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Seed: Chaos Begets Chaos

January 9, 2009

No Littering

Last month social scientists in the Netherlands empirically demonstrated a phenomenon observed by policymakers and law-enforcement officials for years. When an envelope visibly containing a five-euro note was left hanging out of a mailbox on a sidewalk, 13 percent of the passersby snatched it up. When the same mailbox was covered in graffiti, however, more than double the number of the pedestrians (about 27 percent) stole the envelope.

Graffiti was not the only misdemeanor that fostered a cavalier attitude toward theft. When the ground near the mailbox was covered in litter, 25 percent of the subjects stole the envelope. These results are significant for both social and statistical reasons. Is a disorderly environment responsible for disorderly conduct?

via Seed: Chaos Begets Chaos.

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2 Comments
  1. Ha! I didn't know this applied to software engineering. It totally makes sense though.

  2. Interesting study. Reminds me of the "broken window" phenomenon in Chicago. Researchers determined the single most accurate predictor of crime in a neighborhood (ie. most positively-correlated thing they could measure in advance) was the prevalence of broken windows in buildings. The theory was that "once you allow a few visible (albeit minor) things slip, it gives everyone else permission to trash the place." i've experienced this first-hand with my roommates when I leave a few dishes in the sink 😉

    The guy who wrote "Pragmatic Programmer" has an interesting theory applying this lesson to programming. He posits the number of "broken windows" or known hacks you leave in your code, the more sloppy the project becomes. The tacit permission to be sloppy is contagious and people basically lose respect for the project and treat it like they would a rental house.

    sean

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