Study: Disorder begets disorder

I want to call your attention to a recent article in Science magazine that discusses a study conducted in the Netherlands that found “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.”

In one of their experiments, the team of researchers attached paper fliers to bicycles that were parked in an alley with a sign that prohibited graffiti. The researchers covertly observed people as they retrieved their bicycles from the alley, and noted what they did with the paper fliers. Their results are striking.

One day, when the walls of the alley were free of graffiti, about a third of the cyclists littered their flier on the ground. But, on another day, when the walls of the alley were covered in graffiti, more than two-thirds of the cyclists littered their flier.

Another experiment tested whether or not people would steal money that was protruding from a mailbox when they passed by it. [Researcher Kees] Keizer and his colleagues [at the University of Groningen] observed that, when the area around the mailbox was tidy, only 13% of people passing by stole the money. However, when the area around the mailbox was littered with trash, 25% of the people passing by were willing to steal the money.

Over the course of their experiments, the researchers observed that people were much more inclined to disobey posted signs when it seemed like other people were doing so, litter when there was graffiti or the sound of fireworks present, and even steal when there was graffiti present. Given these observations, Keizer and colleagues suggest that as a certain norm-violating behavior becomes more common, it will also negatively influence conformity to other social norms and rules.

The study reinforce the findings of the Broken Window Theory, but also has very interesting implications for an unclutterer’s home.

The research suggests that if your home is in order, you and others in your home are more likely to keep the orderly state. Conversely, if something is disorderly, it is likely that more mess will develop.

I see this happen all the time in my home. Either my husband or I will feel unmotivated to open up the dishwasher to put a dirty cup or glass inside of it. The next person comes along, sees the dirty cup on the counter, and assumes the dishwasher must be filled with clean dishes. So, the second dirty cup is set on the counter. By dinner time, there will be a collection of dirty dishes on the kitchen counter when the dishwasher has been completely empty all day. Mess begets mess.

What do you think of the findings of this study? Do you find that disorder leads to more disorder? Does order motivate you to continue the orderly cycle? Let us know what you think in the comments.

initial link via Guy Kawasaki, picture by Matt

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