[Paleopsych] WP: A Crack in the Broken-Windows Theory
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Sun Jan 30 19:26:49 UTC 2005
A Crack in the Broken-Windows Theory
By Richard Morin
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
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
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