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.

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