The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo  

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Anonymity of Place Stimulates Destructive Vandalism

ertain environments convey a sense of transient anonymity in those who live or behave in their midst. Where that happens, the people living in that place do not have a sense of community. Vandalism and graffiti may be interpreted as an individual's attempt at public notoriety in a society that deindividuates him, that gives him no legitimate outlets for personal recognition. Vandalism may be the attempt to have an impact on one’s environment through destruction when doing so constructively does not seem possible. Living in some big cities nibbles away at one of the prized possessions of many average residents-- their personal identity and uniqueness. In her classic work, Death and Life of Great American Cities, ecologist Jane Jacobs tells us what it means to be an anonymous person on the wrong side of the big city tracks.

"On the old-city side, which was full of public places and the sidewalk loitering so deplored by Utopian minders of other people's leisure, the children were kept well in hand. On the project side of the street across the way, the children, who had a fire hydrant open beside their play area, were behaving destructively, drenching the open windows of houses with water, squirting it on adults who ignorantly walked on the project side of the street, throwing it into the windows of cars as they went by. Nobody dared to stop them. These were anonymous children, and the identities behind them were an unknown. What if you scolded or stopped them? Who would back you up over there in the blind-eyed Turf? Would you get, instead, revenge? Better to keep out of it. Impersonal city streets make anonymous people... “(p. 57).
I conducted a simple field study to demonstrate the ecological differences between places where anonymity ruled versus those where a sense of community dominated. My research team abandoned used, but good condition cars in the Bronx, New York City and in Palo Alto, California, one block away from New York University and Stanford University, respectively. License plates were removed and hoods slightly raised -- to serve as ethological "releaser cues" for a potential vandal’s attack behavior. Hidden observers watched, took notes and photographed all those who took the bait. We expected more vandalism of the big city car than the smaller community car, and further expected that most would occur in the safety of dark and by adolescent vandals.

The bait worked swiftly in the Bronx; we had barely gotten our equipment set up from a vantage point in the psychology laboratory across the street, when the first vandals took something from the car. Within 10 minutes of officially beginning this study, the next vandals surfaced -- a father, mother and son who stopped their car and proceeded calmly to strip our car of its battery, radiator and the contents of the glove compartment and trunk. The parade of vandals continued for several days, some jacking up the car to steal its tires, or removed its seats or dashboard parts. When there was nothing of value left to strip, random destruction began. In 48 hours, we recorded 23 separate destructive acts by individuals or groups, who either took something from the abandoned vehicle or did something to wreck it.

Surprisingly, only one of these episodes involved adolescents. The rest were by adults, many well-dressed and driving by in cars, and so might qualify as at least lower-middle class. These might be the very same citizens who would, under other circumstances, have been mistaken for mature, responsible citizens demanding more law and order in their community. Anonymity can make brazen vandals of us all--in this case, virtually all of the vandalism was in broad daylight. As the vandalism occurred, one or more passersby, who occasionally stopped to chat with the looters, usually observed it. Their passive acceptance helped to legitimize the illegal behavior by creating an emergent norm that it was cool to destroy someone else’s property.

But what about the fate of the abandoned Palo Alto car? Our time-lapse film revealed that no one vandalized any part of the car over a 5-day period. In fact, one day when it began to rain a passerby lowered the hood of our abandoned car-- God forbid the motor should get wet! As we were removing the intact car to the Stanford campus, three local residents called the police to say that an abandoned car was being stolen. (The local police had been notified of our field study). Here is one definition of “community,” where people care about what happens on their turf, even to the person or property of strangers. They do so perhaps making the reciprocity assumption that others in that neighborhood would similarly care about them and their possessions.

The Broken Windows Theory of Crime
This field study was little more than a simple demonstration of how situational anonymity is related to vandalism. However, to my surprise, it played an interesting role in the development of what has come to be known as the "Broken Windows Theory" of crime. A media account of our study in Time Magazine (Feb. 28, 1969, "Diary of a Vandalized Car") was the only empirical research presented in support of this controversial theory by political scientist James Q. Wilson and criminologist George Kelling. They outlined their novel theory about the twin causes of crime in a popular Atlantic Monthly article (March 1982).

According to Wilson and Kelling, Crime is a twin product of individual criminal dispositions and situational conditions of public disorder. There is more crime in urban than rural areas because there is a greater percentage of “bad guys” there that police have a hard time capturing. There is also more evidence of public disorder in cities than country areas. When people see abandoned cars in the streets, graffiti everywhere and broken windows not covered, it is a sign that no one really cares about that neighborhood. That perception of public disorder or physical disarray serves to lower inhibitions against further destructive or criminal action among average citizens who are not ordinarily criminal.

Their simple solution to crime control: Remove abandoned cars, paint out graffiti and fix broken windows--restoring order to urban disorder. It is costly, but certainly doable and complements police efforts at dealing with the neighborhood criminals. (At the time we did our study in New York City, there were more than 70,000 abandoned cars littering its streets and virtually every subway car and most buses were covered over with graffiti.) When that advice was followed by the mayor’s office in New York City and other cities as well, crime rates dropped significantly the next year. Although we cannot impose a causal chain on such complex phenomena, nevertheless, I was pleased that this little study could have such big indirect payoffs.

I believe that environmental, societal conditions contribute to making some members of society feel that they are anonymous, that no one in the dominant community knows who they are, that no one recognizes their individuality and thus their humanity. When that happens, we contribute to their transformation into potential vandals and assassins--a danger to my person and my property -- and to yours. This is particularly so for minority group members who are rendered as “invisible men and women” by the prejudiced attitudes of “in group” members.

©2006-2016, Philip G. Zimbardo

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