Why individual anonymity can corrode the norms of civil behaviour

by Marc Wilson / 20 April, 2017

One famous Zimbardo experiment involved leaving a car apparently abandoned and seeing what happened. Photo/Getty

It has to do with the broken-windows theory - a single sign that nobody cares can corrode the normal social norms.

Even before the coffee is made in the morning, on goes the wireless and, although I am a fan of our state-funded broadcasters, I usually tune in to a commercial station that I won’t name. It has three hosts, two of whom are my favourites because of their priceless ability to fill empty air with what appears to be a total stream of consciousness, but is usually very funny.

The other day, as I was making the coffee, they were asking listeners to call in to say which kind of McDonald’s diner they were: do they leave their packaging on the tables, or bin it themselves? The question was prompted by a photo on social media of a McDonald’s branch late at night and looking like a war zone: nugget boxes, burger wrappers and other detritus.

One of the hosts mentioned the broken-windows theory, which states that if you have a single, unrepaired, broken window in an otherwise pristine environment, it won’t be long before vandals come along and smash the rest. Extrapolated, the theory goes that a single sign that nobody cares, that nobody is in charge, can corrode the usual social norms associated with an environment and, before you know it, everyone is smoking P and smashing bus shelters.

(Don’t get me started on bus shelters: it may be a sign I’m getting older that I experience a flash of rage whenever I see granulated glass surrounding a perfectly good shelter.)

Philip Zimbardo. Photo/Getty Images

The broken-windows idea is the brainchild of criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling, but an important supporting role was played by the social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who led the famous (or notorious) Stanford prison experiment. Depending on what source you read, Zimbardo either provided the inspiration for the theory or an early important test of it.

Before he moved to Stanford University, Zimbardo had taught at New York University and Columbia University, also in New York. He would travel to work each morning through a variety of neighbourhoods of differing cultural and ethnic flavours and states of cleanliness.

Having spent much of his career studying deindividuation and anonymity, he speculated that in neighbourhoods where people feel anonymous, there might be weaker norms of civil behaviour.

So he had his research team abandon apparently broken-down cars in two neighbourhoods: in the Bronx not far from New York University and in the somewhat swankier Palo Alto, California, near Stanford. He watched (from the bushes, cameras rolling) to see what would happen.

Zimbardo says they had ”barely gotten our equipment set up” before the Bronx car was broken into. Its radiator, battery and the contents of its glove compartment were taken (by a family with a son). Over the next two days, more than 20 separate acts of vandalism and theft were perpetrated.

In Palo Alto, over the course of five days, all that happened was that a passerby shut the bonnet (it had been left up to create the impression that the car was abandoned) so rain wouldn’t get on the engine.

When the research team came to take the car away, people called the police to report that it was being stolen. Indeed, some accounts state that it wasn’t until the researchers themselves took a sledgehammer to the vehicle that locals joined in the fun. Two hours later … demolished.

This experiment, and the broken-windows theory, explains why some jurisdictions ensure a visible police force cracks down on minor offences. The idea is that it encourages people to think that someone does care, that someone is watching.

This worries me a bit, because my neighbourhood has such a low level of crime that the community constable has been replaced by a three-hours-per-week kiosk.

This article was first published in the April 1, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.


The art and soul of Te Papa
88235 2018-03-17 00:00:00Z Arts

The art and soul of Te Papa

by Sally Blundell

Twenty years ago, Te Papa opened with little space to exhibit its national art collection. Now, it is showing off its new dedicated art space.

Read more
Does chewing more help curb your appetite?
87918 2018-03-17 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Does chewing more help curb your appetite?

by Jennifer Bowden

Our appetite-control hormones are affected by chewing, according to some studies, whereas others show no change.

Read more
How Auckland rapper JessB went from face in the crowd to queen of the stage
88396 2018-03-16 09:42:00Z Music

How Auckland rapper JessB went from face in the cr…

by Vomle Springford

Auckland rapper JessB is making her mark in the male-dominated hip-hop scene with the release of her much-anticipated debut EP Bloom.

Read more
Defence Minister Ron Mark defends his use of military aircraft
88389 2018-03-16 07:02:40Z Politics

Defence Minister Ron Mark defends his use of milit…

by Craig McCulloch

Defence Minister Ron Mark is denying any inappropriate use of military aircraft after revelations he has used them to fly to and from home.

Read more
Corrections moves sex offenders from lodge close to school
88387 2018-03-16 06:55:59Z Crime

Corrections moves sex offenders from lodge close t…

by Eva Corlett and Sally Murphy

Corrections says it will review its processes after it was discovered 11 sex offenders were living less than a kilometre away from an Auckland school.

Read more
Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports to New Zealand
88222 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports…

by Clare de Lore

When he arrived here from Ireland in 1960, Rodney Walshe had nothing but a suit and the gift of the gab. They took him a long way.

Read more
Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming home
88378 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming hom…

by Clare de Lore

The nomadic New Zealander who’s set his sights on space travel is no longer an alien.

Read more
How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk to celebrated jeweller
88263 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z What's on

How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk …

by Mike White

The Anarchist jeweller has a remarkable show at new Te Papa gallery, Toi Art.

Read more