Scientists in the Netherlands empirically demonstrated a phenomenon observed by policymakers and law-enforcement officials for years. When an envelope visibly containing a five-euro note was left hanging out of a mailbox on a sidewalk, 13 percent of the passersby snatched it up. When the same mailbox was covered in graffiti, however, more than double the number of the pedestrians (about 27 percent) stole the envelope. When the ground near the mailbox was covered in litter, 25 percent of the subjects stole the envelope. The authors conducted six controlled field studies. In each experiment, one scenario provided an order condition (adherence to a contextual norm), while a second provided a disorder condition (a violation of a contextual norm). In all cases, violation of a contextual norm caused a significantly higher number of participants to break another rule. When a gate contained signs explicitly asking participants (a) not to walk through and (b) not to chain their bikes to the fence, 27 percent of the passersby walked through anyway. Compare this to 82 percent of the participants that walked through when another contextual norm was already violated — the chaining of bikes to the fence. One norm violation led to the violation of another.
First posted: SUNDAY, JANUARY 11, 2009