Thursday, March 1, 2012

Good taboos and the preservation of order

I was listening to a BBC Analysis podcast from Radio 4 today which discussed a strange experiment, explained below by Ramsay Raafat, from University College London (my emphasis added):
In the first study, an area where bikes were parked, the order condition had a prominent ‘no graffiti’ sign and a flyer was attached to their bikes. When the riders or owners returned to their bike and they had a decision as to what to do with the flyer essentially, only 33 per cent of the people chucked the flyer and got rid of it. Littered; broke a norm. Now when there was a slight manipulation. Everything’s the same - we have our bike shed, bikes, prominent ‘no graffiti’ sign - but now there’s graffiti in the area, so a norm has been violated. Now, interestingly, in this situation a whopping 69 per cent of the riders when they returned chucked the flyer. And so in this instance when one norm’s violated - the graffiti violation - there’s a massive effect on another norm of littering....

They had a post-box. Sticking out of it was an envelope with a five euro note attached. Now in the ordered condition - no litter and no graffiti - only 13 per cent of people stole, took the envelope. However, when there was graffiti or litter, a whopping 25 per cent or 27 per cent of people stole. That’s more than a doubling of norm violation.
The indication that one norm had already been violated not only encouraged people to join in with the violation, but it also weakened the strength of other norms. I was immediately reminded of the collapse of Ancient Roman taboos that saw the sanctity of legitimate republican government replaced with a rush of ambitious generals and corrupt plutocrats rebelling or murdering their way to the throne. 'If Sulla could do it, why can't I?' In this case the BBC narrator jokes that the loss of legitimacy by British members of parliament following the expenses scandal might weaken other social norms: 'Today expenses; tomorrow your hubcaps.'

Less dramatically, though, it touches on a constant problem here in Ireland, where littering is very widespread. Walk tiny, one-lane roads in the heart of the countryside and there are still drink cans and crisp packets flung into the grassy verge. Any taboo on littering is weak, long-ignored. Vandalism is also fairly widespread; just the other day I spied the skeletons of two utterly ruined bicycles still chained to a bike rack outside my local train station.

This experiment has a strange and fascinating implication: if the authorities very quickly sweep away litter and paint over graffiti, people will tend to become more law-abiding and respect these norms. The defence of minor norms and taboos could reduce the violation of more serious ones: clean the streets to cut crime.

Just anecdotally - I don't have any data for this - I do think that Dublin City has become tidier in recent years as street-cleaning machines have been employed to keep the litter down. How I'd love to see if this defence of public cleanliness has had any impact on other crime rates.

Good idea, bad idea
It might have another implication, however. When I taught English in the high school of a small Japanese town I had some disruptive and aggressive teenage students. The worst of these were quick to interrupt classes, pace about the room, intimidate other students, shout insults at new teachers and snigger jokes at my expense in Japanese. These were troublesome boys indeed.

But one thing they never did, and had ample opportunity to do, is vandalise the school property. Every morning the entire school staff held a meeting in a separate building to the classrooms. The students, for nearly half an hour, roamed the classroom building by themselves without supervision. When we teachers arrived there would be graffiti all over the desks, but in pencil: I actually saw students erase their own graffiti occasionally, leaving the desks immaculate.
Knowing that we had some quite disobedient and disruptive students, I was always amazed by this respect for school property. There could be a host of reasons for that, including the fact that the students themselves helped to tidy the school every evening. I thought, though, that the real reason students did not vandalise the school was because it had never occurred to them. There wasn't already a culture of vandalism and littering to give them the idea.

The taboo there is just the innocence caused by an absence of this dysfunction, and perhaps things would degenerate if my students had been exposed to a culture of vandalism and recreational property crime. Just as in the experiment above, signs of property abuse might have normalised this abusive behaviour. In my little Japanese town, the ubiquity of tidy order in the streets and in the school meant that disorderly vandalism simply didn't occur to my disruptive students as a behaviour to consider embracing.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.