Managing the Environment: A Study on the Broken Window Theory

by Gareth Kay

There’s a ton of good stuff out there about how people really do things, and how behavior really spreads (Mark clearly has contributed a huge amount to this). And as someone working in advertising, it’s often quite depressing learning that it’s not what we do that really matters, but what people do to what we do; that advertising hasn’t got the strong influence we might like to think it does (shock horror, people don’t do what we tell them or think about things how we ask them to).

So, is there a role and future for communications? Well, perhaps there is but it’s a little different to what we tend to think. This week’s New Scientist has an excellent article about some research at the University of Groningen that empirically proves the ‘broken window’ theory. Here’s an excerpt:

In the most striking experiment, Keizer left a €5 note protruding from a fully addressed envelope that itself was poking out of a mailbox. The team discovered that people were less likely to steal the money if there was no graffiti or litter on or around the mailbox.

With no litter or graffiti, 13% of the passers-by stole the money. Thefts doubled to 27% when the mailbox was daubed with graffiti, or to 25% when it was surrounded by litter. “It’s quite shocking that the mere presence of litter doubled the number of people stealing,” says Keizer.

In another experiment, motorists returning to collect their cars were three times more likely to trespass through an illegal, 200-metre short-cut to the car park if bicycles had been illegally locked to railings next to the forbidden entrance.

A massive 87% took the short cut when they saw the illegally parked bicycles, despite a police sign saying “No Trespassing”. This compared with 27% trespassing when the bicycles were not locked to the fence.

Another experiment in a cycle park bearing a clear anti-graffiti sign, revealed that cyclists were twice as likely to leave litter if the researchers had daubed graffiti on the walls. The team attached bogus flyers to the bikes’ handlebars to put the owners in a situation where they had to decide whether or not to litter.

So, perhaps we should think about communications as being more about environment management, creating an environment where people are more likely to behave in a favorable way. About seeding the right environment where behavior is more likely to take hold. Which puts us squarely back in the culture business…

Image by Nesster

You can read more great marketing content by Gareth Kay at his blog Brand New.