely to be an incentive for taggers. It might, in fact do the opposite and discourage them--which might be part of an effective effort to tackle gang activity. It may also increase a sense in the community that that sort of behavior is not tolerated. Even if crime rates don't go down, the people who live in the area might go through the day more at ease--a net gain.
posted by Nonce at 2:46 PM on December 1, 2008


Cool and interesting related post.
posted by Nonce at 5:53 PM on December 5, 2008


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