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I posted this photo on my Facebook account, with the caption “What is wrong with this picture?”

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.

James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, “Broken Windows”

The reason why the state of the urban environment may affect crime may be described as due to three factors:

  • social norms and conformity
  • the presence or lack of monitoring, and
  • social signaling and signal crime

A major factor in determining individual behavior is social norms, internalized rules about the appropriate way to act in a certain situation. Humans constantly monitor other people and their environment in order to determine what the correct norms are for the given situation. They also monitor others to make sure that the others act in an acceptable way. In other words, people do as others do and the group makes sure that the rules are followed. However, when there are no people around, as is often the case in an anonymous, urban environment, the monitoring of or by others does not work. In such an environment, criminals are much more likely to get away with robberies, thefts, and vandalism. When there are few or no other people around, individuals are forced to look for other clues—called signals—as to what the social norms allow them to do and how great is the risk of getting caught violating those norms. An ordered and clean environment sends the signal that this is a place which is monitored and people here conform to the common norms of non-criminal behavior; a disordered environment which is littered, vandalized, and not maintained sends the opposite signal: this is a place where people do as they please and get away with it without being detected. Therefore, as people tend to act the way they think others act, they are more likely to act “disorderly” in the disordered environment.

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broken_windows_theory#Theoretical_explanation)

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