Monday, April 19, 2010

Broken window theory and cleanliness/hygeine in India

Does the broken window theory explain the lack of cleanliness and hygiene in public spaces in India?

The theory:
Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.

Also, is there a positive correlation between population density and the feeling of anonymity/neglect needed to trigger the broken window phenomenon? This hasn't been addressed in the link above, but they provide the following example:

Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, reported in 1969 on some experiments testing the broken-window theory. He arranged to have an automobile without license plates parked with its hood up on a street in the Bronx and a comparable automobile on a street in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked by "vandals" within ten minutes of its "abandonment." The first to arrive were a family--father, mother, and young son--who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began--windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground. Most of the adult "vandals" were well-dressed, apparently clean-cut whites. The car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passersby were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Again, the "vandals" appeared to be primarily respectable whites.

A little wikiing reveals that Bronx has a population density of 33,116/sq. mi. while Palo Alto has a population density of 2,475.3/sq. mi. In effect the population of Bronx is about 1300% the population of Palo Alto. My hunch is that a higher population density can trigger the "no one cares" attitude more easily thus spurring the broken window phenomenon w.r.t cleanliness in public spaces. This same phenomenon is strongly witnessed in cities in India and other density populated places (like Mexico city). Of course, there can be local variations due to law enforcement or the success of some local cleanliness/hygiene programs.

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