[Paleopsych] WP: A Crack in the Broken-Windows Theory

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sun Jan 30 19:26:49 UTC 2005

A Crack in the Broken-Windows Theory

    By Richard Morin
    Unconventional Wisdom
    Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page B05

    What causes some neighborhoods to thrive, while others decay? It's a
    question that has fascinated social scientists for decades and led
    directly to the Broken Windows theory, which holds that ignoring the
    little problems -- graffiti, litter, shattered glass -- creates a
    sense of irreversible decline that leads people to abandon the
    community or to stay away.

    That theory, in turn, spawned a revolution in law enforcement and
    neighborhood activism. Broken windows? Get building owners to replace
    them. Graffiti on the walls? Scrub them clean, then get tough with
    graffiti artists. Abandoned cars? Haul them away. Drunks on the
    sidewalks? Get them off the streets, too.

    But wait a minute, say social psychologists Robert J. Sampson of
    Harvard University and Stephen W. Raudenbush of the University of
    Michigan. Taking such steps may clean up a neighborhood, but don't
    expect those measures alone to keep people from moving or bring people
    back, they assert in the current issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.
    They found that race and class may be more important than the actual
    levels of disorder in shaping how whites, blacks and Latinos perceive
    the health of a neighborhood.

    The researchers reached their conclusions after an elaborate study of
    196 census tracts in Chicago. From the census data, they compiled a
    detailed statistical profile of every neighborhood in the tracts,
    including the residents' average income, the racial makeup and other
    demographic factors. Then they surveyed 3,585 randomly selected
    residents in the study area, asking them how they felt about their
    neighborhood. Did they see graffiti or litter as a problem? What about
    abandoned buildings? Did neighborhood teens cause much trouble? From
    these and other questions, they developed a scale measuring
    perceptions of disorder in each neighborhood. They also collected
    demographic data from survey respondents.

    Next they made home movies. Or more precisely, they made videos of the
    homes and businesses along the streets in the neighborhoods where they
    had conducted the surveys. Trained raters then watched these videos
    and used a set of criteria to describe the physical condition of each

    The survey results showed that race was a factor in how residents
    perceived their neighborhood. White residents were far more likely to
    report disorder than black or Latino residents living in the same
    neighborhood -- sensitivities that might explain, they theorized, why
    whites are relatively scarce in many city neighborhoods.

    But then the number-crunching got really interesting. As the
    proportion of black residents in a neighborhood increased, white
    residents' perception of disorder also soared -- even in neighborhoods
    that the raters had judged to be no more ramshackle than others with a
    smaller proportion of black residents. The researchers found the same
    thing when they looked at the percentage of families living in
    poverty: In neighborhoods with more poor people, residents perceived
    more disorder, regardless of the objective condition of the

    Much to the researchers' surprise, they saw the same patterns when
    they looked at the perceptions of black residents. As the percentage
    of African Americans in the neighborhood increased, the percentage of
    black residents who judged their neighborhood to be in disarray also
    rose -- out of proportion to the neighborhood's rating. In fact, the
    perceptions of blacks were no less likely than those of whites to be
    negatively affected by an increasing number of black residents.

    Among Latinos, the pattern was even starker. They were far more likely
    than either blacks or whites to be negatively affected by the
    increased presence of black residents, the researchers found.

    What explains these reactions? For Latinos and whites, the answer
    might seem obvious: racism. Researchers have known for years that new
    immigrants quickly learn on their arrival to the United States that
    blacks are a stigmatized group and are to be avoided at all costs.
    "Latino immigrants therefore may draw too heavily on the presence of
    blacks as a proxy for disorder," Sampson and Raudenbush wrote.

    But racial bias is not the whole answer, claim Sampson and Raudenbush.
    If it were, why were blacks as likely as whites to see more disorder
    than was really there?

    The answer, they argue, seems to be that blacks had bought into the
    same negative stereotypes as whites, and have come to associate black
    neighborhoods -- any black neighborhood -- with decay and dysfunction,
    regardless of the objective condition of the area.

    These findings splash a bit of cold water on the Broken Windows
    theory, the researchers assert in their article. "It may well be that
    reducing actual levels of disorder will not remedy psychological
    discomfort, as that discomfort stems from more insidious sources. . .
    . Simply removing (or adding) graffiti may lead to nothing" in terms
    of stabilizing the neighborhood, they conclude.
    The People Speak, The Wiz Listens

    Ah, your Unconventional Wiz could listen to the Vox Pop forever.
    That's because adults say the darnedest things, particularly when
    they're asked questions in public opinion polls.

    The latest Washington Post-ABC News telephone survey, conducted
    earlier this month, asked 1,007 randomly selected adults what they
    thought was the world's No. 1 environmental problem. Nearly one in
    five respondents cited air pollution as their top concern, while
    nearly as many said climate change. Seven percent named dirty water.
    Thoughtful answers, all. Then there were some that were, uh, unique.

    One respondent said the "United Nations." Someone else fretted most
    over "warts." Another said cryptically that "thought processes" were
    the biggest environmental problem. A GOP respondent listed "The
    Democrats" while a Democrat named "The Bush Family."

    But my favorite was the one who worried most about the environmental
    threat posed by "Mount Saint Everest." When that baby blows, watch

    Scandinavians are the most trusting people in the world while WOMPS --
    short for white, older, male, Protestants -- are among the least
    trusting, according to Harvard University economist Iris Bohnet.

    Bohnet has spent four years studying personal trust in countries
    around the world and in the United States. She offered a quick
    overview of her findings as well as other research into interpersonal
    trust during an interview with Update, published by Harvard's Kennedy
    School of Government.

    "Scandinavians are most likely to trust," Bohnet said. "People in
    developing countries typically are least likely to trust. Americans
    are in-between."

    Demography is destiny, at least as far as trust is concerned, she
    found. WOMPS "behave significantly differently than their
    counterparts," she said. "WOMPS traditionally are associated with
    having higher status in the United States" and thus have more to lose
    if someone betrays their trust, so they instinctively are more
    suspicious about the altruism of others. "They really hate being
    betrayed," she said.

    "This pattern applies," according to Bohnet, "even when we control for

More information about the paleopsych mailing list