Ceasar's Mind

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Posts Tagged ‘psychology

The Broken Windows Theory

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I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to write this post, and every time I come to a conclusion I rethink it and I come to discover I may be concluding more than I can. So anyway, here’s my best attempt to link some important theories together.

First off, let me explain what the Broken Windows theory even is. It was first introduced to me (and probably to most people) by Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, but in reality, the BW theory was first proposed by two sociologists in 1982 as a way to attempt to explain why crime is so bad in places and why it’s not so in other. The full article is here, and I encourage you to read at least the first two pages, because it’s extremely interesting, but if you don’t want to read it, I’ll just quote the most important part here:

Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, reported in 1969 on some experiments testing the broken-window theory. He arranged to have an automobile without license plates parked with its hood up on a street in the Bronx and a comparable automobile on a street in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked by “vandals” within ten minutes of its “abandonment.” The first to arrive were a family—father, mother, and young son—who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began—windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground. Most of the adult “vandals” were well-dressed, apparently clean-cut whites. The car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passersby were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Again, the “vandals” appeared to be primarily respectable whites.

Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding. Because of the nature of community life in the Bronx—its anonymity, the frequency with which cars are abandoned and things are stolen or broken, the past experience of “no one caring”—vandalism begins much more quickly than it does in staid Palo Alto, where people have come to believe that private possessions are cared for, and that mischievous behavior is costly. But vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers—the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility—are lowered by actions that seem to signal that “no one cares.”

So basically, the name comes from the idea that when someone sees a broken window, they come to think that nobody cares, and thus believe it’s okay to behave badly. Some believe that the theory can be used to recursively explain the majority of crime, the idea being that someone who sees this broken window might think it’s okay to tag walls with graffiti, and someone will see that and think it’s okay to steal, and so on, until ultimately you have murder and rape and the worst of anarchy.

Now, I spent the last few hours considering how this might be applied to activism. In his book, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky describes the what happened in the East German city of Leipzig during 1989. At the beginning of that year, people in the city began protesting. At first the protests were small- only 500 or so people and a small fraction of them might be arrested. In the government’s eye, the protests were inconsequential to use any real force against them without looking bad. Soon though, the protests began taking place weekly, and as the protests only grew a little bit each week, the government continued to do nothing, and people seeing the government do nothing, would join in small numbers. In September, the numbers swelled to a size where the government began to get worried, but by then it was too late- by October, the protests attracted tens of thousands of protesters, and at a  protest early in November, some 400,000 people showed up to protest in Leipzig. The entire East German government subsequently resigned. (The lesson for oppressive governments here is to quell protests before they get big.)

Okay, so we have two examples here, one for good and one for bad. So now we just need to find what it’s common here in order to leverage the theory.

First, you need something that is visible that transmits a message. In one case, a broken window showing nobody cares, in another, a protest showing people want freedom.

Second you need people to see your mark, and make more marks. Broken windows lead to looted cars, and each protest lead to a slightly bigger protest.

This last point is the most important. You need a population who wants to do whatever you want to do in the first place, but who are too afraid to do it on their own. In one case, we had people who want to do bad stuff, but just can’t bring themself to do for fear of punishment, or simply moral guilt. In another, we had people who genuinely wanted freedom, but were afraid to challenge an autocratic government. In neither case did the visible markers cause these sentiments- they only serve as permission to express them.

Thus, marketers and revolutionists take heed (although I would suppose most know this already)- no amount of demonstration, ads, or what have you will do anything for you unless people want to do something in the first place. So aim to change the sentiments of people first.

Written by Ceasar Bautista

2011/01/28 at 23:52