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60-Second Science

Broken Windows Crime Theory

Cyclists littered more near a graffiti-covered wall, lending evidence to the "broken windows" theory, which says that not cleaning up petty societal offenses leads to more crime. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

It’s called the "broken windows" theory and it says that in a neighborhood where buildings have broken windows, people are more likely to engage in bad behavior. Maybe because they figure no one will care. Or there’s little chance they’ll get caught. The idea has been embraced by people in law enforcement—crack down on petty crime and you’ll also put a halt to more serious offenses. New York City, for example, used the logic to justify a “zero tolerance” approach to things like the squeegeeing of car windows. But the theory has been hard to prove. Crime did go down in New York, but was it directly related to the squeegee decline?

Now Dutch scientists say that there may be something to the whole “broken windows” thing, after all. For example, they found that cyclists who parked their bikes near a wall covered in graffiti were twice as likely to litter than people who parked near the same wall after it was painted clean. The results were published online by the journal Science on November 20th. I guess we should be thankful that the cyclists’ bad behavior stopped at littering. And they didn’t decide to, say, swipe a better set of wheels for the ride home.

—Karen Hopkin 

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