The Situationist

Archive for January 29th, 2009

Ugly See, Ugly Do

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 29, 2009

In an article titled “Supermarket Trolleys Make Us Behave Badly,” Anjana Ahuja summarizes a fascinating study about the subconscious effects of disorder.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

The Cialdini effect might sound like a new mind-control trick from the illusionist Derren Brown, but it is more sinister than that. It is indeed a mind-control trick, but one that requires no tricksy showman to pull it off.

If, like me, you have ever abandoned a shopping trolley in a messy supermarket car park, then you have fallen under its subtly destructive spell and you have only your subconcious to blame.

The effect takes its name from Robert Cialdini, a American psychology professor who wrote a groundbreaking book called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. This was no pap psychology book; it was, appropriately enough, a highly influential work that continues to shape social psychology, that mesmerising scientific discipline which examines the sometimes irrational way we behave in our relationships with others. Cialdini showed, among other things, that people do what they see others doing, even when they know they shouldn’t.

* * *

Now a Dutch study has shown that the Cialdini effect is only the start of our troubles. People can actually be steered into criminal behaviour, such as stealing, simply by tinkering with their environment. In fact, the scientists claim, if you know what psychological buttons to press, you can make antisocial behaviour spread like a contagious disease. The paper, which has gone virtually unnoticed beyond the academic community, should be read by anyone who cares how and why people disobey the rules of civil society.

It seems common sense that a litter-strewn, graffiti-spattered environment will suffer more petty criminality than a pristine one. . . . But, surprisingly, it has never been proven beyond reasonable doubt . . . .

And so Kees Keizer and a team of behavioural scientists from the University of Groningen designed some experiments that could settle the matter, all to be conducted secretly on Dutch streets. In the first set-up, they chose an alley near a shopping centre where people park their bikes. In the middle of the alley stood a large No Graffiti sign. Dr Keizer’s team looped flyers over the bikes’ handlebars; any cyclist would need to remove the flyer before pedalling away. Given there were no rubbish bins, would the cyclists take their litter home, or drop it on the ground? The scientists took up their spying positions, and waited.

When the alley walls were clean, 33 per cent of cyclists dropped the flyer on the pavement or put it on another bike (both counted as littering). When the scientists added graffiti and repeated the experiment on another day, 69 per cent of the cyclists littered, a far bigger difference than would be expected by chance. Could it be possible that one sign of disorder, graffiti, was triggering another undesirable behaviour, littering?

So they tested the theory another way, this time in a supermarket car park and using flyers shoved under windscreen wipers. When the car park was tidy, with all the shopping trolleys put away, 30 per cent dropped the flyers on the ground. When the car park looked chaotic, with four shopping trolleys strewn around (their handles smeared with petroleum jelly to deter shoppers from grabbing them and thus ruining the experiment), 58 per cent littered.

Despoiling the environment is one thing; stealing quite another. Dr Keizer’s team left an envelope hanging out of a postbox; the stamped and addressed envelope had a window through which could clearly be seen a five-euro note. How would passers-by, or those posting a letter, react when they saw it? The vast majority (87 per cent) either left it alone, or pushed it into the postbox. Only 13 per cent took it away (this was regarded as stealing).

But roughing up the environment had a dramatic effect. When the postbox was tagged with graffiti, 27 per cent of people stole the letter. When the postbox was surrounded by rubbish (but not graffitied), 25 per cent pocketed the cash.

The academics, who reported their startling results last month in Science, suggest that disorder does indeed beget disorder; when one social or legal norm is obviously violated, we are tempted to loosen our grip on others. Or, as Dr Keizer writes in the more precise language of psychology: “The most likely interpretation of these results is… that one disorder (graffiti or littering) actually fostered a new disorder (stealing) by weakening the goal of acting appropriately… The mere presence of graffiti more than doubled the number of people littering and stealing.”

Exactly why our capacity to act honourably melts away in nasty settings is a mystery. Dr Keizer speculates that, when the instinct to act appropriately is pushed to one side, competing instincts – such as to do what feels good or to give in to greed – take over. If we can see that bad behaviour has gone unpunished, perhaps we feel that our own lapses will go uncensured.

* * *

* * *

To read the entire article, click here. To listen to a 22-minute interview of Robert Cialdini, click here.

For some related Situationist posts, see “The Situationist Overwhelmed with Visitors, Return Later if Necessary,” “The Situation of Body Temperature,” “Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” and Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV of “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness.

Posted in Choice Myth, Illusions, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

%d bloggers like this: