Dirty alleyways and social norms

We are social creatures, and our attitudes and approaches are framed by the world around us. If we believe that world to be fair, we are likely to behave more fairly. The general and growing belief that the world is inequitable must therefore have a debilitating impact on many people’s approach to life.

In a series of experiments in quiet alleyways, Dutch scientists demonstrated just how susceptible we are to behaving in a way that we believe others are behaving. Sadly, we are easily persuaded to behave less well than we otherwise might.

Published in a study called The spreading of disorder the scientists reported on experiments in the small northern Netherlands city of Groningen — probably better known for its 400-year old university than for it being the Dutch host of the annual International Cycling Film Festival. 

Groningen is not a particularly dirty or unruly city, but the experiments explored the extent to which people can be influenced into worse behaviour by their environment. They are more likely to litter if the alleyway they are in has untidied rubbish and intact graffiti — 69% littering in the presence of mess, against 33% when the alleyway is tidy. The academics report that Groningen police do not enforce littering rules so they suggest that fear of getting caught is not the driver, rather that social norms are, and in a similar test found that 58% littered in a car park where a call to tidy away shopping trolleys had been clearly breached, while only 30% did where all shopping trolleys had been put away properly. 

Audible cues had a similar impact — the noise of fireworks being set off in breach of a national pre-New Year ban was sufficient to stimulate 80% littering rather than the 52% in a more obedient silent control situation. Furthermore, people appear to be more likely to trespass in breach of a clear sign instruction if they can see that another sign has already been ignored (82% vs 29%). 

The most striking of all studies are those where the academics created a temptation to steal: a stamped, addressed envelope with a visible €5 note in it was left not fully pushed into a postbox. Where the postbox was covered in graffiti, 27% of passers-by stole the envelope; where there was no graffiti but the ground was littered, 25% of passers-by succumbed to temptation to steal. Both results are significantly worse than the 13% level of theft in the clean and tidy control situation.

We are much more likely to misbehave if we believe that is the norm of those around us. We are much more likely to behave well when we understand that others do. We are social beasts.

And our actions are framed by the world around us not just in Dutch alleyways. For example, if people believe they have been cheated, they are more likely to cheat: one study found that those who received little or nothing in a dictator game (explained in Ultimatums and dictatorship: fairness shines through), or simply believe themselves to have been cheated in the game, are much more likely to cheat when reporting the results of a subsequent coin tossing game to gain an undeserved payoff. 

Another experiment is perhaps still more startling. Volunteers given expensive designer sunglasses are more likely to cheat in a self-marked maths quiz if they believe the glasses to be fakes. Those scoring well in the test earned up to $10; all were told that they were trusted to mark their own work, but the papers were later recovered and cheating identified. While 30% of those who believed they had been given genuine sunglasses cheated, fully 71% wearing supposed fakes did. Furthermore, those wearing fakes are significantly more likely to believe that others lie and act unethically; the wearers of fake glasses have their view of the world and of society significantly tinted for the worse. Given the prevalence of fake goods, this is a remarkable result — a sign that we risk the erosion of much through people’s desire for cheap substitutes to costly goods. Cheating the expensive designers may mean we lose more than we imagine we gain.

Social norms can be found on a much larger scale too. Researchers studied the honesty of people from 23 different countries, again through the medium of a self-reported test, this one involving a higher dice roll earned a greater reward. While none showed much evidence of blatant lying, there was clear evidence of some cheating through the statistically unlikely results that were reported. And these levels of (minor) cheating were greatest in those countries perceived to have the highest levels of corruption and rule violation, and lowest in countries where there is felt to be less corruption and unfairness. The researchers concluded that the results “show that weak institutions and cultural legacies that generate rule violations not only have direct adverse economic consequences but might also impair individual intrinsic honesty that is crucial for the smooth functioning of society”.

So the general belief that there is significant unfairness in the world must have a negative impact on the way that we treat each other and the fairness that we display in our lives. And no wonder that there is righteous anger when we see people avoiding taxes who are well able to pay. In contrast, if we wish to see fairness we must show fairness so that others feel it is the norm expected of us all.

One other lesson of the Dutch alleyway study is that I can no longer feel selfless when picking up rubbish on the streets around my house — I actually have a self-interest in so doing. Perhaps we also need to consider what are the metaphorical dirty alleyways of our world, and find ways to clean those up too. Surely finding some way to empower people to tidy the filth and rubbish from the world of social media would be a positive — and what a gift to us all if it no longer was an acceptable social norm to resort readily to anger online.


The studies discussed in this blogpost are:

The Spreading of Disorder, Kees Keizer, Siegwart Lindenberg and Linda Steg, Science 322 (2008)

Fairness and Cheating, Daniel Houser, Stefan Vetter, Joachim Winter, European Economic Review, Vol 56 (8) (2012)

The Counterfeit Self: The Deceptive Costs of Faking It, Francesca Gino, Michael Norton, Dan Ariely, Psychological Science 21(5) (2010)

Intrinsic Honesty and the Prevalence of Rule Violations across Societies, Simon Gaechter and Jonathan Schulz, Nature 531 (2016)

2 thoughts on “Dirty alleyways and social norms

Comments are closed.