In a series of real-world experiments, people exposed to graffiti, litter, and other cues of lawlessness were more likely to commit small crimes, according to a new study that bolsters the controversial “broken windows” theory of policing, reports the Los Angeles Times. The idea is that low-level offenses like vandalism and panhandling create an environment that breeds bigger crimes. The theory maintains that authorities can help head off serious violence by keeping minor infractions in check. Dutch researchers tested the psychological underpinnings of the theory and found that signs of social disorder damped people’s impulse to act for the good of the community, allowing selfish and greedy instincts to take over. The results appear in the journal Science.
Community policing strategies based on the “broken windows” theory have taken root in cities across the U.S. and around the world since it was proposed in 1982. New York City saw a 50 percent reduction in crime in the 1990s after Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton cracked down on squeegee-wielding panhandlers and the like. They credited the “broken windows” approach for their success. Social scientists examined the city’s crime statistics, and many of them concluded that factors like the booming economy and decline of crack cocaine were actually responsible for the dramatic improvement. In the new study, to see whether social disorder would induce citizens to steal, researchers left an envelope containing 5 euros (about $6.26) hanging conspicuously from a mailbox. When the mailbox was clean, 13 percent of passersby stole the envelope. When the mailbox was surrounded by trash, the percentage jumped to 25 percent, and when the mailbox was covered in graffiti, it rose to 27 percent.