The authors took the common room of the economics department at Queensland University of Technology. Some days, they left it tidy and other days they messed it up. They found that, when the room was tidy only 18 per cent of users dropped litter in it. But when it was untidy, 59% did so.
People’s tendency to drop litter, then, seems strongly influenced by peer effects: if it looks as if other people drop litter, most people also do so, but if it looks as if others don’t litter, most people don’t. Anti-social behaviour is infectious. This corroborates the broken windows theory.
The striking thing about this paper is that it shows that this is true not just of impressionable youngsters, but of intelligent, educated adults. Indeed, over-50s seem more prone to peer effects than others.
I suspect the implications of this are more important than generally realized. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so harsh upon people from rough areas - where there are lots of broken windows - for behaving anti-socially, because they are more the products of their environment than generally thought.
Doesn’t peer pressure research require us to reconsider our views about the nature and scope of individuals’ responsibility?