The implications of the ‘Broken Windows’ theory

Political scientist James Q. Wilson died last week at the age of 80. He was most famous for his ‘Broken Windows’ theory of urban crime that postulated that small signs of neglect in a community can be the trigger for crime, and that if the police ignore minor crimes that leads to more major crimes.

Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo explains the theory.

There is more crime in urban than rural areas because there is a greater percentage of “bad guys” there that police have a hard time capturing. There is also more evidence of public disorder in cities than country areas. When people see abandoned cars in the streets, graffiti everywhere and broken windows not covered, it is a sign that no one really cares about that neighborhood. That perception of public disorder or physical disarray serves to lower inhibitions against further destructive or criminal action among average citizens who are not ordinarily criminal.

Their simple solution to crime control: Remove abandoned cars, paint out graffiti and fix broken windows–restoring order to urban disorder.

Zimbardo says in his 2008 book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil that a small early experiment that he did in 1969, based on his very different experience of what it was like to live in Palo Alto when compared to growing up in New York City, provided the only empirical evidence for this theory. It is an interesting passage that sheds light on an important aspect of human psychology and can be found in pages 25 and 26 of his book, in the section titled Communal Evil, Communal Good.

Intrigued by the contrasts between the sense of ambient anonymity I lived with in New York City and this sense of community and personal identity that I felt in Palo Alto, I decided to conduct a simple field experiment to test the validity of this difference. I had become interested in the antisocial effects that anonymity induce when people felt no one could” identify them when they were in a setting that encouraged aggression. Based on the Lord of the Flies conception of masks liberating hostile impulses, I had conducted research showing that research participants who were “deindividuated” more readily inflicted pain on others than did those who felt more individuated. Now I wanted to see what the good citizens of Palo Alto would do in response to the temptation offered by an invitation to vandalism. I designed a Candid Camera-type field study that involved abandoning automobiles in Palo Alto and, as a comparison, three thousand miles away in the Bronx. Good-looking cars were placed across the street from the campuses of New York University’s Bronx campus and Stanford University, with their hoods raised and license plates removed-sure “releaser” signals to lure citizens into becoming vandals. From concealed vantage points, my research team watched and photographed the action in the Bronx and videotaped the Palo Alto scene.

We had not yet set up our recording equipment in the Bronx when the first vandals appeared and began stripping the car-Dad barking orders for Mom to empty the trunk and the son to check out the glove compartment while he removed the battery. Passersby, walking and driving, stopped to strip our helpless car of any and all items of value before the demolition derby began. This episode was followed by a parade of vandals who systematically stripped and then demolished that vulnerable New York City car.

Time magazine carried this sad tale of urban anonymity at work under the heading “Diary of an Abandoned Automobile.” In a matter of days, we recorded twenty-three separate destructive incidents on that hapless Oldsmobile in the Bronx. The vandals turned out to be just ordinary citizens. They were all white, well-dressed adults who, under other circumstances, might demand more police protection and less coddling of criminals and would “very definitely agree” with the opinion poll item about the necessity for more law and order. Contrary to expectation, only one of these acts was performed by kids simply delighting in the joys of destruction. Even more surprising, all this destruction took place in broad daylight, so we had no need for our infrared film. Internalized anonymity needs no darkness for its expression.

But what was the fate of our abandoned Palo Alto car, which had also been made to look obviously vulnerable to assault? After a full week, there was not a single act of vandalism against it! People passed by, drove by, looked at it, but no one even touched it. Well, not exactly. It rained one day, and a kindly gentleman shut the hood. (God forbid the engine should get wet!) When I drove the car away, back to the Stanford campus, three neighbors called the police to report a possible theft of an abandoned car. That is my operational definition of “community,” people caring enough to take action in the face of an unusual or possibly illegal event on their turf. I believe such prosocial behavior comes from the assumption of reciprocal altruism, others would do the same to protect their property or person.

The message of this little demonstration is that conditions that make us feel anonymous, when we think that others do not know us or care to, can foster antisocial, self-interested behaviors. My earlier research highlighted the power of masking one’s identity to unleash aggressive acts against other people in situations that gave permission to violate the usual taboos against interpersonal violence. This abandoned car demonstration extended that notion to include ambient anonymity as a precursor to violations of the social contract.

Curiously, this demonstration has become the only bit of empirical evidence used to support the “Broken Windows Theory” of crime, which posits public disorder as a situational stimulus to crime, along with the presence of criminals. Any setting that cloaks people in anonymity reduces their sense of personal accountability and civic responsibility for their actions. We see this in many institutional settings, such as our schools and jobs, the military, and prisons. Broken Windows advocates argue that alleviating physical disorder-removing abandoned cars from the streets, wiping out graffiti, and fixing broken windows–can reduce crime and disarray in city streets. There is evidence that such proactive measures work well in some cities, such as New York, but not as well in other cities.

Community spirit thrives in a quiet, orderly way in places such as Palo Alto where people care about the physical and social quality of their lives and have the resources to work at improving both. Here there is a sense of fairness and trust that contrasts with the nagging tugs of inequity and cynicism that drag down folks in some other places. Here, for example, people have faith in their police department to control crime and contain evil-justifiably so, because the police are well educated, well trained, friendly, and honest. The police go “by the book,” which makes them act fairly, even if, on rare occasions, people forget that police are just blue-collar workers who happen to wear blue uniforms and can get laid off when the city budget is in the red. At rare times, however, even the best of them can let authority rule over their humanity.

Zimbardo’s account made me recall a study that I read about a long time ago [see update below] about what makes people who live in apartment buildings feel a responsibility to take care of and look after the common areas. It turned out that the determining factor was not socio-economic but simply the number of households who used that area. If the number of apartments that opened out onto the common areas was around four or less, then the people who lived in those apartments monitored the area and tended to keep it clean. When the number became large, the common areas became a no-man’s land that was quickly trashed. So when builders try to save money by creating long corridors that are used by many people, they are laying the seeds for future decay.

On a more personal note, I happen to be fortunate to work in a lovely old building that does not get a lot of public traffic. It has marble floors, high ceilings, chandeliers, and is well-maintained. I find that if I see small scraps of paper on the floor I will pick it up and throw it away. If the trash can is out of place I will put it back. And so on. And the others who work here do the same thing, because we take pride in ‘our’ building and want it to look nice.

This sense of collective ownership of the commons around the places we live and work is the basis for inculcating a sense of community in general. When we feel a sense of responsibility for other people and the common areas, then the quality of life for everyone goes up.

Update: Thanks to Art in the comments, I managed to track down the architectural study I referred to above. It can be found in the 1972 book Defensible Space by Oscar Newman. You can also read a report Creating Defensible Space prepared by him in 1996 for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research.


  1. Sophia Dodds says

    That makes a surprising amount of sense, and my mind seems to want to associate the phenomenon with the identifiable victim effect. Smaller communities full of people who interact or at least recognise each other will tend to empathise more with each other and be less likely to inflict harm on members of their community. This principle extends logically to the property of those people.
    In common-living situations, you get a little societal microcosm that provides a sense of community in which people look out for each other’s wellbeing. In large, densely populated areas in which nobody really knows anyone around them, nobody feels obliged to protect each other as they don’t expect that degree of protection in return.

    I’ve got a niggling little voice in my head telling me that since humans have drifted further away from geographical communities (towns, villages, neighbourhoods) and more toward social groups disconnected by distance – perhaps requiring a car journey or even only accessible through the internet – we create something of a void in which a protective sense of community is all but absent.
    I’m feeling odd about having just written that, I’m a child of the internet age who’s just adopted the curmudgeonly waving-cane of the old lady ranting about ‘kids these days’. Madness. :p

  2. Mano Singham says

    The studies you cite are interesting but not that one that I recall. That one dealt specifically with the architecture of housing. It was done in Europe, if I recall, and looked at the various architectural styles.

  3. Art says

    There was a book on the subject of the interactions of individual and group ownership/control and architecture: “Defensible Space”. The book cited studies that showed that community areas with access by a small number were well controlled and people would work to maintain than whereas community areas adjoining greater numbers became no-man’s-land.

    Also noted was that the architecture of dorm buildings on college campuses was related to grades with ‘double loaded corridors’, the same design as the worse housing projects, showing lower grades and higher suicide rates.

  4. Mano Singham says


    This looks like exactly the study I was racking my brains for. Thanks to your suggestion, I was able to find the reference and have updated the post with the information.


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