9 January 2013

Dark Examples of Social Conformity – The Broken Window Theory and Its Variations

The influences of peers on one’s behavior (social conformity) have been presented in the previous post  DoingWhat Others Do – Social Influences of Peers.  

In this post I will present (dark) illustrations of social conformity. The main illustration is the “Broken Window Theory” which is “a criminological theory of the norm-setting and signaling effect of urban disorder and vandalism on additional crime and anti-social behavior. … (and) was introduced in a 1982 article by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.” (Wikipedia)

The broken window theory goes like this: If in a neighborhood a window from a building gets broken and it is not repaired quickly (maximum a couple of days), then another window will get broken. After that some graffiti and other acts of vandalism will occur in and around the building with the broken window. Not before long the entire street and subsequently the entire neighborhood will become a “heaven” of vandalism and crime. For more on the Broken windowtheory click here.  

Apparently this sounds a bit extreme, but it is not. Indeed it is hard to imagine that a good neighborhood will become a “heaven” of vandalism and crime just because a broken window was not fixed (on time). This is true to a certain degree. The broken window in itself is not the only cause of crime spreading, but it is one major factor.

Let’s take a look at this sequence of events from a narrative perspective. Imagine that there is a young man called Peter who lives in a decent neighborhood and one day he sees that at a building a window got broken. Probably he will pass by the building just noticing the broken window. Next day he passes by that building again and sees again the broken window. In his mind Peter says that “probably it was closed at the window repair shop”. The second day he passes by the building he notices again the unrepaired window and thinks “this building must have been abandoned and I never noticed. If someone would be living there they would have fixed the window”.

That evening Peter goes out with some of his neighborhood buddies and they have a couple of beers. They are discussing what would be “cool” to do next and Peter comes with the idea to see whether the building with the broken window is truly abandoned. They go there and see that the window is still broken. Their simple conclusion is that the building is abandoned. They jump the fence and try to enter the building, but the door is locked. One of them finds a stone and throws it at an (unbroken) window. Later they have a few cigarettes and drink a couple more beers. They throw the bottles against the door… of course after beer they need to pee and since the building is (supposed to be) abandoned they decide to urinate on it.

The next day, other people see that the building has two broken windows and a funny smell comes from it. They conclude that the owners of the building must be careless. At the same time a group of “graffiti artists” notices the building and decides to “improve its appearance”. They go that night and paint the allegedly abandoned building.

The next day, the building looks like a dump: broken windows, graffiti, and bad smell. Some homeless people passing by notice the building in a bad shape and decide to check it out if it would be suitable to “move in”. They do so in the next night.

The following day, the building looks even worse and the unpleasant smell is more than noticeable. Some people from the neighborhood start making plans to move out since they are not excited by the thought of living near such a site.

The following night the group of “graffiti artists” returns to contemplate their work and is impressed by their accomplishment. Since they believe such a masterpiece should not be “left alone” they decide to create a companion for it on the building next to it.

To make a long story short, it will not be long before the neighborhood will suffer a decrease in living standards and an increase in crime levels.

Social conformity is only one element present in the broken window theory, but it is an important one. Let’s take a look at the “story” from a psychological perspective.

Seeing a broken window that is not fixed gives an impression that no one cares about that building. At the same time it says that it is socially acceptable to brake windows and don’t care too much about the surroundings. If the norm is “it’s ok to break windows” sooner or later someone will simply conform to that rule and break another window. 

Since a new window has been broken it means that the social norm of “braking windows / not caring too much is OK” is strengthened. Now, since there are two broken windows, it is really socially acceptable to “vandalize” the building.

The broken window theory is a very good example of escalation in social conformity. If we perceive that something is socially acceptable then we are more likely to do that “something”. This only leads to the strengthening of the perception that that “something” is socially acceptable and will lead to more acts of that “something”.

The broken window theory is a bit “farfetched” and I agree that it is a bit hard to fully accept it. In day-to-day life there are, however, less extreme illustrations of escalation of social norms. Here is one of them.

Imagine that you are visiting a city and on one of your walks you had a cigarette or a chewing gum (you choose). After finishing enjoying it, you have to get rid of the remaining of the cigarette or chewing gum. Unfortunately there are very few garbage cans in that city and it is hard for you to find one within a convenient distance.

You have two options: (1) take the gum / cigarette bud and put it in your pocket and keep searching until you find a garbage can; (2) simply let the bud or the gum slip out of your hand on the street.

Of course the socially desirable answer is to place it in your pocket and wait until you find one of the very few garbage cans in that city. But even if we are not that happy (and willing) to admit it, we don’t always do the “right thing”.

Now imagine that there are two scenarios.

First, the city is very clean, there is virtually no garbage on the streets and everything looks like it was recently polished.

Second, the city is not necessarily filthy, but it is not uncommon to see some pieces of paper or plastic on the streets. On the pavement there are several old chewing gums and cigarette buds.

The question is: in which scenario are you more likely to “let it fall out of your hand”?

I assume that a large majority will agree (admit) that in the second scenario it is more likely to “let it slip”. The reason is that you are not the only / first one to do so.   If others do it, then it must be OK (socially acceptable) to do it.

Similar examples can be developed and I assume that you got the main idea. If other people do something then we imply that that “something” is socially acceptable and we do it also.

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