The spreading of disorder

Science. 2008 Dec 12;322(5908):1681-5. doi: 10.1126/science.1161405. Epub 2008 Nov 20.


Imagine that the neighborhood you are living in is covered with graffiti, litter, and unreturned shopping carts. Would this reality cause you to litter more, trespass, or even steal? A thesis known as the broken windows theory suggests that signs of disorderly and petty criminal behavior trigger more disorderly and petty criminal behavior, thus causing the behavior to spread. This may cause neighborhoods to decay and the quality of life of its inhabitants to deteriorate. For a city government, this may be a vital policy issue. But does disorder really spread in neighborhoods? So far there has not been strong empirical support, and it is not clear what constitutes disorder and what may make it spread. We generated hypotheses about the spread of disorder and tested them in six field experiments. We found that, when people observe that others violated a certain social norm or legitimate rule, they are more likely to violate other norms or rules, which causes disorder to spread.

MeSH terms

  • Cities
  • Crime
  • Environment
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Netherlands
  • Refuse Disposal
  • Residence Characteristics*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Control, Formal*
  • Social Environment
  • Social Problems*