Litterbugs and housewreckers

Ever notice how dirty dishes multiply? Or the way one wayward sock on the floor soon results in a room’s total disarray?

Dutch scientists have proven the civic equivalent. A messy neighborhood, they found, led to an overall decline in behavior.

Lead author Kees Keizer of the University of Groningen reported in the journal “Science” that most people act appropriately to the circumstances, but some act lazy or selfish. When their actions are allowed to stand, others soon follow suit.

This is related to what law enforcement officials have long called the “broken window theory,” which says that signs of urban decay -- broken windows, graffiti, litter -- encourage petty crime.
Keizer told The Associated Press that while the researchers weren’t surprised that the theory held up, “we were, however, surprised by the size of the effect.”

For example, the scientists found an alley in a Dutch shopping area where people parked their bicycles. A “no littering” sign was on the wall. The researchers attached store flyers to the handlebars of the bikes, then watched to see what happened.

They found that 33 percent of the riders littered the alley with the flyers. But after the researchers sprayed the alley wall with graffiti, the number who littered jumped to 69 percent.

While such tests no doubt provided special insight into human behavior, the Dutch scientists could’ve skipped all that work. They could’ve simply asked those of us who are responsible for housework. We’re quite familiar with the broken window syndrome.

Take your kitchen, for example. If it’s clean and tidy, most people who use it are more likely to keep it that way. They’ll pick up after themselves, put their dishes in the dishwasher and mop up spluts on the countertops.

But leave your coffee spoon sitting out on the counter and see what happens. Within minutes, dishes and greasy utensils litter every surface, the sink is full and the floor’s freckled with sticky spots.

Say you move into the living room for some televised sports viewing. It’s lovely in there. The furniture gleams and the carpet is clean. But maybe it’s a little warm. So you remove your socks and set them in a tidy pile by your bare feet. Aah, that’s better.

By halftime, every horizontal surface is covered by open bags of pork rinds and pretzels, spilled salsa, random peanuts. The coffee table has more rings on it than the Olympic Games symbol. The carpet bears a fine coating of orange Cheetos dust. Perfect strangers have wandered into the room and are drinking your beer.

One little slip leads to a little mess, which results in ever-bigger messes until finally someone calls the Health Department and you have to move.

The slippery slope is steeper if there are children or teen-agers in the household. They go from “broken window” to complete slum faster than you can say “Pick that up!” One toy hits the floor, and the house soon looks like Santa’s sleigh blew up. Allow one stray sneaker and you’ll come back to a room that looks as if it’s been ransacked by looters.

Next thing you know, the children are engaged in petty crime. Then they’ll really be in Dutch.

1 comment:

RoseMary said...

That's a great article! It illustrates what we, the Shasta Lake Garden Project surmised and had validated when we started our project of providing beautiful gardens in the medians on Shasta Dam Blvd, shortly after Shasta Lake incorporated as a city. We were warned that we would have soda cans, liquor bottles, wheelies on our lawns and stolen flowers. That people would not respect our gardens.
Not one of those things happened, we even saw both new and old businesses providing landscaping at their locations, new paint started to appear on old buildings. It has been a joy to see the difference between weedy and neglected highway dividers and the real beauty of our gardens.
The entire community has taken part to support and enhance our efforts.